Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Slack space #3: Block T and The Complex

Locksmiths can tell you a thing about the ups and downs of an area, the comings and goings in the neighbourhood, new homeowners, fledgling businesses, a spate of burglaries, squatters, break-ins, you know the kind of thing.

The locksmith and door-fixer character Billy Reardon first appears in the Moss Reid series in Another Case in Cowtown, with a general rant about the state of Smithfield (this being around 2013).
He stopped chiselling and hammering away at the door. “I mean all them empty shops. That’s a good thing. Because there’s all these artists and theatrical groups moving in. And the Chinese.” 
“Let me guess [Moss replies]. All wanting new locks.”
After the property crash, the northside city centre of Dublin from Stoneybatter to Smithfield and Grangegorman did indeed become increasingly popular among artists and cultural groups looking for "slack space" (and new locks): abandoned shops, warehouses, offices and even rows of houses.

There were plenty such spaces after the crash, the ugly ducklings on the wrong side of town, all that rubble after the bubble. Unloved places with low visibility, no rent or low rent, and with a rapid turnover of tenants as small businesses come and go.

So slack space often meant art and artists. They meant spaces to recycle, reshape, remodel and refurb. Spaces for free or cheap studios around town with names like PrettyvacanT, Exchange, Block T, The Complex, TransColonia. Spaces for guerilla galleries, pop-up happenings, new music venues, alternative platforms, squat parties and cultural asylum seekers, the latest Salons of the Refused.

But capitalism can't stand a property vacuum; after the glut of temporary spaces came the inevitable drought, leading to massive rent increases, with evictions or arts organisations forced to rent elsewhere or simply close down.

The Complex

NAMA (the National Asset Management Agency) often occurs in the stories of these arts organisations, because often NAMA controls these spaces.

NAMA began life in 2009 as a "bad bank", acquiring property development loans from Irish banks. In the process it became Ireland's biggest landlord. But NAMA is only interested in the bottom line, not arts and culture or the creative needs of a local community or civil society.

A case in point is The Complex, a theatre and arts group with a youth theatre strand. It opened in 2009 and was originally based in Smithfield Square, but in January 2012 it lost its battle with NAMA and its debt-laden landlords Fusano Properties, who were previously funded by Anglo Irish Bank.

Fusano also hit the headlines the previous year after it doubled its rents with its then tenants in the nearby Light House cinema in Smithfield; Fusano cited pressure from NAMA for repayments.

But back to The Complex. The arts group then became nomadic for a time, with a base in Benburb Street for a while, then recently moving into premises off Capel Street in Little Green Street near the fruit and veg market and the Green Street Courthouse.

Block T

Then there's Block T. It opened in Smithfield Square in 2011, first in the old Tully's Tiles warehouse and quickly expanding to become one of Ireland's largest arts collectives. Public funding made up only 2% of its annual turnover so the organisation was very much at the mercy of market forces.

Rapidly rising rents meant that last January Block T announced that it would have to move out on 31 March 2016. On Easter Saturday it threw a going-away shindig to celebrate nearly six years, two buildings, 80 studios, and hundreds of events and projects.

Above: Block T in Smithfield Square, March 2016. Below: a new shop on the ground floor, a fortnight later

The premises used to house 120 artists. It was visited by 150,000 people over the past six years and clearly played a major role in Smithfield's cultural, social and economic revitalisation.

Earlier this month the ground floor became a "market" for vintage clothes and suchlike.

Just a couple of doors down, a month or two ago Flo's Garage was also turned into a clothes emporium, the "Dublin Vintage Factory". It looks well but the tacky old spanner sign seemed to have more impact...


Block T has since found new premises at Basin View in Dublin 8, close to the Guinness Storehouse. But it can only accommodate about 20 studios, a far cry from its Smithfield operation.

The organisation joins a growing list of creative hubs that have been forced out of their slack spaces in less than two years as the property market goes into overdrive. These include the following closures:
  • July 2014 - Mabos on Hanover Quay. It failed to get a lease extension on a property in Dublin's docklands that is to be developed as offices by a body in which NAMA has a shareholding.
  • August 2014 - Moxie Studios. It used to boast that "from 2008 we were the largest studio network and independent gallery space in Ireland".
  • October 2014 - The Market Studios and gallery space Unit H. It was established at  the end of 2007 in Mary's Lane near Mary Street.
  • December 2014 - The Joinery on Arbour Hill in Stoneybatter. A tiny arts and performance space, it blamed its closure after seven years on lack of funding.
  • May 2015 - Bio Space 033. It was set up in 2010 and operated from 33 Charles Street West.
  • July 2015 - Broadstone Studios. Founded in 1997, it was "the workplace of 34 professional high profile visual artists". Formerly based in the Hendrons Building, a 1940s art-deco style structure on Upper Dominick Street in Dublin 7, it has since reopened in Harcourt Street on the southside.
Less than two years ago, art critic Gemma Tipton wrote - in the Irish Times property porn section, of all places - of how:
"The arts have a history of bringing new life to old buildings. They also bring life to areas waiting for something more commercial to happen, and while they benefit from the short leases and cheap rents, there has to be some way of accommodating them in the longer term.  
"These arts spaces are just as important as 'official' institutions, and making space for them is a delicate balance between dreams of possibility and the practical necessities of shifting needs and opportunities."
Above: the squat at Grangegorman

Squat City, Grangegorman

Meanwhile there are the squats per se, or squats proper, run by activists, artists and the homeless. Perhaps the most famous in recent times is "Squat City" at the bottom of Grangegorman Road. After several raids the squatters moved on last year, though a few of them moved back in recently.

Squats by their nature tend to come and go, and many are far more transient than the Grangegorman one. Towards the end of 2015 one such squat was planned at Temple Villas on Arbour Hill, on Kantors lumber yard.

The site had been empty for years; the squat project was quickly quashed when a security firm moved in. The warehouses and offices will eventually be flattened for a new enclave of dozens of houses.

The Temple Villas squat by Arbour Hill