A brief history of Glasgow in 8 columns, part 5: whit a place to live.
In December, a strange phenomenon emerged on my Facebook feed. Photos of roadside ads in London, reading ‘when you realize it’s monthly rent, not weekly’, with the wee Iamsterdam logo that is the city’s main branding at the top. I am aware the housing crisis in London is horrendous, with cupboards going for the prize of a hefty townhouse. Yet I don’t think luring people to Amsterdam will be any solution. While not nearly as bad as in London, getting an affordable place to live is very tough. A group of recently graduated natives from Amsterdam is occupying several empty buildings on the Prince’s Canal at the moment, to show their discontent with the situation. One of these properties had been unoccupied since 2015 while awaiting the request of a license to transform the building in a hotel, others are (as in London) used as investment or constantly rented to tourists via Airbnb.
In Glasgow, the housing crisis isn’t located as much in the price of rent of property but rather in the state of houses. Ever since the population of Glasgow increased rapidly during the industrial revolution and the shortage of adequate housing was raising through the roof, the city has had a problem with dilapidated property that isn’t being taken enough care of. Because of overcrowding, tenements that were fine originally became unsanitary and inhabitable. This led to the development of the infamous Glasgow slums, such as the Gorbals. While the first men stood on the moon, many tenements in Glasgow still didn’t have a toilet. Rather, there was one toilet at the bottom of the close that had to be shared by all families living in the building. And you thought sharing a toilet in Murano was bad. . .
Instead of refurbishing the houses existing already, in the 20th century the council decided to demolish the slums, including historical buildings from the Middle Ages and Victorian times, and build new housing in that place. Imagine what the beautiful stonework or decorations on that destroyed architecture would have looked like, and the beauty they would have added to the city, let alone the historical value. Similarly, many of the tenements that were deemed the worst in the 1960s, were actually refurbished into desirable property in the 1970s and 1980s. What we see now, however, was completely different from what was visible several decades ago, as every building was covered in a layer of black soot from the years and years of industrial pollution.
Another great solution from the council was to move people from basically inhabitable tenements to newly built suburbs such as East Kilbride, Cumbernauld and Livingstone, as well as to high rise tower blocks. In the former, everyone did have their own bathroom yet nothing that made an area enjoyable to live in, such as shops, playgrounds, pubs or community centres. Billy Connolly, who lived in the now-demolished council estate on Kinfauns Drive in Drumchapel, once described the area as ‘a desert with windeas’. Living in one of these new towns meant that you had to travel into the city to do anything. And what happened to the tower blocks is well-known – gone out of fashion and demolished only a few decades after they were built.
That there were things wrong with the city’s 1960s housing policy is obvious now, but it also became more and more apparent in the aftermath of the Great Storm of 1968, that hit Glasgow almost exactly 50 years ago. A storm with hurricane strength unexpectedly thundered up the Clyde, having been forecasted to pass by the west coast of Scotland. Chimneys collapsed through tenements roofs, bricks, roof slates and debris were flying through the streets, trees were torn out of the ground, entire sides of tenements were ripped away. Nine people died in Glasgow, a total of 20 in Scotland. The city looked like a bombsite afterwards. Housing in less prosperous parts of the city was in the worst state, as regular maintenance which could have avoided the worst of the damage wasn’t carried out over years as a result of the rent controls.
Raymond Young, an architect who regenerated the tenements, told the BBC Scotland: ‘The Great Storm was God who was fed up with the city not getting its housing right. He sent a storm to take off the roofs and make you realise the scale of the problem and get on with the job.’ With half of the city covered in green tarpaulin to keep the rain out, often for several years as there were simply not enough slaters to repair the roofs, it exposed that the solution of ‘demolishing homes and building new ones’ was not good enough. Imagine the council continuing with this until there was no historical tenements left!? While I know that tenements still aren’t always in the best condition – too much mould, too many single-glazed windows – they are pretty beautiful place to live, even if the high ceilings mean you can never ever get it to be warm.
Thus, while the storm left Glasgow in ruins, it also inspired a rethink about the city’s tenements. It was clear that buildings were becoming inhabitable due to negligence a lot faster than the city could destroy them and build new ones. In the years after 1968, around £25m was spent to regenerate the city, which included a relatively simple design-solution to ensure every flat in tenement buildings had their own bathroom. That’s why the Great Storm has also been referred to as ‘The Storm That Saved The City.’