Commonwealth City: Challenging or reinforcing stereotypes of Glasgow’s East End?

Lisa Whittaker and Susan Batchelor

In May 2014 BBC Scotland aired a documentary called Commonwealth City. This three-part series highlighted the impact of the Commonwealth Games on communities in the East End of Glasgow. Stephen Bennett, a Bafta-award winning film-maker, spent five years charting the experiences of people living in Dalmarnock, a community with a proud industrial history, where multi-storey flats and other homes have been demolished to make way for the Athletes’ Village and other Games-related infrastructure. The programme asked: What happens to an East End community when Scotland’s biggest ever sporting event comes to town?

Figure 1: Map of Glasgow East End

Games map

As a research team, we were interested to watch Commonwealth City because the Games are very much part of the social landscape within which we are conducting the (Re)Imagining Youth study, exploring how young people in and around Dennistoun spend their free time. When Glasgow’s victory in securing the event was announced, the Games were acclaimed as a long-awaited catalyst for regeneration of the much maligned East End of the city; an area that suffers from some of the highest levels of deprivation and unemployment in the UK, and where life expectancy is five years below the Scottish average (The Guardian). Given the tendency of media representation to individualise, stigmatise and responsibilise those experiencing poverty, it is fair to say that we approached the series with some trepidation. The East End of Glasgow has a long association with social deprivation, with the decline in manufacturing industry resulting in long-term unemployment and poverty. Though there has been significant regeneration over the past three decades, a number of wards in the area fall within the 5% most deprived in Scotland.

Demolition and displacement

Lots of issues were covered within Commonwealth City, but one of the most prominent was the mass demolition of Dalmarnock and resulting displacement of its population. Mega events such as the Olympic Games and the World Cup are renowned for threatening the housing rights of poor and minority peoples, often resulting in forced evictions and resettlement in the name of regeneration. This in turn brings about the destruction of local (working-class) culture and causes deprivation to penetrate deeper into the fabric of the community (Paton 2010). A key strength of the Commonwealth City series, from our point of view, was the attention paid to both the structural and personal aspects of regeneration. That is to say, the programme acknowledged the long-term economic decline and deindustrialisation of Dalmarnock as well as delineating the human costs associated with more recent restructuring.

Instead of impacting positively on members of the local community, the regeneration of Dalmarnock has thus far exacerbated existing social problems, further marginalising the poor and the vulnerable. The first impact was the demolition of existing housing, which is mainly public, and the displacement caused. Over a thousand people in low-income housing have been evicted and re-housed in the area since demolition began in 2000 (Glasgow Guardian). Commonwealth City focuses on the experience of one local resident, Margaret Jaconelli, who refused to move from her home of 35 years (in Ardenlea Street, Dalmarnock). During the programme Margaret talked about her eight-year battle to stay in the property she owned and the community she loved, before moving and dramatic scenes depictedher eventual eviction. As Sheriff Officers battered through the barricades Margaret and her husband, Jack, had erected, Jack can be heard shouting: “All this so arseholes can run about in shorts for two weeks!”

Figure 2: Margaret and Jack Jaconelli speaking to the media from their home in Ardenlea Street

Margaret and Jack

The Jaconelli’s home was the last occupied flat in their street before works began. Glasgow City Council imposed a compulsory purchase order on the property in 2011, allowing the local authority to seize the house and subsequently knock it down. Speaking to various media about the programme prior to airing, Margaret said: “It is shocking and so it should be. The trauma of being thrown out of our home will never leave us” (The Scotsman); “I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life, I have nightmares and visions about it, it’s unbelievable” (BBC News). Unlike many of her former neighbours, who rented their properties from the local authority, and were therefore eligible for rehousing in new social housing within Dalmarnock, Margaret was unable to secure a new home in the area due to the rising housing prices caused by Games-related gentrification.

Resilience and resistance

Another key theme – and strength – of Commonwealth City was the strong sense of community depicted. Local Dalmarnock residents have demonstrated remarkable resilience in dealing with the on-going challenges posed by pre-Games regeneration. In 2007, local residents celebrated the news that Glasgow had won their bid to host the Games in the local community centre. Few would have predicted that the very same centre would be demolished six years later to make way for a Games coach park, a move that was vigorously resisted by community members.

Figure 3: East End Carers protesting the demolition of the Accord Day Care Centre

Dalmarnock carers

Games-related lack of local amenities has been a major and on-going concern. In the words of Dalmarnock play worker, Robert Kennedy, ‘This place has had its heart ripped out … We used to have a cafe and a chemist, two newsagents and a chip shop, but all that’s been flattened. They took away our high street, leaving us without any amenities for the last three years, and what have we got to show for it? A “transport hub”’ (The Guardian). More recently residents have had to contend with road closures and parking restrictions and the installation of bollards and eight-foot high security barriers outside their homes. In May 2014, 350 East Enders attended a public meeting at the Emirates Arena to voice their concerns to Glasgow City Council and Games officials. They demanded compensation for disruption and noise during the construction process, parking restrictions and the impact on homes.

Stereotypes and storylines

While there was much to commend the programme on, particularly its attention to community spirit and resistance in the East end of Glasgow instead of the usual media emphasis on individual inadequacy and apathy, we were left frustrated about the reliance on stereotypical images of poverty and the nice tidy ending provided to the storyline. Much of the visual imagery depicted cramped, cluttered and claustrophobic living spaces and run-down areas with people hanging about during the day and drinking on the streets. These stereotypical representations of poverty were in stark contrast to the representation of Glasgow’s affluent West End, depicted via one young resident’s trips to private school and piano lessons after her father received compensation for three shops that were demolished. The inferences to be drawn from such stereotypes are subtle and powerful. Those experiencing poverty are depicted as an underproductive group, distinct from and contrasted with mainstream society. Clutter and community disorder signify an inability to manage lack of space; that is, a deficit of cultural as well as economic capital. The solutions to poverty are presented as self-improvement through formal education. Given the title of the programme, i.e. Commonwealth *City*, more could (should?) have been done to represent the heterogeneity of Glasgow’s population, engaging with a wider set of social groups. As one of us has blogged previously, the East End is not a homogenous place. The programme could have, for example, made reference the Commonwealth-funded East End Social, a community-engagement music project led by Bridgeton-based music label Chemikal Underground. Recent events have attracted a range communities from across the city, and appear to have particularly engaged the East End’s student, artist and ‘emergent service worker’ population.

At the close of the series, Commonwealth City ends (in true BBC documentary fashion) on a positive note with the announcement of The Dalmarnock Legacy Hub, a new social recreational and educational centre to be built following a £1.25m grant from the Big Lottery Fund and £3m of funding from the Scottish Government. This tied the narrative arc up too tidily for our liking, giving the audience a sense of closure rather than leaving them uncomfortable or unsettled about the displacement and disruption taking place in Dalmarnock. We were personally left feeling like compassionate spectators of other people’s problems, somehow part of the solution because we had watched and cared. A more daring documentary would have produced a more active audience, connecting us with the people and places portrayed and pushing us towards engagement and action.

Useful Links

Clips from Commonwealth City can be viewed on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b044ywq8/clips

To find out more about the everyday impact of the Games on local residents in the East End, check out the new project, ‘Beyond Stigma’, being conducted by Gerry Mooney, Vicki McCall and Kirsteen Paton: http://glasgoweastender.wordpress.com/

Explore the history of (mis)representing poverty with the Open University

 

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One thought on “Commonwealth City: Challenging or reinforcing stereotypes of Glasgow’s East End?

  1. Pingback: Commonwealth City: Challenging or reinforcing stereotypes of Glasgow’s East End? | (Re)Imagining Youth | macduffstreet

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