Category Archives: Housing

Cathy Come Home

I knew Ken Loach’s 1966 film version of Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home would be harrowing, so I saved it for a time when I had great things to look forward to. The great London weekend of ought-seventeen. Made me miss London. Sadly I am writing about it post great weekend, but it has to be done.

Also, spoiler alert. Though you can probably guess the broad outlines of how this film is going to go.

I can see why it caused nationwide controversy and outcry, can see how it connects to the formation of Crisis and Shelter — from the BFI’s description, it:

gave a welcome boost to the (coincidental) launch of the homelessness charity Shelter a few days after the play was first broadcast, as part of the BBC’s The Wednesday Play strand.

I can see why this is a pivotal film in thinking about housing in Britain. For showing the state of it, for showing what the loss of it meant. For showing how many people sought it in vain. I loved how it abandoned the studio to take us through the city.

Clearly it showed a number of viewers (12 million people says wikipedia, for what that’s worth, a quarter of Britain’s population from the glory days of limited channels) a great deal of the absurdity of judgmental support systems when you are poor. How demeaning, how belittling, how ultimately idiotic they are. How a bit of respectful support early on could stop that terrifying descent and the loss of everything. Dignity, hope, marriage, children. The demolishing of a family. This is a battle we continue to fight, I imagine will always have to fight. People with privilege never seem to quite believe that poverty isn’t the fault of the poor, this seems the most massive of hurdles. Even when the privileged do cross it, the poor or working classes too often remain a ‘class’, a cypher, never become fully human in all their potential and possibilities and everyday kind of flaws. They are always other.

I think one of the true successes of this film, as in Up the Junction, was how Loach succeeded in bringing alive workers and those finding themselves homeless, making them real for a broader audience. These films make them entirely human. They reveal the brutal and exaggerated consequences of bad luck, the easily-trodden pathways to despair that abound in our society for those without wealth or property or connections. Above all, I loved that Cathy herself got to speak and be heard, got to tell her story.

A newly growing majority once again.

It starts though, as life usually starts….Cathy (Carol White) arriving in the big city, falling in love with Reg (Ray Brooks). Their romance is set against the housing programme of their times, as they climb up and up and stare out over the slums. ‘It’s all coming down’ Reg tells her. It is only a backdrop here, not yet the loss which will define their lives.

Like the other films, their story is interspersed with bits and pieces of others. The film goes from their from wedding to the visit of a health worker conniving with a daughter in overcrowded lodgings to get her dad put into home. It broke my heart this banal conversation about him as if he were not there even though there he sits, the clinical discussion of his incontinence and his face… oh his face trying to hold in the emotion.

The boys are coming home, she says, we don’t have space to keep him. Like he’s a pet. Yet true enough, there is no space to keep him. There is no larger house on the horizon.

For Cathy and Reg all starts out well. A flat that feels like home. Until Reg’s accident. The loss of his job. Cathy’s pregnancy. They go seeking for a room and there is nothing, and over the top of it all documentary voices discussing the lack of housing, the overcrowding. The documentary voice dissasociating itself from the very human struggles over home.

And thus begins the great descent.

First to Reg’s family’s home. Kids and laundry everywhere, SO MANY KIDS, so many pregnant women. The voices of its residents describing their lives there.

One bedroom, no married life…

You can sit on the toilet and cook your breakfast…

Reg’s mother (Winifred Dennis — poor Winnifred Dennis, the horrible racist mother in The End of Arthur’s Marriage as well) going on and on about her having done her bit, raised her own children, going at Cathy saying she’s been teaching her boy dirty habits, worrying her son so he drove off the road. That awful nitpicking voice.

Still, I liked seeing this life now gone. Hope still lived here with them.

It gets to be too much so they take another step down, to a cheaper street — people talking about how horrible these streets are, the boarded up windows, the rats, the noises from the empty houses. But there is also the camaraderie, the friends, the jokes.

This film is full of amazing views of the old two-up-two-downs. The landlady is kindly, forgives the arrears. But death takes her, and the nephew demands the money.

The council begins to come in to its incompetent and horrible own. A man explains the point system, the lack of housing (and hello Geoffrey Palmer!). They are visited by another council worker telling them their house isn’t fit to live in and he will have to evict them — they are living in one room as it is too damp upstairs for the children. His reaction when they tell him they’re being evicted already by the landlord?

Oh good, it saves me from doing what I don’t want to do.

Day of the eviction they barricade themselves in, bailiffs beat the door down, throw all of their things into the road in front of the huge neighbourhood crowd. There is no drama here really, it just rolls on relentlessly the way poverty does.

Another step down. Off to the caravan, past a long line of junked cars. A cast of brilliant characters, a sense of community. Men in the pub, women bringing in the water. My favourite quote of the film (loosely quoted mind you)

You’ll never find a louse, because we know how to thwart them. With the devil’s dung.

Another telling quote from those not so fond of the life.

Once you’re in a caravan you’ve gone as low as you can go.

With the building of a new housing development, new neighbours give speeches about slums on wheels, hold meetings, speak with all their petty fury about the caravans, and how yes that’s a traditional gypsy camping ground but these aren’t gypsies, they’re scroungers. They throw rocks thrown through caravan windows, firecrackers.

Scenes go from talking about hops, potato picking, enjoying laughter in pub to a caravan set on fire, and dead children. The hatred is shocking.

Cathy and Reg search again. No children allowed anywhere. From caravan they look to a boat. Another good quote:

people tend to deteriorate when they’re living on boat… they turn it into a slum…

And so they yield to the worst — emergency shelter, women and children only. They have to interview for it and again we are face to face with just how horrible the council is as the case worker (or whatever his title might have been) tries to catch them out in lying, to convince them that they don’t want it, that other tenants aren’t very nice. That he can’t accommodate the father, that they have to pay rent for it, that it is only one room. Treats them like dirt.

Nurse sends Reg off at the gates, and you know that this is probably the end for them. Another clinical voice

Many social workers feel that all homeless families are problem families. If they weren’t when they arrive, they are when they leave…

This place is full of even more women and children.

What shocked me, I suppose, was the same old blaming of immigrants for the lack of housing, the same horrible attempts to control the women body and soul, the same treatment of them as less than human. The same program forcing them to abstinence and hunger and the scrubbing of floors on their knees, the same as fucking Margaret Harkness (1854-1923) described in her illuminating investigations of workhouses. It shocked me that so little had changed.

So I was happy to see her get angry, see her talk back to the nurse talking down to all of them. See her snapping at the social workers snidely asking if she’s even married after telling her that her husband has stopped paying for her. Not even a thought to what that means. I was happy, but terrified too, because I knew what that would cost her. Privilege can’t bear to be talked back to. Charity requires humility and submission from its objects, which is perhaps one of the worst things about it. It is the thing I hate most.

I cried as she runs, is caught, is left sitting alone after her children are taken.

I wish that such stories remained in the past. But welcome back to 1966.

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The End of Arthur’s Marriage: Ken Loach

This post is so chock full of spoilers I could not bear for you to read it unless you have seen Ken Loach’s The End of Arthur’s Marriage (1965). Or plan never to see it.

So stop.

Now.

Have you seen it?

Right. It opens with dancing — that funny canned dancing from some 60s television program, and the faces of two old people watching. Prurient, disapproving. It’s rather horrible. And into the script written by poet Christoper Logue, and the poetic chorus sung to a very modern, discordant kind of music. Which was the first surprise.

We are the little investors
We are afraid of Negroes and Jews
We are boring, it is easy to mock us
But what would you put in our place?
… Politicians love us

There’s much more, but I can find the lyrics nowhere, and who has time to transcribe them?

And so we are launched into the story after some nasty comments from the parents, their cross daughter, and the handing over of £400 to Arthur (Ken Jones — briefly in 3 Clear Sundays) with many an admonition. It’s their life savings, it’s the reason they’ve been so miserable all these years, it’s the reason they don’t have nice things, never had a holiday. It’s clear they don’t think much of him, so I had to wonder at why they should do such a thing. It’s some kind of Orwellian test. Father and daughter walk out the door and the camera pans disjointedly over suburban rows of brick houses and endless white window frames, the occasional semi-detached, you can see the subtle class distinctions street by street in the presence or absence of bow windows, the size of the gardens.

The curious greek chorus continues:

We are not very likeable
We are not very easy to like
We work in big cities

They sing of the great lower middle classes. I thought of Erich Fromm writing about how they are the mainstay of fascism, thought of Brexit and xenophobia.

Luckily, a huge brick wall and a door and we escape with Arthur and his daughter Emmy (Maureen Ampleford) into what feels like wilderness, a grass hill, flowers — yet you find out they have escaped into the gas works. A huge hill of slag and earth and they climb to the top.

A funny voiceover (I love these voiceovers, this mixing of documentary and film — a feature of everything I’ve seen so far) describing as a bureaucrat would this problem of a gas works (but not too much of a problem of course). There were Rhubarb fields here once…now just dust and cranes in the distance, industrial buildings. I have a slight fascination with gas works myself, so this has just built onto it another layer.

And so they arrive to stare at their gloomy house. Go inside and pick their way across broken floors, rubbish. Full of dismay. Encounter the agent, encounter a second family wishing to buy. (That’s Arthur on the left staring up).

While the nasty little son is propositioning Emmy and the wife is going on about tearing down walls and saying things like ‘We’re great friends of the Liberal candidate’, her husband pulls Arthur aside:

For god’s sake buy it, I can’t afford it … I buy the Times and read the Express, I’m ashamed of my parents…

The horrible couple get the house! It cuts to crowds cheering!

Neighbours, homeowners, open your ears! …  Many are called but few are chosen…

Lose the house? Arthur and Emmy are overjoyed. The money is burning a hole in his coat and you know his in-laws are right not to trust him. Awful as they were I still felt a pang. But I did quite love his idea of treating his daughter to one impossibly wonderful day. They  take a cab to the west end, walk down Oxford or Regent Street, arrive at Fortnum & Mason’s and OMG THE HATS! Again the old technique of zooming into other people’s conversations and then out again. I love it. Are those gangsters’ wives? They must be. Oh, and I forgot Ken Loach’s own cameo at the entrance.

They wander. I chuckled out loud when the watch salesman burst into song. It was extremely, and I mean extremely, surprising.

They buy a gold watch.

More songs, surprise shot of half-naked indigenous women in their village carrying out everyday tasks. That was a bit worrying really, but over all it is surreal and Brechtian and so while I had expected sadness and depression, instead I was all puzzled smiles. I enjoyed it, I mean, actually enjoyed it.

Still, there were to be honest unhappy couples everywhere. One moral is that happiness is not to be found in monogamy.

They go to the zoo. Police take them aside, walk them through huge space, white walls. But it’s not the wife’s call to the police that’s done it, but a surprise gift as Emmy is the 5-millionth ‘savage’ to visit. There is an absurd and quite wonderful homily on the horribleness of children. Another moral? But the nicest thing about this film is this father and daughter who seem so alien to the crabbed family they have left behind.

It cuts to a naked Adam and Eve running through the woods.

The narrator returns for these scenes, and others cut from a nature documentary, really it’s rather glorious. More songs, and this brilliant line:

that special kind of zoo called paradise

I don’t know quite what that sarcastic line means, but I like it. And then they buy an elephant. Of course. There forms a great parade of bright young things.

Arthur is lovely, absolutely lovely.

So they end up on a barge full of more people dancing, talking, music playing…everything the opposite of the home Arthur is returning to. The elephant disappears…I was very confused about that. I am not alone.

It all goes a little sad then, I guess it had to. Arthur drinks too much, upsets Emmy, throws the rest of the money away to float down the Thames. I was rather cross with him myself. His wife’s packed a suitcase for him and meets him at the door, and Emmy disappears inside. I worry about her, not so much Arthur who tosses the suitcase in the bushes and walks jauntily off.

I did like this film very much. Because it was so strange, because it felt so unpolished. And because it was fun. I did, however, find a great quote from Ken Loach himself, which I shall end this post on:

Yes, I was guilty of that (film). Christopher Logue, who’s a fine poet, had written a very funny, imaginative script, a surreal fantasy with songs by Stanley Myers about a man given some money to pay a deposit on a house and goes off and buys an elephant with his daughter. There were scenes involving the elephant going down a canal on a barge. There was no way I could achieve that. I could see it in my head, but I didn’t have the technique or experience to bring it off. I was the wrong person for the job, unfortunately. It was the first time I had shot anything on film too, and it was a total cock up
— Ken Loach on directing The End of Arthur’s Marriage (as found on Letterboxd)

Life is more than that house, that car, that work and more work endlessly striving for material possessions and life measured in their worth.

But money is really nice.

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From the Lowry to Manchester — A February Canal Walk

We started at the Lowry on Saturday — arriving in Media City. My partner argues it should be pronounced Mediacity, which does better reflect how shiny it is, how empty and windswept yet expensive, how soulless though it has gone a half-hearted length trying for soul. A few families gave it some life, some heart. But it feels alien from the vantage point of the estates that lie near it:

Salford to Manchester Canal Walk

And honestly, how dared they name the outlet mall after one of my favourite painters known for his incredible street scenes full of workers, children, dogs and cats, sympathetic views of all of us with all of our deformities and sadnesses and tired loneliness showing. Against a great backdrop of factories. One of the great painters of the working classes, the misfits, the outcasts. What I found most poignant was that he painted what would soon be lost. Preserved memories of a city being demolished around him. Like St Simon’s church here:

Street Scene (St Simon’s Church)

And now here he is in the ruins of the lively docks. I wish I had seen his pictures in the old Salford Art Gallery. First public library in the whole of the UK. I could see why some were upset when they moved them, though inside the new gallery the space is lovely. But honestly, the mall.

But this post isn’t about Lowry, not this one. (For more on Lowry you should read Mark Bould’s amazing post here.) It’s about some of the landscapes and the factories as they appear now.  Nothing at Mediacity called for a photograph somehow, not even by its ugliness. It’s just bland despite its bling, built for consumption and status. Uncomfortable. Cold.

I love water, and yet the water along these old Salford Quays was nowhere inviting or picturesque until we left the regenerated area behind us. I loved the canal, however, the vibrance of the graffiti down alongside it. The exuberance of colour and character. Educational too, as I learned all about David Icke and his belief that we were being invaded by lizard people from outer space. Then there was the kid who walked past us with a backpack disguised as Captain America’s shield.

Happiness.

But regeneration was everywhere — in the great banks of painfully plain boxy buildings that could be either offices or ‘luxury’ apartments, in the old factories still beautiful and tastefully renovated, but swallowed up by the cheap new build. In the still empty lots strewn with rubbish and the poverty looking even dingier. This regeneration sat strange and isolated alongside the asphalted motorway, the wreckage of earlier decades that tore down neighbourhoods to build roads of great size funneling speeding cars past with a roaring and a coughing of fumes. Much of this walk was experienced as the city planners’ great fuck you to the pedestrian. I wondered who had thought a sign welcoming the driver to Manchester in a desolate traffic circle might be a good idea, especially alongside the changing neon sign that carried advertisements for Sky News followed by a notice in small font that the city was working to end homelessness.

Seems like there are more people sleeping rough every evening I walk through the streets.

Still we found pockets of awesomeness, a sense of the past. A reminder that more existed in life, in our humanity.

Everywhere these contrasts. Click any photo below and it will take you to a slide show…

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Georges Perec on the Uninhabitable

Georges Perec Species of SpaceI just finished Georges Perec, Species of Space and Other Pieces, it is wonderful. What struck me most forcibly was this list he gives of the uninhabitable, as it has struck so many. It is one of the most moving things I have ever read, without quite being able to put my finger on why. It captures somehow capital’s destruction of the earth, its destruction of urban spaces and housing, its carceral geographies. The madness of this world we have somehow created for ourselves. It invokes the misshapen forms that inhabiting the uninhabitable has produced, but in their absence. All this in a list.

I have thus set it apart. To read. To re-read. To return to.

The Uninhabitable

The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad

The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters

The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated

The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors

The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships

The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms

factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds

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Poverty, Quesadillas & Alien Interventions: Juan Pablo Villalobos

Juan Pable Villalobos I loved Si viviéremos en un lugar normal
by Juan Pablo Villalobos, enjoyed again the way that fiction can open up experience of home, patria, poverty, frustration, entrapment, and the inflationary economy in ways that non-fiction cannot. This post tells you a very little of the plot but does kind of involve a spoiler, so be warned.

En los anos ochenta en Lagos de Moreno, un pueblo donde hay mas vacas que personas y mas curas que vacas, una familia mas bien pobre intenta sobreponerse a los estramboticos peligros de vivir en Mexico.

On the amazon.co.uk page, this book is being sold as Quesadillas, rather than If Only We Lived in a Normal Place, and this description from the back is translated as:

It’s the 1980s in Lagos de Moreno – a town where there are more cows than people, and more priests than cows – and a poor family is struggling to get by.

Struggling to get by, yes without doubt, but this translation misses the vital point. I’d say rather ‘trying to overcome the absurd dangers of life in Mexico.’ Possibly bizarre rather than absurd. The rest of the translations are my own and done in a little too much haste, and all faults are mine.

This is, above all, a book about absurdity — of poverty, of politics, of life. The sense of absurdity that emerges from the anger that emerges from this poverty. That gut feeling that it doesn’t make sense pushed to its absurd liberatory conclusions that therefore other absurdities are equally likely to exist. The black humour that resonates so strongly with my favourite approach towards getting through the injustices of life. It is the same kind of humour found in The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi, describing the absurdities of Palestinian life under occupation. I adore the fact that both involve alien interventions from outer space (or do they?) because why not? (I mean honestly, why not?) What is stranger than reality, if not the way everyone ignores the injustices of its strangeness?

I can see, though, why they called the English version Quesadillas — delicious morsels of cheese melted inside a tortilla. For me, this use of quesadillas to explain the experience of the Mexican economy in the 80s is almost nostalgic, because here in the UK they remain a treasured memory as any semblance of the cheese required to make them does not exist here. But my own longings are beside the point.

Entramos en una fase de racionamiento de quesadillas que terminó por radicalizar las posturas políticas de todos los miembros de la familia. Nosotros concíamos muy bien la montaña rusa de la economía nacional a partir del grosor de las quesadillas que nos servía mi madre en casa. Incluso habíamos creado categorías: quesadillas inflacionarias, quesadilla normales, quesadillas devaluación y quesadillas de pobre — citadas en orden de mayor opulencia a mayor mezquindad. Las quesadillas inflacionarias eran gordas para evitar que se pudriera el queso que mi madre había comprado en estado de pánico, ante el anuncio de una nueva subida en los precios de los alimentos y el peligro tangible de que la cuenta del súper pasara de los billones a los trillones de pesos. Las quesadillas normales eran las que comeríamos todos los días si viviéramos en un país normal, pero si fuéramos un país normal no comeríamos quesadillas, por lo cual también las llamábamos quesadillas imposibles. Las quesadillas devaluación perdían sustancia por razones psicológicas, más que económicas, eran las quesadillas de la depresión crónica nacional — y eran las más comunes en casa de mis padres. Finalmente teníamos las quesadillas de pobre, en las que la presencia del queso era literaria: abrías la tortilla y en lugar del queso derretido mi madre había escrito la palabra queso en la superficie de la tortilla. Lo que no habíamos conocido todavía era el chantaje del desabastecimiento quesadillesco. (17-18)

In English:

We entered into a phase of rationing quesadillas that ended by radicalizing the political postures of every member of our family. We knew all too well the roller coaster of our national economy through the thickness of the quesadillas that our mother served to us at home. We had even created categories: inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and the quesadillas of the poor — named in order from greatest opulence to greatest meanness. The inflationary quesadillas were fat to prevent the great amount of cheese from going bad that my mother had bought in a panic, confronting the announcement of another hike in the price of food and the tangible danger that the supermarket bill might go from billions to trillions of pesos. The normal quesadillas were those we would have eaten every day if we had lived in a normal country, but if we had lived in a normal country we wouldn’t be eating quesadillas at all, which is why we also called them impossible quesadillas.  The devaluation quesadillas lost substance for psychological reasons, more than economic ones, they were the quesadillas of a chronic national depression — and they were the most common in the house of my parents. Finally, we had the quesadillas of the poor, in which the presence of cheese was only literary: you opened the tortilla and in the place of melted cheese my mother had written the word cheese on the tortilla’s surface. What we still hadn’t yet come to know was the blackmail of the cheese shortage.

Amazing. That encapsulates much of the humour, the next sentence captures how it hits a little below the belt, and makes it hurt:

A mi hermano no le gustaba ser pobre, pero la pobreza de los peregrinos circundantes no modificaba la nuestra, si acaso nos dejaba clasificados como los menos pobres de ese grupo de pobres, lo cual lo único que demostraba era que siempre se podía ser más y más pobre: ser pobre era un pozo sin fondo. (78)

In English:

My brother hated being poor, but the poverty of the surrounding pilgrims didn’t change our own, even if did allow us to classify ourselves as the least poor among this group of poor people, that only demonstrated that it was always possible to be ever more poor: being poor was a well without bottom.

A well without bottom — that’s what it is, isn’t it. And always you are afraid you have further to fall.

Two brothers are already embarked on picaresque adventures here — in search of their two younger brothers who have disappeared (meaning more quesadillas are available for everyone else). Their adventure involves a fight and a split — they lasted longer than I probably would have with any of my brothers, however. Orestes refuses to believe the story of his older brother that they have been abducted by aliens, (Orestes is our hero, they are all names after Greek figures — Aristóteles, Orestes, Arquíloco, Calímaco, Electra, Cástor y Pólux) and he continues on to the city, works out a con involving a machine with a red button, survives, returns. The unfinished shoebox of a house that he hates stands in the way of the development of a rich neighborhood, and they are evicted brutally, watch it torn down in front of them. It is all managed by their wealthy neighbour who also works inseminating cows — Orestes once went to play there with the son, eat their wealthy food, experience their wealth of possessions, and disdain. At one point he has to apologise to them, work for them, and oh, I burned with him. All these feelings. So familiar. There is, too, that feeling that things just happen to you and you have to react, the adrift feeling of circumstances pushing you here and there because you are not someone with the power or money to stand still, make your own fate.

And then:

Aparece una gigantesca nave interplanetaria…

— No puede ser verdad…

¿Y por qué no?

¿Por qué no, papá?

¿Acaso no viviámos en el país en que vivíamos? ¿No se suponía que nos pasaban cosas fantásticas y maravillosas todo el tiempo? ¿No hablábanos con los muertos ¿No decía todo el mundo que éramos un país surrealista? (180-181)

In English:

A giant interplanetary ship appeared…

— It can’t be true…

And why not?

Why not, papa?

Maybe we don’t live in the country in which we live? Didn’t we all know that fantastic and marvelous things happened to us all the time? Did we not speak with the dead? Did we not tell the whole world that we we were a surrealist country?

All the rules are off, and with clicks of the red button on Orestes’ little machine, the house of their dreams is built there in the field, reality constructed in ways that the poor are never able to construct their own realities:

al final, in the end:

Ésta es nuestra casa
Ésta es mi casa
Ahora intenta tirarla (186)

These are the fighting words, now there is something worth defending and everything is different.

This is our house
This is my house
Now just try and tear it down.

Just try.

But, as always, the victory is terribly fragile.

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Sprawl, Health, and creating better cities through Smart Growth

Urban Sprawl and Public HealthPart 2 on Urban Sprawl and Public Health looks at potential interventions and theories that can help reduce the impact of sprawl (read part 1 here). For authors Howard Frumkin, Lawrence Frank, and Richard Jackson, hope lies in the new strategies being put forth under the terms Smart Growth and New Urbanism, arguing for Smart Growth at least as a public health strategy. I have a lot of issues with New Urbanism and Smart Growth as they are so often removed from issues of equity and spatial justice, but it’s interesting to think of how to rebuild and rework our cities as part of a plan around improving health.

They trace a lineage of people working on the connections between health and cities — Dr. John Henry Rauch (1828-1894) in Chicago arguing for land use policies to improve public health, cemeteries at a remove from dense neighborhoods being one of them. Frederick Law Olmstead, and garden cities. Edwin Chadwick working sanitary regulations, housing standards, public water and sewage systems in the UK, Thomas McKeown at Birmingham, who

showed that many of the health advances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries resulted not from better medical care, but from ‘upstream’ improvements such as better urban infrastructure–better housing, neighborhoods, water, food, and transport. (203)

They also name psychiatrist Leonard Duhl, who has looked at connecting mental health with urban design and community involvement. His ideas have been broadened by physician Trevor Hancock. In 1987, the World Health Organization jumped on the bandwagon, initiating a Healthy Cities Network, which I confess I had never heard of.

There are of course many who could be added to this list, and in the UK at least you have the Marmot Review among others, trying to move health care providers to think more broadly about wellness and how it connects to social and environmental factors.

So…to return to the strategies they promote, we start with Smart Growth. The Environmental Protection Agency itself formed the Smart Growth Network in 1996 together with a number of other nonprofits and governmental organizations. The Networks’ ten Smart growth principles (the whole document ‘Getting to Smart Growth: 100 Policies for Implementation’ can be found here):

1. Mix land uses
2. Take advantage of compact building design
3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
4. Create walkable neighborhoods
5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
7. Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
9. Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective
10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions

The book goes on to give a more elaborate set of principles in full…they’re interesting, so I do the same — the full text can be found here:

Community principles

  1. All planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities containing housing, shops, work places, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to the daily life of the residents.

  2. Community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs and other activities are within easy walking distance of each other.

  3. As many activities as possible should be located within easy walking distance of transit stops.

  4. A community should contain a diversity of housing types to enable citizens from a wide range of economic levels and age groups to live within its boundaries.

  5. Businesses within the community should provide a range of job types for the community’s residents.

  6. The location and character of the community should be consistent with a larger transit network.

  7. The community should have a center focus that combines commercial, civic, cultural and recreational uses.

  8. The community should contain an ample supply of specialized open space in the form of squares, greens and parks whose frequent use is encouraged through placement and design.

  9. Public spaces should be designed to encourage the attention and presence of people at all hours of the day and night.

  10. Each community or cluster of communities should have a well defined edge, such as agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors, permanently protected from development.

  11. Streets, pedestrian paths and bike paths should contribute to a system of fully connected and interesting routes to all destinations. Their design should encourage pedestrian and bicycle use by being small and spatially defined by buildings, trees and lighting; and by discouraging high-speed traffic.

  12. Wherever possible, the natural terrain, drainage, and vegetation of the community should be preserved with superior examples contained within parks or greenbelts.

  13. The community design should help conserve resources and minimize waste.

  14. Communities should provide for the efficient use of water through the use of natural drainage, drought tolerant landscaping and recycling.

  15. The street orientation, the placement of buildings and the use of shading should contribute to the energy efficiency of the community.

Regional Principles

  1. The regional land use planning structure should be integrated within a larger transportation network built around transit rather than freeways.

  2. Regions should be bounded by and provide a continuous system of greenbelt/wildlife corridors to be determined by natural conditions.

  3. Regional institutions and services (government, stadiums, museums, etc.) should be located in the urban core.

  4. Materials and methods of construction should be specific to the region, exhibiting continuity of history and culture and compatibility with the climate to encourage the development of local character and community identity.

Implementation Principles

  1. The general plan should be updated to incorporate the above principles.

  2. Rather than allowing developer-initiated, piecemeal development, local governments should take charge of the planning process. General plans should designate where new growth, infill or redevelopment will be allowed to occur.

  3. Prior to any development, a specific plan should be prepared based on the planning principles. With the adoption of specific plans, complying projects could proceed with minimal delay.

  4. Plans should be developed through an open process and participants in the process should be provided visual models of all planning proposals.

Of course, in years of community work around development, I have never seen anything actually work like this.

The authors look at how this compares/ overlaps with New Urbanism and its principles (see the Congress for the New Urbanism for more…):

walkable neighborhoods, a range of housing choices, a mix of land uses, participatory planning, revitalization of urban neighborhoods (206)

They talk about some of the critiques. They come from wildly different directions…

  1. the public doesn’t want it
  2. it limits consumer choice — it’s a form of coercive social engineering
  3. can exacerbate traffic congestion by creating greater density
  4. smart growth projects are isolated enclaves, not integrated
  5. encourage gentrification (213)

Then go on to look at a public health approach to Smart Growth. It’s a very different perspective though concerned with all of the same things. They begin with constructing a community health assessment — paralleling the medical assessment. One method they believe has great promise is the Health impact Assessment, as a way to measure the health benefits from a Smart Growth approach. Nor is it surprising that many of the potential indicators would be the same as for sustainability — transit ridership, percentage of population living within ten minutes of a park, incidence of asthma, extent of recycling. (217) A few useful checklists exist already that could serve, one is the Built Environment Site Survey Checklist in London (this is news to me, this BESSC).(218)

I like how numerous things are coming together — concerns for the health of individuals and communities and neighbourhoods, issues of sustainability and the health of the land and environment. I think, again, there’s a lot more to think about in terms of equity. People’s own power in the process is always the first thing to go — if it ever was on the table. The cold hard facts of development and politics are not amenable to such things, so progress has been made where it helps certain kinds of development become more marketable. But criticism to come…

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The meaning of home: Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Martín

1143647More poetry from Jimmy Santiago Baca, poetry of place and home. Poetry of labour. What it means to build or rebuild a house that will hold you, that will hold meaning. From Martín:

I gutted the plaster frame house,
nailed, puttied, roofed, plumbed,
poured cement, sheet-rocked, tiled, carpeted,
tore-out, re-set,
piled, burned, cleaned, cemented, installed,
washed and painted,
trimmed, pruned, shoveled, raked,
sawed, hammered, measured, stuccoed,
until,
calloused handed, muscle-firmed, sleek hard bodied,
our small house rose
from a charred, faded gravemarker,
a weather-rotted roost
for junkies and vagrants,

wind, rain, and sun splintered
jagged stories of storms on,
I corrected,
re-wrote upon
this plaster wood tablet,
our own version of love, family and power. (47)

Happiness.

But It burns down, this home. They need someplace to stay. Temporary places that don’t fit. These dislocations I share, so rarely found in books.

From Meditations on the South Valley

VI

Cruising back from 7-11
esta mañana
In my 56’ Chevy truckita,
beat up and rankled
farm truck,
clanking between rows
Of shiny new cars–

“Hey fella! Trees need pruning
and the grass needs trimming!”
A man yelled down to me
from his 3rd-story balcony.

“Sorry, I’m not the gardener,”
I yelled up to him.

Funny how in the Valley
an old truck symbolizes prestige
and in the Heights, poverty.

Worth is determined in the Valley
by age and durability,
and in the Heights, by newness
and impression.

In the Valley,
the atmosphere is soft and worn,
things are passed down.
In the heights,
the air is blistered with glaze
of new cars and new homes.

How many days of my life
I have spent fixing up
rusty broken things,
charging up old batteries,
charging pieces of old batteries,
wiring pieces of odds and ends together!
Ah, those lovely bricks
and sticks I found in the fields
and took home with me
to make flower boxes!
the old cars I’ve worked on
endlessly giving them tune-ups,
changing tires, tracing
electrical shorts,
cursing when I’ve been stranded
between Laguna pueblo and Burque.
It’s the process of making-do,
of the life I’ve lived between
breakdowns and break-ups, that has made life
worth living.

I could not bear a life
with everything perfect. (59-60)

Read a book sometimes, and someone captures just what you been missing in these places you been living.

VII

in the Valley at my house
y parcelita de tierra,
I added, raised, knocked down,
until over months and years,
the place in which I lived
had my own character.
I could look at it and see
myself.

This apartment
reflects a faceless person,
with no future,
no past,
just an emptiness. (61)

I remember the house my dad built, I want to build a poem too — and I am happy these words have been breathed into the world.  A different kind of home.

XXVII

After that, the interior of the house
emanating blue dawn light,
full of gusto in the fresh-timber smelling house,
proud of the 3 bedrooms, hallway, livingroom & kitchen,
my finest poem I thought,
that sheltered me from the rain and wind,
as we worked our way
into doors, staining kickboards, putting doorknobs in,
(fine-tuning the poem),
measuring cabinets, leveling the floors,
shimmying here & there,
spitting & stomping, throwing our tools down in disgust
and huffs of temper,
yelling into the cold mornings
at each other, trying to go on and finish
in six weeks. (97-98)

 

Giszowiec — Housing Polish Miners pt 2

Giszowiec is utterly, completely different from Nikiszowiec, though designed by the same architects and both built in Katowice. I am still quite bewildered that George and Emil Zillmann should build Nikiszowiec in dense quadrangled apartments and Giszowiec after the model of Howard’s garden city. In almost the exact same year — 1907 to 1908.

From the slightly institutional-feeling density of Nikiszowiec (below part of the central square), Macin drove us to the place of his upbringing, Giszowiec (below part of the central park):

Nikiszowiec

Giszowiec

It is almost impossible to photograph Giszowiec, with its curving roads and single and duplexed housing.

Giszowiec

This view from above does it better, I am just sad it is not mine…

CC BY-SA 2.5
CC BY-SA 2.5

Perhaps its lack of photogeneity is why there is not the same impetus to put it on the tourist maps. We are lucky, perhaps, that it survives at all, as more housing was needed and much was torn down to built the high-rise housing that in places looms over the small family homes. They have much charm, these homes, even when run down or under reconstruction:

Giszowiec

Flowers everywhere

Giszowiec

And above them the mine:

Giszowiec

Giszowiec

A German company ran the mine, German engineers held the priviliged positions and also the nicest corner houses sprinkled throughout Giszowiec to maintain some level of integration and control within the community.

A little off the main roads, and sometimes just along one side, you can still see neglect and age:

Giszowiec

But yay Sputnik street

Giszowiec

Cosmic street

Giszowiec

The weird home-made

Giszowiec

We sat outside the restaurant there, part of a large complex of community halls and services along the park that I signally failed to photograph — as I did the bakery and shops, the first place of care specialising in supporting kids with Down Syndrome, the schools, the chess tables and many other things that were built here (just as in Nikiszowiec, yet so very differently) to improve the lives of workers.

I still find it so extraordinary. To improve the lives of workers. I am wondering where the impetus came from to build this housing so well, so permanently, with such support. I am trying to fit these examples into my understandings of the world, and it is hard, but it’s just because I don’t know enough.

Of course, Macin remembers when the pollution was terrible here, when the streets were rougher, grayer, when kids reluctantly did their public service in the park. He tried to explain it wasn’t quite paradise, and we believed him. yet for myself it was a belief of rational mind only. It feels quite different, staring at the lush green park full of services, the neat little houses and allotments and gardens. For workers.

The miners continue to have more power here than ever they did in the US (or the UK) I think, I still haven’t quite got my head around how different it is in the two places. It is as striking as the differences between the strength and politics of dockworkers in the UK and the US. The new government has committed completely to coal, the mines are safer and cleaner than they have ever been, miner’s salaries are twice the median wage. Their influence isn’t entirely (possibly not much at all) for the good. There is a whole complex history here that I know I have only scratched the surface of — the resistance against the communist government seen in Nova Huta (a third strikingly different type of worker housing along utopian lines), rumblings that would help to bring it down. The strikes, and the violent suppressions. On the way back to our hotel, we passed by Wujec Coal mine, where in 1981 the government sent tanks in to suppress the uprising of the union Solidarity.

The crosses commemorate the nine miners killed.

Wujek Coal Mine

A powerful day, to see all of this. So much to think about, come back to. I hope to do more work around mining, and these contrasts feel important.

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Nova Huta: Krakow’s Stalinist ‘Workers’ Paradise’

Nowa-Huta1949Nova Huta was built in a Poland dominated by Stalin to be an exemplar of urban planning, a workers’ paradise.

Some say also to be one-in-the-eye for a literary, intellectual Krakow.

It’s also all about steel. Poland ‘refused’ aid from the U.S. through the Marshall Plan, turning instead to a 1948 economic agreement with the USSR to provide it 1.5-2 million tons of steel per year. In 1949 the site of Nova Huta was decided on, to be built on 11 thousand hectares of rich soil and three villages. I am writing in more passive voice throughout this post, because agency is complex though ultimately I suppose it was mostly about Stalin.  This land was taken, as the book (finally a book in English with more context, even if only a write-up of an exhibition held here in the lovely little museum that used to belong to the scouts, with chapters written by the curators Paweł Jagło and Maria Lempert) states:

sometimes without financial compensation. The investment was realized against the will of inhabitants of the villages near Krakow, who felt deeply harmed by this decision. (17)

This immense steelworks, named after Lenin, started operation on 22 July 1954 using Soviet technology. After 1956, more modern technology in the form of machines designed by Tedeusz Senzimir (American of Polish descent) was brought in. Senzimir — who workers wanted to name the factory after in 1989, and did briefly. Now of course, through the glories of global capital, it is Arcellor-Mittal Poland.

Architecture (Paweł Jagło)

It is curious to me, coming from a country where social housing was always a victory for our people, to read the inner conflict and diffidence in descriptions of this place imposed and in many ways representative of outside oppression despite its positive role in the lives of so many. Interesting how this then folds into architectural and social critiques of such density of worker housing, and the underlying ideals of this kind of utopian planning. Paweł Jagło writes:

‘The winning design, which was a creative comment on the Renaissance idea of the ideal city, was submitted by Tadeusz Ptasycki (1908-1980)… Housing estates designed for 4-5 thousand people were built around public utilities and services like kindergartens, schools, playgrounds and parks. Services (shops etc.) were located on ground floors of residential building by main streets.

Each housing estate became a well-defined self-contained ‘mini-city’ within the bigger urban establishment of Nowa Huta.’ (23)

Look at this model, amazing:

Miasto
General Plan of Nowa Huta, a model, 1957.

The dominant style of that time, force-fed to the people by the Communist regime, was that of Socialist Realism….a historicising mannerism based on the Renaissance and Baroque periods. (23)

nowa-huta-plac-centralny-1950s-01

A view from the central plaza now, though not from the optimum height:

Nova Huta

I am puzzled by some sentences, that again imply that the imposition of style and form was not as simple as it might look, but perhaps is just to ensure that the architects are not let completely off the hook.

Nowa huta’s socialist realist architecture was criticised for ideological reasons. Experts were of the justifiable opinion that architects gave in to the authorities too easily. (28)

Honestly though, it’s quite all right this place, even on a muggy afternoon in the rain. And it is not, after all, all of a sameness. The first estates, built between 1949 and 1951, ‘were designed in the fashion of pre-war working class estates in Warsaw to save time and money.’ Not too long after, the style ‘allowed’ for architecture was expanded:

Another feature of the new style were greater spaces between buildings…as a result, the estates were partly mini-cities and partly gardens.

This place is indeed full of trees, plants, green. Almost more pleasant than the sound of the modernist buildings (like the Swedish building, which we didn’t go see because of the rain) ‘in the Szklane Domy Estate, following the style of Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation of Marseilles.'(25)

I really hate Le Corbusier. He would have been confused about where the servants were supposed to live.

Walking around we found the theatre:

Nova Huta

The cinema (now a Tesco, yay capitalism. Though I won’t deny queues suck and shelves with food you can buy are good things):

Nova Huta

The stylish cafe for workers, where we had a nice meal:

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

We passed men playing chess on the tables provided in the park along the main boulevard, despite the rain:

Nova Huta

The housing — and people who obviously love and care for it as evidenced by their balconies:

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Supposed to hold 100,000 people, the 100,000th person moved in to Nova Huta at the end of 1959.  Yet the steel plant continued to expand and so the housing for the workers expanded also (that at least is refreshing). Four more estates were built in 1968, three others along an old airstrip in the 1970s, and another in the 1980s.

Curiously enough there is mention of gentrification, put forward by a sociologist named Jacek Gądecki, which I am most curious about. But that is to return to later.

Also curious — or not — is the way that Nova Huta became a base for the toppling of Poland’s communist regime. Initially it crystallized around religion.

Defence of the Cross – Paweł Jagło

Jagło writes of the famous incident — called the Defence of the Cross — that began a long history of simmering revolt and rebellion in Nova Huta:

Defence of the Cross in Teatralne housing estate was the first major rebellion of the people of Nowa Huta against communist authorities. (30)

It took place in 1960, after agitation to get their own church (hardly surprising the original development was designed without one, though several were located nearby). Finally promised a church, the bureaucracy back-pedaled and delayed. A cross was placed on the location, but new plans were put forward to build a school instead. As construction crews came to remove the cross, women defended it and thus began days of mass confrontation. The new, amazingly modernist church called the Lord’s Ark was built as a result further down the road, but eventually a church was built here too, and a cross remains as a reminder.

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

Another focus of anger was Lenin’s Statue, put up in Plaz Centralny.

Lenin’s Statue – Paweł Jagło

Marian Konieczny created this quite amazing hulking beetle-browed statue of Lenin (reminding me immensely of Israel Singer’s description of him in The Brothers Ashkenazi), and it was erected on the 100th anniversary of his birth on 20th April, 1970.

ybGyoZx

Lenin lived in Krakow for a few years of his exile, and we had spent some time in his footsteps during our time there. It is full of both irony and tragedy to me that his statue should become a symbol of a regime of very real oppression, a lightening rod for anger and resentment. Nova Huta’s residents both mocked and attempted to destroy it in many creative ways — trying to shoot the head off with a light canon, spraying it with Valerian drops to encourage cats to defecate on statue, placing old rubber boots and a bike in front with a sign reading ‘Here’s some old shoes and a bike, now out of Nowa Huta, take a hike!’ Someone tried to blow it up, succeeding only in damaging one of the legs while blowing out windows all around it and injuring a number of people. Bricks and stones and paint were thrown.

Authorities removed Lenin’s statue on 10th December 1989.

0003PG17ECJQ0T7K-C116-F4

Eventually it was bought by a Swedish millionaire named Big Bengt Erlandsson, who took it to the High Chaparral Theme park in southern Sweden.

A pause here. Because we need one.

Anti-communist opposition – Paweł Jagło

In 1979 a group started the ‘Christian Community of Working People’, who began publishing a samizdat magazine Nova Huta Cross. This was a beginning of the intertwined resistance movements, bringing together Catholicism and trade unionism. There is a look at Solidarity here, which I find fascinating, but necessarily very simplified and brief.

After the beginning strikes at Gdansk shipyard, a strike was called at Nowa Huta and a branch of Solidarity formed. In 1980 they formed the Steelworkers’ Working Committee. I’m sure it did more than bring crosses (all consecrated in the Lord’s Ark Church) and banners into all departments of the Steelworks, but this is what is highlighted here. On 13th December 1981 martial law was introduced, Nowa Huta declared a strike. Three days later the plant was ‘pacified’. (41) Continuing demonstrations through 1982 and 1983 were followed by raids and repressing. Another strike in April 1988 was suppressed, but all of this was part of the build up towards 1989 and regime change. Jagło writes:

‘And so, Nova Huta slowly began to rid herself of the ‘socialist city’ tag. The change of image continues to this day.’ (42)

I am not sure what I make of that.

Myths – Maria Lempert

This is the final section, very brief but quite illuminating I think, in showing the swirls of contention around such a project. :

Myth 1 –Nova Huta built in place of poverty-stricken villages to improve the lives of residents. (They were quite all right thank you)

Myth 2 – it was a ‘socialist godless city’. (They were quite religious and god-fearing thank you)

Myth 3 – the steelworks polluted Krakow and caused depreciation of historic monuments. (There are lots of other factories polluting Krakow, given weather patterns, Nova Huta’s steelworks are mostly polluting Nova Huta)

Myth 4 -the most common and enduring myth of all, wherever you may go:

and the most deeply rooted in the minds of Cracovians is the opinion that Nova Huta was and still is the most dangerous of all of Krakow’s districts, full of social pathology typical of areas populated by the working class. (50)

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There is much more to be explored, I hope I have the chance to do so one day. Particularly as this connects to worker housing elsewhere like the homes built for Katowice’s miners at Nikiszowiec and Giszowiec.

That Poland has gone for Ronald Reagan as a new hero after whom the central should be named perhaps embodies much of what is going wrong now…

Nova Huta

Nova Huta

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