Once again, Park Hill (we fucking love it)
This is the end of Park Hill nobody photographs, where it meets the rugged Victorian villas all around, picking up their scale. It’s also here that you can walk onto the streets in the sky. Were it not undergoing Enclosure, you could walk from here to several floors up a 14-storey block without having to walk up any stairs.
From the streets in the sky, you can see how careful it all actually is, the way it encompasses large, lush open spaces, in a way the developers of THE TRIGON and its ilk would find economically improbable.
The dark secret of Park Hill is that it works. It’s pedestrian and futuristic, quiet and friendly, everything it was always intended to be – ie, not utopia, but a functioning piece of city. People might quite possibly deal drugs here (and the fact 3/4s of it is empty is no doubt a massive incentive to that), but alas, they do that in terraces and semis as well. I’ve been here half a dozen times, walking along the streets in the sky, and every time I’ve done so, there’s been people hanging around, in the parkland outside, in front of the blocks, and in the streets themselves – the last couple of times I’ve noticed that the tenants of the flat above always have chairs outside their door, to sit and talk to those who walk past. Every time someone talks about how this was a failed experiment in social engineering, be assured that this is simply, straightforwardly bullshit. It’s an alibi for class war, it means ‘the proles were too violent, lumpen and unsophisticated to understand this building, but a Better Class Of Tenant will’. Every time someone says this, think of the ‘decanting’ of 600 people from their flats because politicians and property developers have decided they aren’t economically lucrative enough, then using as their excuse for this the claim that they can’t be trusted to be decent human beings.
That said, I had a moment here where I thought I was going to get the everybody-hates-a-tourist kicking that I’m thoroughly due. The streets end eight or so storeys up, where dereliction and enclosure take over, and here – not trusting the lifts – we decided to walk down the staircase, unperturbed by the music blaring out from halfway down. When we got there, we found a group of teenagers sat on the steps, blocking our way, listening to music on a portable stereo. We asked if we could get through, but I stupidly decided to try and step over the stereo, in the process knocking it over – as it hit the concrete, the battery cover snapped off it. There was no way out. As I started to try and minimise the likely damage, I was enormously surprised to find that the four youths didn’t seem remotely bothered, piecing the stereo back together, saying ‘it’s ok!’ and letting us pass without so much as a cross word.
I don’t think Urban Splash sit there in Mancunia rubbing their hands with glee at their evil deeds here – I don’t even think they think they’re going to make that much money off Park Hill. By some accounts they’ve been working with the tenants, or at least those they didn’t throw out. I don’t hate them, I hate the political conformism that let them happen – the idea that the only way to save the place was to clear it, knock out every one of its flats, and throw out three-quarters of its inhabitants – even if that was more expensive than the other option of simply cleaning and restoring it. It isn’t even pragmatic, even on brute economic terms it doesn’t make sense – it’s a gratuitous transfer of assets from the poor to the rich.
As for what is happening to the architecture – well, you can see the difference above. The concrete has been repaired, and hooray for that. But the subtly multicoloured bricks, completely intrinsic to the building’s Ruskinian physicality, are gone, replaced with bright, jolly, grinning coloured panels which, combined with the existing irregular pattern, make it look like a building by AHMM. The Sesquipedalist describes the results as ‘flat’ and ‘two-dimensional’, and that’s entirely the point – it’s designed to take a building of intense, corporeal presence, and make it into an image that will be seen most often pixellated, on a screen, on Urban Splash’s website when they start selling the 600 non-‘affordable’ flats that there will be here, when the creatives and/or buy-to-let predators move in (but should I put my name down? Answers in the comments please). It’s not supposed to be real. And after it’s finished – scheduled for 2017! – it’s not supposed to age ever again.
The aforementioned Kid Acne approached the developers, asking for a pop at the concrete walls of the playground of the school that used to be here. I can’t quite decide if this is typical public art smuggery, big south yorks clichés in big letters on a big south yorks building soon to be housing the big society – or if it’s a mordant comment on the whole thing. Tha Knows.
Most of Park Hill is derelict, except the clad side and the inhabited side. That it isn’t being squatted en masse is inexplicable. It needs to be taken back.
The Ghosts of Hyde Park
Mick Jackson directed two television films in the mid-1980s, both set in Sheffield, that occasionally haunt my dreams. One of them, Threads, has been written about well by all sorts of people, most recently Reading the Maps (‘returned again and again’ indeed). The other is A Very British Coup, a film which stitches together the inspirations of MI5’s plots against Harold Wilson and the other September 11 to imagine a Sheffield steelworker – so much more convincing a leader of the Labour Left than Viscount Stansgate – running a socialist government which is eventually occluded by the sound of helicopter rotorblades above parliament. The Prime Minister lives in Hyde Park, the gigantic tower in the background of the photo above. In the context, it is an alternative centre of power to the turrets and pinnacles of the Palace of Westminster. It was demolished in 1991, as part of the effort to give the city a friendly face when it hosted the World Student Games. Everything else was reclad – even the ’30s tenements you can see in the pic were given pediments and columns at the front. The effort of staging these Games bankrupted the city, and according to some it is still paying off the debt. The following structures, and more happily the Supertram, are its legacy.