There’s an entry point to every city, and I wouldn’t know for sure given my limited stay, but if I could pinpoint one in Bristol, it would have to be Hamilton House in the northern neighborhood of Stokes Croft. On a Tuesday evening, as I sit down for a dinner of chickpea burger with vegan aioli, beetroot, and coriander slaw listening to the tunes of an all-female indie band at Hamilton House’s Canteen, the large hall buzzes with the warmth of familiar friends meeting and new acquaintances being made.
A community and arts center that was established 10 years ago and is managed by a community interest company called “Coexist,” Hamilton House was born from “a desire to bring together a holistic vision for the social side of sustainability,” Anna Blightman of Coexist tells us. She explains that, in 2007, Coexist was invited by current landlords Connolly & Callaghan to create a “center for excellence in sustainable communities.” At the time, Connolly & Callaghan wanted to support a laboratory for new ideas that, in her words, “would help communities to develop new skills for a changing world.”
The space and the project have developed organically since, with Coexist finding new ways to stay relevant to the community. On the ground floor, The Canteen, which sits alongside an exhibition space and gallery shop, is an attraction for visitors looking for a bite, a drink, a place to work, or an evening of music. On the upper floors, it hosts African drumming, Tai Chi, and capoeira classes, as well as performance theater workshops and holistic massage therapies.
In many ways, the space has taken a life of its own, hosting – in addition to its line-up of wellness, sports, music, and arts class – weddings, funerals, and birthday parties. “We are really proud to offer a place, not only of activity but also of a sense of belonging,” adds Blightman.
Hamilton House is also home to a number of organizations and collectives, including Bristol’s Bike Project; Community Kitchen; a collective of artists, activists, and educators better known as CoResist; a dance collective DMAC UK; and a gallery space, among others.
Today, with the rise of property prices in the area, it is likely that the landlords will transform part of the building into flats after their initial plan to demolish the building was refused after much pushback from the community, which culminated in the campaign #SaveHamiltonHouse.
On one of the walls adjoining to Hamilton House is one of the oldest and last remaining pieces by now-famous Bristolian street artist Banksy – The Mild Mild West; on the opposite wall, Cosmo Sarson’s mural Breakdancing Jesus, is illuminated by a spotlight at night. Bristol’s street art movement, which began in the late 1980s and is still going strong, has given birth to graffiti artists Inkie, 3D (who also happens to be Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja), Nick Walker, Cheo, Cheba, Sepr, and SPZero76.
Further down on Jamaica Street, just meters away from Hamilton House I happen upon two graffiti artists at the Carriageworks – a Victorian Grade II listed building that serves as an important landmark for the independence of Stokes Croft and the birth of its graffiti and street art movement. Likely in her early 20s, a girl stands leisurely puffing on a cigarette with a can of spray paint discreetly tucked in the palm of her hand, filling the air with the metallic scent of aerosol. Wandering through the rest of Stokes Croft – and Bristol, in fact – iconic street art and graffiti pepper the facades of buildings, making the trendy, textured neighborhood of Stokes Croft and Bristol at large a kind of living canvas.
But it is not just street art that gives Stokes Croft its unique character. The constitution of local businesses reflects the city’s racial and cultural diversity, with Jamaican eateries, Indian Chai café’s, and Turkish doner kebap shops serving clients well into the night.
Given the neighborhood’s championing of local businesses and artistic and cultural character, it is no coincidence that it was here in Stokes Croft that riots against the opening of a Tesco Express (“No Tesco in Stokes Croft”) took place in 2011 after police raided nearby flats, claiming that they had uncovered a plot to petrol bomb the store. According to one report, the community in Stokes Croft “[was] vehemently opposed to the opening of the store, believing that it threatens local shops and risks wrecking the character of the area, which is dubbed ‘Bristol’s cultural quarter.’”
But the city’s culture scene is hardly localized in Stokes Croft – nor is it limited to street art. In fact, the Bristol underground scene is credited with the birth of drum and bass and trip hop in the late 1980s and early 1990s, giving birth to artists like Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky.
From Slave Port To Creative Hub
But Bristol is not all alternative youth culture. Five minutes’ walk from The Bear Pit is the city center, dubbed Cabot Circus, a polished yet nondescript shopping center that was built 10 years ago and could easily be in any other city in the world. The existence of a space like Cabot Circus just a few minutes’ walk away from Stokes Croft and the informal skatepark “The Bear Pit” is a reminder that Bristol is not just a Bohemian enclave of cooperatives.
With a population of 456,000 people, Bristol is the largest city in the South West of England and is considered one of the UK’s Core Cities. An important hub for the slave trade in the 18th Century – one of the biggest alongside London and Liverpool – the city had to reinvent itself to keep pace with the changes happening in Europe after the abolition of slavery in 1807.
Bristol’s long and thorny history with slavery continues to be a source of debate in the city, with many voicing their discomfort at the city’s role in the slave trade – and the lack of acknowledgement of it. Edward Colston, one of the city’s most prominent 18th Century philanthropists and slave traders, continues to stir controversy to this day, with local bands like Massive Attack vowing not to play at the city’s music hall, Colston Hall, while it bears his name. The recent redevelopment of the Grade II listed Colston Hall has given rise to more voices demanding that the name of the hall be changed.
In the post-war years, the population of Bristol declined and then stabilized in the 1990s, before picking up again during the 2000s. According to recent projections, the population of Bristol will increase to over half a million by 2027. Today, 16 percent of the population belongs to a black or minority ethnic group.
The eighth largest city in U.K., Bristol bustles with creative energy and boasts a booming tech industry. In the 20th Century, Bristol was an important hub for aerospace technology and microchip and semiconductor design, giving the tech industry deep roots in the city. In 1985, industrial research laboratory HP Labs opened in Bristol, and in the late 1990s, Toshiba set up a telecommunications research laboratory. More recently, the city has seen investment from companies like Cray, Huawei, and Oracle’s Startup Cloud Accelerator.
Bristol employs 36,000 people in digital technologies, with a turnover of £8.1 billion ($11 billion) annually, making it the second largest digital tech hub in the U.K. after London. And with 35 percent of the population under the age of 24 – partially owing to the strength of the University of Bristol and University of West England – it continues to attract professionals from other cities in the region, particularly Bath.
The city’s fusion of tech and art is perhaps best exemplified by independent cinema house and digital media center Watershed, which is best known for its project Playable City. Overlooking the city’s historic docks on the River Avon is Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio.
Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio, which sits the third floor of the building, hosts a community of over 100 artists, creative companies, technologists, and academics working together to develop creative technology and experience design. By creating a space where artists, entrepreneurs, and technologists can exchange their ideas through a process of “gifting” back and forth (between one another and with the space), Pervasive Media Studio aims to bridge cultural and commercial practices.
Watershed offers a program of films, events, festivals, workshops, conferences, and artists’ commissions, and publishes a youth-led online platform Rife Magazine. As Watershed’s Creative Director Clare Reddington explains, the organization places audiences and audience participation at the heart of its activities, all the while making an effort to respond to changing cultures and audience expectations.
Watershed’s flagship pervasive gaming project Playable City, which has so far been implemented in Tokyo, Lagos, Recife, Austin, Seoul, Oxford, and São Paulo, invites artists to create interactive installations around their cities, allowing ordinary citizens to interact with things like lamp posts and street furniture using handheld devices like mobile phones.
“We were going to a lot of tech conferences that were really horrible,” laughs Reddington as she tells us how Playable City came about. “They were full of white men making scary, paranoid surveillance technology. [Around the same time] we also did a project in Portugal with old people, [and they] were really scared that they would never meet anyone. So Playable City was about: Can we re-appropriate the tools of the smart city for play and therefore human connection, and therefore give people the ability to start a conversation about what they do want in the city rather than what they don’t want in the city?”
But besides bringing artists and techies together, Watershed – which first opened its doors in 1984 – has quickly come to exemplify how the creative industries can leave a footprint in a city. In 2016/2017, the space had 450,000 visitors and saw 250,000 young people engaged in their programs, all in all creating an economic impact that exceeded £18 million ($24.3 million).
Striking A Light For Independents In Bristol
Bristol’s youth population largely contributes to the city’s self-proclaimed identity, which borrows from its recent heritage as a musical and cultural city. Today, the city has more children under the age of 16 than it has people of pensionable age, with children making up almost 19 percent of the population.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the south of the city along North Street, which runs through the neighborhoods of Bedminster and Southville. It is here that the now-nationwide project to reclaim the streets for children Playing Out was born. Southville is also home to Bristol City F.C.’s Ashton Gate Stadium, which sits on a street lined with quaint boutique hotels and bars catering to “Home Fans Only.”
In spite of skateboarding being painted in a negative light by media, young people increasingly flock to DIY skateparks (there are over 10 skateparks across the city according to the crowdsourced Skateparks Project). A stroll through a largely residential area of Bedminster makes it clear that skateboarders feel at home here.
But the neighborhoods of Bedminster and Southville have witnessed a lot of changes in the way of regeneration and gentrification over the past 20 years, and in a way, the revival of the area’s culture scene has been a catalyst to that change. “If you look back 20 years ago, [Bedminster] was in one of the bottom ten percent in the UK, it was one of the struggling areas…And then 15 years ago, the Tobacco Factory moved in…and the theater was put into the area…which started that sort of cultural redevelopment and regeneration of the area,” says Stephen Hayles, founder of Bristol’s annual street art festival Upfest.
Upfest’s first event was at the Tobacco Factory, which has become a major symbol of regeneration in Bedminster. The Tobacco Factory, a building that formerly housed British tobacco importer and manufacturer W.D. & H.O. Wills, employed over 40 percent of the working population of Ashton, Bedminster, and Southville before the company relocated in 1986. Between 1998 and 2001, it was transformed into a café bar, theater, office space, gym, apartments, and animation and performing arts school by Bristol’s first elected mayor and architect George Ferguson.
The transformation of the factory was part of a campaign “Strike a light for Independents!” by Ferguson to “support and champion independent, local business,” according to the Tobacco Factory’s website. As in Stokes Croft, and in spite of the regeneration of the area, North Street is lined with local, independent businesses.
Upfest, which began when, in 2008, founder Stephen Hayles wanted to “have a bit of a paint” with some friends in Bedminster, has literally snowballed into a street art festival that attracted an audience of 50,000 to see almost 400 artists from 40 countries paint the street in 2017. As Hayles tells progrss, holding the festival on the street (the festival centers around North Street in Bedminster and Southville) is a core element of its “no-boundaries” ethos of inclusion.
Having put Upfest on the map of street art festivals in Europe, today, Hayles has the luxury to speak about creating a more diverse pool of artists and finding a way to “positively skew the gender balance” of the festival. He promises that, at this year’s festival, which will be held at the end of July and includes artists from 70 countries, 30 percent of the artists will be women.
As for festival-goers, he says that, “Statistics give or take are around 30 percent from the local area, 30 percent from Greater Bristol, and the remainder come to Bristol for the weekend from outside the city.”
And in many ways, it is only appropriate that a festival like Upfest be based in Bristol, a city that continues to push the envelope on creativity, art, community, and the integration of digital tools and technology, to thrive economically, all the while championing its local character.
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