The privatisation of Hamilton House: Why does gentrification keep leading to something like this?

End of an era for Stokes Croft as Hamilton House to come under new  management - Bristol Live
Image: Bristol Post, 2018

Although Bristol City Council have rejected property company Connolly and Callahan’s latest application(s) to turn 2 blocks of Hamilton House into apartments in 2019, the future remains unknown for the formerly abandoned office block, turned iconic community and art centre in Stokes Croft, Bristol.   

According to Bristol Post, 2017: ‘almost 10,000 events took place at Hamilton House every year under Coexist’s management, with approximately 550,000 people coming through its doors annually. Its 500 residents had on average 3,555 clients, customers or service users each; reaching more than 2.5 million people and bringing in a turnover of £21 million every year.’

Formerly managed by social enterprise Coexist, renting cheap space for artists, local businesses and community groups since 2008, for the last few years, Connolly and Callahan (CC) have been negotiating the potential sell-off of the 2 of the 3 blocks of Hamilton House, with the intention of turning this into apartments (Bristol Post, 2018). Although rejected by the council, the hike in rents and eviction of certain areas of the building has meant then over 200 local artists and businesses have lost their space to work, as well as CC seeking new temporary management of the building from Forward Space, and not renewing Coexist’s lease (you can read more about this here).

This was following a 3.5M bid to purchase the building from Coexist in 2017 which was rejected, and multiple campaigns to ‘Save Hamilton House’ following threats to privatise Hamilton House in 2017. Many had suggested that to avoid the fate of many similar arts spaces being sold off in the area, the solution was to make Hamilton House community owned, to keep art and culture alive in Stokes Croft, and protect the livelihoods of hundreds of people in the area.

There’s been no further news, following the rejection of CC’s latest attempt for planning permission to convert 2 Hamilton House blocks into apartments, which leaves the question: what now for Hamilton House?

Hamilton House and gentrification

To some, this is unfortunate product of a wider issue of the effect of gentrification, i.e. when an area becomes more desirable, the property prices go up, and then it’s the artists and local community that tend to be effected.

I actually think the psychology behind this kind of ‘buying and selling-off property, with no regard of the social impact’ is actually rooted in some very old beliefs around money and control, which I will go into more detail about now.

It’s difficult for me to write about this topic, without feeling a little bit (ok, quite a lot) of anger. I attended some dance classes at Hamilton House when I first moved to Bristol, I saw some live music at the Canteen (the bar at Hamilton House), and I attended a small festival that was hosted partly in that venue, which was made possible, because of affordable spaces like Hamilton House. It was impossible not to recognise the importance of Hamilton House to the art, music and culture of the area, just by walking past it every day. It gave it life.

So the question now is… why would someone decide to get rid of this?

What was going through someone’s mind when they thought to themselves: ‘Well, this is obviously the right thing to do.’

I think this then also raises a lot of further questions:

  1. Are property owners dominators of the land? Or are they tenants of the land themselves?
  2. What are the property owners lacking in themselves, to feel they need to take more from others, in order to ‘gain’ something from owning the property?
  3. What do they feel like they’re lacking in themselves, in order to think they need to dominate others?
  4. In order to dominate, why do they think they need to cause pain and suffering to a lot of people (like evicted small business owners, for example)?

What the property company Connolly and Callahan are trying to do with Hamilton House is what they’ve always done – buy and sell. The problem is, that when property owners get to a certain size, their sales start to have a bigger impact on the surrounding area, not a smaller one.

I think it’s easy to forget, especially if you are buying and selling large buildings, like previously abandoned office blocks, as seen in the case of Hamilton House, that actually, you are not separate from everything and everyone else, just because you feel you have money.

Money, like everything, is just energy. If you use your money to try and dominate, to effect people in a way that causes hurt, fear, anger and pain, then that energy will stay with that money, and will follow you with every transaction you make. Every sandwich you buy, every car you purchase, every holiday you go on, it doesn’t matter if it’s bank transfer, contactless, online shopping or chip and pin, you are literally cashing in on other people’s misery, and on some level, you will feel it. If left unhealed, that energy will stay with that money for generations and generations. It’s not just your money you’re dealing with.

I think the problem is, that the people that own property and land, often don’t realise that they are connected to all there is. Perhaps you can make money by bullying people, manipulation and red tape, but in reality, if you are lucky enough to grow old, you will one day be sat in an old people’s home like everyone else. All that effort you made to control and dominate will be fruitless, because guess what? You’re still going to die one day. As is everyone. Control is an illusion. We’re all just here to have an experience, and to learn to move forwards in our own way. Kindness is a choice, as is all our behaviour.

I think its concerning that art institutions are being treated as disposable. People will always be creative, and people will always need space to do this. This short-sighted attitude needs to change.

The fact is, the idea that in order to have money, you have dominate, or you have to control, or you have hurt others, is an ancient one, and it sucks.

It’s rooted in ego, it’s rooted in fear, and I would argue, it’s rooted in a very old wound.

A wound that says, you’re not good enough, unless you’re controlling others. A wound that says, if you don’t control others, then others will control you.

The reality is, if you find yourself in a position where you’re kicking out over 200 artists and local businesses, destroying livelihoods, decimating the cultural scene in the area, and causing a lot of hurt, anger and pain, rather than accept an offer to make it community owned (or at the very least, put it in a position where it can continue to thrive), then I would suggest you take yourself to a psychologist, not a bank.

I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to heal. Maybe you’ve inherited beliefs around money and domination being synonymous from your ancestors. Maybe you’ve learnt at school that in order to be ‘proper man (or woman)’ you have to control others. Maybe you have unresolved childhood trauma where you were raised in poverty, and you’re trying to achieve the opposite as an adult, but you still don’t feel like you’ll ever quite get there, because there’s a part of you that’s still in pain. Maybe you feel pressure from your peers, and you’re afraid of losing people if you don’t have enough (these are just a few random examples 😊)

There are many ways, through society, ancestral beliefs, peer pressure, and experiences in childhood, that we may reach the conclusion that the best and most safe way forward is to just numb ourselves into ignoring the impact our actions, and only think about the financial outcome.

I’m not advocating for everyone to be poor in this blog. I’m actually suggesting that everyone deserves to have enough, and to live in abundance, and there is always enough for everyone. I believe it is always possible to make money by attracting it, not actively trying to take it from others.

There are many ways of approaching something like the ownership of Hamilton House, other than just privatising most of it, once it gets to a certain property value. It’s a cultural asset, as well as a financial one. You could always be proud of it (just a suggestion 😊 ). You could always think about the future (just another suggestion).

You could always do what many people initially asked, and make it a community owned/shared building. There are so many options, which do actually involve making the owners money (if that’s what you want), whilst still maintaining its initial function, and not ruining people’s livelihoods (this is just how I feel anyway).

Is the only option hiking up the rent for artists and local businesses, to the point where they can’t work there anymore? Seriously?

This is like a flat-pack-furniture version of what some may call a ‘financial model.’ I.e., ‘everyone else is hiking up the rent, let’s join in!’

I believe it’s always possible to do something differently, and the change starts with you.

Healing is everyone’s responsibility. I think it’s common for a lot of us to carry beliefs around money that may be stopping us from thinking we’re worthy of having enough, or carrying around beliefs around domination and control, that may harm others, if left unhealed. I actually think that these beliefs anyone could have, regardless of your race, gender or background.

I hope that Connolly and Callahan do seriously reconsider the attempted sell-off of two thirds of Hamilton House in 2018 and in 2019. As I said earlier in this blog, the latest applications have currently been rejected by the council, which has at least provided some time to think.

Whatever happens, I think it’s time they swallow their pride, put their head above the patriarchal parapet, and admit: things can be done differently.

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