Saturday, 24 May 2014

Non-beauty: Park Hill flats, Sheffield, May 2014

I had a day off work yesterday, and I drove up to Sheffield. I moved away 10 years ago. When I left, Park Hill was operating as a council estate, home to hundreds of families. I never lived here, but I spent a few months temping as receptionist at Park Hill Primary School, coming here every day for work. The school is no longer there - it's been demolished, and the flats have been cleared of the families whose children attended the school. The vast banks of concrete that used to be busy with life (washing lines, statellite dishes, plants, voices) are now silent, boarded up and strangely peaceful.

The estate has been bought by investors and is slowly being re-developed into swish urban flats. The first block is complete, and the flats are all sold. People live here, side by side with the silent, battered hulks of the other blocks. It must be a strange feeling to look out of your window onto all this decay. Would it be better or worse to look out over hundreds of shiny new flats, full of people who can afford to live in them?

Park Hill flats, Sheffield. Left - derelict flats. Right - the renovated block

The site of Park Hill Primary School was on the left, behind the fence.
I thought Park Hill would be sad, especially compared to my memories of the living estate. But it doesn't feel like something dead or abandoned. It feels restful and calm, as if it's pausing for breath after a period of hard work. 

Surprisingly, there is nothing to stop you from walking into the derelict estate, and even climbing the stairs up to the 'streets in the sky' (the original architect's vision of the high-rise corridors that provide access to the individual flats). I climbed up, and up, until I reached a barred gate. While I was up inside the block, rain began to pour down in a heavy shower, typical of Sheffield weather. It passed within a few minutes, and the sun came back out.

These walkways were designed to be wide enough for a milk float

The grounds are untended. Grass grows high and sprouts out between the paving slabs. Benches are battered but intact. Bins have no bin-liners, no rubbish. An empty play-area looks like it would have been fun to use, once.

There is one remaining feature of the old Park Hill - the Grace Owen Nursery School. The classrooms and playground are still operating, crowded in by the huge, empty tenements. 

I left Park Hill feeling uplifted and grateful to have seen it in its halfway state, before its old nature is erased completely. If the developers' plans run smoothly, the whole place will be shiny, gentrified and rainbow-panelled in a few years' time, and its period of restful decline will be over. My affection for Park Hill and my interest in its story are not universally shared - many Sheffield residents loathe the blocks and would gladly have seen them demolished (as they might have been if it weren't for their Grade 2 listed status). But I hope it will be a success. I'll be back to see how the story unfolds. 


Lexi said...

I went to uni here and my boyfriend had one of these flats before the move to renovate. It really touched me seeing this, thank-you - the flats always felt a bit removed, high above the trams and bustle of the city, and they were decent spaces despite the decay.

Sarah said...

Hi Lexi, thanks for commenting and I'm glad you liked the post. Good to hear your memory of Park Hill.