Rebuilding Coventry: the Blitz, the building boom and the people left behind

Reconciliation by Josefina de Vasconcellos at Coventry Cathedral, first conceived in the aftermath of the war. Image: Ben Sutherland, CC BY.

It was 75 years ago that the German aerial bombing campaign now known as the Blitz wrought destruction on British cities. Right across the country, from London, to Glasgow, to Bristol, tens of thousands of tonnes of explosives were dropped by the German Luftwaffe.

Coventry – a city in the country’s Midlands – suffered terrible devastation: some 1,236 people were killed during 41 raids. But even before the bombing stopped, city officials took steps to implement an ambitious plan, initially conceived by Donald Gibson in the late 1930s, to transform medieval Coventry.

There were three major priorities for rebuilding: the city centre (which suffered extensive damage), the creation of new housing estates on the edge of the city, and the renewal of the inner city, including Hillfields, which had been a heavy casualty of the war. Gibson’s plan for the reconstruction of Coventry was a modernist vision of pedestrian precincts and tower-block living. A 1945 government-sponsored promotional film, called A City Reborn, announced:

There can be no thinking of returning to the good old days. The days of cramped houses and crippling streets. Of slums still living on in a lingering death from the last century.

Originally the first suburb outside the city walls, Hillfields was a place of hard work and innovation. It was home to Coventry’s ribbon weavers, and later the manufacturers of sewing machines, bicycles, cars and motorbikes, including Humber, Lea Francis and Hillman.

Coventry City Football Club grew from the team at the Singer factory, and played at Highfield Road in Hillfields for 106 years. As the heart of manufacturing in Coventry, Hillfields was an obvious target for German bombs.

A model of the plan for Hillfields' urban regeneration. Image: Coventy City Council.

When the plans for redevelopment were made, it was thought that tower blocks and landscaping would quickly erase the tightly packed rows of Victorian streets and back alleys, completing the process started by the Luftwaffe.

But initially, the efforts to rebuild Coventry were focused on the city centre’s pedestrian precinct, and new estates on the edge of the city. While other parts of the city rose from the rubble of war, Hillfields remained a clearance site, as captured by John Blakemore’s photographs from 1964.

Twenty years after the war ended, Hillfields remained in a terrible condition. Image: John Blakemore, author provided.

Coventry City Council’s 1951 Comprehensive Redevelopment Plan earmarked over half of Hillfields for demolition, but a review in 1966 admitted that “in the immediate post-war period, little could be done in the way of urban renewal, because of more urgent priorities”.

By that time, Hillfields had stagnated. Clearance plans meant that the council, landlords and private owners were reluctant to maintain or improve properties. By the late 1960s, tower blocks rose slowly and uneasily amid Victorian streets, and some plots of land still remained undeveloped, as the post-war planners’ vision of Hillfields faded from view.

By 1970, it was reported that less than half of Hillfields' properties had hot water and an indoor toilet and bath, compared to the average of over 84 per cent across the rest of Coventry. Numerous residents relocated, many to the new housing estates on the edge of the city, as Hillfields’ population dropped by half from its pre-war height of 20,000.

Primrose Hill Street, where tower blocks on the right sit opposite Hillfields' Victorian past, 1970s. Image: Coventry City Council, author provided.

Prosperity declined and Hillfields became home to low-paid immigrants working in public services and insecure factory jobs, and experienced an influx of homeless people, sex workers and drug users. In the middle of Coventry’s post-war boom, Hillfields residents were shut out of the city’s “New Jerusalem”.

Tackling the problems

At the end of the 1960s, the city council and national government belatedly sought to address the problems of areas like Hillfields. Poverty was being “rediscovered” and fears of US-style race riots in British cities led to resources being poured into deprived areas.

The Coventry MP and secretary of state for social security Richard Crossman ensured Hillfields was designated one of 12 Community Development Project (CDP) areas. The CDP team spent five years researching with residents to identify problems and find solutions. The CDP concluded that, while problems lay in the communities, solving them required external “structural” change to promote greater equality in incomes, employment and housing.

In 1979, structural economic change did come, but in the form of Thatcher-era market forces that intensified Hillfields’ problems. Old migrants moved out and newer, poorer ones came in, maintaining the earlier pattern of those with the means abandoning the area.

Yet Hillfields has remained a largely tolerant and socially cohesive area. Area-based regeneration during the New Labour era from 1997 to 2008 created much-needed infrastructure, and enabled civil society organisations such as Working Actively to Change Hillfields (WATCH) to tackle some issues.

Poverty has remained despite interventions, and the continued celebration of market forces has contributed to further economic decline. With the advent of the economic blitz of austerity in 2009, the CDP’s call for “structural” change of the 1970s remains highly relevant today.

However, faced with tightened budgets, the city council’s main planning response is again to reinvigorate the city centre and cut back on its support for communities. Our research has illuminated the lessons from history – now is the time to learn from them.The Conversation

Mick Carpenter is emeritus professor and Benjamin Kyneswood a research fellow at the University of Warwick.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.