On Glasgow’s Southside, community enterprises are changing the fortunes of a once-troubled area. Natalie Whittle reports on Govanhill’s grassroots revolution. Photography by Ilisa Stack for The Glasgow Papers.
How do you talk about Glasgow’s weather in Kalderash? Del surales o brashand – it is raining a lot – might be a useful place to start. But on the day that Rahela Cirpaci is teaching Nicola Watt and Elanor Gunn how to speak this Romani dialect, there is a clear blue, early-winter sky. E forte sukar a ges – she says, and Watt and Gunn repeat it back to her. It is beautiful today.
All three women live in Govanhill, an area that was once a byword for trouble on the Southside of Glasgow. After the no-man’s land of the demolished Gorbals towers, Govanhill was what came next: a downbeat cocktail of neglected tenements, rogue landlords and friction around immigration. The area has remained in the lowest 5 per cent in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation since 2004, marking it as a zone of ‘deep-rooted deprivation’.
But it is changing. Some of the shifts come from the street – community-led enterprises such as Swap Market, where Cirpaci teaches – and some from government funding such as the £20m pledged in 2017 for a four-year programme to buy 350 homes and bring them into the social rented sector. There is also the South City Way, a new cycle and pedestrian route that will create a quicker and more inviting link from Govanhill’s arterial Victoria Road to the city centre. Me beshau ando Govanhill – I stay in Govanhill – is another essential phrase that Watt and Gunn write down in their notebooks, but what it means to live in Govanhill is changing fast.
Every Friday lunchtime Cirpaci (pictured outside Swap Market, top) hosts a free Romanes class at Swap Market – an hour of conversation at this new, ideas-led social enterprise on Victoria Road. It works as an exchange: donate a winter coat, for example, or offer a skill, and you earn you points; these can in turn be redeemed for goods or classes, governed by an ‘exchange rate’ that is set by Swap Market, according to supply and demand. Tutors for maths and Arabic are currently sought after on the swap board, while there are already skills offers of tarot readings, Spanish lessons and hair styling, among others.
Sibell Barrowclough, Swap Market manager, says: “If we notice a need in the community, if people are asking for coats for example, we value them higher… Children cotton on to it very very quickly, even if they don’t speak English, they are very quick to understanding swapping.” Clothes are currently in surplus at Swap Market, so their swap value is 1 point. “There are lots of ways to value things, [but for adults] getting used to the idea that clothes are just 1 point, whether it’s Versace or Topman, can be intriguing.”
Open since September 2018, Swap Market already has over 500 members using its services. Founder Ailie Rutherford says the response has been “really good, it’s being well used, especially by the local Roma community”. Rutherford, an artist, developed the idea from her previous People’s Bank of Govanhill project at the Govanhill Baths, which explored an alternative currency for the area. With funding from the Climate Challenge Fund and Glasgow City Council, Rutherford says Swap Market is “providing a space for swapping and sharing resources without the need for money… [it is] a place to work together to find innovative solutions to everyday problems.” She now has funding to develop a feminist cryptocurrency next year.
Back on Victoria Road, Cirpaci’s partner David Milosiu, an interpretor, minds the shop while she takes the class. It’s getting colder outside, and he warms his hands on an electric heater; Barrowclough and her assistant make cups of tea; Watt has brought in home-made chocolate cakes.
“When I was smaller I was always angry that there was no one teaching Romanes, nothing like that,” Cirpaci says. “When Swap Market opened and I found this opportunity that I can teach Romanes, I thought that’s an amazing idea. Nobody’s doing it – and I can do it.”
For Gunn, who works with local Roma children, it’s a helpful resource. Cirpaci has taught her phrases such as “be good, and how old are you? – it has been useful already,” she says. Barrowclough, too, frequently needs Kalderash to converse with her customers: “It makes a big difference because the pressure is on to learn English, and there’s no one saying ‘learn Romanes’. If no one is speaking to you in your own language, it’s isolating.”
Belgian-born Cirpaci came to Govanhill two and a half years ago from the south of Ireland, where she grew up with her family. “Ireland is very quiet compared to here. There’s always something happening in Govanhill,” she says. When not looking after her baby daughter, Cirpaci also volunteers for the Govanhill Community Development Trust, and works two half-days a week at Swap Market. Barrowclough says: “Because Govanhill is an area with large migrant communities, it can be really slow getting a job, and that can be very depressing. This is an opportunity to show skills. And we try and make this place somewhere where skills that aren’t necessarily valued by the current financial system do feel valued.”
Three years ago Gabrielle Cluness painted a small shop front on Victoria Road a summery, fishing boat blue. This is Milk Cafe, the social enterprise that helped to start the revolution on “Viccy Road”, as it’s affectionately known by taxi drivers and locals. Back in 2015, when Cluness and her co-founder Angela Ireland first opened Milk, it was the first community-minded but ‘upscale’ cafe to take a chance on Govanhill. There are now several speciality-coffee purveyors, including the coffeehouse Short Long Black, organic supermarket Locavore and the vinyl record-cafe Some Great Reward, all of which moved to the street this year.
“It’s a funny street,” Cluness says. “It’s like an old fashioned village, it’s got the hardware shop where you can buy literally everything; it’s got the veg shops run by Afghan and Roma families, and then it has the school uniform school [Campbell’s]. But it was significantly more down at heel [in 2015] and we were warned by lots of people not to open here. [People were saying] ‘If you’re going to sell nice coffee, it’s not really that kind of a street, it just has roll shops.’ It did feel different then.”
Cluness and Ireland had been volunteering with refugees and asylum seekers when they decided to open Milk, employing vulnerable migrant women to help them find a foothold in Glasgow life. The start-up budget came from a crowdfunding campaign. “Angela and I could both see a need for community support for people who are uprooted and who don’t have that network,” Cluness explains. “Working here would give women practical skills, but more than that was the idea that there were projects that would empower women. We wanted a space that felt safe and warm.”
Seven women currently do shift work at Milk Cafe, among them Nadifa Essa, a Somalian who sought refuge in the UK more than 20 years ago, fleeing civil war at home. “Almost every man had a gun,” she says, sipping a cup of peppermint green tea at Milk. Today Essa does some cleaning work at Milk, but also is involved in community projects. “When I came to the UK I thought, to sit down [and rest] is not my mission. If I got to the land of opportunity, I will learn. At Milk, there are many continents all here in this little place. Our hearts are bigger. We can meet new friends, learn new languages. It’s not just a cafe.”
When Essa first came to Govanhill in 2003, however, its mood was lower. “The flats were overcrowded and unclean, maybe one flat would have 20 people sharing. So many landlords just gave [tenants] keys, taking money, who cares? The bins were a disaster, the police were doing little. I used to be quite scared after 4pm, to buy milk in winter time. I was happy in my flat, but outside it was a war zone.”
Essa’s current flat is owned by the Govanhill Housing Association, which acts as “social landlord” enforcing better welfare standards than some of the “rogue” operators in the private rental sector. Though progress has been made, particularly with public acquisition of the worst tenements and tighter licences for homes in multiple occupancy, Cluness says she still sees shocking conditions: “In Govanhill we come into contact with a lot of Roma women, and because their English is not so good I go to see flats with them. The living conditions are atrocious. You’ve got these horrid, damp flats that are overpriced for how inappropriate they are to live in – and that’s what these women are going to get for their families.” Rubbish collection, too, is a stubborn issue: “A local councillor came in to ask about Govanhill, and we ranted about the bins for half an hour…”
However slowly improvements may come, they seem to be charting a gentrifying course for Govanhill. Cluness sees “good bits and bad bits” to this process. “A lot of low income Scots live in the area and we get a lots of people coming in and say ‘it’s too expensive for me’ or ‘I don’t know these ingredients and it makes me feel stupid to ask’. We’ve outpriced a lot of people in this area, but that’s because we’re trying to do something that wasn’t here before and also because we’re not funded.”
An inclusive gentrification, one that keeps the old Glasgow while embracing the new, may be impossible. “In the dream world all these middle class art students that are coming in would come to Milk and buy an overpriced bacon sandwich one day, but then go to some of the other little businesses and buy a really cheap amazing tattie scone roll and then buy their lightbulbs in the hardware shop,” Cluness says. “If they’re only going from here to Short Long Black to Locavore, that’s where it’s problematic.”
“Most people call me Blanche,” says Nadine Gorency, project manager for the Rags to Riches programme at Govanhill Baths. “It’s just a nickname, tongue in cheek kind of thing.” Born in Paris, Gorency moved to Glasgow’s Southside 28 years ago, after she met a Scottish man. Like Cluness, she has noticed Govanhill’s shifting character. “I have seen a change. But Govanhill I feel is still true to itself. The changes that are happening are improving the negative view that people have of Govanhill.”
Rags to Riches on Victoria Road is an upcycling shop and education programme run by Gorency for the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, an organisation that was formed following Glasgow City Council’s threatened closure of the historic baths in 2001. Money was the sore point: the large, ageing complex of baths was expensive to keep up. “The council was building a new swimming pool in the Gorbals, so there was no reason for this one to keep going,” Gorency says. “The community said no, and there was an occupation of the building.” When the “sit-in” protestors were evicted, the trust was born, and the baths saved from the wrecking ball.
A community-share crowdfunding campaign and £1.2m from the Heritage Lottery Fund has since raised enough to refurbish the baths. Gorency, who used to swim there herself, says “the baths have always been a beacon of community ownership, a project about building resilience… People came out and supported it.” Work is due to begin in spring 2019, when the cold draws back. Meanwhile the red sandstone facade on Calder Street gives no hint of the spectacular suite of swimming pools inside, the biggest one a magnificent arena for water, with red iron girders swooping in rust-red across the ceiling. Saloon-style poolside changing booths and glazed brick tiles will be polished up in the smaller ladies’ bath, which will become the main swimming pool, while the “large pond” continues to be an events space.
The last remaining Edwardian bathhouse in the city, it is a warren of Glaswegian social traditions suspended in time: segregated male and female “slipper” baths upstairs, descending to a vast old “steamie” house or laundry in the belly of the building. When the new-look baths open in two years’ time, there will be more modern facilities including a gym, massage rooms and an artists’ work and performance space in the basement, where women once washed their clothes.
At the Rags to Riches shop, there’s an assortment of clothes, gifts and furniture, all crafted from materials that would otherwise go to waste. There are earrings made from washed-up “sea glass”, for example, or footstools wrapped in offcuts of tweed. Some of the products are made by people enrolled on the Rags to Riches workshops, which “get people involved in creative activity to increase their wellbeing, and potentially increase people’s prospects in terms of setting up micro businesses,” Gorency says. “A lot of the people we started with in 2012 are still with us or are our tutors, some have started their own upcycling, crafting businesses.”
On Victoria Road’s more positive prospects, Gorency says: “Govanhill is a test area. Someone should come and have a proper chat to us. It’s a real example of people coming together and doing it for themselves, rather than waiting for someone coming to do it for them.”
When Reuben Chesters first moved to Glasgow, he lived in a flat in the West End. “The Southside was a bit ‘there be dragons’ kind of thing.” But then he crossed the Clyde, and for the past nine years has been resident in Govanhill, also home to his organic food social enterprise Locavore. From a shop on slightly tonier Nithsdale Road, Locavore has just moved into a bigger property on Victoria Road, aided by a government grant for business expansion. “It was a bit of a risk as it is such a mixed area, and though it’s only a few streets away from our old shop, when you say ‘oh yeah, we’re opening an organic social enterprise supermarket on Viccy Road…’ [people raise eyebrows], but we’ve been so much busier than we expected to be here. Our customer base has been really mixed as well. You get quite a good demographic in here and I think that surprises people.”
In an area not known for its deep pockets, Locavore sells high-spec products resolutely priced to reflect their quality. There’s olive oil on tap, serve-yourself spice racks and niche grains, eco laundry liquid refills. It has also recently installed an organic milk dispensing machine. An ambitious offering, but it works. Business is in fact booming: turnover was about “£2.5m this year, which is triple on last year,” Chesters says. “That’s a combination of moving to this shop and expanding our wholesale business [buying from the EU and selling in the UK]. The wholesale requires the least work for the most reward, whereas running the shop is harder work but creates more employment.”
Chesters studied sustainability and environmental management at Edinburgh and Aberdeen universities, and when he moved to Govanhill he started the charity South Seeds, focused on community gardens. With Locavore, which is a community interest company, Chesters wants to prove the price tags’ worth to the local economy. “We want to provide opportunities – here our veg is able to support local employment, our bread is supplied by another social enterprise, Freedom Bakery, we sell a lot of that bread. It’s got so much more of a benefit than a Tesco Express where you spend a pound and about 12p stays on local wages and the rest is going to shareholders.”
Locavore may superficially appear out of joint with its neighbouring businesses, but around the corner at Govanhill Baths, Gorency is supportive. “There’s a guy that was involved in Rags to Riches, a local man suffering from mental health problems, he goes regularly to Locavore and has a coffee, sitting reading a book. He says he really loves it there, he feels good there. It’s an accessible space. Some people want to see it as symptom of gentrification, but it is a grassroots project.”
Whenever a revolution starts, there are unexpected consequences. In Govanhill, many different groups stand to gain. And at Swap Market, there has already been a surprising benefit. “Swap Market is good for hoarders – because they can see who their stuff is going to, they find it easier to give stuff away,” Barrowclough says. “It’s not going to some warehouse to be sorted, it’s going back into the community, and you may see it walking down the street a few days later…”
The writer lives in Govanhill. Ilisa Stack is a photographer based in Glasgow. All text copyright The Outwith Agency. A version of this article will appear in The Glasgow Papers Issue 1. To comment, please email email@example.com