An eyesore or an architectural landmark? Should the flats have been Grade II listed or demolished alongside Hyde Park in the early 1990s? A feature of Sheffield’s skyline since 1957, the multi-storey housing estate Park Hill is still a topic of debate.
These questions have tended to overshadow the fact that Park Hill and Hyde Park were – and to a lesser extent still are – home for a significant number of people in Sheffield. With its focus on the estates’ residents rather than the buildings themselves, this is something that art charity S1 Artspace’s latest project Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future seeks to rectify.
In a converted garage nestled between the first phase of Park Hill’s redevelopment and the vacant flats that make up the rest of the estate, the exhibition features the work of social documentary photographers Roger Mayne and Bill Stephenson, who documented life at Park Hill and Hyde Park in the early 1960s and late 1980s respectively. Billed as a reinterpretation of the pair’s 1988 exhibition Streets in the Sky, it showcases archival material and documentary footage of the flats in an attempt to tell the social history of Sheffield’s best-known estates.
In my research into everyday life and multi-storey council housing in Sheffield and Manchester, I explore how far changing housing policies, media coverage, and cultural attitudes shaped residents’ experiences of their estates over the post-war period.
Specific ideas about the nature of residents’ everyday lives were central to Sheffield City Council and architect J. L. Womersley’s plans for both Park Hill and Hyde Park, making the multi-storey flats particularly suited to a social historical analysis.
With its pubs, shops, and wide street decks that allowed residents to walk above ground from one end of the estate to the other, Park Hill was built to replicate its architects’ ideas of traditional working-class community in a new environment. It was a social experiment that the Council was eager to be successful in, even allocating a flat to sociologist Jean Demers to oversee how well residents adapted to life off the ground in the estate’s first few years.
Mayne’s photographs of children playing and neighbours chatting in the early 1960s seemed to confirm the verdict of the Sheffield Telegraph: Park Hill was a ‘triumph of design’ and ‘a children’s paradise’.
Bill Stephenson’s work, on the other hand, captured life in Park Hill’s sister development Hyde Park in 1988, just before its demolition. Hyde Park was built in 1965 in a similar architectural style to Park Hill, but on a much larger scale. However, it did not take long for accounts of the estate’s problems to begin to surface.
Despite these negative reports, Stephenson found that the Hyde Park residents who he met and photographed in 1988 did not want to be rehoused. A survey undertaken by Sheffield City Council just one year later found that while 60% of residents favoured rehousing, 30% wanted to stay on the estate, and 10% were unsure.
These results were reported in The Guardian alongside the news that those tenants who wanted to stay had formed a community action group that aimed to ensure that when Hyde Park was cleared for demolition, some neighbours would be rehoused on the same estates.
Mayne’s photographs of the early 1960s and Stephenson’s of the late 1980s bookend a period of significant social, political, and cultural change in Britain. In the years in between, the initial celebration of mass, multi-storey council estates had been cut short as they became increasingly linked to crime and deprivation.
Park Hill and Hyde Park can show how these developments played out locally, with residents’ voices revealing a more complex story than the inevitable rise and fall of these places.
In 1972, a survey into aspects of multi-storey life at Park Hill found that while some residents liked living on the estate, others did not. In the face of such ‘inconclusive’ results, BBC Radio Sheffield sent a reporter to the flats to get the real story but found a similarly mixed picture.
Some of the residents interviewed felt cut off in their flats and some enjoyed the privacy. Others sympathised with feelings of isolation but felt that there were advantages to living so close to the city centre. Far from uncovering the straightforward reality of life at Park Hill, the interviews only revealed more contradictions.
The exhibition’s title Love Among the Ruins is meant to be taken literally to encourage visitors to appreciate the future potential of Sheffield’s estates through the residents of its past. But in sharing its title with Evelyn Waugh’s story of an over-stretched welfare state in a dystopian near-future, it sees residents through the lens of a familiar historical narrative.
Perhaps by moving away from this, historians can understand why it was that despite the many problems typically associated with multi-storey council housing, communities still existed on estates like Park Hill and Hyde Park until they were cleared.
Isabelle Carter is a first-year PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. Her research takes a comparative case study approach to everyday life and identity on multi-storey council housing estates in Sheffield, Manchester and London between c. 1957 and 1998. You can find her on Twitter @_isabellectr
Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future runs from 20 July 2018 to 15 September 2018 at S1 Artspace, 1 Norwich Street, Park Hill, Sheffield.
Image: Facade of Park Hill, a council housing estate in Sheffield by Paolo Margari