Living in the Shadows of Glasgow’s High Rise Ghettos Before They Get Blown Up

Early last April, a letter arrived at Betty Caw’s neat, pebbledash terrace house directly opposite Glasgow’s towering Red Road flats. “The regeneration of North Glasgow is continuing at great pace and with that in mind I have some exciting news,” began a single page on council headed paper signed by Gordon Matheson, leader of Glasgow City Council. Five of the six Red Road multi-storey flats, the letter said, were to be demolished live as part of the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

But the planned demolition never took place. After a week insisting, in the face of public outrage, that blowing up the 1960s-era flats was “a bold and dramatic statement” Glasgow City council finally announced that the plan was being shelved. It was a bold and dramatic statement alright – and an amazingly crass one, the kind that would get you asked to leave a dinner party. The Commonwealth Games would not begin with a bang.

Now, more than nine months later, Betty Caw and her husband, Alec, still look out every day from their living room window at the vertiginous Red Road flats.

finlay red road

“No one knows when they will come down,” says Betty, who spent more than two decades living in the Red Road flats. The multi-storey towers, covered in red clay coloured tarpaulin emblazoned with the Glasgow Housing Association logo, dominate the view from the couple’s second floor window. “We had good times in those flats, good memories. Now I just want to see the back of them.”

The Caws moved into the Red Road towers in 1968. When architect Sam Bunton’s vision of a city in the sky was completed the following year, Red Road was the largest high-rise development in Europe. The tallest of the eight towers was 31 floors. The modernist development – partly inspired by frequent visits to Marseille by Glasgow corporation functionaries and plans bought from Algeria – housed 5,000 people.

“For ten years it was good”, says Alec. “Then the drugs moved in and it was downhill from there.” After raising three children in the towers, the family moved across the road in 1990. By then Glasgow authorities neglect of the Red Road had left the flats run down and unstable, both socially and architecturally. “We were glad to get out”, says Alec.

Glasgow Housing Association says it is on track to have all the Red Road towers demolished and the site cleared by 2017 but nearby residents complain that since the Commonwealth Games volte face little has been done.

“Nobody has contacted us to give us a date or anything. We only get what we read in the papers,” says Betty and Alec Caws’ nextdoor neighbour Rose Bambrick. A pair of West Highland terriers nip around her ankles.

The Red Road flats were celebrated when they were completed, in the late 1960s. But now Bambrick says they are, “an eyesore. It’s like living in a warzone country.”

Directly underneath the hulking, 30-storey towers sits the Springburn Alive and Kicking Project. The community centre, which serves some 200 pensioners and disabled people from across Glasgow, is housed in a former primary school. The function room is filled with the smell of soup. Photographs line the walls.

“Nobody knows what the plans are for the area,” says a staff member who asks not to be named. “We have been here for 26 years. We don’t want to leave. We love this area. Hopefully we’ll get a refurbishment and can stay.”

Outside, in the fierce wind that rushes between the towers, a sign pinned to a padlocked gate warns: “Demolition in progress – keep out.”

The Red Road towers were scheduled to come down long before last summer’s Commonwealth Games. Two have already been demolished. The five that are currently empty look like skeletons on stilts, shimmering in a winter’s late afternoon sun. The asbestos that riddled the buildings has been manually removed ahead of demolition. Thirty of the workers who built the flats contracted Asbestos-related illnesses.

Former Red Road residents complain about the pace and cost of the protracted demolition. “It has been going on for 12 years,” says Finlay McKay, a 46-year-old firefighter who grew up in the Red Road flats. “How much money has been spent to demolish them and they are still sitting there? It must have been millions and millions. Surely it would have been cheaper just to upgrade them.”

“For all these houses that they are demolishing, we have massive homelessness, Surely if you were homeless and had the choice of living up there” – McKay points up at the high rises – “you’d take it instead of being on the street.”

McKay now lives in another part of Glasgow but he has fond memories of growing up in Red Road. He takes me to a former BMX track, now overgrown with weeds and high grass, and a flat stretch of grass near the road where kids used to play football. They called this “Little Wembley”.

During the media storm that followed the proposed demolition last April, national and international television crews gathered on a small hillside overlooking the towers that used to serve as Red Road’s summer sunbathing spot and a sledging slope in snowing winters.

“It was fantastic living here. You had everything you needed. Two pubs, bingo, shops, chippies, everything you needed was on site,” says McKay.

McKay thinks it is wrong to blame the flats for the anti-social behaviour that increasingly took place in them as the initial tenants moved out and replaced, often by single people and troubled families. “You have to deal with the people. You can’t blame the building for the people,” says McKay.

Glasgow academic and artist Mitch Miller agrees. “Steel frame buildings of that size are great in Manhattan where there is money invested in maintaining them. In a windy cabbage patch in North Glasgow, run by a bankrupt corporation, it is a different story,” says Miller, who spent three years as “resident illustrator” on the Red Road Cultural Project.

Red Road did work in the early years, says Miller, who believes that too much focus – in Glasgow and nationally – has been placed on high-rise housing developments that have failed, rather than those that have succeeded.

“The story of Glasgow high rises is not a universally grim story. They got some of it right,” says Miller.

Finlay McKay, for one, will have mixed emotions when the Red Road flats do eventually come down. “Whenever I am up here it still feels like home. It still feels safe even though they look so sad and pathetic now.”

This piece originally appeared on Vice.