Indycube Connector Russell Todd shares his thoughts on coworking where it counts & the forthcoming coworking space in Blackwood
Between 2004-09 I was the Communities First Co-ordinator with 3 CF Partnerships that arced to the north of Blackwood: Cefn Fforest, the Argoed ward (The Rock, Argoed, Markham, Hollybush, Man-moel) and Trinant & Pentwyn.
The Miners' Institute in Blackwood was a prominent feature that I'd drive past often, use as a reference point for visitors, have the occasional meeting there, and work with on arts outreach type activities. Mainly, however, it was somewhere that the local people I was working with would fondly recall and reminisce about. The vice chair of one of the Partnerships was one of the main activists who rallied to save the institute in, I think, the early 80s when its future was uncertain. I used to visit/use other stiwts at the time: Cefn Fforest, Markham, Newbridge Memo, Fleur-de-Lys. Llanhilleth Institute was in a bad state of repair (though since immaculately restored); and Oakdale Institute is, of course, at St Fagans.
But Blackwood was the grand, old 'matriarch' of them all (as echoed by a couple of people at our Christmas reception in Pontypridd last night). Among many of my peers, it is the stiwt that many people think of when thinking of these iconic symbols of collective spirit, memory, culture and labour.
I remember from my youth it being a staple venue for touring bands (though I'd never been there for a gig); Blackwood was not a town a lad from Dinas Powys would know much about. If it wasn't for Manic Street Preachers, I doubt I'd be aware of it at all. As I've since learned in so many ways, the histories of Wales's principal cities are deeply connected with their valleys hinterland, but this isn't always told. For instance, despite it being a town intrinsic in the story of the Chartists, the telling to me in school of that episode centred exclusively on Newport.
The tail end of my time in the Sirhywi valley coincided with the 2008 credit crunch and recession, and the appalling social fallout that the dogma of austerity economics has brought about. Blackwood's High Street, at the northern end of which the Miners' Institute defiantly and proudly stands, fared, to my mind, better than most high streets at that time. Although the usual criticisms of town centres can be leveled at Blackwood - abundant charity shops, empty units, too much traffic, too many chains - there are shoots of promise. A cinema has since returned, there are some interesting independents there and the Miners (and the Little Theatre) remind us that town centres need - should? - not be singularly focused on retail and coffee shops.
The relevance of this unabashed trek down memory lane? Indycube's forthcoming coworking space at the Miners'. Like how one loves all one's children the same, I am fond of all our Indycubes across Wales and increasingly in England; each has its own character, drawing on the venues they are located, the wider location and the people that pass through. But - confession time - icBlackwood might just become my, how shall I say, first among equals. Besides my fondness for it, the folks working there have bought into Indycube's ethos quickly and enthusiastically. While we need very little persuasion at all of the cultural value and importance of buildings such as the Miners'. However, we are not rose-tinted bespectacled to a fault and recognise that such buildings need to modernise their uses, facilities and services; provision of coworking spaces is one such way these buildings can do that.
In so doing they allow people to work closer to home and #killthecommute (and who doesn't shudder at the thought of the amount of time they have wasted crawling through Maesycwmmer to and from Caerffili and Ystrad Mynach?). Remember, the Sirhywi is a valley not served by a rail line. The third sector can locate themselves flexibly and peripatetically at such venues and retain an interface with and accessibility to the communities it serves. For the venues themselves they provide an income stream, diversify footfall and the serendipities that happen, and make use of under-utilised space and assets. The more people who locate themselves in Blackwood (and towns like it) the more sandwiches they buy, coffee they drink, the more creativity they can encounter, the more school runs parents may be able to do. This sounds to me like a productive, rewarding Design For Life.
It might be glib to read too much into Twitter likes, but is it a stretch to conclude that popularity of a recent tweet raising awareness of icBlackwood suggests that for some people it is important that institutions like Blackwood Miners' Institute has a future as rich as its past? I suspect not. But we need to live the changes we wish to see and Indycube and the Miners would be grateful for your ongoing support in sharing, publicising and using icBlackwood.