Published: 9 March, 2012.
by PAVAN AMARA and ANDREW JOHNSON
THE site of one of Britain's most important black arts centres - famous for being the location of Bob Marley's Is This Love video - has been ravaged by fire.
Eight fire engines and more than 40 firefighters tackled a blaze which ripped through the Christ Apostolic Church in Gifford Street, King's Cross, last night (Thursday). The building was known as the Keskidee Centre until running into financial troubles in the 1980s, at which point it became a church. Marley filmed his music video there in 1978, featuring a young Naomi Campbell in the footage.
Florence Campbell, 72, has lived on Gifford Street since 1969, and remembers her two sons meeting Marley at the centre.
“They were small boys back then,” she said. “They were so upset when they heard it had burnt down, because this place is full of memories for them. Our nickname for this place was 'the village' because it was such a warm community. Everyone came here. As the church was burning, there were people on the street, crowds of them screaming 'The village is gone!' They were crying, I was crying, this is my church. During the 1960s and 1970s when it was still the Keskidee, it was home. We had reggae dance here, jumble sales, you name it, we had it.”
Anthony Levine, 32, who lives in flats further down Gifford Street and opposite the church said he slept through the fire, but was shocked in the morning. “I was so upset I can't tell you,” he said. “This place has such history, it's heart breaking. It really is. I know the centre hadn't been used for a few months while they did a few repairs on it. It could have been that someone noticed that and decided to cause a problem. Who knows?”
Frankie May, 18, who lives on the street, was woken up by the noise. He told the Tribune: “There was this massive orange fire, and tiles were dropping down of the roof. There were swirls of smoke going high in the sky. It's really sad, especially considering they'd only recently put a new roof in. There were people everywhere, who had come from Bemerton estate to see what was going on, roads were blocked everywhere. There were also loads of gas people around, which makes me think perhaps it was a gas problem, but I don't know that. It's just an observation, a guess really.”
Reverend Michael Learmouth, of St Andrew's Church, which worked closely with Christ Apostolic Church, and is located on Thornhill Square, said: “I find it really very sad. Especially for people who worship here and neighbours. I smelt it when it started, I could smell coal fire, but then I saw it, and it took a few moments to compute what was happening.”
Twenty residents were evacuated at the height of the fire which broke out at about 9.30pm. No one was hurt.
The Fire Brigade said last night that the blaze had taken hold of the ground and first floor of the building and the roof was alight.
Islington station manager Mick Sawyer, who was at the scene, said: “Firefighters are working extremely hard to bring this large fire under control. Around 20 people have been evacuated from adjacent properties. It is expected that crews will be at the scene throughout the night damping down deep seated pockets of fire.”
Just last April Islington Council unveiled a Green Plaque on the building to mark the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Keskidee Centre on the site - the first arts and cultural centre for the black community in Britain.
As well as being chosen by Bob Marley to shoot his video - starring a young Naomi Campbell - the centre also laid claim to be the birth place of dub poetry, created by its one-time educational officer Linton Kwesi Johnson. Opened in 1971, Keskidee became a home of black theatre, which attracted both a black and white audience, as well as a meeting point for political rallies.
Speaking in a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the venue in 2009 Linton Kwesi Johnson said: "The Keskidee Centre was unique. As a young person growing up and becoming politically and culturally conscious, it was fantastic. There was nowhere else that you could find that kind of ambience to nurture creativity."
It closed in 1991 and has since been bought by the Christ Apostolic Church.
The Green Plaque, which honours notable Islington residents and places, was unveiled last year by David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham. He said at the time: “As the son of Guyanese parents and one of only a few black and ethnic minority MPs, I am honoured to see the plaque unveiled. It marks a point in our history. The plaque means that long after we’re gone, children will be able to walk past the building and ask their parents about what it means and learn about the important history of the local community.”
Now, tragically, it looks as if that history may be lost.
Councillor Claudia Webbe, who has campaigned tirelessly against racism, described the fire as "tragic".
"I strongly believe that Black culture is an intrinsic part of what makes Islington a special place to live," she said. "This is perfectly encapsulated in our world famous Keskidee Centre, which was Britain’s first Black arts and cultural centre and has been a unique creative hub for generations of Black poets, artists and musicians.
"It is particularly tragic to lose the Keskidee at this time. Last year we presented the Centre with a plaque to celebrate its 40th anniversary and recognise its legacy. I was also very proud to propose and pass a motion at Full Council in October to celebrate the Keskidee and Black History Month.
"The Keskidee was named after a singing Caribbean bird, and I’m sure the spirit of the Keskidee will continue to be heard and the centre will soon rise from the ashes.”