Park Hill: Past and Present

Park Hill with its infamous ‘Streets in the Sky’ has been undergoing a transformation. The collapse of the Sheffield steel industry in the 1980s, increased unemployment and subsequent state of decline across the estate, initiated a five phased redevelopment which has been ongoing for the past sixteen years. The aim to modernise, under the restriction of the grade II* listing, and create an up-to-date mixed tenure, mixed use complex. Since the project began around 1000 flats have been emptied, with the last resident moving out at the end of 2015.

Lead developer of the project Urban Splash, began working on the first phase of refurbishment in November 2007, conserving the Brutalist style with 500 concrete repairs, using coloured anodised aluminium panels which stand out across the city and generally updating the interiors.

In the words of one of the original architects Ivor Smith,

“Park Hill has not just been repaired, it’s been reinvented, it’s wonderful.”

However, through reinventing Park Hill, has Urban Splash inevitably lost what made Park Hill special, the community? Even without this, where is the past life of Park Hill being told?

During a visit to the estate, as part of the Cultural Heritage Management MA with the University of York, the eeriness associated with the abandonment was at the forefront of our minds. With the rehousing of residents at near completion, far ahead of the redevelopment itself, the majority of Park Hill remains empty. As a result, does this freeze Park Hill’s past in time? In September 2015, Park Hill featured as part of the National Trust’s Brutalist Utopias tour. This gave a different audience, one not associated with the estate, a chance to wander down the original ‘streets’, around flats and therefore into the past. This, however, is not a regular event. When these flats are redeveloped, how can people discover and recollect with the old Park Hill?

The answer lies within what exists currently at Park Hill.

Part of the old Park Hill community included a nursery that provided child care for the residents. Cheap and practical, the parents of Park Hill didn’t have to go far out of their way for childcare. After the residents were moved out due to refurbishment and Urban Splash gained control of the site the nursery was left in situ and continues to be in use….in a mostly abandoned estate. The scene is something out of a dystopian future, happy children playing in a play park surrounded by abandoned buildings. It begs the question of why. Why wasn’t the nursery moved immediately into the finished portion of the estate? Does it have to do with the greater legacy of the old Park Hill or is it more do with the practicalities of moving a small family business?

To many, both within Park Hill and beyond, the spray painted ‘Clare Middleton I Love You Will U Marry Me’ has become almost as iconic and inspirational as the grade II*-listed building complex on which it appears. For ten years little was known about the story behind it, leaving it to the imagination of those who saw fit to create their own answers as to who Clare Middleton was and what her response to this very public proposal may have been?

Source: www.broken-culture.co.uk/park-hill-'i-love-you'/

It was some 10 years after it was written that the truth came to light. The proposal had been written by a local man to his girlfriend, but no marriage was to follow it up. The couple split 3 months after it appeared in early 2001 and Clare Middleton would later die of cancer the same year Park Hill was taken over.

Since the Urban Splash redevelopment of Park Hill the graffiti has been used as part of the site’s marketing. The latter half of the proposal is being used on pillows in the show flat and has seen the installation of neon lighting meaning we are given a more solid sense of it as a work of public art. The decision was made that only the second half of the proposal would receive a neon permanence leaving the name to slowly fade into the concrete. This choice has only highlighted the division between the public and private life of the proposal.

The original creator of the graffiti stated, before the neon lighting was installed, that if the proposal was to be retained, all parts must be kept. So should the whole of the declaration have received the same treatment? By taking something that still holds inherently personal significance and using it as another marketing tool for an already controversial redevelopment, does the handling of this relatively recent piece of graffiti reflect the wider issues that affect the site?

Source: Matthew Hargreaves 2015

As it is often highlighted, one of the most important features in Park Hill’s past, present and future is the community. An excellent reminder of Park Hill’s past community is the graffiti — both outside and inside. It is, of course, true that graffiti offers us only a snapshot but this snapshot is a relatively untainted one compared to photographs contemporary of the time which are often staged and posed for. A wedding proposal, Smiths’ lyrics and various other declarations (some of adoration for Park Hill itself), adorn the walls and really lend themselves to a space within a temporary exhibition, such as the one we are proposing.

Source: Gill Bull 2015

As community is such a big part of defining Park Hill it is important to engage people from all walks of life and encourage some form of project which deals with the story of Park Hill and those who lived there. This is an idea which can be perfectly explored through looking at the stories behind the graffiti that can be seen today, and through creating new stories using new forms of graffiti — perhaps in order to create an installation within the temporary exhibition which would allow people to add their own sense of what Park Hill means to them. As Rora Blue’s Unsent Project (http://rorablue.com/unsentcollage) shows us, people feel more at ease expressing their truest thoughts and raw emotions through anonymity and graffiti can certainly be seen as a medium which allows us to express ourselves without anyone ever knowing our true identity. The tangible evidence of the thoughts and stories of those at Park Hill may not always remain, but their place at Park Hill should never be forgotten.

Source: Joelle Hall 2015

In conjunction with what we have already discussed, we feel that it is also important for part of the ground floor of one of the blocks to be turned into a museum exhibition space. Currently, the way that Park Hill, not only as a physical structure but also as a concept, is being represented by Urban Splash is inconsistent with the level of cultural and social memory attached to Park Hill, not simply from former residents but from the wider community in Sheffield.

The exhibition space would be split into two parts. The first part would be the larger, and would be permanent. This would feature a series of displays showcasing the history of the site (for as long as there are records for), culminating in the development of the current Park Hill site and project. This would give visitors a sense of the changing history of the site, and recognise that although Park Hill is currently undergoing change, the site itself was a facilitator of change through the slum clearance that preceded its construction, and so on back through time. Alongside this would also be some form of audio-based experience which incorporated recordings of Park Hill residents expressing what the site meant to them.

The smaller part of this space would be a dedicated ‘temporary exhibition’ space, which would host a variety of installations from the wider Sheffield area, or even further afield with a connection to the site. This would help to give the wider Sheffield community a connection to Park Hill, and increase their reasons for visiting a site which is in danger of becoming a closed community.

Finally, the issue of ‘inclusion’ is one that must be heavily considered in any future representation of the Park Hill Estate within a cultural heritage context. The stories and memoirs of ex-residents should be shared and explored without the exclusion of the ‘new’ residents and Urban Splash themselves. To achieve this goal there needs to be a high level of communication between heritage professionals and the ex-residents of the Park Hill estate. This communication network might include information leaflets and online surveys as a preliminary form of contact and might result in larger focus groups or workshops in local venues. There is a need to ensure that residents from all periods of the buildings history are included and that the group demographics are as diverse as possible (gender, age, length of time spent at Park Hill etc.). The more high profile stories such as the iconic ‘I Love You Will U Marry Me’ graffiti should be shared and explored and various parties involved might be invited to make a contribution to the project. However, totally ordinary and mundane accounts should also be utilized in order to portray more general day-to-day life on the estate that might be highly relatable for working-class individuals from all over Sheffield and the wider context of Britain. Public opinion of any exhibit concerning the former Park Hill estate will probably be as varied as those regarding the controversial redevelopment project itself, however it is time that the ex-residents had a platform to let their voices be heard, to remember the Park Hill that they once knew, to commemorate their ‘Streets in the Sky.’

Authors: Joelle-Louise Hall, Benjamin Gill, Joy Kemp, Caitlin Crosby, Hannah Page and Georgina Pike