Unofficial art spaces, unsanctioned community centres

bingo_hall_cambridge_183There are many buildings here in Cambridge and elsewhere that were purchased for development but are standing empty and unused since the economic downturn. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to them.

A group of local young anarchists are set on turning these fallow buildings into resources for the community. They squatted the proposed site of the Tescos on Mill Road, tapping into the anti-Tescos sentiment in the area and grassroots political action. For four days this week, a number of people squatted the old Bingo Hall on Hobson Street, with their first poetry slam/spoken word event planned last night. Unfortunately, they were forcefully removed from the premises the night before by at least 50 police and tactical units in riot gear. Talk about overkill. From the Cambridge Freespaces blog:

The fire officer who accompanied the police said that the occupiers would have to immediately remove the metal grills covering fire doors to make the building safe. This was planned for the following morning, and the occupiers and fire warden agreed that this could happen immediately, however the police accompanying the fire officer made it clear that this would immediately lead to arrests for criminal damage.

It was obvious from the huge number of police in attendance that the outcome was already set, and that the only result the police would tolerate was eviction. Given the recent reputation of police actions against political protesters, the occupiers left for the own safety rather than keep the doors secured.

The building is a glorious Art Deco affair, built as a cinema. The original building on the site was Cambridge Motor Service Co. which converted to a cinema in 1921. In 1929, the first sound synchronized film was shown, The Broadway Melody. This was the first of a hugely popular series of movies made by Metro Goldwnn Meyer, that broke new ground by not only being the first all-talkie feature-length musical film, it also featured a technicolor sequence.

Also in 1929, the theatre may have burnt down, the current building was built the following year,  in 1930. After many decades of shifting cinema technology, ownership, and the occasional fire, the cinema closed down to become a Bingo Hall in 1972, and remained as such until a few weeks ago.

Step forward to Tuesday, 14th July last week, where I and a friend explored the many floors and passages and rooms, went on the roof. It had been occupied for a day or so, and all the people I met were smiley, excited, and full of plans and hope for the space. They were talking to various fine artists, musicians and cinema aficionados, all were eager to work in the space. Given that it’s the 80th anniversary of the showing of The Broadway Melody this year, and as homage to to original use of the site as a cinema, the film would be shown one evening soon.

All talked about community dictating the use of empty buildings in the area. Instead of neighbourhoods becoming riddled with swiss cheese holes of unused sites and spaces, we would fill them with art and activities. Provide shelter for people that needed shelter. Have shared meals, get to know our neighbours, work together to make the world better, one district at a time. It could happen.

At the meeting outside of the building last night – which was orderly, passionate, respectful – while the private security guards were inside behind the security screens and grates, there were talks of next steps.  There were charges against the original occupiers of the building – they were named on documents taped by the door. Though squatting is a civil matter, it becomes criminal if there is any damage to the property, and very serious indeed if trespassing takes place while the building is occupied by people working on behalf of the landlord. So the building is a no-go. That big, beautiful, central, part-of-Cambridge-history building will have to stand fallow until it gets knocked down. The building is ‘of historical interest’ but not protected.  We will just have to transfer our plans to another venue.

I took a bunch of pictures on my phone, I regret the quality is not good.