Bonnington Square – c’est si bon
Everyone in Rhizome who can – every six months or so – meets up to do all the things that are best done face-to-face. For a team that’s scattered across the UK, regular calls help us run the co-op, and working together whenever possible builds relationships and is great for sharing experience. However, nothing beats meeting up for such things as strategising, and the deeper levels of learning from each other and sharing good practice.
We held our recent meeting once again in the Bonnington Centre in London. It feels like an honour to go there and see what collective action and community empowerment can achieve. It’s also great to be able to both support a venue that’s right up our street, as it were, but also one that leaves you refreshed and inspired.
As we approached Bonnington Square from the busy streets and tiring journeys that morning, we felt our troubles slip away, the greenery of years of guerilla tree-planting soothing our minds. We could not but help but be inspired by little things that caught our attention – bicycle racks and on‑street bike shelters, community gardens, a co-operatively run cafe, community centre and more. If you’re not near enough to go visit, you might feel the same after you watch these lovely slide‑shows.
The central square is an ex-bomb site that in the 70s had swings fitted by the local council. It was largely abandoned until 1994 when residents bought and transformed it into a community garden, as a homage to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (“a major feature of London for three centuries; a place of curiosity, promenade and play”). The community garden was:
“designed by committee… and must be one of the best adverts for design by committee that you will ever come across.”
“The intention was to create a gentle and beautiful slice of nature that could serve all sides of the community. A delightful play space for the kids and something of a sanctuary from the big city storm for the adults. It is one of the beating ‘hearts’ of our community and a place of pilgrimage for many more.”
The 100 or so houses in the surrounding streets had been bought up by the long-mourned
GLC for the building of a school, and were all in a state of major disrepair, bricked and boarded up. Eventually all the dwellings were made habitable and were home to a diverse, international and bohemian bunch. Many of these squats over time became ‘short-life housing co-ops’ (still functioning 30 years later; here’s a timeline). Residents also created and ran two community gardens, a cafe, a wholefood shop, a nightclub, a newsletter and even a milk-bar.
However, in 2009, Lambeth council “the co-operative council’ made moves to evict the ex‑squatters.
“They’re destroying lives, destroying communities, destroying the things that used to make living in Lambeth so amazing,” she says. “The cooperative council has to understand that you can’t impose a cooperative structure on a group of people. It has to come from the people themselves and they have to be working towards a common goal. And that’s what we did. We took care of vulnerable people, we nurtured them.”
“Now we’re just on a spreadsheet as assets to be disposed of, to be ticked off. We’re not communities, we’re not people: we’re just in the way of them raising money.” (more here).
Financially blackmailed too, the response was for residents to set up a super co-op, Lambeth United. Read more about their innovative and sensible proposals that could benefit all, including the council. Protests have stopped some of the viewings by auctioneers, and there’s been resistance to some of the evictions.
What can we learn from such things?
The power of effective organising, direct action and squatting; how inspiring it is to see what a difference people can make through big ventures and small actions; the variety of forms of action and social change needed to respond to changing situations; the power of vested interests and the forces that fuel gentrification and the social cleansing of much of London; and the strength of collective action and empowered communities to create the world we want to see. We hope in our little way to continue to support groups and individuals who also believe some of these things and are ‘fighting the good fight’ – we hope you’ll join with us…
Lovely 20 minute video about the squatted history of the square, with a walk-about the community gardens: