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.