ON Cumberland Street, in the heart of the Gorbals, another struggle is raging that carries echoes of old injustices. St Francis, one of the oldest and grandest churches in Glasgow, was sold to the Gorbals community in 1996 for £1 by the Archdiocese of Glasgow.  

This church once provided hope and spiritual succour to the poor Irish immigrants who thronged these streets. Now it would be a community hub, providing cohesion, agency and a sense of belonging in a working-class neighbourhood such as this. 

As with so many other public resources, the St Francis Centre went dark during the pandemic… and has remained so ever since. Glasgow City Council has expressed a desire to turn it into a “Warm Centre” for residents struggling in wintertime. A suspicion exists among local campaigners, though, that this is a top-down fix presaging permanent closure.  

Yet you’d back this community to win this one. The people of the Gorbals have been triumphing in the face of much greater challenges for many years.  

A century ago, the streets around Cumberland Street and the old Rutherglen Road were feared and reviled in equal measure, always portrayed in Hogarthian squalor. 

As with many such depictions of working-class living conditions by social commentators, though, there was exaggeration and not a little class-based and racial prejudice at the Irish and Lithuanian Jewish communities who had settled there. The Gorbals became the chosen face of casual knife violence and alcohol-induced deprivation, to be held in No Mean City contempt for eternity.  

Only in recent years has this reputation begun to be erased, thanks mainly to the visionary and no-nonsense approach deployed by the New Gorbals Housing Association. This is an organisation whose work in these streets over the last three decades should be adopted by Scotland’s national and local civic authorities as a blueprint for all of the country’s social and affordable housing solutions.   

The “20-minute neighbourhood” envisions the ultimate urban paradise, where all that’s required for daily living is within easy reach and the car is consigned to rusting obsolescence.  

Yet, how can this even begin to hint at the decades of toil and local ingenuity which have transformed this famous old district that fans out south and east from the River Clyde? 

And so, this week, accompanied by Councillor Dr Soryia Siddique, whose ward includes Gorbals, I undertook the 20-minute neighbourhood promenade. These streets had once been home to the extended families of me and my friends.  

You first notice the high design spec of the housing blocks that no longer tower over you, but bow gently from four or five storeys. No two developments are the same and the gun-metal grey of the notorious Hutchie E and Elizabeth Square developments has been replaced by softer liveries.  

This is what happens when local people work in partnership with planners and architects who are happy to take instructions from those who will walk these streets and live in these dwellings. They are a rebuke to the professional callousness which view neighbourhoods like this merely as a project for social experimentation.  

These homes belie the attitude that working-class, low-income families should simply be thankful they have a roof over their heads and that any aspirations towards beauty and quality are folderols and bagatelles wasted on them.  

Councillor Siddique is proud of what’s been achieved here. “This is an integrated, multi-ethnic, modern community which takes pride in these buildings. This is a good place to live and work,” she says. She points me to the New Gorbals Housing Association across the road, a large, handsome elevation on Crown Street. “The work of that organisation over many years made all of this possible.” 

Fraser Stewart has been with the Housing Association for more than 30 years. “When I met these people and felt their overwhelming desire and passion to improve this community I knew that, if they desired it, this would be my last job.” His delivery is fast. No detail is unimportant. Nothing is incidental.  

He salutes Nicola Sturgeon, the local MSP, for her unremitting support. ““I don’t care what anyone else says, but she’s been brilliant. She’s hugely supportive and it was only right that she opened our Northgate scheme,” he says. 

“The lowest point for the Gorbals wasn’t the 20s and the 30s and the so-called razor gangs,” he says. “It was the mid-1950s to mid-1960s during the slum clearances. The ‘lucky’ ones got shipped out to Castlemilk and East Kilbride, but many very vulnerable people –typically elderly and isolated – were left behind in neglected tenements."  

The clearances, little more than social pogroms, were followed by a period of local authority building lasting until the mid-1970s which Stewart describes as “catastrophic”. 

“Everywhere the council spent their money – places like Drumchapel, Easterhouse, Gorbals and Castlemilk – would become among the most deprived areas in Scotland by 1982. These poorer areas became projects for architects and social improvers to impose untested and un-lived ideas which were doomed from the very outset.”  

He cites the bizarre but curiously inspiring story of Annie’s Loo, an event broadly recognised as marking the birth of Scotland’s community-based housing associations. In 1972, a local architect had designed and fitted a shiny, avocado bathroom suite to the third-floor Govan tenement of John and Annie Gibbons. The chair of Glasgow Corporation’s housing sub-committee arrived in his official car to view it … as did several hundred locals. For the first time, the old tenements were being respected rather than reviled. They didn’t need to be knocked down. “Tenemental rehabilitation could be done,” says Stewart.  

The New Gorbals Housing Association grew from that early movement and is now regarded as its leader after years fighting the Glasgow Housing Association – “they treated us like scum” Stewart says.  

“Our association is led by punters; everything starts with them and everything achieved here has been inspired by them. I am merely their employee. If I muck it up (he uses an earthier idiom) then they won’t need to show me the door. We have a 50-50 split in owner occupation and social housing. And this social integration works. There is social harmony here.” 

The imposition of the notorious Hutchie E and Elizabeth Square developments after the clearances had typified the mediocrity of professional social experimenters. That and the abject failure of the city council to factor in the huge cost of maintaining the sprawling developments.  

“They knew then that it wasn’t working, yet they kept firing the money in. On a sunny day Elizabeth Square looked great. Its architect, Sir Basil Spence, who designed Coventry Cathedral, envisaged ecstatic local people hanging out their washing on bijou balconies. He said it would look like a Spanish galleon sailing into the sunset.”  

The problems started within weeks. Gusts of 130mph in the ground-floor wind tunnels; lifts that weren’t big enough; low-grade building work and materials that resulted in widespread damp.   

But as the New Gorbals began to rise from the ashes of authoritarian ineptitude the world began to take notice. Glasgow became 1999 City of Architecture when a senior judge, Sir Terence Conran, was overwhelmed by the wisdom, knowledge and passion of local people who had led him and his fellow judges expertly through the design process.   

“They wanted the best of both worlds,” says Stewart, “and they didn’t want sameness. Conran quickly grasped that this was a punter-led undertaking and that they were making a big statement.”