Chris Leslie is the foremost chronicler of the changing face of Glasgow over the last decade.
Since 2007, the photographer has been stalking derelict tenements and forgotten bingo halls, recording dramatic explosions and bitter evictions, as his long term multimedia project emerged and grew, documenting the people, faces and urban fabric of ‘disappearing Glasgow’. His short films, audio recordings and, perhaps above all, photography, are now an unrivalled catalogue of a changing city.
Leslie’s work is not a critical commentary of ‘regeneration’ per se, nor explicitly political, but his photos of crumbling towerblocks and tenements are not devoid of context either. Viewed as a whole, it never verges into a patronising fetish for brutalist architecture or ‘ruin porn’ territory. But instead of presenting his own perspective, other voices – largely the remaining residents of doomed towerblocks and schemes – are allowed to come to the fore.
This week, an exhibition marks the release of Leslie’s book Disappearing Glasgow, and will run on the ground floor of the Glasgow School of Art’s Reid Building until early October.
To those arriving at GSA freshers’ week, the exhibition makes for an interesting primer on Glasgow, its images of urban dereliction and lost landscapes feeling a long way from Garnethill.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, this is an area that has been going downhill for years”, smirks a quote from Gordon Matheson – one time council leader and long time ATF favourite – imprinted on the wall. What area Matheson is referring to here is not made clear, although hardly matters. It could be anywhere featured in the exhibition – broadly Dalmarnock, Sighthill, Oatlands, Scotstoun, Whitevale/Bluevale and Red Road – with the council approach of deliberately talking down areas, and playing up the economic benefits of whatever they eventually intend to build there, a strategy they have had decades to hone. It is a process that has happened relentlessly and choosing the precise starting point – the Bruce Report, the Garden Festival, Mr Happy – has been discussed widely elsewhere.
However, the starting point for Chris Leslie’s Disappearing Glasgow project – previously known as the Glasgow Renaissance, which he lifted straight from a council marketing document – coincides with the announcement in late 2007 that the city was to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. This proved to be the catalyst for much of the “regeneration” that has taken place in the east end of Glasgow – including the sports arenas, dual carriageway, new housing developments and arguably even the M74 extension – that provides some of his most compelling work.
Leslie’s book is an impressive portfolio, with dozens of his best photographs and short profiles on each area. While the photos stand-up well by themselves, the book is punctuated by series of essays by a few critics and academics. Malcolm Fraser, probably Scotland’s leading architect, rails against the devastation of Dalmarnock by the so-called “East End Regeneration Route”, its junction with London Road described as “one of the bleakest urban places” he has come across. Kirsteen Paton, an urban sociologist, poses the question that if People Make Glasgow – as we’re so often reminded – then what kind of people have the means to “make” an increasingly neo-liberal and privatised city? “The irony is is that urban regeneration is exclusionary,” she notes.
In fact, Disappearing Glasgow is a good accompaniment to Paton’s 2014 academic study, Gentrification: A Working Class Perspective, a book which itself is set at the slightly exclusionary price of £70 (there is one copy in the Mitchell Library, and I will return it soon). That book focuses on the experience of gentrification in Partick in the mid-2000s, particularly around the huge – and ever expanding – Glasgow Harbour development of luxury flats, built on repurposed industrial land by the Clyde. It tells of the culture shift brought on by the development, the underlying class divisions and the competing and often contradictory responses to the changing area. It tells of how Patrick’s incoming middle class residents rallied around to (successfully) fight off a proposed Tesco superstore in the late-2000s; a prominent example of those with the social capital to do so being able to see off unwelcome developments, or at least put up a strong fight (North Kelvin Meadow), while the rest of the city has dual carriageways ploughed through it with little resistance (coming soon to Haghill).
Leslie and Paton’s respective books, alongside the work undertaken by Glasgow Games Monitor, Neil Gray, Roundmabit on youtube, and hopefully some of the stuff we’ve had on this blog too over the last few years, have all helped provide a record of what has happened to Glasgow over the last decade or so, and posed the question of what direction the city is being taken in. The importance of raising these questions has not gone away, and few have managed to do it in such an accessible way as Chris Leslie.
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