Empty buildings that can work for us

People ‘can think they are forgotten because what is 'coming soon' isn’t for them… and they are right a lot of the time’, says Janie Abbley, co-founder of Refugee Community Kitchen

Thursday, 19th August 2021 — By Janie Abbley

IN early 2020 Refugee Community Kitchen was fortunate to get invited into a new incentive, a community collaboration in an empty building at No 19 Highgate Road, Kentish Town.

The plan had been to take the empty building and fill it with lots of local groups and utilise this huge space for the local community until the developers arrived.

But, like we all know, it didn’t work out like that and in December 2020 during the second lockdown Refugee Community Kitchen finally moved into the kitchen at No 19 allowing us to increase our outreach services and supply hot, nourishing, meals using local surplus food to those people in need on our streets in Kentish Town, Archway, Camden, and Goodge Street, as well as people isolating and in hostels.

Co-operation Town, organising food co-ops, also moved in with us as essential food services only were allowed during the pandemic. We worked well together and managed and supported many local people.

This collaboration happened because of this building No 19. The plan for No 19 was to invite some of private sector organisations into the building to create an income which, in turn, allows so much of the space to be used for free by local initiatives.

Since the ending of lockdown more people and groups have come to join in. We have had free markets, clothes swaps, urban allotments, gardening projects, classes, music, spoken word, art, and surplus food events, alongside climate action groups, Think and Do, Friends of the Earth, Veg box.

Local people pop in to sit, relax, and take five minutes in the inner-city meadow. It is where people can commune without having to have a reason.

So much is now private land and if we are not careful we will have nowhere left to sit.

Many empty buildings can give you the feeling of being discarded and left behind for the “coming soon”; many on the edgelands of the working class estates, the neglected areas of your community, areas ripe for the oncoming brutal gentrification, the bare squares, the empty buildings, the land where people only cross paths and where public spending rarely makes a dent.

Developers in areas of poor housing, food poverty, fuel poverty, seldom get the thanks they think they deserve. Maybe because they don’t see the community and they never will.

The community can think they are forgotten because what is “coming soon” isn’t for them and they are right a lot of the time. A way to allow them to feel heard and to listen is to create the space.

We once had this in our community, our community centres before they had to become food banks, and our youth centres before they were developed.

So now we look to the empty buildings and see how they can work for us. Opening and utilising empty buildings like No 19 Highgate Road for the community is essential during these sometimes harsh and not always beneficial transitions.

The community get a shot at using those empty buildings, to be present in the space that is being left unused and undervalued within their locality.

These spaces allow the community to organise, to support, to provide for themselves and to grow. They can identify the needs of the community quicker than any politician.

If allowed to grow they can become the heart we need so much. They are inclusive and obtainable and yours.

• Janie Abbley is co-founder of Refugee Community Kitchen.

Related Articles