Streets in the sky

November 24, 2008 at 2:01 pm | Posted in Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

If it’s true that location is everything in property development, then the architects who designed the Park Hill Flats could not have made a better – or a worse – choice. From its position perched on top of one of Sheffield’s eight hills, these endless concrete promenades boast some of the best views money can buy – a landscape stretching from the busy bustle of the city centre all the way out to the green idyll of the Peak District. To take a walk round there in recent years has been to survey a much-changed city: post-war insults & old industrial derelicts have made way for new office space and accomodation, artificial waterways, indoor gardens and beautifully-designed public spaces. And yet, whilst Sheffield began to enjoy the fruits of regeneration, these council-owned properties were left behind, glowering over the city like a grumpy concrete giant, forever maligned as an eyesore that’s far nicer to look out from than to actually look at.

Like Rachel Cooke, I grew up hating these flats, as much for the false impression they gave of the city as for their unpleasant artifice. But regardless of how it might be regarded by both Sheffielders and strangers, Park Hill still retains a special charm for those who have lived there, as the area’s caretaker – and former resident – explains:

‘The way it all fits together,’ he says. ‘It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. I look at it as a feat of engineering. It was so clever. It had a district heating system – the only place with one like it was in Norway, where they’d capped a geyser – and a communal waste disposal system [this survived until the advent of disposable nappies]. When the new developers did a concrete survey, they found that it is not yet a third of the way through its life.’

At its peak, Park Hill was the self-contained community its creators had envisaged – amenities included several pubs, a supermarket, a butchers & a shoe shop – and the residents’ living conditions were decades ahead of the pre-war slums which once stood in its place. As another resident puts it:

‘It was luxury. Me, my husband and our baby were living in a back-to-back. My parents were there, too, and my brother. We had no bathroom, just a tin bath on the back of the door. So when we got here it was marvellous. Three bedrooms, hot water, always warm. And the view. It’s lovely, especially at night, when it’s all lit up.’

Yet Park Hill’s fate was ultimately inextricable from that of post-industrial working class Britain. With the wrecking ball of progress, its residents lost their jobs, its image fell foul of fashion, its exterior suffered from neglect, and its public reputation – like the reputation of the city it looms over – became one of poverty, decay & despair.

Under normal circumstances a council would’ve decided to write it off as a failure, send in the bulldozers and build something new in its place. But because it is the largest listed building in Europe, the flats had to be protected, and so Sheffield Council advertised for someone to begin the unenviable job of turning this unloved concrete carbunkle into something the city could be proud of again.

The renovation work is underway as we speak, and – admirably, considering how these things are often sold in their entirely to private developers – the council has insisted that a third of the flats must remain social rented, offering good quality, low-cost accomodation to the same kinds of working class people who first took up residence over 40 years ago.

I have the tendency to wax a little too lyrical about my part of the world, but the underlying point is that social housing is of huge importance in fostering strong local communities & slouching towards that elusive goal of social justice; its decline is always the most visible sign of the increasingly intolerable conditions being endured by the low paid & unemployed, and its slow, faltering and uneven revival is but the first step towards ensuring a more equitable outcome for society’s most vulnerable.

Quite endearingly, considering the times in which we live, the Park Hill caretaker remains ebuillantly optimistic about the building’s future:

She’s lovely [the building]. She’s my mistress, the only lady who’s fetched me from the marital bed at two in the morning and made demands. She has come on hard times, but all she’s got to do is wash her face and put on a new dress and she will be fine.

Despite reservations about how far you can dress this mutton up as lamb, I hope they succeed in giving these flats the renaisance they need, and recapture their creators’ unfairly-derided dream of building ‘streets in the sky’.

Image of the Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, taken by Flickr user Jrim (Creative Commons)

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