Time to re-open a Cambridge Activism Centre?

We had one – if not two, during the late 1970s. One of them was an alternative bookshop. Are rents in and around The Grafton Centre now low enough to secure a medium-term lease to restart one?

I wanted to go to bed but then I remembered we had an alternative bookshop in the late 1970s called The Grapevine (see Lost Cambridge here) and, following my discovery of a set of alternative proposals and analysis of the old Kite area of Cambridge from 1976 from The Haunted Bookshop, noted that today’s generation are now calling out for the sort of development those proposals set out, as the comprehensive mass retail economic redevelopment model implodes in the face of the climate emergency and the Corona Virus pandemic.

A vision of The Kite – 1976 by the Kite Community Action Group. If you want to learn more about the campaign to save The Kite from The Grafton, visit the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Cambridge Central Library.

There’s more on the history from Roy Hammans who took photographs of the area at the peak of its economic blight. The bookshop itself is described here. I quote the following:

“Apart from things of a general political nature we hope to build up comprehensive sections concerned with environmental issues, the women’s movement and women’s rights, Anti-racism and a stock of secondhand books. We also have a large selection of magazines, periodicals and pamphlets on a wide variety of issues.

“Another of our main aims is to provide an outlet for the publications of pressure groups in Cambridge. Already we have material from a large number of these including

  • Cambridge Women’s Aid,
  • The National Abortion Campaign. [Note this was only twelve years after the Abortion Act 1967 was passed – a very short period of time. Before then, abortion was illegal]
  • Friends of the Earth, [The start of the mainstream environmentalist movement]
  • The Community Relations Council, [Racial Equality]
  • The Cambridge Campaign against Racism and Fascism,
  • St. Matthew’s Neighbourhood Assn.,
  • The Chile Solidarity Campaign, [Then under a military dictatorship]
  • Student Community Action,
  • The Cambridge Empty Property Action Group,
  • The Soil Association [promoting all things organic] …and
  • Gingerbread. [Single Parent families]”

Given the size of some of the campaigns we have in Cambridge, having somewhere where people can pop by and pick up leaflets (in a place full of cafes with outdoor seating) sounds ideal.

“Isn’t this like the Cambridge CVS HQ?”

No – for they are part of a national organisation and have much more formal structures. They are now based at Arbury Court. What I’m thinking of is much more grass roots, very similar to the old Brighton Peace and Environment Centre of the 1990s that I volunteered at when I lived down there.

Just after I moved back to Cambridge from Brighton, The Cowley Club opened. In a nutshell, they wrote the textbook of how to set up an alternative community campaigning centre for a city – at a time when the future of BPEC was in some doubt. They managed to raise the funds despite the very high property prices at the time. (You can read about them their history & principles here). 15 years ago I remember talking to some people about having the upstairs of the Oxfam charity shop being converted into such a facility. But none of us had the knowledge, courage, or backing to make it happen.

“What happened to The Grapevine?”

It got demolished. Literally. The comprehensive redevelopment of The Grafton Centre was driven through by the then Conservative-led city council under the leadership of John Powley – later a Conservative MP. The late Colin Rosenstiel, one of his opponents on the Liberal Party, and a long time city councillor, described the history in a chatboard thread from 2001, which I’ve re-posted on Lost Cambridge here.

The community had its heart ripped out of it, and by the time I was old enough to notice what was going on, so had politics and local democracy. I still remember one of my old A-level Geography teachers talking about the poverty in The Kite and how ‘orrible it was what the council did to it – and me thinking in the late 1990s “Where’s The Kite?” (Being the first generation calling that area “The Grafton”)

Could it be done?

I don’t know. It certainly would not be an easy undertaking, because even at current depressed market values it is still Cambridge – a damn sight more expensive than most other places in the country. That and trying to create and run a collective of so many different campaigns is a massive undertaking in itself – something far beyond me. But should anyone be interested, my first recommendation is to get down to Brighton this summer and have a look at what they have running there. There wasn’t a direct train line from Cambridge to Brighton in my student days. There is one now, so if you didn’t want to stay over and were fine spending up to six hours in one day on a train, you could do the whole thing and be back home without having to stay over. (I’d recommend staying over for several days just to get a feel for the place if you’ve not been.)

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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