Comparing the Slums of 1970s Glasgow to the Buildings That Stand There Today

Photos taken for housing charity Shelter have finally been released to the public after a 45-year embargo.

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Dec 17 2015, 3:00pm

Tenement courtyard, Maryhill, 1971. Photo by Nick Hedges

In October, photos that had been embargoed for 45 years were finally released to the public. The images, taken by documentary photographer Nick Hedges for housing charity Shelter from 1969 to 1972, reveal the dangerous and filthy conditions people living in Scotland's slums were forced to contend with.

"A family who lived in the Gorbals in Glasgow woke up one morning and the husband heard this weird banging noise. They thought it was a gas explosion at first, and then he looked out of the window to find a demolition crew at the end of the block beginning to swing the demolition ball," Hedges told me. "The crew had no idea people lived there; someone could have been killed. But it's also an indication, I think, of the situation in which some families were forced to live. I mean, living in blocks which were semi-derelict."

For Hedges, revisiting the photos is personal; they were taken when he was a young man, and the harrowing conditions in which these people lived have stayed with him for over four decades. It was him who put the embargo on the work in the first place, out of a sense of responsibility for the subjects, keen to prevent their lives being invaded, to avoid making them emblems of poverty.

Mother takes her baby inside her condemned tenement block, Gorbals, 1970. Photo by Nick Hedges

One photo shows a young mother pushing a pram into a derelict tenement. The baby is looking at the camera. A caption tells us there was rainwater on the floor of their home and that rats ran freely around their beds. Sleeping with the lights on failed to keep them away. The young woman was expecting her second child.

Shelter is seeking to track down some of the people in the pictures, such as the baby in his pram, who would now be in his mid-40s.

"I think it would be wonderful if we were able to make contact with any of the families in the pictures," said Hedges. "It would be wonderful to find out how they got on in life—whether they were able to survive and escape from a life in poverty and bad housing. It would be interesting, just for personal reasons, but also I think Shelter would actually find it valuable toward putting together a housing history."

Thanks to coverage of the exhibition, Hedges is now in email contact with a child from one of the photographs. She hasn't agreed for her name to be shared, but she has posed for a picture next to the original photograph, where she is seen with her mother, brother, and sister. She has called the new photograph "Me and Me."

"She's had an adventurous and wonderful life," said Hedges

Sisters sharing a chair in a Gorbals slum tenement, 1970. Photo by Nick Hedges

Shelter Scotland was founded in 1968 and the photographs were commissioned in 1969. At the time, the charity thought they were responding to a short-term housing crisis. "We never imagined we'd still be here today," Adam Lang, of Shelter, told me. "I'd like to hope we don't need to be here in 50 years."

"Why exhibit these photos now?" I asked him.

"We wanted to show that this is part of our history, a part of our heritage. It's a reminder of both how far we've come—we've made some great strides in the last 40, 45 years—but also that there's still a big job to do. We hope that the images can kickstart a focus on home and housing."

Although unsuitable housing is no longer as visible as when Hedges took the photos, the housing crisis in 2015 is just as insidious. Current health and safety legislation wouldn't allow demolition teams to turn up at a tower block where people were still living, but at the end of last year Scottish Labour's former housing minister warned that Scotland is facing its largest housing crisis since the end of WWII, with the potential of a shortfall of 160,000 homes by 2035.

Lack of suitable housing could also leave gaping holes in the education of the 5,000 children in Scotland who live in temporary accommodation, as—statistically—they will miss an average of 55 days of school annually, or over a quarter of the school year. These children are also four times as likely to suffer from a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.

A development in the Gorbals, Glasgow, 2015. Photo by Nick Dodd

After speaking to Nick, I visited the Gorbals and Maryhill—two of the sites in Glasgow where he took the original photographs—with VICE photographer Nick Dodd.

In the Gorbals, a condemned tower block looms over a new development that's currently in the process of being built by a firm called Laurieston. "It's due to get blown up in March," a worker on the site told us. "But where the people got decanted, I do not know."

Later, a spokesperson for Laurieston told me that "Laurieston Phase 1 properties have been built for New Gorbals Housing Association and tenants of the apartments will include those affected by the clearance and demolition processes of the former high rise blocks. The area is being developed into one of Glasgow city center's most desirable urban neighborhoods, providing high quality homes across a range of affordability levels."

A condemned building in the Gorbals, Glasgow, 2015. Photo by Nick Dodd

In a small park between the condemned tower and the new housing we met an elderly man on a park bench who introduced himself as Steve. He's lived in the area more or less all his life, he told us, and has seen plenty of changes over the years. "I lived in one of the tenements as a kid, had no toilet, but a privy outside," he said. "I chucked school at 14, though, went away with the show people."

"What do you think of the new houses?" I asked.

He shook his head. "They're 70 grand up."

I didn't tell him they'll cost a lot more than £70,000 [$104,000]—that, in fact, they'll be going for more like £130,000 [$154,000] and up.

Children at play in a Maryhill tenement, 1971. Photo by Nick Hedges

Next we moved on to Maryhill, where the buildings look new and strangely clinical. As we drove through we noticed a mish-mash of architectural styles, from the modern to Victorian.

One of Nick Hedges' pictures shows children playing in the stairwell of a Maryhill tenement. Hedges's caption for the picture states that Glasgow is a city noted for tragedy, and in 1972—the final year of Hedges's photography project—a tenement fire would rip through Maryhill Road, leaving two dead.

Maryhill, Glasgow, 2015. Photo by Nick Dodd

Glasgow's famous Red Road flats were destroyed publicly—although the demolition team managed to get it wrong, leaving one and a half towers still standing—but other housing has been destroyed without fanfare or audience. The blowing up of old buildings became almost routine as Glasgow was regenerated, rebuilt, and turned into a new city, one with upgraded housing—housing that is safe, secure, and described as affordable.

On November 18, Scotland's Housing Minister Margaret Burgess pledged to spend £3 billion [$4.5 billion] building 50,000 more affordable homes, with 70 percent of these designated as social housing and safeguarded for those who need it.

Sadly, for many, these new houses and apartments have come too late, and to others they will never seem within reach. A safe, clean home of their own is something that the 150,000 people in temporary accommodation throughout Scotland can, for now, only dream of.

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