From fire station to space for the arts, homeless

The Old Fire Station is an excellent example of adaptive reuse and placemaking.

IT started as a fire station in 1895 and over the years it became a nightclub, costume storage space and art gallery.

The Old Fire Station with its distinctive red doorways along George Street in Oxford, United Kingdom, is now home to two organisations.

Since 2011, homeless charity Crisis Skylight Oxford as well as Arts at the Old Fire Station (AOFS) operate from there.

In an interview with StarMetro, AOFS head of inclusion and learning Sarah Cassidy noted how the two organisations have married their work in the venue, which also houses a creative centre.

“This is a creative space to present visual and performing arts to the public and support local artists,“ she said.

“It also houses a charity dealing with those who have and are still experiencing homelessness.”

Cassidy said Crisis Skylight director Kate Cocker and AOFS director Jeremy Spafford saw the virtue of having a public space that brings different people together.

The building now has a gallery, theatre, cafe as well as studio which can be rented out to the public.

AOFS was set up to encourage the production and presentation of art in Oxford and support artists.

Through its partnership with Crisis Skylight, AOFS also offers people who are homeless a space where they can become audience members, volunteers or job trainees.

“Crisis Skylight helps people who are homeless or at risk of losing their access to housing and other benefits,” said Cassidy.

She said AOFS used to have a full timetable of activities but that stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic as there was a need to get people indoors and off the streets.

During that time, Crisis Skylight saw more people housed within three months than during the whole 10 years they had been in Oxford.

“Their team also had to pivot to doing other work during the pandemic, but they are busier now than ever because more people are becoming homeless,” said Cassidy.

AOFS works closely with Crisis Skylight by supporting and encouraging homeless people to becoming artists or work at the creative centre in various capacities.

“The idea is that you can leave behind the label of being homeless and try different things here.

“We offer a 10-week training scheme covering aspects such as exhibition curation, front of house service and administration, tailored to each individual,” said Cassidy, adding that Crisis Skylight members also get free tickets to watch any show.

“AOFS tries as much as possible to link its programmes with Crisis Skylight, such as by getting artists to run workshops for homeless people or collaborating on theatre performances and visual arts projects.

“We collect stories from Crisis Skylight members, artists and AOFS staffers to learn how people come together in this space and what the experience means to them.”

The cafe on the building’s ground floor serves locally-sourced coffee, pastries and meals made by Damascus Rose Kitchen, a social enterprise that supports Arabic-speaking refugee women.

Besides supporting the local economy and socially disadvantaged people, cafe patrons also have the option of buying a hot drink for someone who cannot afford it through a “pay it forward” scheme.

“The cafe was previously run by Crisis Skylight but it was no longer financially viable for them to do it.

“AOFS took over after getting the council’s approval,” said Cassidy.

“We knew of Damascus Rose Kitchen and that they were looking for a home somewhere in Oxford.

“The women are also supported in terms of fundraising and financial management so they can flourish as a local business.”

The building is supported by the Oxford City Council, which provides the space rent-free.

It is also supported and funded by several foundations and trusts.

On the placemaking aspects of the Old Fire Station, Cassidy felt that it was in the “bones of the building”.

“It has adapted and shifted with the needs of the community.

“It is a unique and meaningful place that brings together people from all walks of life,” she said.

“We are part of a network across the city that is into placemaking.

“It’s about seeing a person not as a label (such as homeless), but as someone who walks through the door just like anyone else.”

Cassidy shared that many of AOFS’ funders were keen on having more placemaking efforts in Oxford.

“We meet with other Oxford placemaking partners regularly to discuss strategies.

“Our focus is on meaningful measures, human-friendly services and participatory grantmaking.

“There is real value in investing in local partners and places, and giving them the space to experiment.”

Acknowledging that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on AOFS and Crisis Skylight, Cassidy said the former has shifted from calling itself an arts centre to a centre for creativity.

It has moved from only presenting art, to producing it too.

It also evolved from working only with Crisis Skylight and homeless people to the Oxford community at large.

“We are shifting our focus to not just art but creativity as a whole.

“We plan to run more affordable creative workshops,” said Cassidy.

She said storytelling has now become an income stream as AOFS charges for certain art projects.

The next five years will see AOFS working with different communities from various backgrounds and art across different formats, as well as producing more art projects.

“We are experimenting with giving our exhibition space to different community groups.

“They can use an available space within the building, such as the gallery or studio, and it is up to them to do what they want with it,” said Cassidy.

Jade Chan was a 2022 Khazanah-Wolfson Press Fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. This article is part of a series from her fellowship project on how placemaking can benefit the community and environment.

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