Activism

Save the arches: A South London community arts club that's facing a sell-off

We hear from the business owners from under the arches who are at the heart of local communities up and down the country. We must prevent Network Rail's damaging plans to privatise railway arches across the UK

Guardians of the Arches event at Westminster

Labour's Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Rebecca Long Bailey and Andy McDonald with the Guardians of the Arches team

The campaign to stop Network Rail shabbily selling off 5,500 railway arches for a short-term cash injection is gathering pace.

These spaces have offered affordable premises to entrepreneurs and small businesses for several generations. They are unconventional sites, which have allowed communities to flourish. The hike in rents that will follow the sell-off will kill off many of these vital spaces. Here is just one story of a business worth fighting for.

My name is Adam David Ge-Saelis. I have a row of railway arches in Herne Hill. When I started renting the first one, I was homeless. I had been living in an old transit van.

I was wandering around at night with my dog. I saw these arches were all boarded up, they were derelict. No one really wanted them. I saw a sign at the end of the mews, which said Network Rail. I didn’t know much about the arches, but called them up and told me I needed this much money to get them. I went to work as a chef, doing 30-hour shifts. Really tough work. And I saved up enough money to get the first arches.

The electricity didn’t work properly, the toilets were smashed. They were in a really derelict state. I was doing furniture making and writing a book – so I needed a place to work. I was still sleeping in a van. So I could park the van up the mews and work in the arch. Then the arches next door, which had been boarded up for 11 years. I asked how much they would cost and was told I could have them rent free because they were derelict and rundown.

I got artist friends of mine in there and we started a collaboration, almost an arts club. And slowly started putting more and more people in other arches. So over the years since I have been there, 350 artists have been in there.

We have done exhibitions for Camberwell Art College, St Martins, Chelsea, Wimbledon, Bournemouth. All the art schools have come to do their first shows in there. The whole place has been refurbished, all from recycled materials. I have done it all myself. Over 17 years.

Image: Adam David Ge-Saelis

The way it works is you join the arts club and then you hire part of an arch for particular art projects. Some of the projects have gone on for years and I have watched those artists’ children growing up and stuff and seen the whole community thrive. It is creating its own economy within there. It has provided a home to more than 350 artists.

I am now seen as a person who can do stuff from rubbish. I have refurbished all these arches, all from waste, single-handedly. And I built this business from nothing – putting all the money I have ever made from the arches back into the arches. More than £300,000. I have never taken a profit. It has all gone back into the arches to make them better for the individuals working within them. It has created a thriving arts community.

Guardians of the Arches

Everyone has different problems with Network Rail. All of a sudden, I saw it on Twitter, and thought it was amazing. I feel I can share my problems, my worries, but also all the things we have done here – I manage this whole mews. I clear the drains, sweep the street, paint the building, I have done everything here.

Now the area has gone up. They knocked the building next to us down and turned it into luxury flats. But they put a photograph of our mews on the brochure to help sell the new flats. If I hadn’t done it up, they wouldn’t have been able to develop the building next door and sell all the flats off plan.

I got a call a couple of weeks ago from someone saying they were the manager and couldn’t get in. She said she had been the manager for four years. I said: “Well, why haven’t you been down in four years?” They won’t talk to me unless it is about money. It is a short-term plan to raise funds.

Two of the arches were empty for 14 years. I asked them for 14 years whether I could rent them. No. They kept them boarded up. Now they have let me have them, but on a contracted agreement with no security of tenure. So they know, when the sale goes through, we can’t keep them.

The councillors come down asking why all the other arches aren’t like this – mine are full of plants, beautifully painted, we are thinking of putting a beehive in there – it is a beautiful place and thriving.

adam2
Image: Adam David Ge-Saelis

The answer machine on Network Rail asks whether you are tenant of Network Rail and whether you would be interested in buying the arches. You say yes, press No.1, they transfer you, take your name, no one ever calls you back. Who is that information for?

If they sold them from underneath me, I would be homeless again and this community would break up. I wouldn’t be able to afford a flat any more, it would destroy the livelihoods of at least 25 individuals who work with me and all my neighbours in the arches. It would also bring uncertainty for all the neighbours in the houses that back onto them. The local kids come for painting days and arts stuff – it would destroy the community.

Sign the letter to save the arches here

Image: Sarah Ainslie

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