Well done to Assemble, winner of this year’s Turner Prize for their refurbishment of four streets in Liverpool’s Granby district.
The terraced houses there are those that survived a government programme that saw most of the area destroyed by the wrecker’s ball. The young team at Assemble have been praised for their socially sensitive design work, which they carried out in consultation with local residents.
However, save for fleeting references to the Toxteth riots of more than 30 years ago – the reason why Granby became the focus of government skewed regeneration efforts – the accompanying publicity makes no mention that the four streets were once part of what is generally considered to be Britain’s oldest black community, going back 200 years.
Equally, we are left unaware of the efforts of members of that original community to save Granby from demolition and ultimately from ethnic cleansing.
They were led by the late Dorothy Kuya, who grew up in what was then known as Liverpool 8, and Angus Chukwuemeka, who settled in the area from Nigeria in the 1960s. Both were prominent anti-racist crusaders, who over the years highlighted the link between the city’s slave trading past and the ghettoisation of the black community, indigenous but ‘not one of us’ and therefore subject to all manner of discrimination. The International Slavery Museum on Albert Dock and the Slavery Remembrance Day celebrations held every August 23 came about as a result of campaigns they were involved in.
The 1981 riots proved to be the wake-up call when youngsters took to the streets for two weeks in what proved to the longest and most ferocious of the civil disturbances that took place in the country that year. Up to 140 buildings were razed, one young man was knocked down and killed by a police vehicle and rubbers bullets were used for the first time on the British mainland.
According to Dorothy, aside from cosmetic changes to Granby’s rundown housing, the authorities’ main focus of attention post the riots was to gradually disperse the community by encouraging them to move out of the area, by selling up or via social housing transfer.
Then in 2003, at the height of the property boom, the Labour government launched the Liverpool segment of its Housing Market Renewal Initiative, a ludicrous scheme that saw two thirds of Granby demolished. Ten streets of fine Victorian and Edwardian houses were replaced by bland low-rise constructions better suited to already nondescript suburbs than an historic inner city district.
Dorothy, who died in 2013 aged 82, lived in one of the remaining four streets, flanked by ‘tinned up’ properties as the government prepared to finish off its so-called regeneration scheme. By this time, Granby St, the main throughfare, had seen most of its shops wither away amid the dereliction. Only six out of the original 100 remained.
“What has happened here is a scandal,” Dorothy told me at the time as we walked down Granby St, which had a mournful air about it even in the sunshine. “This was once the heart of Liverpool 8. It is not only decent homes that have been destroyed, it is a whole community.”
As leading members of the Granby Residents Association, Dorothy and Angus led the fight back, launching a quarterly campaign magazine known as The Jangler, whose masthead included a motif of the Sankofa bird, the Akan, Ghanaian, symbol of past and future.
In anticipation of Assemble’s attempts to reclaim the remaining houses for the community, campaigners installed hanging flower baskets on derelict properties and painted curtains on windows that had been bricked up or covered with corrugated iron.
Vociferous lobbying saw the demolitions halted following a public inquiry, but it was the financial crash of 2008 that saw HMRI finally abandoned.
“We won the war, but many were killed,” said Dorothy ruefully back then. “We want to see the houses in the remaining four streets refurbished so that we get a proper community back again.”
However, both she and Angus saw themselves edged out of the campaign in 2010 by a new intake of members, who took over the Community Land Trust that they had set up. These are the people who have been working with Assemble on the four streets’ refurbishment.
“That’s democracy and we were philosophical about it,” says Angus who runs Crawford House, a community enterprise project a few streets away from Granby.
“After all, they have achieved the same thing we were aiming for, which was refurbishment. “
However, I will say what he left unsaid. Just as Liverpool 8 is now Toxteth, and Granby has become something else, it is important not to forget what they were and, by the same token, to acknowledge the people that lived – and struggled – there over the decades while almost everyone else looked the other way.