Back gardens of terraced houses in Sheffield, 2013
Despite being bombed in World War 2 (what some refer to as the Sheffield Blitz), Sheffield has retained large areas that are built up with terraced housing built around and prior to 1900. From street view, these houses look like long rows of anonymous and identical dwellings. And indeed, if you have been in one, you pretty much know what the layout of every other house on the street will be. Every couple of houses has a passage that runs between into the back garden space. Because of this, the internal spaces, those behind the street view, are, or historically were, visible to all, making a kind of private community space, which forms a stage upon which everday life is played out for neighbors to see.
This configuration, of course has its drawbacks. Certainly in the academic literature on community has highlighted that the threat of being watched has a very strong effect on how people behave. The power of observation and the policing of behaviour that results is what was behind the design of Bentham’s panopticon prison and is certainly the kind of thing Foucault talks about (but also see this paper by Brunen-Ernst). Certainly the pressure to conform has the potential to limit innovation and a form of freedom of expression or ability to live one’s private life outside of social norms. But, I would argue, this is not a necessary relationship and in the rush to highlight the negatives there has been a lack of consideration of the positives that this type of open, central design can bring.
The passages that run between the houses give opportunities for immediate neighbors to interact, particularly so for those houses whose “front door” is actually located in this passage, rather than at the front of the house. Even when there is a “proper” front door, because the opening is onto the street, people often use the kitchen entrance at the back as their primary access. As a result, neighbors have the chance to become aware of the comings and goings of those whom they live next to. If someone disappears from view for some time, there is occasion to make sure everything is ok. This type of housing design gives more opportunity to avoid being like Joyce Vincent, who died in her London flat and was not discovered for three years, or Dave Carter, who committed suicide and was not discovered for 4 years, or Janet Veal, who was partially eaten by her cats after she lay dead and undiscovered for several days.
At one time, these houses were served by small corner shops. These shops, built into the lower level of the corner plots, provided for many of the needs of the residents. A quick search of Sheffield Forum, a particularly active internet community, reveals that the houses in the photo were at one time served by Aurthor Hale’s corner shop (a green grocer), a fishmongers, and a butcher, and a dry goods shop. Further on there was a candy shop, an off licence, a pub, and a dog grooming shop (whose owner was murdered in the 1980’s). Mr. Hale retired in the early 1990’s and blocked up his door, thereby converting the shop into a residence. The poodle shop is now a wedding dress store. The pub, now called the Greystones, remains and has live music. Recently purchased by Thornbridge brewery, headquartered in Bakewell, not so long ago it was also likely to disappear (see this link).
In Sheffield, you know where you are. Indeed, one of the things I have always liked about Sheffield is the sense of itself that it has. It proclaims, “like it or not, this is me, take me as I am.” Unlike so many British cities whose commercial landscape is overpopulated by the usual large chain or high street outlets that render them everywhere and nowhere, Sheffield seems to have a very visible landscape of independent retailers. This independence is not anonymous and fractured, as one might find as a result of the type individualism imposed by neoliberal fiscal and social policy, nor is it a kind of overwhelming defensive localism whereby outsiders are treated with suspicion and disdain (though some of both can be found–this is modern Britain, after all). Instead, in Sheffield, for the most part one finds a kind of community focused form of independence. Some of this, I think, must have come about as a result of the way people have lived, and to some degree the build environment helped to reinforce that. Though with the removal and redevelopment of this form of housing for a more anonymous and private design, the introduction of fences segmenting the shared gardens, and the closing of small corner shops I wonder for how much longer this open form of localism will persist.
This post is part of the WordPress postaday weekly photo challenge. The theme this week was inside. You can find the challenge and links to other posts on the theme here.
The Japanese have a word, Kodukushi or lonely death, for the situation where a body is undiscovered for a long period of time. In the UK, figures are not kept on the number of “lonely death” cases that are discovered each year, but they do appear in the news reports with alarming regularity. In the US, according to this article in the Guardian, there are 40,000 unclaimed remains, though the time scale for this figure is unclear. While the news stories tend to highlight the discovery of those who are relatively young, it is more likely that the rates of lonely death will be high for the elderly as a study by Help the Aged (cited in the guardian piece, but see also this report by AgeUK).
- Stop the EDL in Sheffield / 21 September (revsocs.wordpress.com)
- Final victory for Sheffield industry after Star campaign (thestar.co.uk)
- Sunday’s BBC Radio Sheffield Interview (yoursafar.wordpress.com)
- A long ride out to sheffield and back (cubicgarden.com)
- 141 years Atkinsons, a just in Sheffield indie store (summersheffield2013.wordpress.com)