Tag Archives: rubble

Shirley Baker: a splendour of community amidst the slum clearances

I loved the Shirley Baker exhibition, found it moving and inspiring both. ‘Women and Children; and Loitering Men’ at the Manchester Art Gallery. Her photographs are vibrant, beautifully composed, full of life, provocative–everything photographs should be–and at the same time her subject is the one closest to my heart: everyday life and working-class community.

From the Manchester Art Gallery Website:

Pioneering British photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career. This exhibition includes previously unseen colour photographs by Baker alongside black and white images and ephemera such as magazine spreads, contact sheets and various sketches. It specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford. This intense period of study, spanning from 1961 – 1981, documents what Baker saw as the needless destruction of working class communities.

This is an exhibition put together by Anna Douglas, first shown in London (of course, already I am feeling this North-South injustice)

For an amateur photographer and an urbanist and with a lifetime devoted to building power and community, these photographs sing. They document this structural period of demolition, the hope of better lives and council housing, the children my god the children everywhere and you love every one of them. Mothers everywhere too (and all my fears of being like that, like them, that joy vanished from them though I know often it is still there and it is my own fear speaking still, it seems visible only in the children and some of the old men).

The old men, the unemployed, the laundry, the cats and the dogs, the hope and despair, beauty and laughter and oppression and a hard working life all painted in black and white and glorious colour.

Maybe I loved most sharing this space with others, it felt like these rooms were filled with unusual suspects for a gallery, and a couple of older men were reminiscing behind me for a while about these days I was staring at captured with such compassion and immediacy it was altogether beautiful.

Some pictures from the website dedicated to her. There was another picture with a cat that was my favourite. I cannot find it. The unexpected heartbreak of denial in an internet age. Reminds me of my own poverty-stricken youth. Nothing like this though.    The kids above — I imagine this was a day that all of them have remembered all their lives. The kids below — those faces too old and wary. I knew so many kids like that, love this country because seems like they are rare now. Nothing sad about this kid though.  There is so little about Shirley Baker and I want to know all of it, devour all of her photographs. The book cost £30 — impossible at the end of the month. The other books from the handful of times her work has been shown all over £100. Luckily there is a website dedicated to her, it states:

Shirley Baker (1932 – 2014) was one of Britain’s most compelling yet underexposed social documentary photographers. Her street photography of the working-class inner-city areas, taken from 1960 until 1981, would come to define her humanist vision.

“It has always astonished me how quickly things can disappear without a trace.”

Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian…. it is her empathetic but unsentimental photographs of inner-city working-class communities in Salford and Manchester as they experienced years of ‘slum’ clearance that has come to define her distinct vision.

“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.” (Shirley Baker, on the slum clearances of inner Manchester and Salford)

Portrait of the photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014), kneeling down to take a picture with her Rolleiflex camera. circa 1980s

Look at these incredible visions of the city and the life that filled it and spilled over it as the face of it was being transformed.

They are incredible, I wanted to see all of them. I wanted to know more of how she thought about them. I loved too, the exhibition’s integration of oral histories from people in these neighbourhoods, though I kind of hate the technology so I didn’t listen to all of them.

I will be patient, I suppose, and wait for more.

In looking for some of my favourite photographs I found this one online, an older Shirley Baker in front of this building I love and have long wondered about as I walk past it all the time on my way home, now a Chinese Restaurant on Plymouth Grove. It’s somehow so warming to think of her here, in my own place.

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Dora Bruder

Dora Bruder -- Patrick ModianoPatrick Modiano has been on my list to read for a while, and this book in particular, partly as I share with so many others that vague fascination for the period of WWII, the fight against fascism, the holocaust. But Dora Bruder is also an exploration of Paris as palimpsest that I loved, almost a documentary account of Modiano’s investigating and unraveling of the story of a young woman who had run away from her home in the same tangles of streets he had been familiar with for much of his life…

From day to day, with the passage of time, I find, perspectives become blurred, one winter merging with into another. That of 1965 and that of 1942.

In 1965, I knew nothing of Dora Bruder. But now, thirty years on, it seems to me that those long waits in the cafes at the Ornano crossroads, those unvarying itineraries–the Rue du Mont-Cernis to me back to some hotel on the Butte Montmartre: the Roma or the Alsina or the Terrass, Rue Caulaincourt–and the fleeting impressions I have retained: snatches of conversation heard on a spring evening, beneath the trees in the Square Cilgnancourt, and again, in winter, on the way down to Simplon and the Boulevard Ornano, all that was not simply due to chance. Perhaps, though not yet fully aware of it, I was following the traces of Dora Bruder and her parents. Already, below the surface, they were there. (6)

For Modiano there are memories of an old photographer, a street market, a girlfriend’s house and waits in cafes, the street deserted and riot police at each crossroads in May 1958 because ‘the situation in Algeria’ (4). I am caught up by such casual references, still struggling to understand just what the legacy of France’s crimes in Algeria has been, and how it has been experienced.

Modiano mentions Les Miserables, the flight of Jean Valjean and cosette across Paris, past the Jardins de Plantes, crossing the bridge and Pont d’Austerlitz:

And suddenly, you have a sensation of vertigo, as if Cosette and Jean Valjean, to escape Javert and the police, have taken a leap into space: thus far, they have been following real Paris streets,, and now, abruptly, Victor Huge thrusts them into the imaginary district of Paris that he calls the Petit Picpus. It is the same sense of strangeness that overcomes you when you find yourself walking through an unfamiliar district in a dream. On waking, you realise, little by little, that the pattern of its streets had overlaid the one with which, in daytime, you are familiar. (41)

But the convent these two literary figures find refuge in is very similar, almost exactly despite its imaginary geography, to the Saint-Coeur-de-Marie school where Dora was a boarder.

She is put there for safety and never registered as a Jew, but runs away, keeps running away. Comes home and the off she runs again. Why does she run? I like that this book never pretends to know, and we are left with the traces of her life that he could find to invent our own histories and ask our own questions. I like how it names streets, painstakingly collects the track record of documents, transfer orders. Addresses carefully noted. The banal bureaucracies of institutional evil all carefully documented. Dora Bruder runs, but not far enough, not fast enough to escape the Nazis and death in Auschwitz.

And then there is the post war reconstruction, whole areas pulled down, whole blocks left rubble alongside houses and churches still standing. So this joins my collection of rubble books, like Vauxhall, like The Chicago Coast. I confess I am looking for them now. Here it is as much to erase the city’s own crime as recognised by the world, as to erase the unrecognised crimes of poverty and injustice.

They have obliterated everything in order to build a sort of Swiss village in order that nobody, ever again, would question its neutrality.

The patches of wallpaper that I had seen thirty years ago in the Rue des Jardins-Saint-Paul were remnants of former rooms–rooms that had been home to young people of Dora’s age until the day when the police had come for them in July 1942. The list of their names is always associated with the same streets. And the street names and house numbers no longer correspond to anything at all. (113)

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Gabriel Gbadamosi’s Vauxhall

Gabriel Gbadamosi VauxhallI quite loved Gabriel Gbadamosi’s coming-of-age novel, a little boy figuring out his place in his family, his school, and his city as the son of an Irish mother and Nigerian dad. Culture and the racism provoked by the colour of your skin, homelessness and addiction, violent death, the embarrassing things that you do as a child because you just don’t know much…

I bought this after doing a walking tour of Vauxhall with Gabriel Gbadamosi (you too should buy it). So I knew I would love it, and recognise some of the stories — it did take me too long to get to this book. I’ve been watching a lot of Trümmerfilm or rubble films, (like The Third Man (Reed 1949), and Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949)), and then reading Stuart Dybek on the tearing down of his Chicago neighborhood after declaring it ‘blighted’ and remembering Marshall Berman describing the Bronx and my many years of struggle in LA and the stories I heard from urban renewal’s heyday.

It struck me how urban renewal resulted in the same kinds of landscapes as WWII, and it struck me that exploring that would be a really good little article. Bombs and war are a different level of violence and terror and death, why then do we recreate its landscapes for profit? It might capture a little of my ever renewed store of fury over people being forced from homes they love and have invested in. I remembered this book, and it did indeed have both bomb damage and the council’s slum-clearing damage and underlined that this losing of home, especially as a child, is something you never quite get over.

How many thousands of children are experiencing this at the moment, because we are bombing them…it breaks my heart. I wish I believed an article would stop bombs and urban renewal and evictions, but it can’t be bad for people to feel these things, get a sense of how they might connect.

So from Vauxhall — first there is growing up where bomb damage is taken for granted:

Brian was pulling back the corrugated iron on the bombsite that was blocked off round by the pub. We didn’t play in there because it was dangerous and could fall in on top of you. (64)

‘Lucky it wasn’t a bomb,’ Brian said, and shrugged.
‘A bomb?’
‘It’s a bomb site.’
It took a while to sink in. A bombsite was a playground, a rough place you could play in between the houses — when you could get in past the corrugated iron. I didn’t know it was the place where a bomb fell. No one told me there was a bomb under there. Until it burst in my head, and the ground went out under my feet. (69)

The feeling of the landscape as more houses begin to come down one by one (This row of houses is just where Vauxhall Park is now, and you would never know it):

It was half dark, the light was going. We looked round at the rubble of broken bricks from the house that wasn’t there any more, at the gaping hole that was full of rubbish people had thrown out. The empty space between the walls had tall weeds growing up into it. We were on our own. (87)

What it is like to lose your neighbours, your best friends:

After I while I passed his house and it was like only I knew anyone ever lived there. It was like a bomb had hit it and everyone had gone, and it was just the walls standing. It was dark and it felt dead, but I still had to get up and walk past it on my way to school and come back, past all the bomb sites where people used to live but no one knew who they were any more. (93)

I’m just going to slip this one quote in here, this specific non-rubble related quote, because I love this bit just as I would have run down always to the Thames….

Everyone told us not to go down by the Thames. Manus said the scaly fish wrapped round the lamp posts would come alive if the water splashed them, they were dredged up from the bottom, that’s why they were black. They had open eyes and fleshy mouths that dripped and glistened in the rain…
‘Dont go down to the river.’
‘All right, Mum.’
The way down was dank and slippery, and I was always down there where it opened on to a bend in the river…Everyone said don’t go, but there river pulled you. (145)

And so to end with this…the whys and the how-it-feels and the anger and the resignation, and a very creepy echo of my own thinking before reading this book that the results of urban renewal and bombing aren’t all that different:

It was like the houses had been eaten from the inside. they just had the wall of them facing the street with the sky through the windows. And then they knocked that down.
‘Like a bomb hit it,’ a man said, passing by in the street as my dad was locking the front door. My mum was beside me putting her coat on and looking up at the flattened houses — you could see through to the back of the school playground. Bits of brick wall were standing, but the houses just weren’t there any more. And they’d knocked down the first two houses on the corner of our street next to the bomb site.
‘The council,’ my dad said over his shoulder.
‘Why?’ The man paused on his way and shook his head, ‘Because the got outside loos?’
My dad shrugged, putting the keys in his pocket, ‘They want the land. Big Ben is just there.’
‘We’re being slum cleared,’ Manus said. (205)

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Nottingham’s Caves and Reconstruction of Communities

Nottingham was our last stop on those glorious summer days in the Peak District, and a fascinating one. I didn’t know it was a city of caves, built over sandstone that human beings have been tunneling out for centuries.

We attempted a derive of underground Nottingham. It involved much suffering, especially by my partner Mark who can’t abide tours led by ‘characters’. I hate them too, but for me being underground offset that — though for the record, I thought we’d be able to do them without a tour leader in costume and was proved dreadfully wrong.

The 450+ caves underneath the city do not appear to be things that city bureaucrats and planners cared about at all until recently unless it was to seal them up and stamp them out — sometimes I wonder how it’s possible that people with such power view awesomeness as a liability. Until I read Le Corbusier. This church survived, but with the indignity of corporate identity and its reinvented nature as a Pitcher&Piano chain pub plastered all over it.

Nottingham Trip

Planners tore down all the old narrow streets with their twisting and interconnecting cellars, and built scenic car parking, with ‘local colour’ added through its naming in a most disheartening way (poor Maid Marian):

Nottingham Trip

They also plunked down Broadmarsh Shopping Centre on top of them. The best tour (that we had time to find and embark on) of the caves has to be accessed through the shopping centre itself, with more care gone into warning you of stick figures in peril than the wonders beneath that might distract you from Top Shop:

Nottingham Trip

I thought, actually, the characters in costume were pretty good for what they were asked to do — I finally understand how tanning works! I personally prefer straight exposition, but I didn’t mind the acting. The tannery carved out of the rocks several hundred years ago once looked out onto running water — human beings have transformed this section of the landscape with immense thoroughness, and with a rather jaw-dropping destructiveness once you realize what has been lost. The caves were still eerie and wonderful, despite our being part of a large group of people tramping through in hard-hats

Nottingham Trip

The very poor lived in them — at much risk to health and life expectancy:

Nottingham Trip

They were used as cellars and storage rooms and hiding places and escape routes and gambling and drinking dens:

Nottingham TripDuring WWII people escaped the bombs in them. I wanted more, so I decided we would brave the prison on our save-money-by-visiting-both-attractions tickets — a terrible mistake. They did try to make horrific injustices and horrible punishments a little less horrible, but the gibbet is there hanging. They just weren’t sure whether this needed to be an indictment of past (and present) barbarities and solidarity with its victims (my strong feeling), or a house of horrors, or a curiosity box of punishments with some celebration of law thrown in.

Nottingham Trip

There’s a statue of a woman being burned to death complete with fake fire, a celebration of changing prison guard uniforms alongside a most heartbreaking procession of punishments for crimes of hunger and poverty, and reminders of just how many were transported to other countries both to cement the power of Empire and to rid England of the troublesome poor the wealthy had no use for, especially the ones that did not just die quietly of cold and starvation.

Nottingham Trip

If I were not heartbroken enough, here the caves were things of horror, holding felons (remembering that god these were some unjust laws in a system of complete injustice) and people imprisoned for debt. These were the only caves I would love to see blown into tiny pieces, along with this prison.

Perhaps as an attempt to lighten the horror of all we were seeing, was they had recreated Drury Hill. A city nerd’s dream come true. Having destroyed this neighbourhood of history and character and community developed over a whole lot of hard years (from whence also came most of the desperate poor came who were sent of to America, Australia), they rebuilt a cardboard and mirror version for our enjoyment. We wandered through it:

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

We walked past ghosts

Nottingham Trip

This was such a strange version of the modern urge to recreate the material past that people in power have destroyed and that now fascinates us, but in a sanitised and safe way. A belated recognition of what gives a city its character and why people love it. A nod to tourists, but I imagine this is one of the museums every child growing up in Nottingham is brought to see and in some ways is forming ideas of what Nottingham was and is now.

In most ways I prefer this version to Disneyland’s fake high streets, because there is no way you can pretend that this ever was or is real. This is perhaps as good as such things get, its absolute fakeness was still extensive enough that an old couple had some trouble finding their way out, and it is both interesting and disturbing — which this kind of exhibit should be, with a splash of Roger Rabbit’s toon town thrown in. Here is a taste of what was here before:

Nottingham

Nottingham

These pictures are from a forum in which people remember what was and shake their fists at the planners who destroyed it all, as they do in cities around the world where what people most love and remember has been torn down in the name of progress. I have no love of the dirt, disease and misery that once filled some of these streets, but surely we were capable of transforming them into decent housing for the people who lived there. I love that curve of businesses and homes up the hill, and mourn its loss alongside those who lost their homes and livelihoods — I know well that you are never the same again after those things are torn from you, torn down.

City planners never really cared about that, which was always part of the problem. Empathy could have gone a long way to save what was best in our cities. Instead poverty was dispersed, and the earth flattened (a bit) and all the cold barrenness of malls and parking garages put in their place. The hospital where my mum was once a student nurse now turned into luxury flats. A few memories remain in the midst of profit’s rush to reshape a city for its needs.

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

The castle is also preserved, along with the castle caves and Mortimer’s hole. More costumed characters leading tours and telling gruesome stories and too many people on the tour with you. But these caves are really cool.

Nottingham Trip

Really, the way to enjoy old and underground Nottingham is through its pubs. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is of course the most famous, and the place my mum most remembered from her time there. It was immensely awesome and also very busy. We also made it to the Hand and Heart.

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

It’s a fascinating city, really. One fighting to create employment for its survival and believing development will do that also, and I know the shopping centre is as much a part of that as these rather forlorn attempts to turn empty store fronts into something positive:

20150829_155618-2

Byron lived here, Charles I planted a standard several hundred years ago to ‘start’ the civil war (I think the roundheads did that really) — the plaques marking this occasion are many and cover a fairly large area that you realise was once a hilltop. I bought a book on the caves I have yet to read, and which charmingly has pictures of most of the caves with a woman I assume is the author’s wife in each of them — wearing a stunning array of clothes and hairstyles. The pubs were many and old — they seem to have survived much better here than other places. There is more potential in some ways for a city like this to reinvent itself from the bottom up, unlike London where money floods in from top down forcing anything interesting and creative out or coopting and destroying it. The moral is, more power in reimagining and recreating the city to more people. So I will end on my favourite sign and a slide show:

Nottingham Trip

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