by Eleanor Bullen
Initial idea and political aims
The Basement grew from various activities and events that had been happening in Manchester in the previous few years: the Okasional Café squatted social centres, various radical art projects including NATO’s Blitz Festival and the Priceless Exhibition, Beyond TV, the dilapidated EF bookstall in a suitcase, an Anti-Macdonalds burger bar etc. etc.!
What these things had all done was to bring together activist cliques and networks and made them more open, more accessible to people not “in the know”, but unfortunately they were all impermanent, transient operations. Late night discussions were often had about how great it would be if we had something that wasn’t always moving on, if people who were interested in getting involved wouldn’t turn up somewhere and find the door barred and nowhere to go.
Originally the social centre group was very small. A couple of us wrote down on a bit of paper what we would like to have in a space – a café, a bookshop, computing facilities, a bar (this never materialised), an exhibition space, meeting and event space, film nights, and then we got together the 12-15 people we knew who had been organising these kinds of things and suggested we work together on making something happen.
So we started small; for the first 9 months about 4 or 5 of us looked around Manchester at buildings full of pigeons, rain water and other unsavoury things trying to find something suitable. Eventually we found a run down space in the Northern Quarter of Manchester that we were able to get cheaply.
Time spent as a very small group
One of the things that being a relatively small group meant was that we were able to work together on planning a more open structure. We never intended that the closed core group would remain, but felt that in the setting up period it meant we wouldn’t have meetings attended by people who just like meetings!
We were there to work; the meetings were always about the practicalities of the project. We knew that once we had started the project running we would need to open up the social centre – it wasn’t “our” project to keep. We thought a lot about how this would work, about how to have an open and autonomous space, but one in which one individual couldn’t wreck a whole project. We had several long meetings dedicated to how this could happen. The space (now known as “the disease” due to the asbestos we found) was planned as lots of several parts making up a whole. After a long, long meeting we eventually came up with a working group structure.
Essentially each group was open and had autonomy over that part of the project and were to meet to arrange and organise that part. Any issues that would affect other part of the space had to go to the general meeting, which was composed of anyone from any of the working groups.
The working groups – how it worked in practice – problems and successes
There were working groups for the café, the bookshop, the IT space, the exhibition space, a meeting and events group and also the legal/logistical group which is what the original core group tried to morph into. This remained a closed group although entry was not particularly restricted – anyone with a burning design to do admin and deal with the rates was eagerly dragged in!
The events groups soon fell by the wayside and other groups came and went as the need arose – publicity, fundraising. Some were successful and some not. The arts group never really had more than about 4 people in it, whilst the café and book groups tended to have larger and more coherent meetings. Sometimes minutes of meetings were distributed to the general group and reportbacks made, and sometimes not. Information distribution became a problem at times. All of this probably affected the overall democracy of the project as only people in the know about working group meetings and prepared to know about them would know about or be involved in decision making.
The general group functioned well for most of the time. The minutes for these meetings did get out to everyone on the general group e-list, and as this included most people in the Basement Collective, people usually got to find out what was going on if they could be bothered to come to the meeting. Contentious issues usually resulted in big attendance at general group meetings. However, sadly, when things were just ticking over or going well the general group meetings got smaller and smaller.
This naturally led to a small core of people not only making a lot of decisions, but taking on a lot of responsibilities, not necessarily sought after! This led to a situation where people would not feel comfortable making day to day decisions but would always refer to these “core” people, and this perhaps prevented less assertive people from feeling that they had ownership of the project. This may have led to people not seeing a need to get involved – especially other activists. Sometimes, after a long day, we felt like we were no longer activists ourselves but providing a service for activists, with our users being perhaps the most demanding people in existence!
However this all sounds rather negative and it is more of a personal reflection on the way that we tried to have a successful and democratic structure for the project and how sometimes it was really successful and sometimes not. On the whole – it worked when people remembered to follow the structure, and problems tended to arise when people forgot to confer or share information or do things that did not respect the other people in the space. Perhaps we learnt that to have a successful non-hierarchical project of this size you need to be constantly vigilant – not just of others but your own tendencies to autocracy (or maybe that is just me and my monarchical tendencies!)
Really I think the Basement was a big success! We always complained about the lack of volunteers and problems with opening up but we ran a really efficient operation and had very high expectations. As we had a focus on attracting people in off the street who were not already interested in anti-capitalism, politics and activism, we had to be open when we said we would and be a relatively clean and tidy space. In the main we managed this. We had a lot of volunteers – we needed them in order to be able to open 6 hours a day, 5 days a week plus evening meetings and events. I think perhaps we were overly ambitious in our opening times but there is nothing wrong with being over ambitious. People did come in off the streets, like it, and get involved! So in this we were successful.
As an activist space the Basement was also hugely successful. Groups and campaigns had space to network and chat both formally and informally. This is probably not the time for a long list! But gradually we reached a situation where to book a meeting in the space (in a somewhat confused and crossed out book) became almost impossible as so many groups and people wanted to use the space.
As well as formal meetings the space also was used for films, for fundraising events and socials.
People met to chat and bumped into people not in their normal social/activist circles. It was a really important networking space for Manchester and I think had a huge effect on the levels of activism happening in Manchester.
For example the Manchester No Borders group and related migrant and refugee groups and organisations benefited hugely from the social centre, and it was interesting to see how important having a space was to this type of campaigning. From somewhere to have campaign meetings, to make banners, have English lessons or simply a space where refugees could come for tea and free internet without being moved on. Other refugee organisations have spoken about how important the Basement (and other social centres) was to what they were trying to do.
Phoenix from the Flames
I have used the past tense to talk about the Basement – perhaps I should not have. In May 2007 a massive fire in the Northern Quarter damaged the building the Basement is in. The Basement suffered a lot of water damage. We rescued a lot of stuff but the computers, sofas and many of the books were wrecked. Various people have cellars and garages with fridges and library books squirrelled away. We initially hoped that a quick clear up would ensue and we would be back. This has not been the case. Since May the Basement space has been getting mouldier and we have been getting more fed up as we wait for various issues with our landlord and the safety of the space to get sorted out ( you could say this is one of the disadvantages of a rented space!)
However what has happened since the closure has been the realisation by Manchester’s activist community that having a social centre or a collective space is hugely important to what we do.
Groups and individuals who had used the space but not perhaps been involved in the running of the social centre are all coming into the collective. People have realised how important it was now it is gone. This has led to a feeling that Manchester needs a social centre – no matter whether it is in the old Basement space or not, or whether it is formed in exactly the same way as the old Basement.
This commitment is perhaps the most important thing of all. A physical space is important to what we are doing. It makes us visible to others but also helps us break out of our cliques and work with each other in a more constructive way. I would also say that some of the most important political discussions I have ever had were over the washing up in the Basement!
So – the collective is re-grouping. In the next few months we will either have our old space back or be working on a new space. Manchester will have a social centre. Watch this space.
This is a very personal reflection on what I have experienced and felt over the last four and a half years. It is not in anyway an official history and critique of The Basement. There is a lot I have not spoken about: both problems and successes. I have tried to give a broad feeling of how it has seemed to me to have worked and what having a social space has meant to us in Manchester. I have not meant to seem negative although I have maybe been critical. The Basement has been one of the most important and rewarding things I have done and taught me a lot. I have also made some of the best friends of my life there as well as learning to make vegan cakes – some might think this is the most important thing I have learnt!
To keep updated with what’s happening at the Basement check out: http://thebasement.clearerchannel.org/new/
Photos: The Basement – opening night
More coverage: Manchster Indymedia Free Spaces page