Atherden Community Centre
The Occupation of Atherden Day Nursery in Hackney: Setting Up an Autonomous Community Centre
Atherden Community Centre, Saturday 3rd March 2001. Twenty minutes to go and already there is a queue outside. Inside, a motley staff consisting of the local lollipop lady and her family, a handful of kids from the surrounding streets and a bunch of more orthodox squatters manically fold the last items of clothing and fling them to the tops of teetering piles of jumble. Some of these salespersons-to-be, veterans of protest and confrontation, are looking more than a little anxious at the sight of the restless senior citizens waiting at the front door, handbags at the ready.
By one o’clock the butterfly cakes are out, the tea urn is steaming, and the apprehensive crew are at their stations and ready to go. The doors are opened, and the ensuing chaos of elbowing grannies, flying garments and roller-skating 5-year-olds marks the opening of Atherden Community Centre’s first Jumble Sale.
How did this unlikely scene come about? The story maybe starts in October 2000, when the Borough Treasurer declared Hackney Council officially bankrupt.
Over the next few months, drastic cuts were implemented in public services and community resources across the Borough, including three nurseries which were threatened with closure. A campaign against the cuts, ‘Hackney Fightback’, was led by striking council workers and supported by a wide cross-section of Hackney residents. Marches and rallies were held, and angry parents occupied the threatened nurseries. At Atherden Nursery, after occupying the centre for 2 weeks, parents were told plans had been changed and the nursery would be kept open. They moved out, and on January 12th the Council went back on their word, and closed the building anyway.
Inspired by the parents. occupation, a group of local squatters and assorted activists decided the nursery should remain a community resource, and re-occupied the building. On the 3rd Feb they held a public meeting to decide how to use the place. The meeting brought out an inspiring list of ideas for the place, all along the lines of an alternative, self-run community centre. Over the next couple of months various regular activities and resources took root, such as a parent and toddler drop-in twice a week, band rehearsals, a ceramics/craft room, different local group meetings, massage and Tai Chi, circus skills & table-tennis for kids, a bike workshop, gardening, computer and internet access, a Free Shop (swap-shop) and language classes.
As well as the Jumble Sale, there was a Columbian Night with great food and visiting speakers; there have been two DJ workshops for under-16s with Megabitch sound system; a Comedy Night with Rob Newman, John Hegley and Jeremy Hardy; a night of samba with the Rhythms of Resistance and a local jazz band, Slamba; and a workshop on Alternative Technology from Generator X.
Inevitably, the Council’s wheels of bureaucracy continued to turn despite the cuts, and eviction proceedings were initiated. Although a judicial review application delayed them for a while, at time of writing, it seems likely that the Council will regain possession of the building on the 27th April. Undaunted, a ‘Never Mind the Bailiffs’ Atherden Spring Fete is planned for Saturday the 28th.
For the group of squatters who re-opened the building it has been an amazing and difficult experience/experiment in taking squatted social centres a step outside the usual sub-culture. Sometimes exhausting and frustrating, often inspiring and hilarious, always thought-provoking, Atherden Community Centre has achieved a lot in a short space of time. It has also opened up some possibilities for other closed amenity buildings in the area..… Is there a disused community resource near you?
Note: The centre was evicted on Wednesday, 9th of May 2001.
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