Secret history of our streets

· mumblings · life ·

I’m just catching up with a series of documentaries about particular streets in different areas of Scotland, called The Secret History of Our Streets. I didn’t realise until I looked up the website just now that this is actually the second series — the first was on streets in London. Having seen two out of three episodes of the second series, I’m really sorry that I missed the first, because it has been fascinating.

The premise of the documentary is simple: they investigate the social history of particular streets, mapping the changes in the lives of people who have lived there over the decades. There are interviews with people who currently live, or have lived, in the street, and these are done in the way I prefer for these kinds of interviews, with the interviewer getting out of the way, and letting people tell their own story at their own pace.

They chose to cover the full spectrum of social scales from the aristrocratic origins of Moray Place in Edinburgh, to the working class tenements of Duke Street in Glasgow. Moray Place is a series of gorgeous Georgian townhouses, arranged in circuses and crescents, built originally by the 10th Earl of Moray on land owned by his estate. Each of the individual houses was huge, with five stories and rooms large enough to accommodate dances and balls.The Earl intended the houses to be inhabited by the ‘cream’ of society, and that is the way it has mostly remained to this day. Rules for residents were strict to maintain the prestige of the development and keep its pristine, ordered appearance. Several of the older residents had remained within the estate all their lives, perhaps moving from one house to another, but never straying more than a hundred yards or so. You can see why: the houses are spectacular inside and out, and the views are equally grand.

There was a time a few decades ago when things started to change in Moray Place. The houses (being so large) were expensive to heat and renovate, and began to fall into disrepair. Some became (private) hospitals or schools, or got sub-divided into smaller units. One couple stretched their resources to breaking point to buy their nearly derelict house at the bottom of its fortunes, and gradually brought it back to its former glory. Today, people with piles of money to spend are reversing the sub-divisions and turning the houses back into the grand properties they once were. I’m not sure that I would like such a huge house, or to live in what seems from the outside like a kind of gated community, albeit without any gates, but I did covet the spectacular ceiling cornices, and the views.

The second programme went to the other end of the social scale, covering Duke Street (apparently, the longest street in Britain) in Glasgow, and was more even more interesting. The Victorian tenement buildings in this street housed hundreds of working class people in rather cramped conditions. Most of the flats featured just one or two rooms in which a whole extended family lived and slept, bursting out at the seams. They had indoor toilets, but no bathrooms. Eventually, the overcrowding reached such a level that the Glasgow Corporation developed a grand plan to demolish the tenements of the East End and re-house the residents in futuristic new tower blocks, where everything was going to be spacious and beautiful. Or not.

They didn’t count on the community spirit of the residents of Duke Street, who opposed the plans and drew up their own scheme to take over responsibility for the old tenements and administer them as a community-run housing association. One of the most striking things that came out of the interviews with residents in the programme was the strength of the community in Duke Street, and how much everyone enjoyed living there, despite the lack of space. Everyone knew each other, and the kids played outside with neighbours’ kids of the same age. People were not at all well off, but they didn’t feel deprived because all their friends and neighbours lived in exactly the same way. They had shops, cinemas and other amenities on their doorstep, and there was a beautiful Victorian public baths nearby which had a Turkish bath, reading rooms and a communal wash house that they called the ‘Steamie’. One woman said how much she enjoyed doing the washing at the Steamie, because her friends would go too and they would spend the time complaining about their husbands. It was an amenity — with a touch of luxury — that was available to everyone.

In contrast, the new housing estates at Easterhouse had no amenities at all initially, so people had to travel large distances for shopping, entertainment and work, with poor public transport links. Inevitably, the distance from sources of employment, and the disruption to the old communities meant that the new estate had a lot of social problems. Unemployment was extremely high, and young people formed violent gangs. As people do everywhere, they tried to help themselves. One former resident said that since there were no shops nearby, people who lived in the tower blocks set up unofficial (and almost certainly illegal) shops providing for residents, including butchers where you could buy “haff a coo” if you wanted. No-one could afford to heat their flats because the electricity was so expensive, but a resident who was an electrician rigged the meters so that people got cheap or free electricity. Despite all this ingenuity, it seems a dreadful thing to do to people. The planners probably had good intentions, but it’s the people who really make communities work, not the infrastructure, and people tend to be happier in sub-standard housing with strong networks of neighbours and friends than in modern housing with those networks destroyed.

This has certainly proved to be the case for Duke Street. It took a lot of campaigning by local residents, and a lot of hard work, but the community Housing Association was a great success. They renovated the old tenements, knocking some adjoining flats together to form larger flats, and managed to keep the strong social ties, albeit without the Steamie, which is sadly semi-derelict now. The tenements were extremely well-built, and just needed a bit of cleaning up and internal modernisation, and will probably last another hundred years. Meanwhile, many of the shiny new tower blocks at Easterhouse are being demolished, as they are already falling apart after a handful of decades.