Earlier this week, the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee scrapped their plans to demolish the Red Road Flats as part of the Opening Ceremony at this Summer’s Commonwealth Games, citing ‘safety and security concerns’.
The Red Road flats were once Europe’s tallest residential tower blocks, and the programme of demolition and development, which has been on-going for the last few years, has been the subject of numerous heritage, arts and museum projects in recent years:
In March, it was announced that 5 blocks would be blown up as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, which is being held in Glasgow in July 2014. The demolition would be streamed live to the Commonwealth Arena at Celtic Park, and broadcast to (a hopefully estimated) ‘one billion TV viewers’. The Commonwealth Games organisers believed that this event would be “an unforgettable statement of how Glasgow is confidently embracing the future”.
A spokesperson for Glasgow City Council went on; “Red Road has an iconic place in Glasgow’s history, having been the home to thousands of families and dominating the City’s skyline for decades. Their demolition will all but mark the end of high-rise living in the area and is symbolic of the changing face of Glasgow”. Criticism of the projected demolition event was as swift as it was sharp. It was also very local in origin and action. As one resident and writer/comedian commented; “the north of the City has had no real involvement with the Commonwealth Games – until they decided to blow up our buildings as entertainment”. It seems to me, therefore, that this week’s announcement that the demolition of peoples’ homes as a form of public entertainment was to be scrapped is to be welcomed.
A great deal can be said, of course, about the vagaries of ‘creative destruction’ and the forces of Neoliberal economics at play in all this, but this is also an event in which issues of heritage play a central role. It is interesting that by invoking a particular image of the past as a prompt for a ‘bright and better future’, the initial plans for the demolition drew heavily on notions of place-heritage: David Zolkwer of the 2014 Organising Committee said that the demolition would be a “bold and confident statement. […] By sharing the blow down with the rest of the world, I hope it will be seen as the noble, respectful and celebratory send-off that it is intended to be”. In other words, this episode was intended to be a sort of ‘live heritage performance piece’.
In many ways, however, such official plans have demonstrated just how wilfully ignorant such professional development corporations can be when it comes to understanding ‘heritage’ – not as a development industry, but as a community focussed and experienced process. It seems that the last people to be notified of the ‘celebration’ were the local residents themselves: the communities, their lives, and their experiences were all largely ignored. The scrapping of this slightly preposterous gambit of developer and city marketing hubris can be seen, therefore, as a triumph of ‘small heritage’ over instrumentalist development and Authorised Heritage Discourse. Rather than the narrative of ‘Glasgow: the competitive city within the new global economy’, we have a Glasgow where ordinary people experience life, and have memories, as well as hopes and dreams.
Of course, there is also a Glasgow-based ‘heritage’ of such city-boosterist tendencies. Back in 1990, Glasgow was the European Capital of Culture. Alongside this ‘shop-window’ centre piece, the city was also subjected to a sustained period of ‘regeneration’ under the branding tagline Glasgow’s Miles Better. Millions of pounds were spent on turning the ‘Tron’ into the ‘Merchant City’, as deprived areas were cleared and up-market shops and services pulled in. Glasgow became almost a by-word and blueprint for how large European Cities could redevelop along Neoliberal lines. Many local people were ignored and swept aside – and it doesn’t seem that much has been learned in the intervening quarter of a century!
Although he is talking about early Modern Gloucestershire, I feel David Rollison’s (1992: 73) comment about the ‘turning of land into property’ has a great deal of resonance when it comes to understanding the relationship between heritage and large-scale urban redevelopment activities:
“Turning land into property [can] be done in one or both of two ways. First it [can] be done by turning its people off, as occurred in some 16th century enclosures and in ,say, the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. But it [can] also be done just as effectively by changing the physical face of the land, eradicating (in one or two generations) many of the signs of the old culture, and making it difficult for people to imagine a time when the land was anything other than a commodity to be converted into cash. The massive manipulations and transformations of landscape that have resulted from the spread of capitalist values destroyed human memory”
Rollison, D. (1992) The Local Origins of Modern Society: Gloucestershire 1500-1800 (Routledge; London).