(Originally published in Now Then magazine in May 2010)
I did not grow up within the city limits, but Sheffield has always been the big city in my life, and my memory of urban existence in the Sheffield of the 1970’s was mostly of dark underpasses, concrete bridges, and the stink of cigarette smoke.
I was recently at a meeting where a group of middle-class academics were waxing lyrical about the preservation of Park Hill, but I was the only person in the room who had actually lived there. Park Hill is a travesty that was inspired by the noblest of minds but implemented by the shallowest of pockets. Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965) imagined an elegant vision of idealized communities living in the sky, but his plans included all the amenities of society on every deck. In Park Hill you had to walk a third of a mile to the nearest shop, and when you got there it’s some dismal hillbilly Spar that sold nothing but Slimcea, Silk Cut and Tennant’s Super. You could ride in an elevator with no windows if you didn’t mind breathing in the piss of strangers, and maybe that was ok for me or the trendy artists and students indulging themselves in the conceit of brutalist aesthetics, but not for the old, the infirm or the vulnerable. I’ve been assaulted 3 times in my life and 2 of those occasions were in Park Hill.
It’s hard to avoid the mawkish obsession of Grenville Squires, one of the ex-caretakers of Park Hill, as he is quoted over and over again in documentaries referring to the dismal flat blocks as an old lady who needs a facelift. More like a crack whore who needs a breast reduction.
And now it’s being re-developed. You need only to watch the promotional video that Urban Splash has commissioned for the new, cleaner, greener, trendier Park Hill to see that it is not being redeveloped for the people that were moved out, but for young and good-looking singles and nuclear families with disposable income and no embarrassing disabilities. I wonder which new sink-estate they have been moved on to.
Apart from Squires, the people who campaigned for the preservation of the Tinsley cooling towers are not the local people who grew up in their shadow, but students, academics and middle-class incomers who either did not live here then, or else are well-off enough not to have to travel on buses via the, fortunately now gone, deeply depressing Pond Street bus station.
The same whingers that wanted to preserve the cooling towers would have been the first to complain if a single penny of its upkeep came out of their Council Tax or in any way prevented them from buying their organic penne from Waitrose. So who would pay for it? it might be better to fill in the increasing number of potholes in Sheffield’s crumbling roads before throwing the cash into a post-industrial money-pit. And for what? To commemorate an industrial past that killed and crippled its workers with emphysema, vibration white-finger and deafness? It’s very easy to see the past as rosey if you weren’t there. I didn’t work in the steel mills or the coal mines but I grew up in this area in the 1970’s and I don’t want to go back.
The same people are objecting to the Sevenstone redevelopment of the city centre, but they have not brains enough to understand that commerce is the key to urban regeneration, not the burden of preservation. It matters not whether you want to buy your sweat-shop-manufactured clothes from John Lewis, Primark or TK Maxx, because more business is good for everyone and the smaller, independent and high-quality businesses will gain from the fall-out of a greater foot-fall through the city, even if it is provided by fat corporate thugs demonstrating their weekend-only individuality buying injection-moulded, plastic-fantastic Nikes at £150-a-shot.
I would burn Park Hill to the ground myself if I had the chance. I’d like to press the big red detonation button and collapse its endless, confusing and identical concrete causeways. I’d poke out the jaunty Licorice Allsorts that they’ve shoved into the structure, melt them down and re-cast them into the Lego bricks they were made from. Preservation for its own sake is the privilege of the rich and the listing of such an eyesore is the conceit of English Heritage, who are very nicely accommodated in a townhouse in York. It’s easy to dictate your taste to others when you are not the ones who have to live within sight of its smug ugliness.
Heritage, history and posterity are important but this sentimentality is misguided. We should record it, photograph it, document it, and then raze Park Hill to the ground. What goes around comes around and what goes up must come down.