Reading, UK: Lasting Roots

“Process to remedy Katesgrove ‘eyesore’ begins” read the Get Reading headline on 23 February 2012. The following article explained that “plans for a new community garden in Katesgrove could blossom” following a recent council decision to purchase a piece of derelict land. This news means a lot to the members of Reading L&S as it marks the ongoing victories of a land occupation they first began six years ago.

In late 2006, a group of friends squatting in a closed down women’s centre on a busy junction in the Katesgrove neighbourhood of Reading, hatched a plan. The three council owned buildings next door had been derelict for years and the gardens behind them had become a junkies paradise. The ‘secured’ gardens had long become unsecured and needles were strewn everywhere where any child could find them.

The friends had recently returned frustrated from the spectacle of the anti-G8 Summit protests in Scotland, and had discussed ways of truly rooting anti-capitalist struggle in local communities, without losing the vibrant culture and DIY spirit of the anti-globalisation movements.

They were inspired by the story of ‘guerrilla gardens’ in New York, where frustrated immigrant residents had occupied vacant lots and turned them into incredible community garden’s, ridding them of the drug abuse and crime which previously blighted them and decided to do the same.

In 2005, the friends had visited a ‘community garden’ created by anti-G8 activists in the path of the M74 in Glasgow, which was set to divide a community. The garden however was a frustrating vision of what not to do. Whilst obviously created with the best of intentions, it appeared a sad, hurried and lacklustre attempt, hardly any better than the derelict ground that it occupied.

In Reading, the squatters were determined to inspire the community to get involved, to use and love the garden, and therefore to fight for it. To achieve this, they reasoned, it had to fulfil what the English look for in a garden: beauty, tranquillity and a fully immersive peace. Not easy on derelict land at a busy road junction!

With not a word to soul, the squatters (and some amazing friends and family) worked throughout the winter, hidden from the road by the buildings and fence (the residents of the overlooking apartments were simply baffled). Obtaining free materials and plants from Freecycle, friends, families and locals, the garden took less than £200 to create.

In late March 2007, 600 letters were hand delivered to the doors of surrounding streets, introducing the squatters and announcing an all-day community party to mark the opening of a new community garden: Common Ground.

Within days, the council had swung into action, securing an injunction banning the event and beginning the eviction of the squatters. The Common Ground crew made the best of it. 600 more letters were delivered, warning the community of the injunction and the threat of arrest, but pledging to go ahead regardless.

The response was incredible. On the doorsteps, people who weren’t otherwise going to visit the garden, were incensed that their council, who had left the place to rot for a decade, would waste their taxes to destroy this grassroots attempt to improve their area.

On May 19th, with 20ft of road facing fencing opened up by the squatters at 6am and the bailiffs outraged at the purpose of their job that day, around 300 people visited Common Ground. They ate, drank, danced and discussed global capitalism until the small hours.

Over the following months, hundreds of local people visited the garden day in day out. People would come for the community BBQ’s, and the political talks (including a visit by an indigenous land campaigner from Mexico) and would refuse to leave the land when faced with eviction teams.

Each day, a mixture of elderly people, young families and teenagers on the way home from school, would spend some time at Common Ground. Encouraged by signs, unidentified people would cut the grass, fill the bird boxes and eat the fruit.

Over the next 18 months, the garden was evicted and re-occupied twice. An arrest at 7am merely provided the campaigners with a well earned bed after an overnight re-occupation. Finally, after accusing the gardeners of hiding a ‘weapons cache’ (a hammer, nails and a handsaw were items mentioned) in mid 2008, the council realised their tactics were destroying their already low levels of credibility in the area and began to negotiate.

The exhausted campaigners worked with the Katesgrove Residents Association to secure a license to hold a ‘leaving party’ at the garden and create a new licensed community garden on nearby derelict land. With the garden newly decorated with murals by graffiti crew TPK, up to 200 people came along for the last night, and then in September 2008, the site was finally levelled by the council ‘to sell for redevelopment’.

The bureaucracy of creating the replacement was mind-boggling, and gradually as people moved away and got new jobs, it seemed the campaign had reached its end, amazing while it lasted but ultimately unfulfilled.

Now, four years later, the memory of Common Ground lives on and the support it gained seems just as strong as it was on April 12th 2007. Last week, Get Reading reported that a Lib-Dem petition for the Council to purchase the alternative site and finally begin work has gained ‘overwhelming support on the doorsteps’, getting 270 signatures – roughly the same amount Common Ground gained on that first day. Comments on the Get Reading website speak fondly of the Common Ground garden and its clear the project laid down lasting roots.

Common Ground holds many lessons for community and anti-capitalist campaigners. The professionalism and seriousness with which the initial garden was created was vital. Through sheer hard work and dedication, the garden which opened in April 2007 ticked all the boxes laid down earlier: beauty, tranquillity and a fully immersive peace (except during parties and evictions that is!). The media and PR work of the campaigners, which clearly used the council’s tactics against them, also worked wonders. But at the end of the day, the quality of the garden made people love it and use it. For this reason they looked after it (not only was work voluntarily carried out by unidentified visitors, but in 18months no vandalism occurred at the site at all) and fought for it, and are still campaigning for it six years later.

Long live Common Ground.

In memory of Rosemary Kirkpatrick, Grandmother to Stuart and Mother to Jo (both Common Ground campaigners and union activists) and dedicated Common Ground digger and campaigner herself. Granny, you’re forever an anarchist. I know exactly where my roots lie.

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