This picture shows me at home in the block of flats where I used to live: Douglas House, Coventry. It was part of a notorious estate of high-rise flats in an inner-city area called Hillfields and a lot of people certainly questioned my judgement about my decision to accept the flat offer and move there.
I was actually over the moon when I got the flat. It was spacious, bright and airy and not at all damp, which made a huge change. It had a kitchen and bathroom I did not have to share with any unfriendly neighbours or co-tenants, and I was able to decorate the whole place exactly how I pleased. Which I did, and enough to create a little envy from one or two quarters.
From an artistic point of view I liked both the quality of light in the flat and being a little above ground level: A Room With a View. I stayed there for over 6 years and would not have done so if I had not really loved the flat.
In any case, the skyline of those flats had already intrigued me, when making forays into the city from the Warwick University campus. They looked shabby, but did have a strangely Promethean appeal and the idea of having an aerie perched a few feet off the ground was already an intriguing thought.
I had thought the dreams about moving back into Douglas House would stop after buying my current home but they did not, as dreams about wandering through the estate and not being able to recognise the landmarks anymore continued. As I would not, now. They are not there any more.
I moved in partly because the Ballardesquely lurid reputation of the area did perversely attract, have to say (though there wasn't yet any crack dealing), and I knew there was a community of artists living there. And for four or five years, I did indeed get to be part of a lively community of artists, with opportunities to exhibit (along with being involved with an amateur theatre group).
The artist’s group I was involved in consisted in the main of good, true, Working Class Heroes. But whilst possessing the possibly dubious middle-class kudos of possessing a degree, I was pretty well ensnared within the inner-city Medina too. Despite a few entrepreneurial attempts to sell paintings and do a little psychic work beyond its walls, a life of permanent unemployment and an increasingly punitive system for dealing with such recidivist hopeless cases as myself continued to beckon, about as invitingly as the noose waiting for the condemned criminal. At least, the optimism I had originally felt left as the recession deepened in the early 90's and doors beginning to open started to slam shut again, whilst a series of losses both personal and professional began to ensue and my community of friends began to break up. But to begin with - there were a lot of happy memories of developing artistically and enjoying the sense of being amongst artists who really took what they were doing seriously, with and without the dire warnings I had been given about the dangers of the area.
When I first moved into Hillfields, there were task forces of do-gooders who were trying to forge a better sense of community, bring jobs to the area, etc, etc. By the time I left, all this had been forgotten about and it was obvious that the powers-that-be had decided to allow the place to rot. There was overt drug dealing taking place on most floor entrances, the original staff of the Neighbourhood Office whom I had liked had been replaced by people who obviously did not care less about the people who were living in the area. When one of my nice neighbours, a horizontally challenged mother and her brood decided they were going to get Chavvy with me, the Schadenfreude behind the 'I told you so' sentiments' from one or two quarters was writ large,once I had made my decision to move on known, to join two of the now ex-Hillfields artists and theatre group members in Brighton.
Now, apparently, there has been an ambitious new project called the Swanswell Project intent on creating - or maybe, inflicting - A Brave New World of Plenty and Equality to Hillfields once again, where high-rise living clearly seemed to prove to be a horrendous failure as far as creating viable communities went. Most of the flats in the area have been demolished, ostensibly because they were running at a loss to the housing association that owned them, though more likely because someone with influence had decided to build a college in the estate’s place instead. There must have been the promise of a lot of money involved for all these decisions to have been made so quickly behind closed doors....
Douglas House was spared that fate and apparently now, it is being revamped.
It does lead to a lot of mixed feelings, pictures of it over the Net evoking unexpected pangs of homesickness. It was sadder and more upsetting for me that I would have thought to now hear that so many of the flats had been knocked down, even though I gather than a good many tenants had been actively opposed to the proposals and had tried to fight them.
OK, sad stories such as these may well have also been true of the people whose homes had been demolished to make way for these flats that took their place and who had not been given much choice in the matter either.
I remember that there has always a bit of a siege mentality to the estate. The future of the flats had always seemed a little precarious because they had seemed to be so persistently perceived as a symbol of what was pathologically wrong with the whole city. No doubt, killing two birds with one stone was part of the whole Swanswell game plan, too.
I still miss the community that was there when I lived there, before all this went pear-shaped after one tragic event in particular took place. On the other hand, remembering how things changed there, my feeling for the facelift the tenants are getting in the remaining flats is ’They Don’t Deserve it.'
Again, from the present perspective of living abroad in a place that has all the gandeur and beautiful of a capital city, most UK provincial cities make a poor second to that. Whilst I had been maybe unduly attached to both cat and flat in the UK, I had felt restless too, for both more cosmopolitan metropolises and for more distant climes. It is also easy enough to moan on about life as an expat in dealing with all the foibles of a culture that is not my own. I miss the zaniness of 'alternative' England, but I certainly don't miss the 'who are you looking at' violent edge of the country, whether or not to do with inner city or local yokels.
I never felt that there was much wrong with the flats themselves and I wonder if they were not also torn down because of a peculiarly British mistrust of anything approaching 10 floors or more. I don't understand why they were considered to be so ugly - one Hungarian friend I showed photos to of the flats could not see what was so terrible about them and said that they just looked from the pictures to be comfortable and pleasant enough places to live in. However, as someone commented recently yet again, though, there does seem the need for an efficient 'concierge' system if flats like these are to work and on this estate, there never really was. So, I am not convinced that it is about High-Rise living, it is about certain aspects of English culture. Maybe it is all very well building tall flats, but not if there is no infrastructure to support their inhabitants (and I hope this might involve something that is neither to do with cynical bleeding-heart guilt tripping on the part of anti-Tory lobbyists or Blairist interventionalism that just bulldozes - whoops! - all autonomy or the right of individuals to make their own decisions or have their opinions respected about what is good for them).
The ex-Communist block I live in now has 10 storeys and there are four or five times as many of these and in various shapes and sizes in the area, if not more, than there were on the Hillfields estate before they were levelled to the ground. The block I live in now does not have a name – the habit in Hungary is to name streets and metro stations but not houses after famous citizens – so this has a number, not a name, and is also devoid of the fantastically eccentric bat-wings that so idiosyncraticallyembellished the top of the Coventry buildings. The quality of light here is also superb, though the sun can be a lot fiercer here than it was in the UK. As with my flat in Douglas House, the windows face south.
Gotham City this (Rákosfalva) it ain’t. There is no edge here, it is a pretty sleepy area, with a 50's shopping precinct behind my flat that is rather gently dilapidated – no competition to the Big Malls just 10 minutes down the road. There is renovation taking place of some of the flats here too – which are called ’panel ház’ – they get to be covered in polystyrene, then daubed over and done up in pretty pastels, I don’t know how much rewiring etc gets to be done inside. Their renovation is not considered to be an inner-city dilemma, but a national one. There isn't much money in Hungary at the moment.
There are people who let their dogs pee in the lifts where I live now, the plumbing, heating and wiring are shot. It cannot be an easy job for the caretakers here - if they were not here, then quite possibly, things might get to be more than just gently dilapidated here, though the more anti-social habits to be witnessed here tend to be blamed on gypsies (unlike Hillfields, this area is not about mulitcultural diversity).
Yet I still wonder: people do seem to be able to co-exist in estates of flats far bigger than the former one in Hillfields and these places seem to work, and maybe not just due to the practise of having full-time caretakers here. There is not the division between manual workers and blue-collar ones that there was in the UK, for example, there is nothing like the polarisation between haves and have-nots living in flats that there was in the UK. There is therefore none of the stigma attached to living or working in flats such as these as there was in the UK. Most people here appear to be thoroughly law-abiding Magyars however, who will scold me soundly if I do not post my water-meter reading on time, or politely greet my fellow ctizens as normally prescribed.
On the other hand, there certainly aren' t the wild and woolly communities of artists I encountered in Hillfields, either.
Sat, May 10, 2008 - 4:26 PM — permal