Thirty years after the Toxteth riots, the country’s oldest black community has found itself almost bulldozed out of existence. Angela Cobbinah speaks to local activist Dorothy Kuya about the fight to save what’s left of it
The procession of dancing and drumming youngsters from The Netherlands wound its way through the streets of Liverpool to help celebrate the city’s annual Slavery Remembrance Day in August. Their final destination was Albert Dock where a libation ceremony was to take place, but their starting point was Granby, a district that was once the beating heart of Liverpool’s black community.
It was a welcome splash of colour in a place that is now usually silent and deserted, with streets of boarded up houses and shops and a forlorn skyline of dilapidated rooftops. A casual bystander might think that this is a classic case of urban blight until a sign looms into view announcing that this is in fact a government ‘regeneration zone’.
Called Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI), the scheme has seen streets of Victorian houses bulldozed in the past few years and replaced by suburban-style new build homes, while many residents have been re-housed in other parts of the city. It is part of the first centralised house demolition programme since the slum clearances of the 1960s, but in this case the houses are all in sound condition.
Launched at the height of the property boom in 2002, the idea was to redevelop once neglected but now potentially lucrative inner city districts of old northern industrial towns in partnership with house builders, so raising land values and attracting a wider social mix of people into the area.
But for Dorothy Kuya, who has lived in Granby most of her life, this is not regeneration but degeneration. ‘What has happened here is a scandal – it is not only decent homes that have been destroyed, it is a whole community.’
Granby St Residents Association’s vociferous campaign slowed down the demolitions, but it was the collapse of the housing market following the economic downturn that saw the programme finally abandoned earlier this year.
So a victory of sorts? ‘Well, we may have won the war but many were killed,’ says Kuya curtly. ‘Ten streets have already been demolished, almost two thirds of Granby, only four are left, leaving the community a shadow of its former self. As for the new houses, they are pokey and cheaply built. I wouldn’t live in them and those who do are already complaining about them.’
Those living in the other 11 HMRI zones, also bitterly accuse the government of destroying their communities for no good reason other than to enrich property developers. But in the case of Granby it has seen the demise of what is generally acknowledged to be Britain’s oldest black community.
Granby lies in Liverpool 8, an area that has come to be officially known as Toxteth, scene of the fiercest and most prolonged of the 1981 riots that hit England that year. Its black presence dates back to the 18th century, partly as a result of Liverpool’s ascendancy as the country’s premier slave trading port and partly because of its proximity to the docks, where seamen from all parts of the British empire passed through and settled down.
Ferdinand Dennis’ 1988 book Behind the Frontlines paints a picture of a lively close-knit community pockmarked by poor housing and high unemployment. Police harassment ensured that the youngsters that lived there, many of them mixed race, were reluctant to go into the city centre just a 20-minute walk away. The message seemed to be they were still outsiders after more than 200 years.
The explosion of anger 30 years ago as youths began hurling petrol bombs and bricks at the police following the heavy-handed arrest of a local lad took everyone by surprise but Liverpool 8 itself. It took police two weeks to regain control of the streets, and then only after rubber bullets were used for the first time outside Northern Ireland. Up to 140 buildings were razed and one man died after being knocked over by a police van.
As horrified government ministers rushed to take stock of what had happened, it was hoped that Liverpool 8 would benefit from some positive attention at last. But apart from a few cosmetic changes and the limited award of home improvement grants, regeneration efforts were focused on turning Liverpool’s defunct Albert Dock into a heritage centre.
‘Then out of the blue in 1994 we all received letters from the council that Granby was to be demolished,’ recalls Kuya. ‘We were outraged and demanded to know why but were never given straight answers, though there were vague references to Toxteth having a high rate of crime, especially drug gangs, which was untrue. Toxteth is not a political ward and does not have any distinct boundaries – they seem to shift depending on how scandalous the story is. Anyway, according to a police survey of a few years ago, Granby itself was a low crime area.’
Although no demolition took place, what Kuya describes as a deliberate policy of dispersal began to take place as people were encouraged to move out and the vacated houses left empty, while homeowners like herself were approached about selling their properties to the council. Then in 2003, New Heartlands, the Liverpool segment of HMRI, was launched with the Orwellian-like slogan ‘creating new neighbourhoods for the future’.
While millions of pounds were poured into bulldozing terraces of structurally sound stock that would be prized elsewhere, other houses were emptied and “tinned up”. ‘People don’t like living in semi-derelict streets so many, after first putting up a fight, eventually agreed to be rehoused or sold up. We all went through a tremendous amount of stress. ’
Of the 100 or so shops that once lined Granby Street, Liverpool 8’s main thoroughfare, only six remain, the rest are boarded up adding to the desolate feel of the place. ‘This was once a vibrant, self-sufficient community but now it has been broken up and, as a consequence, the mutual support of people living together for so many generations has gone,’ says Kuya.
‘There has been no consultation throughout this process – the attitude has been extremely paternalistic. In some cases the intentions of HMRI may have been good, but the people who got the most benefit out of it are the developers. ’
The daughter of a West African seaman and a local white woman, Kuya is in many the archetypical ‘LBB’ or Liverpool born black. Born in the 1930s, she was appointed Merseyside’s first community relations officer in the 1970s and her reputation as a formidable political activist accompanied her to London where she became a prominent figure in local government during the 1980s.
She returned to her roots in 1994 looking forward to a quiet retirement only to find herself battling to save her home. Although many home owners who resisted selling up found their properties compulsory purchased under the HMRI, the authorities never got further than Kuya’s metaphorical front gate. Later they found themselves facing a public inquiry lobbied for by residents, which put a block on further demolitions.
Kuya’s own imposing property is one of only a few houses in her street that is not boarded up but she visibly winces at the description of Granby as a ghost town. Last year she and fellow campaigners installed hanging flower baskets on abandoned houses and painted curtains on windows blanked out by corrugated iron or bricks.
‘People still live here and enjoy living here while others are desperate to return to Liverpool 8’s large town houses,’ she explains.
Just a stone’s throw from where she lives, lies Princess Avenue, an elegant 19th century boulevard that leads to the city’s Princess Park one way and the city centre the other. Lying outside of the regeneration zone but historically a part of Liverpool 8, much of it has been beautifully refurbished, as have adjoining Georgian streets.
This is the vision the Granby Residents Association has for the remaining houses of Granby. ‘After all the wrecking that has gone on, we want them all to be done up so that we get a proper community here once again,’ says Kuya. As far as she is concerned, the battle continues.
Published October 2011, Black History 365