Breaking the Mould. Stoke.

01 Stoke on a Boat

An alternative view of Stoke-on-Trent, from the canal, in a long boat. Photographs by artist Mary Wardle.


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'Decanting' and green spaces in Stoke-on-Trent

Photoshoot diary by Mary Wardle

May 2009

Stoke on Trent has city status. It is not a 'uni-centred' city, but a collection of 6 towns set out on the landscape, linear fashion, following the line of the River Trent. 31st March 1910 is when the 6 local authorities were constituted as a county borough. For the last 100 years SOT has struggled celebrating city status. It is an ever present topic of debate - some of it very heated. It feels that at times, rather than uniting the towns, federation has put a wedge between them.

SOT is known worldwide as The Potteries. Great artists, business men, scientists, creative thinkers, industrialists such as Josiah Wedgwood, Copeland, Minton, dug up the land, made pots which were and are exported and collected all around the world. The town motto of Stoke-upon-Trent is 'to produce beauty from the earth'. That of Longton, one of the 6 towns is Creat Industria - Let industry be made.

'Pots' have been made in SOT on an industrial scale since 17th century. Today the industry is a shadow of its former self. Pots are still manufactured, and very beautiful pots too, but SOT is struggling to find a new identity from which it can grow into the future.

Geology has determined SOT's presence and position in the landscape. Coal, iron ore, clay, galena, lead follow the route of the river and have been mined for centuries. There is a lot of subsidence as a result of this activity. The Wedgwood Institute in Burslem leans down hill and I always feel slightly sea-sick after spending a little time walking along its corridors. Rows of terrace houses are subsiding too. Stories of people disappearing into the ground as it opens up into another mine shaft breaking the surface are still heard today.

People who work in the pot banks were and are housed in terraced houses. Houses terrace the hillsides of the region. They are the physical root of full and rich communities - generations of people who have grown up and work/worked in the pottery and mining and associated industries. Families lived in very poor conditions, suffered bad health, grieved over short lives and high infant mortality, but enjoyed strong family and community cohesion and pride in a shared identity as producers of beautiful and functional objects - pots.

For decades, terraced housing has been slowly demolished - slum clearance. People have been housed in high rise flats. Slum clearance is still taking place. I photographed a street three weeks ago off Furlong Lane, Middleport. Yesterday it had gone - nothing but brick dust and empty land. SOT has a lot of empty land. Empty land, grey, depressed, without a present purpose. Often adjacent to the heart of towns, it sucks out what little life blood is left.

The process of moving families out of terraced housing in which they have lived for generations is called 'decanting'. People are moved into temporary 'holding' accommodation. From there they are eventually housed in new accommodation. They have little choice about where they live -communities are broken up.

Anyway, where was I - SOT and slum clearance. Long story short - arts officer for SOT, works with communities that are being 'decanted'. Large murals painted on boarded up windows of the houses prior to demolition. Quite stunning, poignant. Marks the change. Helps the move.

I have done walkabouts with the people from the Council who make the decisions about which streets will be demolished next. They talk in loud voices. Residents sitting out on their doorsteps enjoying the sun. They witness the civil servants make their deliberations about whether it should be Slater Street next or Furlong Lane. Can you image listening to all this - people you don't know, standing on you doorstep, uninvited, deciding whether it's your house or your mother's house going to be the next one to be reduced to rubble.

When I heard Peta , SOT arts office, use the term 'decanting' I thought of refugees, and whether there were comparisons to be made between the people of SOT being decanted from their homes and people in other parts of the world forced out of their homes because of war, political upheaval, religious persecution, natural disasters. The reasons for forced eviction can be many but the impact on the communities, trauma suffered by its members, must be very similar. If I could demonstrate this, council members and civil servants who stand in the streets of SOT and decide who gets evicted next might be more caring about how this is carried out having been made aware that they aren't just moving people on. They are making decisions about the break up and displacement of families and communities that have been together for many, many decades if not centuries.

How do people respond both short and long term - physically, psychologically, individually and as a community? How much of the trauma is place related or community related - is it harder to be severed from community of people, or the place in which people have dwelt?

The decanted communities see the place that was their home as derelict land and houses being just left derelict for very long periods of time. They probably walked passed their old homes on their way to work and school every day. What effect does this have on them, their spirits, their physical and mental health? How does the phoenix grow from the ashes of displacement? These are the questions that are going through my mind at present.

Mass production is by its very nature tenuous, relying on market demand, high mass demand, fashion and appeal of product, changes in function and use, the state of local and world economy, competition etc. Low wages often accompany mass production though not always. Labour is a dispensable commodity and treated as such - people are used to losing jobs and the hard times that follow job loss. The people I have met on my journeying around SOT have all been very open , friendly, curious about what I'm doing, always eager to contribute. But the nature of employment of the vast majority of people has created resignation to hard times and losing out, not able to win an opening, take advantage of opportunity. People in positions of power such as employers, politicians make and implement their decision unchallenged by the people most affected. 'Decanting' is just another fact of life those affected feel powerless to do anything about. (Quote from the Sentinel from lady who came home to find men in her loft stripping out cables and pipes. 'Sorry duck, we didn't think there was anyone living here.')

The urban landscape in the heart of the towns has been ravaged by clearances of both industry and dwelling places. Some of these sites are as large in area as the foot print of the town that is left intact, and right next to the town centres. Sites cleared are scraped flat, barriers erected around the entire site using either metal fencing or rubble bunds. It doesn't take long before the opportunists move in - willow, birch, buddleia, gorse, willow herb etc. Why don't we take advantage of nature's decision as to a present use for these abandoned wrecked spaces and green them. It would be such an easy job and at least give the recovering town some lungs to breath in fresh air to nourish recovery and new growth. It doesn't matter that it is temporary - easy to remove and compost green growth as each section of derelict land takes on its new and more permanent identity. The polders in the Netherlands were once ocean bed. Then they became man-created land for development, but before that they had to be greened to let nature make land into a fertile place that could be occupied by green and urban spaces. The greening of SOT could act in the same way - as a transition , fertile occupancy.

There are green hearts in all the 6 towns - their parks. SOT has a fine collection of Victorian parks. Let them spread and link in with the transition parks. Let them feed and guide them. Let the two different types of green interact. Let the temporary green influence the established green. Let the water, canals, too, act on both. Let the city move away from routes of solid mass to soft organic mass for its routes of transport, communication, creative spaces, social spaces, leisure spaces.

There are several displacements in SOT. People from their homes. Workers from their workplaces. Displacement of memory - where do the generations who knew and contributed to the manufacturing history of SOT go to be reassured that this piece of history is kept alive - there is an embitterment towards young people who have grown up in a place where all physical remains of its past greatness as a manufacturing city has been wiped away, who know nothing of this very recent history, feel no connection with it at all. There is the bitterness grief at loss often brings, and nowhere to exorcise those emotions. People get stuck in grief. It can cripple their future growth.

Displacement of family lineage and tradition - generation followed generation into the pottery and associated industries. The industry has gone. The link has been broken. A generation has been born to find its own way, its own place in the lineage of SOT, its own identity for itself and the city.

What used to be the deepest coal mine in Europe is a 10 minute walk from the centre of Hanley. It is now a park with very well used skateboard facilities. That is how young people who use the park know it - a place to skateboard. There is no reference to the mine other than part of a pit head winch mounted in concrete by an entrance. The park is a successful park - lots of people, good walks, right next to the town centre. Does it need to have more references to its past?

All generations need a place in which to take breath, physically, spiritually and emotionally. There is a wealth of space in SOT, but most of it empty and inaccessible. Make it accessible and green to make air to breath while generations get used to change and adapt to this time of change. Let the green spaces be sentinels of change. Let's have a greenhouse pod, a sports pavilion pod - use the traditional game of bowls as a marker of change by putting it up for a new look (crystal bowls, night bowls that make light arcs) and making it inclusive, not an exclusive club as it is now. Use bowls as a link between past and present. Re-invent the game in the new parks with the pods included, then take it out to the old parks, especially Hanley crown green, to make that link between the new and the old. Let the new feed the old as well as using the old on which to base the new.


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