The rampART. Creative Centre and Social Space, London

Ben

Part I. rampART

The rampART social centre was established in a derelict building in Rampart Street, which had been previously used as an Islamic girls school. It had been empty for two years before being squatted along with the vacant houses in the block during May 2004. We didn’t want to spend ages in meetings discussing a name so we took it from the street. People often pick names which don’t stick as ultimately it’s what other people call the place that gives it its name. For example, there are a group of kids using the place that call it Sly Street (which is the little street directly next to the building). Anyway, we capitalised ART in Rampart for a bit of style – something different. It suggests the place is some kind of art project although it’s not really, or not much, and it helps to generate a veneer of respectability. There is an ‘art room’ but it’s mostly used for painting banners. We have had some art exhibitions but they are certainly the minority of events.

The block is in a conservation zone which means planning consent is a little tighter than some other places and that effects how easy and attractive it is for developers. There is actually a long history of this block escaping from redevelopment – a builder who does stuff for the owners says he was here when it was all evicted 30 years ago but the redevelopment never happened.

The community served by the rampART has generally not been a local one, but a community of politically motivated people from around the capital and beyond. There have also been hundreds of guests from all over the world enjoying free crash space while attending events in London – seventy Bolivians stayed earlier this summer. Regular users include the samba band, the radical theory reading group, the women’s cafe, ‘food not bombs’ and the cinema collective. The 24/7 rampART radio stream that started with coverage of the European Social Forum has expired a long time ago, and is resurrected occasionally for live coverage of major mobilisation like the G8 or DSEi. Other radio collectives now use the space to broadcast their weekly live shows – including Wireless FM which came from St Agnes Place and Dissident Island Disks.

The building is always bursting at the seams with stuff collected from the street and was regularly used for meetings, film screenings, benefit gigs and other performances. Many people may have passed through for gigs or meetings and been unaware of all the structural work done to transform it over the years, to create a larger space for banner painting, and the addition of a wheelchair accessible toilet which was created by PeaceNews volunteers, modifications to improve the layout of kitchen, a permanent serving area, fire exit, building a modular stage, sound desk, a covered roof garden-smoking den, and knocking through walls on the first floor to create a room for meetings of around 60 people.

Throughout it’s existence, the proximity to the London Action Resource Centre (LARC) greatly affected the way rampART was used. For example, there has been virtual no interest in office space at the rampART with groups preferring the long term security offered by LARC. Groups have tended to prefer using LARC for regular meetings while larger one-off meetings often end up at rampART along with benefit gigs and screenings. It’s strength as a gig venue has led to a bit of a party culture in terms of proposals, something that the collective is keen to keep in balance.

There have been many large public meetings and weekend long gatherings at the rampART. Last summer for example there have been public meetings relating to Diasarm DSEi arms fair and organising meetings and gatherings relating to both the No Border and Climate Camps. The space has also been used for street medic and direct action training. These types of events often attract the police and their attempts to intimidate exiting activists and newcomers. During DSEi week, poor intelligence resulted in embarrassed police staking out queer bingo instead of a convergence space. Having said this, the RampArt doesn’t seem to suffer much surveillance compared to some other spaces. Perhaps it’s because of the word ART in the name ;-). We do get police photographers during big London mobilisations and some big public meetings but there have been many things we expect surveillance for and don’t get. Personally I don’t see it as surveillance anyway – it’s purely intimidation and that is the aim. I imagine the internet and phone lines are monitored but I doubt it would provide much use as people aren’t completely stupid. I doubt the place is physically bugged but people assume that it is.

Problems we have had over the years include the fact that we routinely got the blame for the fly tipping occurring across the street. This is somewhat ironic as the vast majority of the content of the building has come from the streets in the first place leading to suggestions that the rampART should claim land fill tax credits from the Council. A series of risk assessments and visits from the fire brigade meant we installed emergency lighting, smoke alarms, extinguishers and safety notices around the building. The biggest job was the construction of a fire exit built in the hall, as previously there had been only one exit from the whole building. Sadly the new fire exit messed up the sound proofing and we had several noise abatement orders and all events had to finish earlier.

What does the future hold for the rampART?

Since the Camp for Climate Action there have been suggestions that the rampART should have an eco refit with rainwater harvesting, grey water flushes, perhaps even compost toilets and renewable energy. The current collective is keen to get more input and regular involvement from groups that use or would like to use the building and are planning a users meeting. Rather than the day-to-day practical organising and decision-making that takes place at the weekly Monday meetings, this gathering would be more of a consultation and visioning exercise. It would be an opportunity for the collective to analyse the current and potential role of the rampART to different groups and campaigns, as well as giving chance for people not familiar with the collective to gain greater understanding of the decision-making processes, practical issues and problems related to project.

Also planned is an assembly of as many different campaigning groups as possible, along the lines of the long defunct ‘London Underground’ or ‘Radical assemblies’ that used to take place in London, Brighton and elsewhere at various times. The general format would be a go-round in which each group has a couple of minutes to say what they are currently up to and what people can do to get involved. After the go-round there might be some discussion to help link up collaborations or spin off meetings and actions, followed by a quiet social evening, food and drink in order to allow informal networking. The aim is to help create a greater sense of unity between disparate groups, link up individuals to others working in their location or area of interest, reduce duplication of efforts and avoidable clashes and generally help to strengthen ‘the movement’. Initially this would be a one-off event although the hope is that it will prove useful and generate momentum to become a regular assembly, perhaps hosted on rotation in different parts of London.

Part II. London’s secret social centre…

When a possession order was granted to the owners of the squatted block of properties in rampart street that houses the rampART social centre, a scurry of activity began to secure a new building to act as a backup social centre during the uncertain period prior to eviction. A suitable property was found and entered for the first time on new year’s eve and occupied a couple of days later.

Only a few minutes walk from the rampART, the new building was also a commercial building with three floors. While the area of each floor was only about two thirds of that enjoyed at the rampART, the new building benefited from the addition of a basement which looked like it could make a great gig space. The ground floor had a tiny kitchen but with a bit of work it would clearly make a good space for a café and free shop. The first floor was mostly open plan, a good place for large meeting. Meanwhile the upper floor had been subdivided into offices and planned to use it for residential accommodation. The most exciting thing about the new space however was the yard which gave us potential to do things we could never do a rampART.

Despite all it’s potential, the place was a mess. The owners had completely trashed every floor. Wiring had been cut, light switches smashed, false ceiling and lights pulled down, partition walls torn down or holed. Additionally, the only two toilets in the building had been smashed to pieces. However, we didn’t think it would take long to put in shape. We took over a load of bedding and cushions, fold up table and chairs, water, wind up torches, candles, smoke alarms and fire extinguishers and settled in. Now split between occupying two spaces we put a call out for help occupying both buildings and preparing the new building to become a social centre.

Our priorities included sorting out toilet facilities and this led us to consider the use of dry compost toilets and ultimately to deciding that we’d try to implement stuff we’d only talked about doing with the rampART, making the place as eco-friendly and sustainable as possible. As well as setting up dry composting toilets we also planned to do rain water harvesting and install wood burning stoves. More ambitious, we aimed to generate our own electricity using wind, solar and a waste vegetable oil fuelled combined heat and power system.

Deep cycle batteries and inverters provided power for our lights and radio while we worked and a white board contained our plans and to do lists. We’d soon expanded the kitchen area massively and replaced one of the smashed flushing toilets. Three 200 litre plastic water butts were obtained and one was prepared for use as a rain water harvesting tank that would provide water for the flush. The basement was opened right up by taking down the partition walls and all the materials taken to the top floor where the first of four bedrooms was constructed. A hidden stairwell was discovered behind a partition wall and a bricked up doorway was reopened to provide access to the outbuilding and yard.

It all seemed to be going great apart from problems maintaining permanent occupation of the Rampart street properties and some of us expressed concern that it had been a mistake to commit to work in the new space before we knew when the appeal for the rampART would take place. It was fairly easy to find people to commit to the occupation
rota at the new placed but not for Rampart street and already people were asking about doing events in the new space as the excitement drew energy away from rampART. This was not what we intended, the new space was simply meant to be a backup to allow things to continue as normal at rampART without the worry that resources and events there would suddenly be left with nowhere to go.

The work that had been done at the new place in the first ten days or so meant that we could open it up as a social centre very quickly when we lost the rampART. It seemed like the pressure was off but then we stumbled across some bad news. Our original research had indicated that there was no planning consent granted and application pending. There had been an application last year but it had been withdrawn. However, whoever did the original research had been unaware that the withdrawn application had been resubmitted and granted in October 2007. The owners had full permission to knock down the building and build a six story block of apartments in it’s place!

Discussing the bad news we decided we might as well contact the owners and ask when they planned to start work and attempt to negotiate a stay but we never got round to it and later decided not to open negotiation till we were sure the owners knew we were in occupation. Instead, work progressed as before as if nothing had changed. A couple of leaks discovered in the roof were fixed and the damaged ceiling plaster replaced. All the doors and radiators that had been taken off by the owners were refitted and new doors fitted at the bottom of the hidden basement stairwell and out to the outbuilding. In the basement, the waste pipe from the toilet was been boxed up so drunk idiots didn’t try to swing on it.

By Feb 9th we’d had meetings to discuss our aquaculture plan and had been doing lots of work in the yard enjoying the unseasonal warm weather. The massive task of clearing the out building began with all the rubble removed from the brick up doorway now removed and piled up in the yard forming the starting point for raised beds. While working in the outbuilding we also removed the boards from the windows to let in some light and re-glazed them with clear plastic sheeting. One of the 200 litre plastic drums had been converted into a rat proof compost tumbler. The raised beds in the yard had
progress well and we’d rescued quite a bit of top soil from skips along with plenty of pigeon shit from the outbuilding. Inside, a four drawer filing cabinet had been converted into a wood burning stove and installed. The kitchen had been freshly painted, along with the basement floor and some of the walls.

The mast for the wind generator we’d last put up at the camp for climate action was bought over from rampART and hoisted up onto the roof. Holes were drilled and chains bolted through roof joists to provide mounting points for the guy wires before the generator was assembled and erected. Solar panel followed shortly after.

We purchased a Rayburn wood/oil fired cooking range for just 50 quid off ebay. It had a back boiler so could of been used to heat water/ radiators as well. We were going to see if it would run OK off waste veg oil but if not we’d just revert it to a solid fuel burn and use waste wood dumped in local skips. We also won an ebay auction for a Lister CS stationary diesel engine. These classic water cooled diesels make wonderful veg oil powered combined heat and power system and we calculated it would provide all our electricity and most of our heating needs when run for just 4 hours each evening and use only a gallon of waste veg oil each time.

Every thing was progressing really well and then came the bomb shell, a set of papers taped to the front door informing us that we’d been served court notice of a interim possession hearing on the 21st Feb, just one week away. Ironically, that evening the building was hosting a meeting of a radicle bike group, a spin off from bicycology. They were to look at the outbuilding and discuss using it as a space for a free bike workshop but obviously they dropped. A few month before a similar thing had happened at rampART. The Bicycology group were having a weekend long gathering, part of which was planned to be them renovating the bike workshop at rampART but just before the weekend we learned about the planning application to demolish the building so they dropped the idea. Seems like the bike workshop is cursed! Anyway, all work on the new place came to a halt and our ebay purchases left uncollected and unpaid for as it became clear that all our work and plans for the place were going to come to nothing. We considered last minute relocation of a party taking place at rampART so we’d at least have had some events at the new place before we lost it but the logistics quickly made us drop that idea. We visited the Advisory Service for Squatters who drafted a very slim defence for us but we knew there was very little hope. The best we could hope for if that the a normal possession order would be granted instead of the IPO as otherwise we could have just 24 hours to pack up and leave.

A letter was sent to the owners in a rather belated attempt to initiate negotiation and we started moving stuff back to rampART. It was impossible for us not to be aware of the irony that we’d opened the new space as a backup to move stuff to in the event of eviction. Instead we now found that not only were we moving stuff back but we’d also accumulated more stuff at the new place that would now need storing.

A day of resistance was planned for the day after the court hearing starting 24 hours from the court case with a café and continuing with an all night party to see off the bailiffs. We set up lights and a suicide rig in the basement and started to look forward to using the place for the first time.

The day of the hearing arrived and a small posse headed off to court to present our pathetic defence while others hung back to continue to prepare for the party. A few hours later the news spread like wild fire, the hearing had been adjourned as the claimants had not turned up. For the time being, the building was safe and it was decided that the events planned for the day of resistance should go ahead as a celebration ‘not an eviction party’.

To follow activity at the rampART see their website at http://therampart.wordpress.com

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: