Govanhill: Glasgow’s Southside is changing for the better

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, August 11th 2019

Govanhill on Glasgow’s Southside is an area used to being noticed. But in the last week and a half it has been doing so on its own terms with the third Govanhill International Festival and Carnival including an annual parade through its streets.

In recent years the area has attracted attention and headlines with right-wing papers waxing lyrically about ‘Govanhell’. Their concern for social issues and inner city poverty only emerging when Nicola Sturgeon, local MSP, became First Minister.

Govanhill has always been about change and, throughout its history, subject to waves of immigration and incomers – the Irish, Jews, Pakistanis, and most recently, Roma. In each period, people arriving to make the area their home have faced challenges, discrimination, prejudice and racism.

The latest arrivals like all before them brought forth a variety of responses – some friendly, some nervous, some not so friendly, and some outright hostile. Such has been the human reaction to immigration since the dawning of time.

Govanhill has now entered its latest phase of change in the last couple of years, and one unexpected by many. It has become a place of arrival for many young people who have brought a new energy and vitality to the area, along with hosts of ethical and ecological businesses, social enterprises, and voluntary initiatives.

One project which has been going for several years, but in the last year opened shop-front premises on Govanhill’s main street, Victoria Road, is ‘Rags to Riches’, an upcycling social enterprise run by Nadine Gorency, known as ‘Blanche’ to everyone. The shop is she says ‘a new way of doing business, producing and manufacturing’. ‘We take risks’, she states, ‘to see potential – in working with a great bunch of people in a way hopefully inspiring for others.’

A new initiative that opened in the past two weeks is the Outwith Agency, set up by Natalie Whittle on Albert Road – a place for writers, creative and people looking for a space without distraction. Whittle’s vision is ‘to create a writing environment that is soothing and a little bit sociable at the same time.’

Numerous enterprises have acted as catalysts in this change – Bakery 47 who came and went, the organic food store Locavore, and the MILK Café on Victoria Road. Govanhill now even boasts its own independent music shop, Some Great Reward, and LGBT bookshop, Category IS Books.

MILK was set up in 2015 by Gabrielle Cluness and Angela Ireland, according to Angela with the aim ‘to create a welcoming community in a café where refugees and migrant women can gain critical skills and knowledge, the transferable skills you can get while working in a café, but even more than that confidence and social skills.’

Angela reflects on four years of running a café which is thriving, and has expanded its activities every year. She observes that ‘the women who work here often come from cultures of hospitality’ that we have lost in many parts of the UK and that ‘a lot of people feel that MILK is like coming into a warm living room.’

One of the most pronounced characteristics of Govanhill is its significant social media presence with numerous prominent Facebook pages debating different aspects of local life. One of the most well-known is ‘Govanhill Go!’, currently administered by Marian McSeveney, which now has over 3,000 members.

The group was established by people ‘who wanted a bit more positivity online about the area they lived in, something that wasn’t all disrepair, rats and rubbish’ comments Marian. Instead they wanted to show a different face ‘to celebrate the diversity, community, beautiful architecture, quirky shops and unparalleled range of food available to the residents.’

For years many of the most distinctive positive features of Govanhill sometimes led people to feel defensive or reticent. At an event on Friday night to launch the first ever Govanhill Book Festival (which I was involved in organising), chaired by journalist Catriona Stewart, one resident talked of Victoria Road as ‘one of the nicest boulevards in the city’ and then compared it to Barcelona but admitted that the area had ‘nae Gaudi’.

The area faces numerous challenges – pressures on housing; problems with fly-tipping, rubbish and bins, and stretched public services. Annie Macfarlane, chair of Govanhill Housing Association, takes the view that ‘The quality of some housing in the privately rented sector is particularly poor which has been well publicised and this has a knock on impact on other housing providers, homeowners and the community.’

David McGuire, fire officer for the area, grew up in Govanhill and was born in Butterbiggins Road. When he says this to local kids as part of his work it makes an impact ‘saying to kids that the streets you live and play in, are the streets I lived and played in.’ He reflects through the community outreach work that his service does that ‘there isn’t a lot of mixing going on. It is the kids I work with. Many of the Roma kids already have a wee Scottish sense of humour.’

Romano Lav is an inspiring project working with the local Roma community, and in typical Govanhill spirit has organised the first ever Roma film festival in the UK, CineRoma, coming shortly. Rahela Cirpaci works with Romano Lav, is originally from Belgium and came to Govanhill via Ireland, and runs language classes teaching Romani: ‘When I was smaller I was always angry that there was no one teaching Romanes. I found this opportunity that I can teach Romanes, I thought this is an amazing idea. Nobody’s doing it – and I can do it.’

The sense of home and belonging is important and something many see as one of the most affirming aspects of life in Govanhill. Blanche has lived 28 years in the Southside after growing up in Paris and makes a bold statement that ‘The only place in Scotland I have felt at home as a black woman is Govanhill.’

She notices the changes and feels they are for the better, adding that ‘Govanhill is unique. The heart and soul of Govanhill is still there and will always be there -whatever the changes and the new people coming in’. The unstated word in this conversation is the word ‘gentrification’ and the ‘new people’ – not the Roma, but the artists, creatives, and (the dread word, softly spoken) ‘the hipsters.’

Natalie Whittle made the journey from London to Govanhill, and shocked some of her West End friends by her choice, which left her a little surprised at their slightly superior view of the city. She is nothing but upbeat in her view of the area – ‘It’s got a brilliant mix of people, with lots of young workers, artists and other business owners who are very supportive of one another’.

These changes, perceptions and expectations aren’t the whole picture. That would take a whole mini-series of articles. But they raise numerous questions about how people living in Govanhill judge whether their area is going in the right direction, and how they assess that?

The answer to this isn’t straightforward. It entails talking about local politics, the role of the council, years of cuts at a local and national level, how consultation is done, and how genuine local conversations are held – something in which the Housing Association are active, along with numerous public services and projects like Romano Lav.

Catriona Stewart comments that perception is a big issue in this: ‘Any positive news story I write about Govanhill inevitably leads to someone commenting that I must never have been there when I have lived here for years’. In certain small sections of Govanhill any good news is challenged as ‘fake news’, while others feel that some public bodies think that any negative news is talking the area down. Sound familiar? But it does feel acute when brought down to a local area.

There are many Govanhills, just as there are many Glasgows and Scotlands, each with their own right to be heard. A starting point would be to agree mutual respect and civility towards differing opinions, something which doesn’t always happen in the world of social media or beyond.

Marian of ‘Govanhill Go!’ notes that ‘There has been conflict in recent years in the community about who has the right to be the ‘authentic’ voice of Govanhill’. There are many authentic voices, but people cannot deny the positive changes going on, while recognising that there are many future challenges.

Something has changed in Govanhill these last few years. The inspiring example of Govanhill Baths – the eighteen year campaign which refused to lie down and accept the council closure of their Edwardian baths – and who are now seeing the transfer of this asset to the community where it will be owned by thousands of local people, has been a catalyst to further change.

The area feels different with the main street, Victoria Road, buzzing, and lots of the side roads beginning to have a similar feel. Marian believes something profound has shifted: ‘The most optimistic change for me is there’s now demand to live here, a sense of optimism and a confidence about the place even though we haven’t found the silver bullet solution to some of the really difficult issues.’ But she says, pausing: ‘It feels like that energy is starting to make a difference’.