Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Disappearing Glasgow by Chris Leslie

Disappearing Glasgow by Chris Leslie

Disappearing Glasgow is a handsome and hefty book by Chris Leslie, a photographer and filmmaker based in the city. The book and the accompanying videos are a wonderful record of the demolition of some contentious Glasgow estates. For me, personally, it also brought back many memories of my years living up the flats, which I will write about below this short review of the book.

Over the past 8 years Chris Leslie has been documenting the latest cycle of urban demolition in Glasgow; the razing of many of the city's tower blocks and neglected tenements. It started as a project for an MA in Documentary Photography, recording the flattening of the last tenements in Dalmarnock for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. It then took him on to witness the bulldozing of multi-storey flats in Sighthill, Red Road, Gallowgate and in Yoker at Plean Street, and the demolition of deserted tenements in Oatlands. 

Disappearing Glasgow by Chris Leslie
Attending the book launch at the CCA this week we were able to watch some of the short films he has made whilst investigating this, which show that it was much more than just a voyeur taking elegant photographs of the end of Glasgow's flirtation with brutalism. He excavated multiple stories (sorry) of those that lived, played and grew up in the flats. This film below, available on YouTube, shows what he managed to unearth beneath the Red Road flats. Before the flats came down he went with the demolition teams to an underground bingo hall for a 1000 people, and a windowless pub fashioned as a sailing ship, The Brig. Then he tracked down former residents who had frequented the pub or the bingo hall and recorded their stories.

The book is divided into chapters featuring the six Glasgow areas documented, with introductory essays from Chris Leslie to give some context, and six essays from an interesting and varied selection of contributors providing a historical, sociological or architectural perspective. The book contains sumptuous photographs with buildings in various states of destruction or demolition. People in the foreground are often dwarfed by the scale of the ruins behind them. In other pictures when Chris Leslie has donned his hard hat and explored the stripped out buildings from within, the shadows of former residents emerge from their empty homes. Whether the peeling wallpaper reveals a hand painted picture of a stag on an empty sitting room's wall or a frameless concrete window void frames a beautiful vista of open hillside beyond the city limits you can start to put yourself in those homes.

In Dalmarnock the photographer followed the story of Margaret Jaconelli who held out in her flat in Ardenlea Street for months until forced out by the Police. Living in a sandstone tenement that in another part of the city would have been renovated and sought after, as the area was deemed a "sink estate" the decision was made that it needed flattened. The promise of jam tomorrow is something the locals awaiting their "legacy" are not holding their breath for.

In each case we are witnessing a passing of "the architecture of the welfare state". Many of the early residents of the high flats talk about the great improvement it was for them when they moved in, having more room and not only an indoor toilet but a bathroom too! It was a genuine attempt in the 1960s and 1970s to improve the living conditions of thousands of people in the city living in squalor. But it was done cheaply and quickly. When Thatcher's government passed the Housing Act in 1980 and introduced the "right to buy" for council house tenants they intentionally started unpicking of the structure of social housing in Britain. Coming at the same time as the destruction of industry in Glasgow, the flats became poorly maintained and a housing of last resort for many people in desperate situations. In the multi-storey flats you weren't allowed to buy your flat (even if you had wanted to for some reason), the rents began to rise steeply and it is hard not to see the council getting more money from placing those on housing benefits into them. If you did buy your flat in an area deemed as failing, as Margaret Jaconelli did, you still did not buy control of your future. When a local councillor is quoted as saying "someone had to take it on the chin" about the Dalmarnock demolitions, you know what social class in the city are expected to just accept the decisions of their betters. By the end of the 1980s many of those interviewed in the book complain that drugs and decay went hand and hand with neglect, making the flats unwanted and unwelcoming homes.

In one of the most interesting essays in the book, sociologist Dr Kirsteen Paton quotes Karl Marx from the Communist Manifesto saying "all that is solid melts into the air" to illustrate the impermanence and cyclical nature at the heart of Capitalism. The unmentioned second half of this quote makes an important point too, when he says " is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." The former residents of all this demolished housing can see where they stand in society. Ignored, unable to control their environment, and rehoused with nothing learned from the mistakes of the past.

Despite being full of dust and destruction, empty buildings and piles of rubble, the book also evokes the people who made a home in these buildings. The cycles of neglected housing and demolition have been documented by memorable photography before. Thomas Annan, with his photographs of "Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow" in 1868 to 1871, recorded the last days of the medieval buildings around the Saltmarket and Gallowgate, They were replaced by the Victorian tenements, which Oscar Marzaroli documented in the 1960s as the bulldozers moved into the Gorbals. These buildings were replaced by the tower blocks which now Chris Leslie has recorded for us. Hopefully he is "documenting a fight for housing equality" here as one of the contributors states, and not just another cycle of disjointed and ill-judged "regeneration".


What made this book resonate with me?

My pathetic attempt to ape Chris Leslie's trick of superimposing old family
photographs onto my flats as they were demolished in 2015
When you pass by a street that you used to live in, or see a building that was once your home for many years you remember your time there. Playing games there, the route you walked to school, the parties that you had in that place, the neighbours. You remember where you came from and who you are. With Thomas Annan's photographs of the Saltmarket I can imagine my great-grandad Peter Donnelly who lived in one of those houses at that time. When Oscar Marzaroli photographed the last days of the Gorbals tenements he was documenting the streets my mum was playing in as a child before they were moved from their home in Crown Street to the new scheme at Drumchapel. Although I am only in my forties I am already witnessing the second wave of demolition of my Glasgow homes. I was five years old when we were moved from our tenement in Whiteinch which was chosen for demolition. With my brother, my parents and a cat to keep down the mice, we were living in a room and kitchen with no bath or hot water. By the time we were the last to be rehoused we were happy to see the building fall. Where our solid tenement once stood a gap site still lies empty. In retrospect renovation and modernisation would have created pleasant, substantial housing instead but demolition is the recurrent solution in Glasgow. 

Our Whiteinch tenement
Me in our 1970s Whiteinch room and kitchen
After five years in Maryhill we moved to a flat in one of the multi-story blocks in Knightswood. In Chris Leslie's book the Plean Street flats in Yoker were exactly the same structure and lay out as the Lincoln Avenue flats that I lived in nearby as a teenager. We lived there through the 1980s and the problems that arose repeatedly in the book were seen by ourselves. 

We were very happy in our flat, with two verandas I had plenty of place to work on my bike out there and you had lovely views over Knightswood Park. The underfloor heating was only present in the hall and the living room, but could, with a couple of days run up, warm those rooms. Anybody that had it on can remember how nice it was to lie on the carpet until the half of your body that was sweating required you to stand up and cool down. Apart from the huge cost of the electricity required to heat those two rooms, the bedrooms never got the benefit of the heating. With all the condensation that built up in the flats, there was always thick ice on the inside of your bedroom windows on winter mornings. 

Winter in the 1980s at the Lincoln Flats, Glasgow
When the flats had been built, above the 19th floor was another floor where the lift mechanism was housed. Here there was an open, glass-walled space, "the roof drying area", which is seen in one of the Plean Street photos, where the residents of the 114 flats in the block could hang their washing...if they didn't mind all the pigeons that lived up there. Whenever we went up there to run about or enjoy the views, it was only a few minutes before the 19th floor residents, already in a bad mood as the lift only went to the 18th floor, would come and chase you away. Seeing Chris Leslie's photographs of the metal lifts brought back the smell they always had - a combination of urine and strong bleach. The stairs too carried that smell, and as time went on you were more and more likely to find either people lurking or suspicious wet puddles on the stairwells. 
The Lincoln Flats
We often had our flat crowded for parties or for meetings. When the council threatened to close our secondary school my mum with other parents organised against it. At one of their meetings Donald Dewar, our local MP was invited to attend and with a lack of seats in our living room I can remember him happily arranging his gangly frame on a wee telephone table we had there, as he listened to our concerns. The school didn't close. With furniture cleared we could put tables down the middle of the living room for Christmas dinner. In the book there are rooms of exactly the same lay out as the ones we lived in, but stripped and empty, looking spacious and dead, but these are the memories those pictures brought back to me - my family getting together, my bedroom, me studying for my Highers.

Christmas party up the flats

Seeing my Christmas photo there reminds me of the other post-Christmas tradition that we had, of taking the tree out onto the veranda to avoid dragging the needles all through the house. With someone keeping a lookout down below to make sure we didn't kill anyone, my dad would hurl it over the railing and my brother and me would haul it into the bin area. It came down like a dart and as it hit the ground, "bang", every needle would fall off making a heap in the car park. If you were unlucky the wind that sometimes whipped around the bottom of the flat would catch the tree and we would chase after it as it headed towards Archerhill Road. One day the wind picked me up as I came out the doors at the bottom of the flats to head to primary school. I was swept away until I crashed into a bench, which has left me with a wee scar on my ankle. I learned to look out on windy days after that. 

Demolition begins at my old tower block
on Lincoln Avenue, Glasgow. 2015
 After about 10 years living there we decided to move on. The old neighbours on our floor who used to take their turn cleaning the landing had died or moved on, replaced often by young single men who often had problems they were dealing with. Noisy parties, late night argy-bargy and less and less maintenance was becoming obvious. In my bedroom the plasterboard was cracked and a cold draught of air from the bin chute shaft behind came through that wall. The recurrent dampness in the living room plaster was crudely repaired and when the workmen were in, things were stolen from the flat. It was time to move on. With all the decent housing on the council books being bought by the people living in it, we knew we would never have enough points to get a move to another council house, so my parents were coerced, like many others, into becoming mortgage owners if they wanted to move.

Different fates awaited the many tower blocks in Knightswood. The Kingsway flats on Dumbarton Road, like the Plean Street flats were of the same design as ours and were the first to be demolished. The Kirkton Flats seem to be untouched. Two of the six blocks on Lincoln Avenue were earmarked for demolition, the others were slowly refurbished. This I find confusing. Either the council have deemed these to be housing failures, or decided that if they are properly maintained, with concierges in the ground floor and secure entry, better insulation and a fresh lick of paint they can be decent homes again. How can it be both?

My old block on the corner of Archerhill Road and Lincoln Avenue was stripped ready for demolition, but had a long stay of execution. I understand that the electricity substation for the whole row of flats on the street was built into it and needed re-directed before the block could come down. Eventually in June 2015 the demolition crews got to dismantle my old flat. Within a matter of weeks 20 floors of concrete and steel was reduced to dust. In some ways I was sad to see it go, as I had lived all my teenage years there, but in the end the flats had become neglected by years of poor housing policy that at no point engaged with the people actually living there.

I stumbled across this oil painting in the Hidden Lane Gallery a couple of years ago. Hilda Goldwag was an artist born in Vienna in 1912 who escaped from Nazism to Scotland in 1938. In 1968 she moved to Knightswood and continued painting until she died in her 90s. This abstracted painting is from Archerhill Road according to the title.  This means that the high white towers on the left are the Lincoln Flats, with the Kirkton Flats on the right and the low houses that line Archerhill Road at its western end in the foreground. Like the Red Road flats with several novels and films set there, I am glad that the Lincoln Flats were commemorated by an artist too.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting piece of social history. In terms of housing I think in many cases policy was meant with best intentions but with hindsight had its flaws. Room and kitchen tenements were widely thought of as slums but now tenements very desirable in some areas. Flats gave people modern facilities but were built poorly in haste. My Grandpa said buying his 2 bed semi in Maryhill was proudest day of his life and allowed him to invest and leave to my Dad when he passed. "Secret History Of Our Streets" on BBC touches on similar themes. Alan


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