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Sumac Centre : Nottingham Feb 04









The Sumac Centre is a co-operatively own social space in Nottingham, England. Its been on the go for around four years & comprises of a bar, cafe, & lots of other stuff. Eleanor's been involved in the place for about a year & I interviewed her in the bar on a Sunday afternoon at a chillout session. We both had ridiculous hangovers but the interview came out all right.  

What is the Sumac Centre?

It’s difficult to describe. The Sumac Centre’s official title is an ‘independent community social & resource centre’, but its basically an eclectic space that people can do whatever they want with. It holds a café & a bar – so basically it’s a social space. Its only opened on the weekends as a café & bar so during the week its open to people doing other things…

How long has the Centre been going?

It started around three 3 years ago. There used to be a centre called the rainbow centre in a rented space between here & town. The lease ran out & they were gonna get thrown out so rather than just stopping it we decided to buy our own space so we can do what we want with it & it can be permanent. So we managed to get the money & buy the centre 3 years ago & it’s taking a lot of work mainly done by volunteers. There’s been a lot of building work to get it into the state it is now. The café opened June 2002 & the bar opened at the end of March last year.

So how did you get the money together?

Well there’s this really cool organisation called Radical Routes- a co-operative of co-operatives who are all working for social change. It started off as housing co-operatives basically so people can set up a co-op (a little company really) so the people that live in the house run the company & pay rent to the company. Radical Routes has recently started to fund social centres we borrowed maybe £23,000 from Radical Routes, & we got a mortgage as well, & basically the café & bar rent the space & pay rent & four people live upstairs & pay rent & that’s how we pay off the mortgage.

So you’ve lived upstairs for a while how’s life above the Sumac Centre?

It has it obvious advantages it very nice to be able to come down in your slippers & get a pint & a breakfast. You’ve basically got a social life set up for you there’s always someone here to come down & talk to. It’s also got some disadvantages. I’ve been quite involved in most of the time I lived here & there’s lots of work to do. It’s a bit of a struggle living & working in the same place because when you come down here your sort off working. If your living in that space all the time it can be a bit much. I now live about 50 yards down the road, which is just right…

Other than the café & bar what activities go on at the Sumac?

I think the sumac centres just starting to take off. It took a while for people to realise that this space is here for them to use & to actually see it a place where they can have ideas & do stuff. This week we had a course called ‘gardening for the terrified’. It was a course for adults & I think we got in about 10 people who where terrified of gardening. Someone came in a put on a course – as we’ve got a garden outside. We also have a nice thing on Fridays were kids from in from the local school are making a garden. & Its not really the people who are the core of the collective who are doing this but other people coming in & using the space & that’s how the space should be run.

There’s a home education group people that are home educating their kids come in once a month for a social. We have meetings different groups meet here; we have open direct action meetings here in the evenings. We decided to integrate prisoner support with the bar so more people would come along & see what was happening.

Every second Sunday we have El Lampione puppets theatre collective which is basically a bunch of local parents & their kids & they’ve built an amazing stage & theatre & the parents take on turns to put on shows for the kids.  We also have events in the bar, like the Sunday chillout, & we have dj nights & theme nights we had a really nice night for Chinese New Year.

& There are some plans for expanding the building?

Yeah we’ve got ambitious plans. It includes some shabby old out buildings currently crammed with useful tat & the idea is to pull those down & build a 2-storey eco-building. We plan to build it with volunteers using ecologically sound building materials. It’s not as yet decided as it’s in its formative stages. It’ll probably hold the library it’ll hold all the computers & offices & resource stuff & this place will be left being the social centre. It’ll be good because sometimes we have gatherings for campaign groups & we have to shut the centre because there’s no room. Basically this is a space that the local community can use & if we keep shutting it because we get all these people from all over the country it’s a bit of a pain for them. So it’ll be nice that when we have the building out there we’ll be able to have meetings & gatherings & good political stuff going on as well as a nice space for the local community.

Is there a down side to running a bar does everyone involved in the Sumac drink too much?

  I think Nottingham is quite a big drinking city, & now we run our own pub & we sell cheap alcohol & also your drinking for the cause & all your mates are there… Yes its only been a year but we’ve probably all put on a bit of weight & are a bit more haggard around the eyes…

I guess another reason you’ve put on a lot of weight is having Veggies downstairs. Do you wanna tell us a little about Veggies?

In lots of ways the whole thing has grown out of veggies. Veggies are vegan-catering campaigners. They started out by trying to provide an alternative to McDonalds fast food etc. So they started off with a little van & started serving vegan burgers & stuff, & that’s basically what they still do. They go round to festivals & stuff & events like the anarchist bookfair they provide the catering for that, but even better they bicycle into demos & serve burgers in the middle of riots. They’re awesome. Two of them are employed on low level wages & the rest is voluntary. Veggies were a really key part of the Rainbow Centre & now they’ve moved into the basement.

I wouldn’t say Veggies are the source of the big bellies in Nottingham I’d blame it on the café. Veggies don’t actually cook here they cater elsewhere, but the café’s the thing that make us all really lardy here. We do the best vegan breakfast I’ve ever had anywhere, & there’s a vegan bakery round the corner that sells us endless amount of vegan cake, & there’s a chip shop around the corner that sells vegan battered sausages & vegan gravy, Nottingham is lard & gack central.

Why has Nottingham become a vegan/grease mecca?


Partly because of veggies & probably other stuff as well there’s been a long history of animal rights in Nottingham & so there’s a lot of people who want to eat vegan food.

  Is there a lot of interaction with local community?

We’re quite diverse. Nottingham has quite a broad alternative type scene lots of things going on from people making community gardens & more direct action stuff, people putting on Squat parties. Forest Fields, which is the area where Sumac is a bit of a focus for it so you get a lot of people who are into that living here.

What’s really nice is we have lots of kids in & they really like the place. On Thursday nights we have kids night before 9pm that is basically non-smoking & its totally fine for kids to be running around riotous. Parents are bringing in their kids & they have a nice time.

We get quite a nice age range we’ve got local bar props – Older guys who are in here every night propping up the par & funky young twenty-something’s.

Nottingham is quite an ethnically diverse city is that reflected by the people using the centre?

The area the Sumac Centre is in is very diverse, there’s a lot of Asians a lot of white people & a lot of Black people. Basically we get in white people. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We were thinking how do we get more Asian people in as a lot of our neighbours are Asian & they don’t come in how can we make them come in here? But then I was thinking there’s lots of community centres in Forest Fields there’s the Afghan Community Centre & the Indian Community Centre, they’ve actually got their own spaces & what would be really cool is if we could create links between the centres rather than saying ours is best so we can use their centres & we can use theirs. & Maybe we could put on an event in the summer maybe a carnival or something involving people from all the centres.   

What kind of problems have you encountered with the Centre?

The centre is run through a series of collectives that are different groups of volunteers who are involved in the centre. So the café & the bar collective are the two big ones & then there’s Veggies downstairs, there a few people mainly involved in doing maintenance & there’s not enough people involved organising the computers & things like that, so it runs in little groups & then every other Thursday there’s a main Sumac meeting.

Basically its organised by participation. & Basically it’s a clique of people who put in the hard work & that can be a problem. Although we say that no-ones in charge there’s clearly a group of people that know what’s going on & are running the place. I guess maybe it has to be like that but that causes its own weird dynamics because we say its open & anyone can get involved.

One thing I’ve been thinking of recently is that as a bar we need to have a licence & we’re run as a private members club. Running a bar is a reasonably complicated thing & involves lots of legal aspects so basically when your run by volunteers not everyone knows what’s going on & not everyone takes it so seriously or it could possibly end up in situations were we go outside our legality – which can be a problem.

Some people feel very responsible for the place & some people seem more like just visiting & don’t understand how much time & effort & how much work goes into the keep the place together.

Can you explain how the bar works?

The set-up is a bit like a working mans club, to come in & drink at the bar you have to join the club. & The other way to come in is to be signed in as a guest. In practice it’s not difficult to become a member you just fill in a form.

We’re just reapplying for our licence right now & there’s all sorts of regulations you have to meet basically the door is always locked so you have to ring the bell & get signed in. So it’s probably a bit strange when you come at first.

Does the café need to meet any legal requirements?

Only health & safety stuff I think after the café in the Rainbow Centre – The Circle A Café – apparently people where happy to up their standards to meet the legal requirements because apparently it was quite minging.

One of the things people felt quite strongly moving on from the old Rainbow centre to the Sumac was the old centre used to be quite counter cultural & a dirty little whole really & the idea was to have a space that is kinda available to available to everyone that wasn’t covered in graffiti & is kept clean & neat. & Inviting for families to come in & use as well as punks & crusties…

Is there a lot of difference between a legal Social Centre like the Sumac & squatted spaces? 

There are quite a lot of differences between a squatted social centre & legal centre, one of which is the legality issue. In a legal space we are confined by the law; the café for instance won’t used skipped food because it has to go to health & safety standards, & the bar closes at 11pm it won’t stay open after its legal closing time. So you have a lack of freedom basically, where as in a squatted social space you can do whatever you like.

We’re also constrained by the need to make money. We need to get people in here drinking we need to make money to keep the place alive.

But basically the place is ours for a long time the place could be here in 20/30 years so you can put major time & effort into it over the months & years your involved because you haven’t got the temporary-ness off a squatted space where you put lots of effort in & then you get evicted & a lot of energy can be lost.

When legal social centres started to happen there was lots of debate within activist circles about how most of the people involved in setting up the centres are people involved in direct action & some people said ‘your taking your energy out of proper political activity & your gonna drain yourself setting up these community centres, what are you doing?’

But I don’t think it comes down to whether it’s a squat or a legal space. The things that are important are the people involved & what they do. If we’re doing good stuff it doesn’t matter that we’re legal even if we’re working within the system we’re still doing good stuff.

Has there been any interest or problems from the authorities, police council etc?

The centre is a political centre- that’s what its about very much about politics & making the world a better place. Using the idea that people can have a space to come together & take back a bit of control over their lives. It’s a space that full of literature from all sorts of radical campaigns so you get information to all sorts of people. Demonstrations & things have been organised from the centre but as yet we haven’t received any police attention.

The other thing is that we have to keep the centre totally legal we don’t want to have people taking drugs here we run the bar legal. We organise lots of things from here so if lots of revolutionary activity starts to pour out of the Sumac Centre they haven’t got an excuse to easily shut us down or cause trouble for us.

I do think if we did start to receive police attention for being anarchists or whatever we’d have a lot of community support. It would be quite a scandal if any police or magistrates tied to cause trouble for us. In some senses I’d like to see it - let them try.

What kind of advice would you give to anyone trying to set up a Social Centre?

If your gonna embark on the crazy adventure that is setting up a social centre for the community you mustn’t underestimate how much work it is. We never realised how much work it would be to get the building up & running some people said if they realised how much work it was they might not have done it & they were at the very limit of their capacity.

You need to have a crew of people who are not just excited about it but also have the time & energy to dedicate to the place.

I’d say its really really rewarding its great. There are times I feel like I don’t want to go near the sumac centre & then I come here & the re are people having fun & doing things in a way they wouldn’t in a normal pub & seeing all sorts of different groups using the centre its really rewarding.












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