In May this year, a few anarchists and other anti-capitalists based in Reading opened the squatted Common Ground Community Garden to the public for the first time, receiving support from all sides of their community, breaking an injunction & defying an eviction side by side with other local people. It has been one of the most positive experiences comrades have had in terms of working towards the sort of world we might want to live in, and finding so many people in their community who now understand better what Anarchy is about (and what local councils are like!).
Creating a space like a community garden allows normally atomised people to get together socially and chat, in itself a good thing. However, because of the way the space has been created, it also means much of that conversation focuses on the politics involved. Reading is already a highly developed town, with an economy centred on the retail/consumer and high-technology sectors. In addition to this, development is rampant with new shopping centres, posh offices and luxury hotels and apartments seemingly appearing every day. The resultant gentrification causes price increases, and long-time working-class residents are being pushed further and further out of the town. We had already squatted a building as a base for our activity. With shops, offices and luxury flats on one side, and Victorian working-class housing and council estates on the other, our squat seemed to symbolise the 'border' between the 'developed, gentrified and consumerist Reading' and the Reading where ordinary people lived their lives. As it was pretty obvious that the Council planned to sell the open space next to us to developers for yet more posh apartments, this seemed to be a perfect space and project to open up communication between ourselves and our neighbours about these issues.
Despite many of us being strongly concerned about ecology, this was not really the central motive for creating the garden. This is largely due to the expectation that the garden would probably be destroyed by the authorities in the not too distant future, despite our intention to resist this. However, we definitely had in mind the lack of green space in our town and the disconnection we have with our natural environment. Also, for both financial and ecological reasons, much of the garden was created using stuff others were throwing away. We received things through the 'Freecycle' network as well as by finding things lying around the streets or in skips. We even managed to get all our fencing for free from a household who had just had theirs replaced. In itself though, this would never have been enough, or at least not in our timescale, and it is frustrating not being able to get on with the work until you get lucky and find the thing you need. So we also relied upon huge amounts of donations from family, friends and neighbours and contributed money ourselves.
most of the garden was finished fairly early and looking beautiful,
we just managed to get the last areas finished to a pretty decent
standard the day before opening day. At the last minute (like usual!)
we hung a banner on the fence, put up posters and distributed about
600 flyers door-to-door advertising our opening day on Saturday 19th
May. Two days before this however, we were informed that the Council
were taking out an injunction "preventing the opening day from
taking place" and that they would be seeking a possession order
for the land and buildings. Our response was immediate - we
distributed another 500 letters telling our neighbours about this and
making it clear we would go ahead regardless, giving the same message
to the local media and inviting all to defend the garden from owners
who clearly hadn't given a damn for five years, and to stand up for
the community’s right to decide what happens in our area.
Early on the opening day morning, pixies removed the front fence, opening the garden up onto the street fully. About midday, two security guards turned up to serve the Council's injunction. After five minutes of being ignored they did the sensible thing and went and sat in their car. It's got to be said, they were great and just stayed out of the way all day, so a big thanks to them! Then we just waited for people to come along, and we weren’t disappointed - the response from the public was fantastic! Through the day, many neighbours came through the garden, breaking the law to show their support and looking amazed at the difference to the area. Rumours are, we even had one local cop show her support on our petition! Overall we had about 200 people through the garden at various times, as well as the same number of signatures on a petition (supporting the garden and demanding community control over the land) and £100 in the donation bucket. The celebration in the evening was great! About 100 people enjoyed a great BBQ and plenty of alcohol late into the evening. The best thing was the diversity; activists and punks alongside neighbours aged 8 to 80! And the tunes were fantastic, again ranging from grey-haired country and bluegrass artists, to gravel voiced acoustic punk rock.
After the hungover tidy up, the garden had been visited by many more neighbours over the last few weeks, all equally supportive. Through this project we made a conscious effort to engage well with the media. Feeling that it would be difficult to represent the garden in a negative light, we figured we had nothing to lose and much to gain and, looking back, this approach has been really successful. The local press have run great articles about the garden and the surrounding court cases, and a few locals have written letters in our favour to the media and the council. We've even been on television now, as ITN Thames-Valley and BBC South-East have run brilliant pieces, featuring the Council sounding a bit silly, our neighbours sounding great and allowing us to get across our points about the lack of green space, the high house prices and Council neglect versus our self-organisation and direct-action.
Even though the Council won a possession order and we faced eviction, that's not the point! Positivity was high, and things weren’t over yet! The garden was still being opened everyday and we planned to resist the eviction, with community support we hoped. Although we stood little chance of winning in the long-term, to beat the first eviction attempt would strongly increase our collective confidence and maybe that of our community.
The conversations this project had allowed us to have with many of our neighbours has strongly encouraged us, and the garden has definitely been a space where people could at least begin to recognise commonality, and a common enemy. Certainly, a few people took the view that whilst we have done a great thing by improving land left as a junkyard and providing a green space for our community, property rights are sacred and that we should leave when the Council wanted to actually do something with the land. However, many more agreed outright with what we said, and it’s been great to see how widely held is the view that the council's model of development - unaffordable flats, roads, posh offices, hotels and shopping centres i.e. capitalist development, gentrification and speculation - is not what local people want or need. Even some of the people living in the posh flats over the road have agreed with us! Conversations about local democracy and community control have also been very positive and to hear a couple of our neighbours use the word 'anarchist' in a positive way was really nice.
20th June, was supposed to be eviction day, the day when the council
would take back control of our land and regain the ability to flog it
off to the highest bidder, for development of yet more unaffordable
prison block flats. However, it didn’t go according to their
Council officials showed up early in the morning, about 9am. However, we were already busy barricading the building that has been our home for the last 9 months and our beautiful squatted garden. Reporters and television cameras showed up, taking interviews from us and our neighbours for local newspapers and regional television news. A mixture of activists and local neighbours held a picket out the front of the building, while others risked arrest to sit in the sunshine, defending the garden. The council officials made a fairly desperate offer of alternative land - rejected straight away - before disappearing for the rest of the day. So, for now at least, we had won. In the evening we held a public BBQ and absolutely fantastic acoustic punk-rock show. Again, several neighbours stuck around all night having a drink and enjoying the music, and the tunes were amazing. Big thanks to the artists who travelled down to play for free!
Once again, the best thing about the day was experiencing how much community support this project had and still has. Lots of local residents visited during the day, telling us how much they love the garden and use it all the time. Some were even willing to risk arrest in the morning by staying in the garden past eviction time with us. Another neighbour told me in the evening how a Labour councillor canvassing the area had been desperate to get away when she passionately told him her feelings about the garden and the squatters who have made it. Some residents have even showed an interest in anti-capitalist/anarchist politics, including ex-Labour members who agreed all political parties are the same now and 'this' (i.e. community direct-action like the garden) is the only alternative, plus a local couple having trouble at work who are now interested in joining IWW!
late July, the Council unsuccessfully attempted a second eviction and
once again gardeners, neighbours and activists mobilised to defend
the garden from eviction, defying the law and again seeing Council
officials retreating empty handed (OK, so we also had a little help
from the floods taking up the authorities’ time!). And in early
August, despite intimidation as the Council threatened unnamed
organisers with jail, several people enjoyed a community picnic and
arts day in the garden, creating a brand new mozaic
Maintaining the occupation of the land is not the only success of Common Ground. In a badly thought out attempt to move the occupiers, the Council offered two alternative sites. However, when the gardeners refused them, the Council were obligated to offer them to the local Residents Association. Individuals involved in Common Ground have met with the Residents Association, and it is possible we will now help the residents to create a second and possibly third community garden for the area, this time legally. Even better, Common Ground is apparently inspiring others to take direct-action to improve their neighbourhoods. On the other side of Reading, a person who had been refused permission from her housing association to create a community garden on some of their derelict land, has told people involved in Common Ground that she has now been inspired to go ahead and do it anyway! Naturally, some Common Ground gardeners will offer advice and assistance with any new projects like this.
Back in our own garden, we are getting more organised. Each Sunday we now hold a couple hours 'work session' followed by an open decision-making meeting. One of the first decisions made was the agreement of three fundamental principles: 1. Control of the site must rest with the entire community and cannot be given up to a minority power such as the state, council or any corporation, 2. This also means the project is anti-gentrification and against any development imposed from above and 3. This also means decision-making is open to all who can abide by these principles, and is ‘directly-democratic’.
The next few weeks are going to even busier than usual, as we are trying to plan a Community Consultation, asking people what they would ideally like to see happen on the site currently occupied by Common Ground and the derelict buildings. The idea is to gather people’s ideas and campaign for them and against the Council's plan for yuppie flats. On top of that, we also have events to plan (we are hosting an infonite about Oaxaca and are planning events for Halloween and Bonfire Night), murals to design (not only for the white walls inside the garden, but also to decorate the front of the derelict buildings to make the street look nicer) and a newsletter to produce. The main aim of this second newsletter will be to inform residents about our upcoming Community Consultation, as well as including information about gentrification and the South East Development Plan, and suggesting alternative ideas for our area. Wish us luck!
Common Ground is located through the alleyway, next to the ex-Womens Information Centre in Silver Street, Katesgrove, Reading, 10 minutes from the train station. Please email katesgrovegarden[at]yahoo.co.uk for more information.