Sunday, 8 May 2011

Archive for Change

On Saturday I went to the Archive for Change exhibitions in the West End of Newcastle. I have no connection to Scotswood, Benwell or Elswick, the suburbs that the pieces focused on, so perhaps in some ways I got more out of the events by knowing so little.
What struck me about getting the minibus 2 miles or so west out of Newcastle centre was how very, very different the area was. When one arrives into Newcastle City Centre from the south, particularly on the train, one is instantly struck by the Quayside. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration; its sheen, its captivating architecture, its very boldness, all, I think, make you feel that you’re in a thoroughly modern city; a city, if I might, which came to epitomise Blair’s vision, circa the early 2000s, of England in the new millennium (more about that in a later blog).

Travel 2, 3 or more miles either way down the Tyne, though, and things can polarise rather quickly. Just east of Gateshead lies the boundary division for the borough of South Tyneside. Riverside, the first place you will get to ‒ and remember, this is no more than 3 or 4 miles walk from cultural monuments like The Sage and The Baltic ‒ is Hebburn. It would be wrong of me to claim significant knowledge about Hebburn, too, but passing through it as I do quite often while at work, it is evident that the redevelopment of what I’ll call the centre of the Tyne, might as well never have happened here. In Hebburn, one could easily be convinced into thinking it was still the 1980s.

The same is also true, I’d say, of the areas I visited in the West End. The area’s problems, so I surmised from the videos, stem, at least in part, from a number of factors, but one of the major ones seems to be poorly-planned ‘regeneration’. Houses have been bulldozed, new ones built, only to meet the same fate mere decades later. Swathes of grass lie between ghost streets; literally roads where curbs stop at what once were people’s front doors.

Many of the locals’ stories were very touching: one family explained how the council had essentially put a compulsory purchasing order on their home, effectively overnight. When they asked their councillor what was going on, they refused to give clear details, stating blithely that their ‘plot of land’ was scheduled for development. This was, if I’m not mistaken, part of the council’s ‘Going for Growth’ campaign of the early 2000s. One is shocked, frankly, by this dehumanisation of land and space; this commoditisation of people’s homes, bundling them into figures, processing them through some mighty ‘growth’ calculator, pressing ‘go’, then realising, ten years down the line, that the numbers don’t match.

The response to all of this, at least in part, was the Archive for Change project. The amazing thing about these films was their sense of participation throughout. The filmmakers have clearly endeavoured to allow the local residents to take part in and shape the films as they saw fit. That the films were screened within the local community, my favourite location being the for-the-community-by-the-community Scotswood Diner, is testament to the overriding aim of the scheme: to re-democratise a sense of belonging. In many cases where people were displaced in Benwell and Scotswood, the council came across as a malignant, omnipotent and bluntly abstract force. Where the locals have strove to resist, the Diner again being a good example, shows that redevelopment cannot, indeed must not, be solely a top-down transition.

Before Saturday I knew, still do know very little, about this part of Newcastle, so it’s inevitably precarious writing about things like this; I fear that by trying to be objective, I may actually come off sounding like the councillors who so blatantly disregarded the human impact of their redevelopment plans. But I probably am always going to be objective; as I say, I have no emotional connection to the area. Thus, for me, the events were at once insightful, powerful and inspirational. Being in Scotswood at 11am on a Saturday morning, looking down to the Tyne, to Vickers, and above, Team Valley, with the Angel pinned on the distant hills of Gateshead, I felt like I sometimes do in Hebburn or Jarrow: that there are a lot of fantastic people here trying their best to get on with their lives, trying to construct meaning amidst what can, at their worst, be the self-serving, egotistical forces of developers and councillors.

My overall impression, then? These captivating, thought-provoking, smartly unsentimental films show that one of the best facets of any Art is its ability to galvanise people. Here in the West End, where some people were ashamed about telling others where they lived for stigmas of crime and violence, people are using the powerful medium of film and photography to reclaim their collective sense of identity, to put a meaningful narrative stamp on their lives. I sincerely hope that the council will look at this project and take heed so that future developments are based around a participatory system, driven by input from all sectors of the community.

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