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The Real Secret of the Streets

July 12, 2012

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’.

38 Comments leave one →
  1. Lesley Turner permalink
    July 12, 2012 11:23 am

    Thank you for that interesting information Naseem. I have enjoyed watching all the “History of our Streets” progammes.

  2. Christina permalink
    July 12, 2012 5:01 pm

    Thank you Naseem for the additional information you have provided.I have watched with great interest the “Secret of our Streets” series as I have had connections with a couple of those featured. However even though I have never so much as passed by Arnold Circus I now feel compelled to visit. Which I will be doing in the near future.
    Thank you again for very informative piece of wring .

  3. Andrea permalink
    July 12, 2012 10:37 pm

    I have long been fascinated by Arnold Circus, first as an interesting circle on a page in my A-Z, and later, when I got there to look around, as someplace I wanted to learn more about. I’m based in the US, and I haven’t looked around the area for a number of years, so I feel glad to have been pointed in the direction today of this blog and the BBC program. I applaud your work to make your community a strong one and am looking forward to learning about the history of Arnold Cir (taking the issues of gentrification for what they’re worth–I like what you wrote here about that point).

  4. Terry Fitzpatrick permalink
    July 13, 2012 9:21 am

    I was interviewed for the programme because of my work with homeless Bangladeshi families during the 1970s. No one who is ever involved in campaigns thinks that they have ever been represented sufficiently in a documentary. The makers have only a limited slot and funds to tell what is very often a long complicated story.

    I think there should be a completely separate programme just about the seventies but then I don’t make them! What is good is that The Circus is that it does have Friends who have saved it and still are.

    On the whole I think the series has been balanced and it has certainly been well received with very good reviews. Let me know what you all think about the Bangladeshi squatting element of the episode.


  5. Terry Fitzpatrick permalink
    July 13, 2012 9:29 am

    Could someone get in touch with me as I am getting a DVD or whatever they are called now of the programme and it could be put up on the site.

  6. friendsofarnoldcircus permalink
    July 14, 2012 10:44 am

    Hi Terry – can you let us know how to contact you?

  7. Jodie permalink
    July 18, 2012 12:24 pm

    I really enjoyed the program I don’t live on Arnold Circus I but I live nearby on Columbia Road and I certainly had no idea about the history of the area it was fascinating! (It’s such a shame none of the slum dwellers it was built for ended up living in Boundary) Thanks for the information about how FOAC was formed I remember when Arnold Circus was really run down! Keep up the great work!

  8. July 27, 2012 1:32 pm

    I write as someone who went to Rochelle Street boy’s school between 1927 & 1933

    Like others here, I enjoyed the program but would have enjoyed it more had there been mention of the lovely band concerts we used to have almost weekly in the 1930’s summers and our lovely toffee apple man, Mr.Campbell.

    Ron Goldstein

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