Park Hill, Sheffield

All the things we saw: everyone on Park Hill came in unison at 4.13 AM and the whole block fell down

– Pulp, Sheffield: Sex City

My last memory of Sheffield was walking along West Street listening to Richard Hawley. Side streets falling back down one of the city’s seven hills gave me dramatic views of the countryside surrounding the city, and I fell in love. I vowed to return soon.

Nine years later, I was back, with a particular brief to gawp at buildings. We found the brutalist electricity substation while looking for our hotel (indeed: my companion hoped it *was* our hotel).

We walked down past the demolished Castle Market, where Jarvis Cocker worked at a fish counter and Owen Hatherley took delight in beautiful unchanging cafés. All gone now.

We climbed to the top of an underused multi-storey car park, and luxuriated in the view, and took the opportunity to fly a 50p model plane.

We saw a lot of spoons made from Sheffield steel.

But very much the star of the show was Park Hill. Love it, loathe it; you certainly can’t ignore it. With Kelvin now a fading, deep-fried memory, its survival and gradual overhaul should probably be celebrated, even though it’s impossible not to have deep reservations about the regeneration project.

But we’ll come to that.

Our first visit was on Saturday evening, heading across an unlit murderer’s bridge across the railway bridge and up through a new park. Looking back, the whole city was our jewellery box. Sheffield’s topography lends itself to dramatic aspects, and the Park Hill estate takes full advantage.

Much of it is boarded up and bereft, with a mere handful – we counted at least eight – of flats still occupied. We joined one of the famous ‘streets in the sky’ at the top of the hill, where the complex was only two storeys high. The rises to thirteen storeys at its height, as the hill falls away beneath it.

Walking through the still sporadically occupied section – one resident came out on crutches as we were guilelessly lingering outside his front door, and said hello. Following him along the walkway, we eventually came to one of the central blocks.

We watched it from the walkway bridge – now distinctly higher up from the ground than where we started – and took in the atmosphere. Which was, to say, silent and brooding. It was utterly deserted.

Unable to continue along the walkway to the empty block. We headed down the steps, out through a car park and down to the refurbished, occupied block, as owned and marketed by Urban Splash. We couldn’t get in, so instead wandered around its base, checking out the aluminium panels (yucky orange and reds, giving it a cheap and tacky aspect) and the ‘will you marry me’ graffiti, now immortalised in neon.

We were skulking around, seeing if there was another way in, a resident carrying a bag of shopping asked if we were lost and needed help. How kind. Her London equivalent would probably have called the police.

“Oh no, we’re just looking. We’re architecture nerds,” I said, by way of explanation.

So we asked what it was like living in Nu Park Hill.

“I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it, but it’s a lot of work – there’s quite a few teething problems,” she said. “Things keep breaking, but you put up with it. You feel loyal to it. I probably wouldn’t have put up with it if I’d bought somewhere else.”

“And my view is great.”

I was tempted to ask her to let us in for a look round, but felt this was probably too cheeky for 9pm on a Saturday night.

By now, you’ve probably noticed that a vast social housing project, once feted and then left to go to seed, is now being sold off as a ‘mixed development.’ It’s impossible to visit without getting angry at how we’ve come to this point, where councils feel the only way they can build any new social housing at all is to sell the majority to private developers. There will be a small percentage of ‘affordable’ and, one assumes, social rents in the new development. But it won’t go very far to house those who have been and will be displaced.

As Hatherley writes in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain:

Park Hill went from the product of a policy of slum clearance to one of slum creation, as its inhabitants are decamped to the already heaving waiting list. Park Hill will lose around nine hundred council flats, with roughly three hundred being run by a Housing Association, sixty of which will be for shared ownership. Six hundred will be sold on the open market.

Park Hill looms over Sheffield as a reminder of the past, a social contract and a welfare state that is in danger of becoming a folk memory. It’s the future it points to that worries me.

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“But I shouldn’t call them that. They’re Bengalis.” The 133 bus to Streatham, midnight on Sunday

She was sat on the top deck of the bus. The tinny dance music poured out of her phone. It wasn’t quite loud enough to be antisocial by local standards, but the inhabitants of the top deck had been in England long enough to be socialised into ignoring her anyway.

Dressed in a tracksuit and swigging from a bottle claiming to contain an energy drink, she had found what she felt to be a kindred spirit: sat a few rows ahead. Greasy hair, slicked back. Eyes not quite all there.

“Are you having a good night?” She asked. He twisted himself round to half face her.

“Well you know, it’s not bad I suppose. Can’t complain.” The words came out stuck together.

They talked about their respective love lives. He was ‘sort of’ seeing a girl in Brixton. She was on her way to see her fella in Streatham. She was east end, “born and bred”, but her home of Whitechapel was “full of Pakis.” The surrounding tension went up a notch.

“But I shouldn’t call them that. They’re Bengalis.”

There followed a brief bigotry interlude: how they come over here for a life of luxury while she can’t even get a secure hostel. But it was racism by numbers, half remembered phrases. Her heart didn’t seem to be in it. It was just what you said. The man looked away, out of the window. She was drifting badly. She tried again.

“What sort of stuff do you do? I think you’re like me. Me and you are the same.”

“Well you know…” All of his sentences started with these three words, slurred into one, a kind of wry apology for whatever was to follow.

“Bit of weed, bit of brown, you know how it is.”

“I do, sweetheart.”

“I tend towards thinking that the moon landings were a bit of a hoax.” – at Dulles International Airport

Two men are sat up at the counter of a bar in Washington Dulles airport’s departure lounge. Though strangers, they greet each other and talk with the practiced ease of international business travelers. They get straight down to the important topic: how to save America. Earlier today, Space shuttle Discovery made a farewell fly-by of downtown DC atop a NASA jumbo jet, and sits at the airport awaiting its transfer to the Smithsonian museum. The airport’s bookshops is full of tomes on America’s decline, and what is to be done about it.

The older man fixes Volkswagens for a living. He’s on his way to Munich. He’s a libertarian, and believes Ron Paul is the only man with the answers. “And I voted Obama last time. I think the media have a lot to answer for – I don’t want to use the word conspiracy, but they’ve shut him out. He hasn’t a hope”

“I fear his son” responds the younger, referencing Rand Paul, tea-partying Senator for Kentucky. “Libertarian ideology is fascinating, but I’m a liberal / socialist. You have corporations writing regulations now.” He goes on to discuss the corporate takeover of US politics, with fair lucidity.

This gets a snort of agreement from the libertarian. “The government should just get on with governing. They shouldn’t be involved in anything else.” The two have an interesting way of debating – they steer around the fact they are diametrically opposed ideologically speaking by selective listening and agreeing with mangled interpretations of the other’s position. It’s a very affable way to disagree.

Then the older man broaches 9/11. In an airport. “Of course the government were at the bottom of it” says the libertarian. “It was done to test the bottom of our credulity”.

I expect the younger guy to baulk at this. Instead, he couldn’t be more enthusiastic.

“Well, look at the Patriot Act. Look at the legislation that came in so quickly after. They wouldn’t have had time to plan all that.”

“Our government has led our citizens to slaughter many times before,” continues the libertarian.”

“Oh absolutely. Look at Vietnam…” encouraged the socialist.

“Or Pearl Harbour. The government knew about that attack, it’s historical fact. It was to trick the American people into war.”

What follows is a beginner’s guide to 9/11 denialism tropes. We get building seven. We hear the magic phrase ‘controlled demolition’. The implied lack of wreckage from the fourth plane. The fact the terrorists hit the ‘wrong’ side of the Pentagon “that only contained filing cabinets.”

The liberal / socialist then asks: “What’s your view on the moon landings?”

The older man considers, gazing into his beer. “I tend towards thinking that the moon landings were a bit of a hoax.”

When the conversation started, I suspected the younger man was maybe humouring the libertarian, aware that he was stuck eating his burger next to a crank, agreeing and encouraging for the sake of either amusement or an easy life. By the end I wasn’t so sure.. I felt that supreme anxiety and paranoia was at the centre of both their world views, despite their contrasting political viewpoints.

They headed off together to get their plane to Europe. As they taxied to the runway, the mothballed shuttle would be pointed out to them by the pilot, ready to take its place in the Smithsonian.