TV review: The Secret History of Our Streets and the sad destruction of Glasgow
But not for us such grand architecture of George Square! No, the poor of Glasgow will live in tower blocks. Councillors grant themselves marble staircases; the poor get scarred metal lifts with out-of-order signs.
That was the message I took from this episode of The Secret History of Our Streets (BBC2). The series looks at the urban landscape, saying our streets reflect our history, with 'memories rendered in the bricks and mortar which surround us.'
Tonight's episode was about Glasgow's Duke Street. It may have its share of pound shops and steel shutters but, as with so many Glasgow streets, if you look above the grotty shop fronts you'll see magnificent Victorian buildings. This episode looked at the city council's mad attempt to bulldoze Duke Street's fine old tenements, and the fierce rebellion they faced from the residents. The survival of these Duke Street tenements does indeed tell a story, and it's an invigorating one of people-power and sticking two fingers to the Establishment.
It's well-known that Glasgow's post-war, inner-city tenements suffered from neglect and overcrowding. One resident showed us round her flat, explaining that in the 60s they had no bedrooms. Overcrowding meant each room was utilised for living, washing, cooking; there was nothing as luxurious as rooms reserved solely for sleep. Public Health officials carried out surveys at the time showing a direct correlation between the number of rooms in a working class home and the size and weight of its children. The more space you had, the taller and stronger you'd be.
But despite the disrepair and the overcrowding, Duke Street was never a slum. Lined with elegant stone tenements and spruce shops, it was 'an area with aspirations'. So much so, that a local philanthropist gifted it a Turkish Bath. The Whitevale Baths are derelict now, with weeds sprouting from the roof, but its existence proves the area was once prosperous, busy and desirable.
Naturally, the Council wanted rid of it.
The Glasgow Corporation of the 50s and 60s was obsessed with demolishing these inner city tenements. The toffs in George Square insisted the working class didn't know what was good for them. They needed open air, they said, and never mind that the air shall be delivered to them in a scheme, in a Brutalist tower block, where there are no bus services and no local shops and no libraries and no cinemas, 'not even a place to collect the dole'. There'll be no convenient way to get in or out, to visit friends and maintain the community links we've smashed, but there'll be fresh air out on the cold, ragged edge of the city. And so began 'the wholesale destruction of the centre of Glasgow.'
By the 70s it was clear this was 'a social experiment gone badly wrong'. Gang culture was now rife as the layout of these new schemes encouraged the drawing-up of boundaries, as well as boredom and alienation.
In 1975 the relentless bulldozers were heading for Duke St. A public meeting was called where the residents were informed their homes were to be flattened and they were being moved to Easterhouse. The people - and we owe them a debt for this - stood up and said NO.
The programme interviewed the ladies who led the rebellion against the Council. They were filmed in Easterhouse, beside broken fences, weedy wasteground and crumbling walls exposing torn, flapping wallpaper. This is what they had rejected, and who can blame them? The Council wanted to wrench them from their strong communities and sturdy Victorian homes into this Nagasaki-lite.
The Duke Street rebels forced the council to abandon its insane plan and went on to form Reidvale Housing Association which meant they became eligible for grants. They began repairing the tenements and blasting a century of soot from the walls to reveal the creamy stone beneath. The area was restored and a community saved.
Although the story told here was a joyous one, the programme never slipped into sentimentality. For every piece of misty black-and-white footage of Duke Street in its heyday, there was plenty showing its current state. Yes, the tenements may have been saved but that doesn't make this a fairy story. The area is economically depressed and ugly tower blocks have still stamped themselves into the area. This constant mixing of past and present prevented a dip into nostalgia, showing a real story and a realistic battle between ordinary people and their arrogant leaders.
But throughout this triumphant story ran a seam of frustration. Glasgow continually votes in the same party, either through tradition, apathy or poor turnout. So, instead of battles and campaigns (which, admittedly, make good telly) why don't we just stop voting ourselves into this shambles? The programme may have steered clear of sentimentality but it exists in much of Glasgow's working class: voting Labour cos your mammy voted Labour. In the face of such stodgy voting there's nothing to be done but lodge a wacky protest vote but, arguably, these have no effect. So all you can do is turn your back on the whole mess and look after yourself, your family and your community. But then - ta-da! - we've come full circle, for that's precisely what the Duke St campaigners did. They stopped expecting politics to change things and did it themselves through their community. But the destruction of old streets is also the destruction of community. Once they've demolished your neighbourhood and dispersed the friends and neighbours, your community - and any campaigning strength - is broken. Call it divide and rule, or call it bullying, or even call it 'development', as the Council did, it has the same result: weakening the community and sapping the voice of protest.