The Real Secret of the Streets
Firstly this is a personal post from me – Naseem Khan – and not necessarily a Friends of Arnold Circus view. I confess I have forgotten my password, and so have been writing posts as ‘foac’.
Watching the ‘Secret Streets’ programme last night about Arnold Circus and sitting just next to Arnold Circus was a strange experience. The place looked beautiful; the people were familiar; the history was fascinating. But there was something missing.
The programme did not recognise a very specific dynamic that has emerged around the Circus. It assumed that market forces alone had caused the change, and certainly those are not (now, or ever) unpowerful. But I remember when we started the Friends back in 2004, the Circus was run down, filthy, dangerous, shunned. The Council at that point said (in writing) that it was not on its radar for improvement.
Incomers not developers provided the yeast for change.
Linking with local people, the Friends created an alliance with the school, brought kids up to plant, cut back vegetation, brought music back to the bandstand, formed a charity with 500 local members, created a platform for local history, teamed up with the community centre, started picnics, closed roads and campaigned to get rid of the buses that were in a lordly way using the Circus as just a turning circle.
And the Council responded. It started to recognise a new sort of alliance, and after six years it put in significant Planning Gain money. It worked with the Friends on a visionary scheme – first devised by Friends’ trustees and architects, Finn Williams, Caitlin Elster and Jamie Scott Baxter – to transform the Circus into the glorious place that the ‘Secret Streets’ portrayed so beautifully.
The point of this is not to pat ourselves on the back (though I am inordinately proud of what we have done, and proudest of all that I was Chair for six of those years) but to make a different and more important point. It is this: Conventional wisdom – and the assumption of the film – is that gentrification destroys. It believes that gentrification replaces old history with its new glossy unaccountable toys. I challenge this.
Gentrification can – on the contrary and with certain conditions – be a huge and proper benefit. It can transform and transform appropriately. It does not have to mean just an influx of lattes and Brompton bikes.
But it is not a given. It needs a number of things from the incomers’ side – respect for local history and values; readiness to integrate; imagination enough to create new and inclusive ways of working. And it needs backing from the Council to have the imagination to recognise a new kind of local force.
I think we managed this on Arnold Circus, and we learned inthe process. I am sorry that the ‘Secret Streets’ could not go further and focus on something that is actually pretty special. It caries a potential that goes wider than the Circus for a more hopeful brand of hneighbourhood development and localism. It could teach lessons and cheer more widely in urban contexts. It is the ‘Secret’ of the ‘Secret Streets’.