Mainstreaming the Use of Contested Spaces

by Andy Chapman 

The decision by Barclays Bank to close a local Brighton, UK branch in June 2015 created an empty space to languish behind an ornate façade at a busy commercial and residential intersection. In a matter of months, the site of the longstanding bank premises changed hands twice. The building was first occupied by squatters to form the ‘Radical Bank’ before Barclays announced, shortly afterwards, that it intended to re-appropriate the space in partnership with the charity 3Space to create the ‘Hatch’ as a free space from which local micro-entrepreneurs can launch social enterprises. The ensuing wrangle over the location offers an insight into how alternative ideas and values become marginalised and excised from public space.

Both temporary caretakers (the Radical Bank and the Hatch) shared concern that the empty building should not be left disused. They both claimed the ability to ‘reactivate’ the defunct space for the benefit of the local community, yet in quite distinct ways. Evidently, the centrality of the location proved to be an attractive draw for both the Hatch and Radical Bank since both identified the spot as being ideal for a hub where the creative and social needs of the community could be met.

Both groups make broad claims to empower communities, yet they differed in their respective methods. The Hatch emphasises the development of entrepreneurialism within the local population, “to help more people get their business ideas off the ground,” and locates its contribution to social wellbeing in efforts to increase economic participation, such as employment. It attempts to couple individual economic success with community wellbeing by suggesting that a cohesive community is underpinned by vibrant, empowered, economic actors.

By contrast, the now-defunct Radical Bank attempted to explicitly engage with more marginal groups – such as migrants, the unemployed and students. It articulated its objectives as delineating a space for the development of skills and ideas around gender, equality, self-sufficiency, ecology and direct action.

The ultimate success of the Hatch appears to be based on its ability to appropriate the building and configure it by notions of how space should be used. Its claim to ‘transform otherwise empty spaces’ might actually represent the incipient control of space rather than concerns over its under-utilisation, as the bank claimed. The rapid assemblage of the Radical Bank evidenced that the space was not “otherwise empty” but, in fact, in use by marginalised groups. Arguably, this was a deliberate attempt to prevent its use for potentially progressive means and to permit Barclays and mainstream conceptions of community development to assert its control over the the frontier of ‘innovation’. The Hatch permits the development of particular forms of innovation, that does not include locally-organised intents that are too radical, namely direct action and community spaces that are more inclusive of marginalised groups.

Ultimately, this example offers clues for interpreting the visible transformation of the landscape resulting from economic change. As old systems and imperatives crumble away, the debris left behind might, in fact, open up new spaces, and perhaps even political ideas. However, the ubiquity of political mainstreaming might mean that these spaces for the development of alternatives are quickly suffocated or co-opted.

Andy Chapman is a student on the MA in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex.

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