Govanhill: Glasgow’s Ellis Island and the Battle for the Heart of Nicola Sturgeon’s Constituency

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 4th 2016

A couple of years ago a community arts project in Glasgow designated Albert Drive on the city’s Southside as ‘Scotland’s most ethnically diverse street’. It was a good strapline – filled with positivity and pride, but inaccurate. Instead, that byline should be held by the nearby community of Govanhill, with 53 different languages recorded in its small area.

Govanhill has always been in transition and a place for immigrants: known for a long while as Glasgow’s Ellis Island. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it saw Irish immigration; after the Second World War, Italian, Polish and Jewish incomers and then from the seventies, Asian immigration, mostly from Pakistan, and in the last decade, Roma newcomers. Each, including the most recent, has been met with a degree of welcome, besides some unease and local tensions.

Govanhill is an area of great change, energy and enterprise that buzzes with activities and potential, but does have problems. It has some awful, slum housing with terrible living conditions, dampness and over-crowding. There are concerns about crime and policing and parts of the neighbourhood have a sense of decay and neglect, with overgrown backcourts and uncollected piles of rubbish.

For years Govanhill has had a palpable feeling of falling between the cracks and not receiving council and government regeneration policy and funding. It isn’t by any stretch one of the most poor parts of Glasgow or Scotland, but this has meant it has consistently missed out of funds, priorities and influence.

The area has always been changing. It has an older working class community which rub alongside people who come often for shorter periods, mostly students and immigrants – with the area sometimes seen as ‘a reception centre’. Some of this older constituency feels trapped in their Govanhill tenement flats, with the area changing in ways they don’t like and feel threatened by. They believe that their choices have been curtailed; if they own their flat, its value and appeal – relative to elsewhere – is falling.

Add to this mix, after European Union expansion eastwards from 2004, several thousand Roma immigrants, first from Slovakia, then Romania, came to Glasgow –  settling in Govanhill. This has magnified tensions which already existed. The local group, ‘Let’s Save Govanhill’, were formed in this context, but their anger and frustration has sometimes boiled over. Their language seems often bitter and stark – the banner they carry on marches, underneath ‘Let’s Save Govanhill’, has five words in big print – ‘Crime Vermin Filth Overcrowding Squalor’.

The group talks of Govanhill (frequently calling it ‘Govanhell’ on social media) in dark terms – ‘blighted with high levels of crime: rape, assaults, burglaries, pensioners attacked and robbed in broad daylight.’ ‘Gangs control the streets’ and ‘Streets and backcourts are covered in piles of rubbish, discarded furniture and filthy stained mattresses.’ If that weren’t enough, Fiona Jordan of the local group has spoken of the area as ‘going to blow’ and ‘a tinderbox’, or as in Tom Gallagher’s words ‘a ghetto’: being both inaccurate and unhelpful.

Gallagher, a former academic in Peace Studies, observed that ‘Perhaps the only good thing the place has got going for it is the local action group, Let’s Save Govanhill.’ Such are the perils of the brief visit. The area in fact has a rich tapestry of activities, initiatives and successes, from the sterling work of Govanhill Housing Association to the success of Govanhill Baths (‘United we will swim’), and Daisy Street Community Centre with its free community meals. There is a Govanhill People’s History Project researching the waves of migration the area has experienced, numerous new businesses, art spaces and festivals, such as Southside Studios and Dance Factory Dance Studios, and all sorts of hipster spaces and cafes.

There is the still obvious, but in places, fading glamour of Victoria Road – a street with history and pride – old bars, numerous restaurants and fruit and veg shops. The Bungalow Café has been there since 1949, run by Italian-born George Verrecchia, while the finest ice cream in Glasgow can be obtained from the Queen’s Park Café.  At one end of the wide road sits the magnificence of Queen’s Park – a park with its own Glasshouse, café, pond and some of the most striking panoramic views of the city.

There are numerous Govanhills. There are, in a small concentration of streets east of Victoria Road a concentration of poor housing; north of that is former Glasgow City Council stock now run by Govanhill Housing Association; and to the south are the once palatial terraces of Queen’s Drive facing onto Queen’s Park. West of Victoria Road there is a similar mix – with run down areas, newly converted flats, and nearby much sought after properties in areas such as Niddrie Square. ‘Ghetto’ does not really encompass the full reality of this complex area.

Housing is one of the biggest live issues. Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government have come together to buy slum housing in four streets – with £9.3 million of monies, handing the properties over to Govanhill Housing Association.

The neighbourhood saw one of the most significant and inspiring victories of local people coming together and winning against the council. In 2001 the council closed Govanhill Baths and this became a catalyst about concerns in the area – about being neglected, taken for granted, and decades of council arrogance. But this time local people mobilised, organised, didn’t go away after the headlines died away, and finally won.

The council gave the community back Govanhill Baths – now run as a multi-purpose centre – and last year it was awarded £1 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Environment Scotland to assist in fully re-opening the baths. Every day it is a hive of activity, enterprise, energy and hope, used by every age and part of the community.

Local services have to respond to intense pressures and demands in a climate of financial cuts. This can be seen in the schools in the area, with the Annette Street Primary School making national headlines – with of its 222 pupils, 181 Romanian or Slovakian; the rest, of Asian origin, and not one child, ‘white’ Scottish born. Some of the press coverage stated inaccurately that not one child spoke English, but as headteacher Shirley Taylor explained, ‘The children who have been here for a while act as interpreters for the children who are new.’ Diversity is a strength, but such a mix raises all sorts of questions which need debate, not ignored. They don’t need some of the heated, overblown language used by some local campaigners.

At a recent Glasgow Southside Govanhill and Crosshill hustings of the four parliamentary and three of the Glasgow list candidates, the mood in a packed hall was nearly entirely well-mannered. There was as is now common custom at many meetings in Glasgow an opening question from Sean Clerkin (the activist who chased Iain Gray into the Subway Café in 2011). Only at the end did raw emotion emerge, when one person asked, ‘Is Govanhill better now than it was in 2011?’, Nicola Sturgeon replied, ‘I’m not going to reduce this to Yes or No’, and the questioner interrupted, ‘Why’s the place a shite hole then?’

Govanhill’s tale is one of large parts of Scotland. Who champions places which don’t tick the boxes as the most poor or disadvantaged communities? What happens when immigration occurs in an area with numerous pressure points and tensions? There is the legacy of decades of Glasgow Labour council rule, with its associated cronyism and questionable decisions. The rise of the SNP nationally has potentially added to frustrations in certain circles, creating a new political class, without many of the fundamental power imbalances being addressed, let alone acknowledged.

This is a story of everyday Scotland. There is a ‘left behind’ constituency. There are feelings of powerlessness, even helplessness, in parts of Govanhill, which can manifest itself in language which isn’t the most appropriate or accurate. But that sometimes is what people do when they feel desperate, and it would be better to understand the underlying causes, than just condemn completely out of hand.

Some of the political anger has been aimed directly and personally at Nicola Sturgeon, rather than Glasgow City Council, which is responsible for regulating landlords, or private landlords. This was explicit in a leaflet distributed days before polling from a group calling itself ‘United against Separation’ – titled ‘Vote Them Out: The SNP isn’t working’ and talking of ‘Govanhill Backcourts Disgrace’ and ‘Scotland can’t take nine more years of the SNP’ (when the next Parliamentary term is five years).

I have lived in Glasgow’s Southside for twenty-four years. When I first moved to Pollokshields all those years ago, the area was becoming more Asian and ‘white flight’ was happening – an issue which even saw the BNP stand in the 1997 election (winning a mere 149 votes).  I have now lived in Strathbungo for twenty years – and there is greater activism, energy and hope across most of the Southside than there ever has been.

Glasgow has always been a city with a nervous balancing act between living and tolerating diversity and change, and an unease with elements of such diversity, evident in the potent political, class and ethnic monocultures which have long dominated parts of the city. This legacy defined much of the Labour and left tradition and has not well represented the city. Now it looks like that once dominant and seemingly impregnable political culture is in terminal decline, and this is disorientating for some, leaving a new political environment and in places a vacuum.

Anger is an understandable response to the times we live in. Activism, social change and doing something positive are more constructive. Govanhill is a very human and very modern experience: an area of dramatic change and challenges where one group feel no one really cares, listens or understands them. Meanwhile, others get on with creating as best as they can a better Govanhill, trying to aid local people to have a greater say and influence.

It seems in this we are struggling to find an inclusive, shared language and practice which can describe the complexities and paradoxes of life. That does not happen by calling your area a ‘ghetto’ or ‘tinderbox’ – a Scottish ‘Selma’ this clearly is not. But we are still hesitantly and nervously trying to find words and concepts to capture what is going on in Govanhill and places like it. At least some of the people are doing inspirational things to improve their area for the better, and won’t give up or go away until they succeed.