A Thursday afternoon in Maida Hill Market Square is packed with pensioners happily chatting and playing cards while soaking up the sunshine.
However, over the past year the square has been at the center of an ongoing row between some of its regulars and Westminster Council.
Last year, Ernest Theophile, a 73-year-old black man who regularly plays dominoes with other locals, was summoned to court by the council and charged with being too loud and causing disorder.
This resulted in the council initially being granted a special injunction banning social gatherings. Although the injunction was overturned soon after, Théophile and his friends could still be imprisoned if they violated a court order by “playing loud amplified music, drinking alcohol, and shouting and swearing.” “.
“The space is very important to me. I come here practically seven days a week,” Théophile said. “I grew up there all my life so I don’t know any other. For me, it’s like home away from home.
For Théophile, the square is a haven for the elderly, mostly of Caribbean and ethnic minority background, to find companionship and spend time with like-minded people. According to Theophile, they do not engage in antisocial behavior such as drinking, shouting or swearing. The main purpose of their gatherings is instead to play dominoes with each other, a culturally important pastime in the West Indian community.
“Loneliness was one of the main factors why we gathered there. That’s why the place was ideal for us,” Théophile said. “Sometimes the younger generation comes here and gathers, but we just want a place where we can socialize and play a few games to pass the time.”
Theophile’s lawyer argued that the court order, which provided for prison sentences, is “likely to be indirectly discriminatory”.
“An injunction restricting the activities of a minority of black people in a public place where there is a theoretical power of arrest and punishment of imprisonment is indirectly discriminatory,” Tim James-Matthews told the Central London County Court.
Théophile believes that being brought to justice was “absolutely racially motivated”. He said, “It’s because it’s mainly ethnic minority groups that come here, and that’s why I think they wanted us out.”
However, the problems in the square are not limited to games of dominoes between distinguished pensioners, says Westminster Council, which says anti-social behavior also takes place in the square, such as public urination, drug dealing and alcohol consumption, and that was the rationale behind the court order.
Westminster Council also claims free space has been offered for the dominoes to continue, although this is something Theophile and other locals say they are unaware of.
Tony Edwards, who is in his 60s and has lived in the area for more than half a century, agrees the plaza is simply a place where many people from the West Indian community come to “mingle and socialize”.
“I go to work, and when I’m done working, I come back here to socialize,” he said. “I’m here all the time, seven days a week.” He added: “All we do here is play a little bit of cards, a little bit of dominoes. That’s all we do, we don’t bother anyone. We’re peaceful, we’re family.
Others say the fact that many retirees use the square as a social center is the result of a lack of community spaces in the area. “We have nowhere to go and congregate,” said Ashworth, a retired security guard who regularly visits the square. “We really only have this place here, where we can sit outside and play a bit of dominoes, or a bit of backgammon too. We’ve gone to the council so many times asking them to give us a seat, but we we still only have this place.
“The square is used by many different people because there is nothing here for anyone,” said Jacqui Haynes, a community organizer based in Maida Hill.
Haynes, who runs a food bank based at St Peter’s Church in Maida Hill, says she and other locals have regularly contacted Westminster City Council about the lack of social and community spaces in the region.
“There are a lot of older people who go to the square not because they necessarily want to, but who go there because there’s nowhere else,” Haynes said. “I fought with the council to provide socials so that people who don’t want to be there don’t necessarily have to. But people go there because there is nowhere else.
A spokesperson for Westminster Council said: “The claims that Westminster City Council have banned anyone in the square from playing dominoes and backgammon are untrue.
“The ordinance applies to amplified noise and various anti-social and illegal activities, such as peeing and drug dealing, which the local community has seen taking place in and around the local area.
“Since the introduction of the court order, this public domain has hosted a number of family-friendly community events that were previously unable to take place.”