A Thursday afternoon at Maida Hill market square is filled with pensioners happily chatting and playing cards while enjoying the sunshine.
However, over the past year the square has been at the centre 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 in the area, was summoned to court by the council and accused of being too noisy and causing a disturbance.
This resulted in the council initially being granted a special injunction that banned social gatherings. Although the injunction was overturned shortly afterwards, Theophile and his friends could still face jail if they breach a court order by “playing loud amplified music, drinking alcohol and shouting and swearing”.
“The square is very important to me. I come here virtually seven days a week,” said Theophile. “I’ve grown up there all my life so I don’t know any other. To me, it’s like home away from home.”
For Theophile, the square is a haven for older people, mainly from a West Indian and minority ethnic background, to find company and spend time with likeminded folk. According to Theophile, they do not engage in antisocial behaviour such as drinking, shouting or swearing. Rather the main purpose of their gatherings is to play dominoes with one another, a culturally significant pastime in the West Indian community.
“The loneliness was one of the biggest factors as to why we gathered there. That’s why the square was ideal for us,” Theophile said. “Sometimes the younger generation come here and congregate, but we just want a place where we can socialise and play a few games to pass the time.”
Theophile’s barrister has argued that the court order, which threatened jail sentences, is “likely to be indirectly discriminatory”.
“An injunction restraining the activities of a minority of black people in a public square where there is a theoretical power of arrest and sanction of imprisonment is indirectly discriminatory,” Tim James-Matthews told Central London county court.
Theophile believes that being taken to court was “absolutely racially motivated”. He said: “It’s because it’s mainly groups of ethnic minorities who come here, and that’s the reason why I think they wanted us out.”
However, the issues in the square are about more than games of dominoes between genteel pensioners, says Westminster council, which claims that antisocial behaviour also takes place in the square, such as public urination, drug dealing and drinking, and this was the rationale behind the court order.
Westminster council also claims that a free space was offered for 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 been living in the area for more than half a century, agrees the square is simply a place where many people from the West Indian community come to “mingle and socialise”.
“I go to work, and when I finish work, I come back here to socialise,” he said. “I’m here all the time, seven days a week.” He added: “All we do here is play a little cards, a little dominoes. That’s all we do, we don’t trouble anybody. We’re peaceful, we’re a family.”
Others say the fact that many pensioners use the square as a social hub is a result of a lack of community spaces in the area. “We have nowhere else to go and gather,” said Ashworth, a retired security officer who regularly visits the square. “We only really have this place here, where we can sit outside and play a little dominoes, or a little backgammon too. We’ve been to the council so many times to ask them to give us a place, but we still only have this square.”
“The square is used by many different people because there’s nothing here for anybody,” said Jacqui Haynes, a community organiser based in Maida Hill.
Jacqui Haynes. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
Haynes, who runs a food bank based in St Peter’s Church in Maida Hill, says she and other local people have regularly approached Westminster city council about the lack of social and community spaces in the area.
“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’ve been battling with the council to provide social activities so that the people that don’t want to be there necessarily won’t have to. But people go there because there’s nowhere else.”
A Westminster council spokesperson said: “Claims that Westminster city council has banned anyone in the square from playing dominoes and backgammon are untrue.
“The order applies to amplified noise and assorted antisocial and illegal activities, such as urinating and drug dealing, that the local community has seen taking place in and around the local area.
“Since the introduction of the court order, this public realm has held a number of family-friendly community events, that had previously not been able to take place.”