The University of Sheffield is currently home to a research project titled Imagining Better Communities. In this comment piece, Paul Allender discusses the well-known Park Hill flats in Sheffield and in particular upon the experiences of the current residents of the refurbished block.
I have a personal interest. The story is located in the past but it relates equally to the present. I was born and grew up in Sheffield in an area that was very similar to Park Hill before the flats were built in 1961. It was called Neepsend. It still is called this but the housing community in which I grew up was demolished in 1967 as part of a large city wide slum clearance programme. The Park Hill ‘slums’ would have been demolished about a decade earlier. They were ‘back-to-back’ houses whilst ours were terraced with communal back yards. What Park Hill and Neepsend did have in common was a very strong sense and practice of community. Ever since then, Neepsend has provided a benchmark of community for me. Neighbours were always in and out of each other’s houses, children got an enormous amount of attention and life was fun. The collective prevailed over the individual. People looked after each other.
It wasn’t all great – people were poor and life could be harsh. But we were genuinely ‘in it together’. The area was located in the middle of heavy industry, particularly factories making steel products. All of the walls of all of the buildings were completely black as a result of pollution and I was in my early teens before I realized that this wasn’t the norm!
And we were living in houses that were shortly to be demolished in a slum clearance programme. So, whilst I hate using the word, we were living in ‘slums’.
I miss the community of those days. I miss the constant interaction with other people, adults and children. I miss the camaraderie. However, I don’t miss the cold house, the absence of hot water, the lack of a bathroom, the outside toilets and the damp. I don’t miss the heavily polluted air, the everyday sexism of the gender culture of the time and I don’t miss the lack of resources. We were very happy but I would never want to go back there.
So, back to Park Hill. The flats there were completed in 1961. The intentions of the developers were to attempt to recreate the community that had previously existed in the old ‘back-to-back’ community in the block of flats. The famous ‘streets in the sky’ experiment included naming the landings with the same names as the old streets, making the landings and lifts wide enough to accommodate milk floats so that milk could continue to be delivered. It also, less well known, included the employment of a sociologist in the block to encourage residents to ‘buy into’ the new dream of modernist collectivism.
I interviewed a woman who is now 30 years old and was born and grew up in Park Hill. This is what she had to say: ‘It was lovely…we hardly ever left the place…in summer we would just play for ever…it was all fun. The community centre used to have discos on. You know – everything for kids…You didn’t have to leave the flats, we had shops, we had everything we needed on here… We used to have people coming from different areas to come here just to play.’
What she had to say was very reminiscent of how I felt about Neepsend. The community in Park Hill was very strong – this has been reinforced by other interviewees. People looked after each other and children had a great time. The significant difference from Neepsend was that Park Hill was a huge modernist block of flats. My first thoughts are that perhaps ‘community’ occurs when relatively homogeneous groups of people are housed together in close proximity. I am currently writing an article exploring this idea and questioning some of the claims of modernism.
However, for now, I want to simply celebrate the wonderful, caring communities that people are capable of creating. And, I believe, it is people themselves that did and continue to do this. External agencies may play a part in facilitating – but the good news is that people can and do care for each other collectively. This cannot actually be stopped. And I was privileged to be part of a really strong working-class community in Neepsend, Sheffield 3 in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Imagine is a five-year project running from 2013 to 2017 bringing together a range of different research projects working across universities and their, mostly local, communities. This project will connect research on communities, but more importantly, will connect communities with research. Imagine will explore the changing nature of communities and community values over time, in their historical, cultural, democratic and social contexts as well as bringing together current community-engaged research to plan interventions with members of socially excluded communities. To find out more, visit the website.