As the walls come tumbling down in Gorbals, Jennifer Cunningham reveals a community

spirit alive and kicking in a new era of adversity

Only a mile and a half south of Glasgow city centre, Oatlands has been a model suburb three times over. Now the bulldozers are tearing down the last traditional tenements in Gorbals, to the dismay of conservationists. The tenants who have moved into the inter-war ''grey'' tenement blocks nearby are torn between delight at seeing the end of houses which were damp, noisy, and cramped and dismay at the possibility of their area becoming an industrial estate.

It is a potted history of housing development in Glasgow from farmland through the rise and decline of industry, ending in a question over whether housing or jobs take preference in the future as the New Gorbals takes shape to the west and so raises vital questions as Glasgow prepares to take on the mantle of City of Architecture and Design in 1999.

The land was acquired by the City Improvement Trust in the 1890s with private sector builders building model suburbs as part of the policy of improving health. In 1930 the red sandstone blocks sweeping along Rutherglen Road were described by the medical officer of health as representing the finest class of artisan dwellings in the city. In the 1970s the wholesale demolition of the city's redevelopment policy stopped short between Hutchesontown and Oatlands.

In the shadow of Sir Basil Spence's Queen Elizabeth Square, and the Hutchesontown E blocks, the Oatlands tenements were among the first houses to be ''rehabilitated''. These tenements had been left empty so long that they required considerably more work than new roofs, windows, and doors. The internal walls and floors also had to be replaced - and that resulted in problems of dampness and noise which have been difficult to live with.

At the beginning of 1995, the council's planning department was asked to produce a range of options for the area. They came up with six, which range from the demolition of all existing houses east of Polmadie Road and the redevelopment of the area as a strategic business park, with new business units grouped around the pond in Richmond Park, to a second attempt at rehabilitating the tenements - possibly by selling them off to a private developer.

Without debating their merits the housing committee decided to demolish the red-sandstone tenements, but has made no decision about the future use of the land.

People who were born and brought up in Oatlands, like John Miller, say candidly that they want to die there. When the nearest primary school, St Bonaventure's, with about 100 pupils in a building intended for 460, was inevitably scheduled for closure, parents held a sit-in round the clock for three months. The murals on the playground walls remain as testament to a defiant community spirit born out of adversity.

That spirit is now concentrated in the corner ground-floor flat in Toryglen Street, where the Oatlands Action Group has been running a food co-op for the past five months. It is open seven days a week, is staffed by volunteers, goes like the proverbial fair, selling the staples of bread, dairy products, tinned goods, a few fruit and veg, and the inevitable bottles of Irn Bru, and turns over #1000 per week from a clientele mostly dependent on state benefits.

Cathie Starr, the co-op's manager, says she can judge, practically to the last couple of apples just how much of the perishable goods they will sell in a week and is rarely left with any. It is a measure of how few people remain that she knows their eating habits in such detail.

John Miller gestures round the main room, which serves as office, meeting place, kitchen, and store in the community flat, and says: ''This was the

living room and kitchen.

That's one of the things people didnae like. They want a separate kitchen.''

The inclusion of the kitchen in the living room meant it did not count as an apartment, making most of the stock one and two-apartment houses. Only single people are allocated one-apartment houses and so gradually the area gained more than its fair share of young people from hostels, many of whom had a drug problem - and the more that happened, the more the core families moved out.

Despite 64% of households consisting lone

parents and 24% of pensioners at the 1991 census, it failed to achieve priority partnership status last year. That means its best bet for the future is to achieve a better population mix.

In the meantime, tenants and members of the Glasgow Institute of Architects have joined forces to make suggestions for a community facility to house the food co-op, which is in imminent danger of demolition, plus a meeting place and creche. Among the proposals is one for a temporary building, possibly made by putting windows and doors into shipping containers. ''Imagine two or three or four large metal boxes on red sandstone plinths and decorated by children,'' says Peter Brown, of NBA architects, who would like to recycle some of the materials from the demolition which is going on all around. That has now gone forward to the 1999 office for partnership funding where it is in competition with 120 other bids.

Pauline Gallacher, 1999 initiatives director, sees no reason why the future of Oatlands should be out of kilter with the spirit of community involvement which was one of the key factors in awarding the designation to Glasgow.

''The Oatlands project was the start of tenement rehabilitation and stands in a symbolic relationship to the rest of the regeneration of the city. There is now a proud tradition of 20 years in which the whole principle of asking people what they want to do about their housing has evolved.

''If painful lessons were learned on the back of Oatlands, that should be honoured and developed. The underlying value is that housing is an important element in people's lives. In times of scarce resources, we have to be careful how we use them. If a property has got beyond the stage of reasonably economic reconditioning, no-one should try to stifle debate about the best way forward. Honest attempt to engage everyone's energy is a 1999 way of doing things. In terms of townscape, the sandstone are fine houses, but that does not make them good to live in,'' she says.

Oatlands, so close to the city centre, deserves wider consultation. One of the planners' options is to re-route Rutherglen Road through Richmond Park alongside the river, possibly giving new life to the area's major, but underused asset, and extending the Clyde walkway.