ON Cumberland Street, in the heart of the Gorbals, another struggle rages that bears echoes of ancient injustices. St Francis, one of Glasgow’s oldest and grandest churches, was sold to the Gorbals community in 1996 for £1 by the Archdiocese of Glasgow.

This church once offered hope and spiritual relief to the poor Irish immigrants who flocked to these streets. From now on, it would be a community crossroads, offering cohesion, capacity for action and a sense of belonging in a working-class neighborhood like this.

Like so many other public resources, the St Francis Center went dark during the pandemic…and has remained since. Glasgow City Council has expressed a desire to make it a ‘warm centre’ for struggling residents in winter. However, local activists suspect it is a top-down solution presaging a permanent shutdown.

Still, you would support this community to win this one. The people of the Gorbals have triumphed in the face of far greater challenges for many years.

A century ago, the streets around Cumberland Street and the old Rutherglen Road were both feared and reviled, still portrayed in Hogarthan misery.

However, as with many descriptions of working-class living conditions by social commentators, there was exaggeration and quite a bit of class and racial prejudice among the Irish and Lithuanian Jewish communities that had settled there. The Gorbals became the chosen face of occasional stabbing violence and alcohol-induced deprivation, to be held in contempt of No Mean City for eternity.

It has only been in recent years that this reputation has begun to fade, largely due to the visionary and pragmatic approach taken by the New Gorbals Housing Association. This is an organization whose work on these streets over the past three decades should be adopted by national and local civic authorities in Scotland as a model for all social and affordable housing solutions in the country.

The “20-minute neighborhood” envisions the ultimate urban paradise, where everything needed for daily life is within easy reach and the car is doomed to rusty obsolescence.

Yet how can this even begin to hint at the decades of hard work and local ingenuity that have transformed this famous old quarter that stretches south and east of the River Clyde?

And so, this week, accompanied by councilor Dr Soryia Siddique, whose neighborhood includes Gorbals, I undertook the 20-minute neighborhood walk. These streets were once home to the extended families of me and my friends.

You first notice the high specification design of the housing blocks which no longer tower above you, but gently slope down four or five storeys. No two developments are the same and the gunmetal gray of the famous Hutchie E and Elizabeth Square developments has been replaced with softer liveries.

This is what happens when residents work in partnership with urban planners and architects who simply follow the instructions of those who will walk these streets and inhabit these dwellings. They are a reproach to the professional insensitivity which considers these neighborhoods only as a project of social experimentation.

These homes belie the attitude that low-income working class families should just be grateful to have a roof over their heads and that any aspiration for beauty and quality is wasted on them.

Councilor Siddique is proud of what has been accomplished here. “This is an integrated, multi-ethnic, modern community that is proud of these buildings. It’s a good place to live and work,” she says. She points me to the New Gorbals Housing Association across the road, a tall, handsome rise on Crown Street. “The work of this organization over many years has made it all possible.”

Fraser Stewart has worked for the Housing Association for over 30 years. “When I met these people and felt their irresistible desire and passion to better this community, I knew that if they wanted to, this would be my last job.” Its delivery is fast. No detail is unimportant. Nothing is incidental.

He salutes Nicola Sturgeon, the local MSP, for her unwavering support. “”I don’t care what other people say, but she was brilliant. She is very supportive of us and it was a good thing that she opened up our Northgate program,” he says.

“The low point for the Gorbals wasn’t the 20s and 30s and the so-called razor gangs,” he says. “It was between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, when the slums were cleared. The ‘lucky ones’ were dispatched to Castlemilk and East Kilbride, but many very vulnerable people – usually elderly and isolated – were left in neglected tenements. »

The clearances, little more than social pogroms, were followed by a period of strengthening local authorities that lasted until the mid-1970s, which Stewart describes as “catastrophic”.

“Wherever the council spent its money – places like Drumchapel, Easterhouse, Gorbals and Castlemilk – would become among the most deprived areas in Scotland by 1982. These poorest areas became projects for architects and developers to impose untested and unlived ideas that were doomed from the outset. »

He cites the bizarre but curiously inspiring story of Annie’s Loo, an event widely credited with marking the birth of community housing associations in Scotland. In 1972, a local architect had designed and fitted a gleaming avocado bathroom in John and Annie Gibbons’ third-floor Govan building. The chairman of the Glasgow Corporation’s housing sub-committee arrived in his official car to see her…as did several hundred locals. For the first time, the old buildings were respected rather than reviled. They didn’t need to be knocked down. “Housing rehabilitation could be done,” says Stewart.

The New Gorbals Housing Association grew out of this early movement and is now seen as its leader after years of fighting the Glasgow Housing Association – “they treated us like scum”, says Stewart.

“Our association is run by gamblers; everything starts from them and everything that is done here is inspired by them. I’m just their employee. If I’m wrong (he uses earthy idiom), they won’t need to show me the door. We have a 50-50 split between owner occupiers and social housing. And this social integration works. There is social harmony here.

The imposition of the notorious Hutchie E and Elizabeth Square developments after clearances had characterized the mediocrity of professional social experimenters. That and the city council’s dismal failure to consider the huge cost of maintaining the sprawling developments.

“They knew then it wasn’t working, but they kept pumping money. On a sunny day, Elizabeth Square looked great. Its architect, Sir Basil Spence, who designed Coventry Cathedral, imagined ecstatic residents hanging out their laundry on jewel balconies. He said it would look like a Spanish galleon sailing into the sunset.

The problems started within a few weeks. Gusts of 210 km/h in the wind tunnels on the ground floor; elevators that weren’t big enough; Poor quality construction work and materials which led to widespread dampness.

But when the New Gorbals began to rise from the ashes of authoritarian incompetence, the world began to take notice. Glasgow became the City of Architecture in 1999 when a senior judge, Sir Terence Conran, was overwhelmed by the wisdom, knowledge and passion of local people who had guided him and his fellow judges so expert throughout the design process.

“They wanted the best of both worlds,” says Stewart, “and they didn’t want similarity. Conran quickly realized that this was a gambler-run business and they were making a big statement.