Cool Tan is a garlic-smelling, seedy 'hub of Bohemia. From the outside it is an eyesore: lots of banners, hippies and floating rubbish, but the inside has been described as a 'little oasis of sanity in the middle of a decaying urban nightmare.
It is an arts centre for the community, self-funding, staffed by volunteers, and host to 30,000 visitors a year. There are jamming rooms for musicians and studios for artists. The centre also offers a variety of workshops and an all-day cafe offering cheap, healthy food.
Rents are targeted at those on social security: pounds 1.50 for a three-hour jam, or a week's free studio rental in return for a day's work at the cafe.
The centre's first home was in a disused suntan lotion fac-tory - hence the name. Since 1991, it has been occupying a former dole office in Coldharbour Lane, paying electricity, water, and telephone bills but no rent. Three years on, the Government wants the building back.
Its leaders have secured a mortgage of pounds 140,000 towards the pounds 175,000 cost of buying the building. But the centre needs another pounds 35,000 and they have only two more weeks to find it.
The artists have gathered 5,000 signatures on a petition, a letter of goodwill from the local council and support fromHartley Booth, Tory MP for Finchley, and Mark Fisher, Labour arts spokesman. But unless the money is raised by the end of the month, this 'Royal Academy of South London, this 'Andy Warhol style factory, this 'village hall of anarchic creativity, will close.
All but three of the 40 staff are volunteers, dedictated to 'preserving a vibrant arts centre in an urban nightmare. Two members patrol 24 hours a day, three work in the office, one or two collect signatures for various campaigns, and one curates the art gallery.
The staff operate on a 'barter currency. In return for their services they receive 'bricks, which they can exchange for services offered by other members of the community. 'Anything from massage to roofing or building work is on offer. Some local shops participate, including a bicycle shop and an organic grocer, said Shane Collins, a leading figure in Cool Tan.
But neighbours from the Morelands estate have shown little interest in the centre, admits Mr Collins a little sadly. 'They think it is a dirty, smelly place. Most have never been here.
It is dirty and smelly, but it is also a buzzing hive in a chronically depressed area. Rainbows and flowers give relief from the grey concrete and red housing estate outside.
The Employment Service has said it will consider a request for an extension on the premises, but warns that no special allowances will made. The listed building is now redundant stock; the service is 'obliged to sell on a commercial basis.
They have suggested that Cool Tan apply to Lambeth Council for a grant to help them buy the building, but members are not keen to answer to councillors. They prefer tactics like marches, petitions, picnics and sunbathing on the pavement.
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