In post-war Britain, high rise tower blocks represented an optimistic, promising future for those who lived and worked in city centre suburbs. For a country recovering from a conflict that left many of its people and much of its infrastructure battered and bruised, tower blocks offered a route out of poor housing conditions. Nicknamed the “streets in the sky”, high rise developments boasted the promise of job prospects, good transport links and strong social integration.
By the 1970s, the social experiment started to show signs of failure. The streets in the sky became known for antisocial behaviour, insecure communal spaces, poor maintenance, and social isolation. They had transformed into undesirable places to live, harbouring pockets of poverty and hardship.
I’ve lived in Hulme, Manchester, all my life and borne witness to situations that have been a consequence of a divided society.
I’d hear distressing stories of my neighbours passing away, unbeknown to those of us living nearby. I’d watch a man stand at a window everyday as I went to work, only to return and see him stood in the same spot. Why should people have to live like this?
In more recent years, Hulme has become a huge attraction to students and young professionals. At night we’d often hear excited voices shouting on the street “we love Manchester”, a far cry from how those of us living in the concrete blocks felt.
My neighbour once described us as a “community of ghosts”. The more I thought about it the more I agreed. Students have access to opportunities: they can socialise and meet new people, and have a range of facilities at their disposal. Those of us already living locally felt as though we’d spent years watching our community centres, shops, pubs and cafés close, one after another. We’d become part of a city that represented two very contrasting worlds.
It was time to speak up.
Three years ago, I joined a group set up by our landlord, One Manchester, and the Royal Exchange Theatre. The club, dubbed On Top Of The World, gave me and others an opportunity to meet new people who also live in tower blocks across Hulme and Gorton. Each of us wanted to make a difference and change our community for the better. We’ve written and produced a play, Can You Hear Me From Up Here? It’s our way of giving the community of ghosts a voice to be heard.
The production tells stories of our own experiences, feelings and challenges over the years. There have been times when people in our community have felt lonely or forgotten but there is much more to those faces in the windows up high.
Allison is part of the group. After working as a caretaker in a tower block, she decided to live there and has been a resident for many years. To me, this reflects the welcoming and accepting community of people who live in high rises – we look out for each other and don’t exclude new people.
The production has given us an opportunity to speak to our landlord and local authorities directly in a creative and engaging way. Since joining the group, we are doing more activities collectively: days out, boat trips and watching performances at the Royal Exchange.
This is about more than a trip to the theatre though. This partnership has given us a platform to make a difference. They’re listening to us and the community is on the change for the better. Taking part in this project has been a brave step for most of the group. We had to learn to trust one another and keep the bigger picture in mind. This could hopefully change lives for years to come.
So why don’t we just talk about issues in tower block living?
Be brave, be honest and make sure your voice is heard. We need to listen carefully to those people within our community who go unheard, and help make a difference to create a brighter future in the environments we live in. I am extremely proud of my community and what this project has helped us achieve.
Tina Cribbin is a tower block resident in Hulme, Manchester and member of On Top Of The World