June is bustin’ out all over, but not everything in the garden’s rosy. Look around you. Within a few minutes’ walk you can find a dozen ‘To Let’ signs and at least one person who’s homeless. That’s just wrong, in this day and age, or in any age. And yet, thankfully, there’s so much going […]

June is bustin’ out all over, but not everything in the garden’s rosy. Look around you. Within a few minutes’ walk you can find a dozen ‘To Let’ signs and at least one person who’s homeless. That’s just wrong, in this day and age, or in any age.

And yet, thankfully, there’s so much going on here, a few green shoots of recovery sprouting against the wailing, prevailing wind from Whitehall. A lot of people are now looking at the city’s empty properties with a view to new projects. Theatre Delicatessen, for example, continues to build up a quality reputation in its occupation of the former Woolworths on The Moor. This large building has recently hosted many live presentations, from horror theatre festival to political experiment, all intriguing and welcoming.

Organiser Sarah Sharp thanks every one of the 25+ groups that have come together and added their thing to the project. Dozens of people have volunteered and benefitted, personally and in creative collaborations. This partnership between an arts group and owners of a building apparently has benefits both ways. Theatre Delicatessen and many other arts performers are erupting onto the Sheffield semi-underground arts scene. For corporate owners it can reduce the rates payable on their valuable asset, and add that invaluable, intangible tang of Bohemian coolness. I bet they don’t put that in the annual accounts, but they know.

Another option for arts and other groups is the Sheffield social enterprise CADS, which operates as a not-for-profit landlord of studio, office and performance space. CADS has a blossoming variety of accommodation around the city, some of it cheap, all of it cheerful. We’re talking way beyond pop-up places.

Ever more creative ways of living and sharing urban space are being imagined. Studio Polpo recently ran an experimental project in Castle House, the large co-operative department store on Angel Street near the former market. As well as imaginatively celebrating the history of a now-closed building, this one included ‘living in’. Jon Orlek of Studio Polpo, speaking as an invited guest for a workshop at last month’s Sheffield Anarchist Bookfair, encouraged people to try out co-operating on ideas using what’s called ‘meanwhile space’. That is, buildings standing empty, for one reason or another. The law is evolving, not fixed. It has grey areas, and within these people should put forward their ideas and co-operatively propose projects. Studio Polpo’s report, Experimental Residential, details thoughts, strategies, projects and examples from elsewhere on shared, temporary re-use of empty city centre buildings. Essential reading.

It does sound good – hard work, but great fun. Of course, the ultimate method of total challenge to property owners of any area is always in the air – occupation by squatting. For non-residential buildings it’s not illegal – yet. In 2005-6, a squat which will be recorded in the annals of Sheffield history existed on Matilda Street. It was called The Matilda. It was “just an amazing time,” says Mark Cartawick, one of those involved, originally not part of any activist group. A big landmark building, it was open for events and residents for around a year, gloriously messy and down-at-heel, but vibrant. Sadly, it didn’t end well and the idea of a squatted social centre wandered into the long grass for a while. The building still looks unloved, even now.

Personally speaking, I went there on more than one occasion and it inspired me. It sprouted my thinking outside the capitalist box, towards some kind of activism that just felt right for me. Something fun and positive, independent, powerful and adventurous. Now I’m always looking forward to what’s growing next in the cracks in-between, behind the ‘To Let’ signs on Sheffield’s shiny façade. Sitting in the bright cafe at Theatre Deli (open Thursday to Saturday, 11am till 4pm, by the way), I realised that this is happening before my eyes. And there’s a whole city of people out there, so many of them waiting around for something like this to happen, something they can feel part of. Welcome to our future. This is it. What if there are no more jobs or grants to come? Instead, maybe, just less and less? What will we do? People aren’t stupid. They don’t sit around forever. They organise things.

Theatre Deli | CADS | Studio Polpo | The Matilda history | Alt-Sheff

THE WOOLWORTHS PROJECT
July / Theatre Delicatessen
Did you ever shop, work, or even do a little pick ‘n’ mix shoplifting at the old Woolworths? Sad Siren Theatre would like to hear and share your memories of this once-loved store on the Moor.
sadsirentheatre.co.uk

HANNAH FESTIVAL
2015 Launch week, 8-14 June
This lovingly-picked annual crop of goodness is at the same time a festival, a brochure, a website, and a rhizome-like network of “great stuff happening” now around the North of England. That’s us.
hannahfestival.com

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