Volume 1 Number 8
The Builders of Brent
01 April 1988
`Bridge Park' was created and is run by a largely black community, many of whom would once have fitted the stereotype well. What has made it work?
Two teenage girls walk along a road in Stonebridge, North London, a Sixties' high-rise, low quality housing estate, once notorious for violent crime. They stop at an open gate. Beyond can be seen the almost completed £6 million `Bridge Park' complex. In the gateway stands Leonard Johnson, an ex-convict. `Do you want to have a look around?' he asks.
Inside the brightly coloured 'functionalist' building is a bewildering array of facilities: a 1500 seater multipurpose gymnasium, squash courts, sauna, physiotherapy rooms, 32 workshop units for new businesses, training and seminar rooms, a bar, restaurant and a hall for 400 people with stage and lighting facilities. And if that's not enough, there is a recording studio, a playgroup for three to five year-olds and a training centre for up to 50 teenagers under the Youth Training Scheme. This gives a two-year course in basic electronics and business computing.
After a brief tour, Johnson turns to the girls. `You didn't think it was going to be like this, did you?' If they didn't, then it's perhaps not surprising. The media stereotypes of work-shy, uneducated, incompetent blacks whose main occupation is crime are so pervasive that even the black community are half convinced. Yet `Bridge Park' was created and is run by a largely black community, many of whom would once have fitted the stereotype well. What has made it work?
The story begins in 1981, before the riots that rocked Britain that summer. Johnson and a friend, Lawrence Fearon, had been among the first generation of blacks to enter the British school system and face racism. Their parents had struggles of their own to cope with - a different culture, being cut off from family ties, racism at work. Johnson and Fearon got into trouble. Spells in institutions for juvenile offenders and detention centres were followed by jail sentences.
`When you go into a detention centre you promise yourself that you won't do that kind of thing again,' says Fearon. `But when you get outside, back with your old friends...
`But,' he continues, `suddenly I became aware of my situation and I had the will and strength to change. I couldn't understand it.'
Meanwhile in another jail, Johnson, who was nearing the end of a four-year sentence, had what he describes as a 'Pauline' conversion. When Johnson and Fearon met after being released, they compared notes. Johnson said that God had come into his life, Fearon said that something mysterious had happened to him which he wanted to explore further. Fearon started to read the Bible and became a Christian. Almost immediately they began to work in the community. With a friend, Juliet Simpson, and drawing together people of a similar vision, the Harlesden People's Community Council was formed.
Communal facilities for young blacks were minimal. There was a youth centre, known as the `Annexe', run by Brent Council but its budget was mainly restricted to buying a new table tennis table every few years. People used to hang about outside rather than going into `a club which had nothing in it'.
The starting point was a meeting where the HPCC asked what sort of things people wanted to see in their community. The conclusions reached by the meeting eventually became the basis of the Bridge Park complex. The immediate result was that more people started to use the Annexe. Fearon, who had learnt how to paint in detention, led a team to redecorate the annexe. They got a sound system in on Friday nights, a bar and a canteen were started. Volunteers came in to teach drama, electronics and black history.
Running short of space, the HPCC tackled the management committee of another community centre - the Hilltop Club. In a mainly black area, there was no black use of the club. The HPCC were given office facilities and the use of the club on Sundays.
Johnson knew that little could be accomplished without the trust of the local police. He was aware of the suspicion in which ex-convicts are held -'once a thief always a thief'. So, at the request of the HPCC, regular meetings with the police were held. The first meeting was full of fireworks. Fortunately some of the police admitted to occasional harassment - after all they were only human. Some of the youths responded in kind and a level of trust was born.
As a result of these meetings, for example, when a murder was committed on the estate by a mentally ill man the HPCC helped the murderer to give himself up within 24 hours: a contrast to the conspicuous police raids on flats, kicking down doors, which have had tragic consequences in other black areas of London, such as Brixton and Broadwater Farm. The HPCC made it clear that they were not prepared to act as informers for the police, but if a crime was committed and they knew who was responsible, they would encourage that person to go to the police and help them to get proper legal representation.
On the night that Brixton burned in July 1981, there was a disco at the youth club. A large group of black youths gathered outside. Meanwhile local skinheads joined by others tried to stir up trouble. The police prepared themselves for a riot. But Johnson was not going to let all that the HPCC had created be destroyed. With Juliet Simpson, he borrowed a megaphone from the police and invited the crowd to `cut me up' if that would satisfy them. `We've started building,' he told them, `and we don't want to destroy what we've started. If we smash up Stonebridge, we're going to have to live in all we burn.'
The fact that the crowd dispersed without rioting gave the HPCC considerable kudos in the eyes of local government. This was reinforced when a senior police officer told Brent councillors that HPCC was worth backing.
With financial help from Brent Council in sight, Johnson and Fearon started looking for a building to move into. Finally they saw the London Transport bus garage.
Fearon describes their visit to the garage. `We began to fantasize - to see what could happen there. We were fired up that this was going to work.' The catch was the price: £1.8 million for this piece of development land, right next to the north-circular road. At an initial meeting held between London Transport, Brent Council, the Greater London Council and the HPCC, London Transport agreed to keep 'an option on the site for the HPCC until 31st March 1982.
On Christmas Eve, 1981, Fearon had promised to `make a special prayer for all that was happening at that time'. The events of the previous 12 months had been difficult to make sense of. Midnight caught him as he was crossing a park near the bus garage, so he stopped to pray. As he prayed he felt `a warm radiance' around him. Then he looked up. To his amazement the garage was lit up - like the office building next to it - as if it was already completed and in use. Rushing back to his parents he told them `I've seen it, I know what it is now.' That vision has helped sustain Fearon's faith throughout subsequent struggles. From that moment, says Fearon, the money started to come in - some from fund-raising projects in the community, some from grants. The site was finally bought early in 1982 on the last day that London Transport had agreed to keep the option.
`We came into the place on 5th May '82. We had no money and there was nothing here,' says Fearon. `I got my mother to come down and help make the place look habitable.' Shortly afterwards, a delegation from HPCC went to Brussels to seek financial support from the European Social Fund. They were successful. Later, Sperry (now Unysis), the computer company next door, was asked to help. They gave unwanted office furniture which was then renovated by probationers doing community service.
Professional staff were employed to get the project underway, but only for short term contracts. Meanwhile local people trained under them and the running of the complex is now entirely in the hands of people from the community. There was a devastating setback which threatened to destroy the project, when the finance officer and his apprentice ran off with £50,000. But the HPCC struggled on. A measure of the policy's success is that many of the professionals involved have kept in contact with the project.
The HPCC has been fortunate in finding sympathetic people to work with in local government, police and in other spheres. But Fearon doesn't believe in luck. That, he says, is to fail to see God acting.
Something that struck me on meeting the HPCC was the number of people who have come to a faith which has changed their lives as a result of working there. This is all part of the plan according to Johnson. `People have a need. You deal with the material need first, give them a job, some money, then they start to wonder why. They know how you have changed so why can't they change as well?'
A youth who was involved in petty crime was given a job in the Annexe canteen handling money. Because of the trust extended he didn't steal. The man now in charge of the canteen was once the head of an local gang known as `the bandits'.
In six months time, `Bridge Park' will be officially opened. But for Johnson and Fearon, it is not the end. `This is only part of a vision far broader than the bus garage,' says Fearon. Where next? `I'm not sure. That depends on what God's plan is.'