E17: capital of culture

Imagine:    350 exhibitions and events in 180 venues; 47 music acts in 29 gigs; add an international film festival and the second month of a major refurbished top class museum.  Where’s this cultural extravaganza taking place?  A Capital of Culture somewhere in Europe?  A major city’s  annual programme?

Walthamstow. In September.  All of it.  Yes that’s right. The butt of so many jokes, a closed dog-racing stadium, E17. Walthamstow.

Well September sees an explosion of culture that consigns those jokes to history and puts Walthamstow on the map (well it’s there already: end of the Victoria Line).

The E17 Art Trail opens on 1 September is an independent artist-led project started in 2004. This year’s programmes covers all artforms (with 350 events of course it covers everything!), takes place in private houses, pubs, estate agents ( part of a poetry trail), shops,  cafes, in the streets and parks: in fact just about everywhere including churches (but not yet a mosque).  Check out the programme and  just experience the vitality of the area. (Even better of course come along: there will be something for you).

The E17 Film Festival recalls the 1920s heyday of British films when Walthamstow predated Hollywood.     “Walthamstow had four major film studios which produced over 400 films before the outbreak of the second world war. One of the most famous was The Battle of The Somme (1916). The film sold over 20 million tickets in its first six weeks – a record that could only be smashed 60 years later by the first Star Wars movie”

This years’ 10 day festival showcases short films. The international competition has short listed films from Germany, Japan, Russia, France, Spain, Czech Republic and UK here and a few tasters here.

Music takes over at the end of the month with the Stow Festival.  From Baroque ,Collegium Musicum 90, to soul  to Naz Anine’s Moroccan songs to, well the list is endless (inlcuding indie for those who,, well).  An advance playlist is on Spotify full line-up and gig info.

And whilst all of this is going on the newly refurbished William Morris Gallery gives a permanent venue for the borough’s culture.  Socialist, craftsman, poet, entrepreneur, designer, re-discoverer of Iznik pottery, founder of the heritage and conservation movement, Morris’ life and work is celebrated in the house he lived in as a teenager and student.  Hurry, as Grayson Perry’s “Walthamstow Tapestry” is on show until 23 September.

As a member of the selection panel for the European Capitals of Culture I often see cities putting forward cultural programmes which seek to engage the whole community, to bring culture and citizens closer together.  The commercial benefits of a vibrant cultural scene are critical to today’s prosperity. It’s just good to live in a borough which is a capital of culture, every year.


Cultural democracy; save the cinema in Walthamstow

Walthamstow has no cinema.  An amazing statement in this day and age.   It used to have one: a 1930s outstanding example of cinema architecture. As well as films it was also a live entertainment venue: from the Beatles to the Stones.  The cinema fell foul of the out of town multiplexes and closed about 10 years ago.  The building was bought by a Brazilian evangelical organisation, (a “Church called United Church of the Kingdom of God”) who want to turn it into a “Help Centre”.  Local residents oppose the change.  There is a locally managed alternative option to create an arts based centre to help drive regeneration in Walthamstow.  The local Council rejected the application by the “Church”.  A decision widely supported by local residents. (see my report on that meeting on my previous blog)  The “Church” has appealed.  Here is my objection to their appeal sent to the government planning inspectors.

I write to oppose the appeals of the UCKG and to support the decision of the LBWF Planning Committee in refusing change of use consent.  I have been a resident of Walthamstow for over 30 years.

There is considerable professional literature and practice across the UK, Europe and indeed the world, on the important role that culture has on urban regeneration and prosperity.  The arts are in themselves a major economic sector; a community with an active arts-based sector benefits from those gains and from the reputation a vibrant
arts scene brings.   Culture in an urban context is important to attract and retain new residents and increase the
overall GDP-per capita.

As an expert member of the Selection Panel for European Capitals of Culture, nominated by the European Parliament, I am fully aware of how cities around Europe are prioritising culture in their development aspirations.

The EMD cinema is the only large scale cultural building in Walthamstow.  It has a formal heritage listing and as importantly has an informal intangible heritage reputation for its residents.  Recent decisions by UNESCO and the Council of Europe have highlighted the importance of intangible heritage and memory.   The loss of the building, if the appeal is upheld, will be irretrievable to the cultural sector and life in Walthamstow.

There is a viable proposal to use the building, with its existing use category, as a multi-purpose arts centre.  This is completely in keeping with cultural regeneration projects and one which has proven success in regeneration
programmes.  The proposal is at no cost to the public purse in these days of public sector austerity.

There is very little evidence that religious based projects, (single focus projects), contribute to the economic development of an urban community. I exclude the benefits which come from major heritage religious buildings such as cathedrals, churches, mosques and synagogues where the  attraction is overwhelmingly led by the attraction of the architectural
heritage.  That is not relevant in this case.

Religious based projects tend towards exclusivity; attracting their own followers and rarely having a broader appeal. There is of course a place for such projects but in this case not at the expense of a unique property both designed for another purpose and where there is a continuation option available.  It is unlikely based on practice elsewhere that the UCKG’s claims in impact on regeneration will be realised.

In the years they have owned the EMD cinema they have allowed to fall into decay.  If your site visit took place today you would see it boarded up for safety reasons.  The UCKG has not demonstrated, over a number  of years, that they are willing to maintain the building to a satisfactory state.

Successful regeneration projects are those which are “bottom-up”: driven by the needs of and the aspirations of local  residents.   It was telling that at the Planning Committee meeting in May 2011 that the elected representatives said
that they had no postbag requesting support for the UCKG proposals.  Indeed the clear view of local residents is
to retain the EMD building as a locally managed arts-based centre.  As such the programming is more likely to be
open to all residents of Walthamstow and Waltham Forest. This is the experience of similar centres in other parts of London. This contrasts with the exclusive appeal of a single focus based organisation.

The case put forward by UCKG does not stack up in terms of the development plans of LBWF and of the residents of Walthamstow.   Sustainable economic development will come from maintaining the current use category of the EMD enabling the viable alternative to proceed.   Cities and communities across Europe are seeking to keep their cultural assets, to develop them and expand them as one of the major avenues for sustainable and locally led development.

I urge you to reject the appeal.  There are inadequate grounds in UCKG’s case to warrant a change from the original designation and use of the EMD cinema.