One Monday evening in January 2017, the Studio Suite at Rowans Leisure Centre in Finsbury Park was filled with locals wanting to discuss the role of culture and leisure in the future of the area. The event highlighted what can be gained from protecting and enhancing culture and leisure provision – and what’s at stake if we lose cultural and leisure venues and organisations.
Local resident Susie Barson opened the meeting with an account of Finsbury Park's heyday as a culture and leisure destination. Once home to a fine theatre, the Finsbury Park Empire, and three early twentieth century cinemas, Finsbury Park became a cultural desert as they gradually closed. But the tide has turned in recent years, and Finsbury Park is fast becoming a cultural destination once more. The arrival of the Park Theatre in 2013, founded by Jez Bond and Melli Bond, has had an enormous impact. Located close to the station, the theatre plays an important role in promoting culture in the community.
Park Theatre: Melli Bond spoke about the history of the Park Theatre, its current role in the community, and her vision for its future. She and Jez had been looking for an area with no local provision. Although Finsbury Park had the highest number of artists and media creatives in London, it fitted the bill at that time. It was a joy to discover an accessible location that people from further afield could also easily reach.
The Theatre hosts in-house and external productions. Some best-known productions like ‘Boys in the Band’ and ‘Yellowface’ have successfully transferred to the National Theatre. It caters for a wide range of groups including young people, carers, and those with mental health issues. Local schools are given educational tours, where they are shown around the theatre and backstage spaces.
A gallery space hosts six exhibitions a year, and is focused on celebrating celebrate local artists and themes, rather than ‘hiring the space’. Melli visits local artists’ studios to find work that is in this spirit.
The café space has music on Sundays, but Melli explained that a funding model needs to be developed, as it’s not right to ask musicians to play for free. To this end, more promotion is needed on the value of the arts to the community, as it can be hard to appreciate what’s involved beyond money - in terms like skills, creativity, collaboration and coordination.
The Theatre always introduce themselves to new neighbours, such as new bars and pop-ups. The new Finsbury Park Creative Hub is seeking partnerships with local venues like Rowans, as the theatre doesn’t have enough rehearsal space, or adequate workshop and storage facilities.
Outdoor theatre is expensive, but the Theatre are applying for funding. They plan to work with the Friends of Finsbury Park to celebrate the Park’s 150th anniversary. Ultimately, the Theatre is about enriching people’s lives in as fully as possible.
Local music venues: Music is also at the heart of culture and leisure in Finsbury Park, at local pubs and clubs, including the late lamented Silver Bullet event-managed by Hayley Squires. It closed in 2016, but Hayley is still in the area, and bursting with ideas on how to revive live music in Finsbury Park.
Hayley outlined Finsbury Park’s association with live music and its venues over time, such as the Astoria / Rainbow, where many internationally-famous musicians performed till the 1970s – including Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Queen, Billy Connolly, Bob Marley.
Hayley spoke about connecting the community, stressing that music is not a commodity, but an important aspect of culture – often a catalyst for other forms of expression, shared experiences and learning, cross-fertilisation of ideas. There is a huge network of skilled creative people locally, but we mustn’t take things for granted – once a venue is lost, it is not just a cultural loss to people who live and work in the area, but is detrimental to the local leisure offer and night-time economy.
As industrial areas have been redeveloped, and residential uses have become more common in town centres, very late-night licensing of night-time music has become increasingly contested. There is now no very late-night live music in the area, despite an intensive campaign to save the Silver Bullet. The brand name has been retained though, and has crowd-funding money left over from the campaign that could contribute towards a community music festival.
Outdoor music and festivals: Finsbury Park itself has a history as a famed venue for free music festivals, notably the Fleadh (1990-2003). Many top musicians played here at concerts and festivals: Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Sex Pistols, Pulp, Oasis, KISS, Limp Bizkit, The Stone Roses, and Rage Against the Machine. They were community-led: Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone and the Trades Union Congress supported the ‘Respect’ and ‘Rise’ festivals. Subsequent Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson removed their anti-racism message.
The more recent commercial – and controversial – ‘Wireless’ festivals have set ticket prices beyond the reach of most local people. Whilst no more than four events are permitted over the summer, these concerts take up much of the park for several weeks during the summer, and have been associated with anti-social behaviour. They bring 44,000 people into the area, but local cafes and restaurants, and fail to connect with local music and culture.
In contrast, a free community music festival is proposed for 2019, to celebrate the Park’s 150 years and Finsbury Park’s long tradition of free festivals. As well as being free or affordable, it will be family-friendly, accessible to all, representative of diverse local culture, and will have a positive impact on the community.
Neighbourhood Planning: Ricky Thakrar, Co-Chair of the Finsbury Park and Stroud Green Neighbourhood Plan working group, asked attendees to check out our website and take part in the Neighbourhood Plan boundary survey. It is core to the Plan’s success to continue to engage with businesses, community leaders and groups, to ensure that Finsbury Park’s ‘superdiversity’ is represented. We plan to submit the Neighbourhood Plan boundary to the three local Councils - Hackney, Haringey and Islington - in Spring 2017.
Delegates suggested a mapping exercise to show where music events already exist – such as a local pub with Sunday evening music. Hayley suggested that she could visit potential venues to understand what they have to offer to artists, make introductions to musicians using her experience of promoting and managing events, and promote events through their big mailing list of music lovers.
Another delegate suggested that it would be good PR to identify and involve famous creative people from Finsbury Park: Jazzy B and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) were suggested, as well as recent Oscar-nominee Naomie Harris, and Skinnyman.
Hayley Squires used the phrase “powered by passion” to describe the community’s approach to music – and that’s exactly what the Neighbourhood Plan needs to be.
Susan Lowenthal, March 2017
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