The block housing asylum seekers at Red Road.
Glasgow 2014’s proposed detonation of Red Road flats as entertainment had no appeal for sore eyes. The city always gets into a fankle when it tries to show off. Like the Workers’ City Group who argued with the organisers of Glasgow City of Culture in 1990 about whose culture was being celebrated, this latest fiasco showed how the city still rates the ideas of outsiders higher than those screaming at it from under its very nose. Glasgow, ever in thrall to American pazzazz, was willing to lie down before the gods of shock and awe and turn the Red Road flats into a Hollywood special effect – a ‘Wow’ factor – dear oh dear.
Sighthill flats being demolished 2010
Glasgow’s citizens by way of a hugely successful petition by Carolyn Leckie were having none of it and have forced a climb down. Objectors to this ridiculous stunt had history on their side. The City of Glasgow has form when it comes to failed housing schemes. Not known as ‘schemes’ for nothing, the word hides a stark truth about the background ‘scheming’ of municipal social reformers.
Red Road flats are a very tall, infamous and ultimately failed social experiment. It is one among many not so tall or famous but equally failed social housing experiments which have been appearing and quietly disappearing in ever-recurring cycles all over Glasgow for generations. Poverty, housing and unemployment have been a splitting headache for the City fathers for over a century and, as this latest wheeze shows, they are nowhere nearer to finding a cure for this particular migrane.
Since the 1990s, acres of ‘Slum Clearance’ or ‘Rehousing Schemes’ built in the 1930s in Possilpark, Hamiltonhill, Blackhill, Ruchill and elsewhere have quietly vanished and taken their people’s histories with them. These compact ‘two-up’ grey stone tenements, six flats to a close were built during one of the City’s recurring cycles of ‘slum clearance’.
Hamiltonhill under construction 1930s
Possilpark derelict in the 1990s
Ellesmere St. Hamiltonhill cleared 2014
Described by Sean Damer as ‘cheerless barracks’ built on poor, marginal industrial land, with no amenities, ‘the schemes ‘were one step up from the overcrowded 19th century tenements they were replacing but a world away from the teeming life of Anderson, the Calton and Garngad. Mostly unskilled workers, among them many Irish emigrants, traded the slums for space, bathrooms, electricity and regular surveillance by housing and public health officials.
The front-line of the inspection regimes were the infamous ‘Green Ladies’ whose unannounced arrivals ensured folk, especially women, kept their housekeeping and parenting up to scratch and did not revert to the so-called ‘disreputable habits’ of slum living. This was social engineering pure and simple aimed at the poor. It failed because you cannot wash poverty away with any amount of Sunlight soap. Working people, have always had to follow work, live where they can afford to live and have to trade settled attachment to one place for a rent book which always carries a risk of clearance usually within a generation (or nowadays by way of that gift to 21st century poor law reformers the ‘bedroom tax’).
After World War 2, Glasgow’s migraine continued despite its feisty population, fiery red credentials and a bit of economic renewal. New borderland schemes like Pollok, Easterhouse, Castlemilk, Drumchapel in the 1950s gave work and houses to many. Others were successfully exported to whole new towns built around the old villages of East Kilbride and Cumbernauld. The vertical, city-in-the-sky, multi-storey dreams of the ‘60s in Sighthill, Red Road, Cedar Road, Westercommon and elsewhere quickly turned sour as did the equally soulless horizontal mile-long alternatives such as Balgrayhill and Cowlairs. Glasgow never could accommodate all the people it needed and it certainly doesn’t know what to do with them now the work and any hope of it, for many, is gone.
The ‘slum clearance’ housing of Hamiltonhill and Possilpark is now gone and the best the people made of living there, my own family included, has been conveniently and quietly deleted from the landscape. All that remains are the few trees standing alone in what were formerly lively backcourts full of children, washing lines, middens and voices. Who can tell what new schemes are being cooked up as I write.
The Red Road flats are another failure of reforming containment. A brief attempt at using them to house asylum seekers there and in nearby Sighthill has also proved a failure. We should not forget that winning and implementing that first contract from the UK Government was carried out – in true Council fashion – without consulting local residents. The result? Resentment, violence and murder until community organisations stepped in to listen to people’s concerns. The history of the asylum-seekers since relocated to Glasgow has been, at times, a tragic tale. Swept up in Glasgow’s existing housing headache, in time-honoured fashion in this city the old hands and the new wave of migrants have fashioned a new solidarity.
Rally against deportations following the suicide of the Serge Serykh, his wife, Tatiana and stepson at Red Road 2010
And so, on it goes with this latest debacle over history, people place and memory. No amount of Mr. Smileys or bouncing thistles can wipe away the memory of lives lived in now vanished buildings. Glasgow has never known what to do with its failed housing ‘schemes’ but this idea was surely the daftest and most unkind scheme of all.