Bentley House estate consists of three parallel streets three storey high walk-up flats. They were purpose built in the late 1940s in an art deco style, at a time when all flats still had open fires, shared communal laundrys in the basement (designed as bomb shelters we believe). Our bathrooms are tiny, designed at a time when even having an indoor bathroom was rare, and our kitchens were not designed to accommodate any mod cons, but we are very lucky in many other ways. All flats either have a decent sized balcony, or a garden, and we also have an awful lot of communal green space.
The demographic of our estate is quite unusual for inner city council estates in general.
In the 90s during the redevelopment of Hulme, many families moved out into the new houses, and the flats became difficult to let. Many ex-squatters who had previously lived in the old Hulme of the Crescents or Otterburn Close, were offered flats on our estate. This coincided with an influx of other alternative young people who were interested in environmental, social and importantly, community action. A community of active people emerged from this mixture, involving long term and new residents and ideas about sustainability flourished. These ideas about creating community from the grassroots, doing it ourselves, thinking about our impact on the environment, trying to be more sustainable, are more commonplace now, but at the time were quite radical. Indeed, the ‘Redbricks’ as our estate became known, grew to be somewhat of a thorn in the council’s side.
Environmental Direct Action
Many estate residents have been involved in campaigning against the destruction of the environment both beyond Hulme and Manchester, and also to save some of Hulme’s remaining green spaces. The protest to stop the Birley Tree being chopped down to make way for a hotel, was not only about that particular tree, but about the lack of local democracy. It was about saying to the council that natural landmarks, like the 100 year old tree, meant a lot to local people, and the planners and developers could not ride roughshod over us. The tree wasn’t saved, but neither was the hotel built there, relocating in the face of a persistent campaign.
More local to us, residents achieved a victory when we protested against the plans to turn the green outside the A Fe We (then called The Grants Arms) into a crossroads. Despite the council arguing that the bend was dangerous and a crossroads had to be made, local people realised that a crossroads would free up more land for Bellway Homes, and fought a successful campaign. Again, the council failed to recognise that this small area of green space was precious to people who used it.
People on our estate were cross when they discovered that the new park that was to be built, meant that we lost our old play park. A campaign to save Leroy and James memorial park (now known locally as the Spider Park), built to the memory of two local boys who lost their lives playing by the canal, was mounted but failed to convince the council that new green spaces shouldn’t require the loss of old well-loved and well-used communal areas. The green spaces between Stretford Road and Bonsall Street have similarly been the focus of community action days over many years, and continue to be an issue with the MMU proposals.
Residents have also been involved in campaigns to save the local Chevassut School, to campaign for local allotments, to campaign for local workspaces and against the forced relocation of such as the Wesley when the old PSV club was demolished.
The former bomb-shelters/communal laundry that is our cellars are now completely unused, but around 10 years ago, residents appropriated the space for themselves, and a thriving social space came into existence. Primarily the space was used as a cinema, showing free films for children on a Saturday afternoon, and grown-ups in the evening. There was even a foreign language film on a Wednesday evening. The films were always a mixture of unusual art-house films, campaigning films, or blockbusters, and it was a great way to meet up with neighbours in the most unusual cinema in Manchester. It even had red velvet curtains, and vegan ice-cream in the interval!
Predictably enough after a year, the council discovered this, and it was closed down due to ‘health and safety’ concerns. Although there were two exits, plenty of fire extinguishers, and always an introduction describing these before each film, it was probably the case that lots of health and safety laws were being breached. However, it was disappointing that the council saw no value in what the residents were doing voluntarily for themselves, and heavy-handedly brought in police to shut it, rather than helping make it legal.
Residents on our estate have long been conscious of the desire to provide low-cost, organic healthy produce available locally. Around 12 years or so ago, we had a Saturday morning veg barrow, run voluntarily by local people, providing cheap organic veg.
We’ve also trialled a couple of bulk-buy schemes, and there is still an informal food coop who buy collectively from a wholefood distributor.
Street Parties, Pantomimes, and Parades
Residents have often taken the opportunity to organise large communal parties on the estate, from things like the Anti-Jubilee party, to our 60th anniversary celebrations two years ago, to the most recent 10th birthday party for Leaf St community garden. These are always occasions where local musicians, poets, circus performers have the chance to volunteer their skills, and many people contribute, either by cooking a dish to share, serving drinks, providing sound equipment or putting up marquees. Hundreds of people participate, and the only problem has been getting them to stop!
In previous years, residents have organised and performed pantomimes or Christmas plays. Local versions of familiar stories, involving children and a cast of colourful local characters.
During a particularly bad spate of muggings, residents took to the streets, organising ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches, and holding all-night vigils to make the streets safe, and unappealing for muggers.
We still hold the increasingly popular Halloween parade for children every year.