Beautifying the rust belt: could urban art help left behind communities?

The Heidelberg Project. Image: Kenn Taylor.

In the wake of Brexit and the US election, there has been renewed attention given to post-industrial areas and the issues faced by such communities. For some parts of the US and the UK, problems caused by industrial decline have been around for 40 or 50 years, long before the rise of China, the EU or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And, as anyone who spends time seriously with the subject will tell you, there are no easy answers or single solutions to such challenges.

So to art. Despite the breathless proclamations of some, art is not a panacea for the post-industrial town, but neither is it a total irrelevance. The creative industries remain a growing sector and a sensible solution to reuse many former industrial spaces that will never see mass production again.

Meanwhile, in some of the residential areas that once drew their lifeblood from such industrial zones, artists, or local communities working with artists, have been using creativity to demonstrate, even make, a future potentially different from top down regeneration or abandonment to decline. The now well-known Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool is one example of this in the UK.

Between Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory I had the opportunity to spend some time at some similar projects in the US. In 1986, in the Black Bottom area of Detroit – a city which perhaps more than any other felt the crushing pressure of industrial decline early on – art student Tyree Guyton decided to paint large bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for decades on Heidelberg Street.

The area had declined rapidly during his lifetime and he wanted to create “something beautiful” in the street. Soon Guyton began to decorate some of the abandoned houses in the street, using reclaimed materials from the neighbourhood. Thirty years later, despite being demolished by the authorities, twice, and suffering arson more than once, the Heidelberg Project is a world-renowned “total work of art”, and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.

Part of the Heidelberg Project.

It’s not so much a celebration of beauty in decay like the infamous “ruin porn” from Detroit, but a sign that there is life and people still here, creativity, culture, even growth.
Chicago coped better than Detroit with the transition to a service economy. At least, some of it.

In Grand Crossing in South Chicago, more than half the residents live below the poverty line. Here, around 10 years ago, artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he had moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 property crash he also bought the neighbouring house. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events in the houses. Gates had seen the West Side Chicago neighbourhood he grew up in demolished and wanted to stop such destruction from happening again in Grand Crossing.

By 2010, Gates had established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation, and had worked with the Chicago Housing Authority to rehabilitate a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects. A few years later Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just one dollar, providing he got the money to restore it.

Dorchester Industries. 

Amongst other things, the bank, now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. More recently the organisation has set up Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists. The Rebuild Foundation places art firmly in the hierarchy of needs of a deprived community. To quote Gates: “Beauty is a basic service.”

There’s a long tradition in art of highlighting urban social problems. Projects such as these differ in using the urban fabric as a medium in itself and working on the regeneration not just of buildings, but of social, cultural and economic life in these areas. Crucial is how these projects have been led by people based in these communities, albeit interacting with international art networks. Such initiatives may have only impacted on relatively small areas – but it is possible they have done more to change life in and perceptions of them than many bigger and more expensive top-down urban redevelopment programmes.

The Stony Island Arts Bank, a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center.

Part of the power of art is its capacity to highlight where we’re going wrong, to tell us things have value that we didn’t realise and point out different ways of looking at the world. Even if projects such as these can’t be reproduced like-for-like elsewhere, they’re not just a reminder to avoid writing off such communities, but more so of their potential – if energy, attention and money are given to them – to create their own future.

Kenn Taylor is an arts project manager and writer with a particular interest in culture, community and the urban environment. His research in the USA was supported by The Art Fund.

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Images: Kenn Taylor.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.