Leaf Street: Radical gardening in the city

The Leaf Street Community Garden in Hulme was set up in 2000 when local residents from the Bentley House (‘Redbricks’) estate decided to transform a grassed-over pathway between two rows of three-storey flats into a communal garden. After a 72-hour permaculture course and community consultation, the layout of the community garden was decided and locals got on with making the garden a reality. Although they have faced opposition from the council, which has threatened to turf over the garden on a couple of occasions, as well as leadership issues, the garden remains an example of successful radical gardening in Manchester.

In 1999, residents in Hulme decided to transform a wide pathway on Leaf Street into a community garden which grows food and also provides an open space for neighbours to meet and interact. Based on permaculture principles which take wildlife, food and people into consideration, the locals dug up the pathway and started planting trees and herbs with very little funding. Mick Chesterman, a local volunteer at the garden, states that at the time the local authorities weren’t very helpful and insisted that the project secure written consent from 80% of the residents living in the vicinity.

Even so, locals led by Angus Soutar, ‘Jungle’ Jen, and Rob Squires got on with their plans and planted (what they insist is) the world’s largest herb spiral, made using reclaimed railway sleepers, raised vegetable beds between wood-chipped pathways, fruit trees and shrubs as well as art sculptures. Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton provided a small grant to help pay for the fruit trees but other than that, the garden came together due to the efforts of the locals.

Over the years, however, the garden began to lose direction and in 2002, it was decided to raise funds to employ a project co-ordinator for the garden who would take the lead and help organise volunteers more effectively. This lead to a shift in focus away from growing food to creating an environment where locals can socialise and supporting biodiversity and wildlife. As Mick notes, “We wanted to take a low maintenance approach to gardening. We’re not afraid of it being messy and creating a natural habitat where food is grown, birds and insects are supported and opening up a space for the community to enjoy.”

However, in 2008 the council reportedly showed concern over the appearance of the garden and so volunteers helped to get it back in order. Leaf Street works with volunteers from the local Hulme Community Garden Centre and has also developed an uneasy alliance with the housing association which controls the surrounding estate.

The issue of land and land ownership is a contentious issue at the heart of radical gardening and especially ‘guerrilla gardening’ where activists plant on abandoned land without permission. However, Leaf Street Community Garden is an example of action taken for the community’s benefit that was later positively acknowledged by the landlords themselves. “Leaf Street was built by people just taking it and doing it literally without the will of their landlord,” says Mick. “And actually ten years down the road, it’s become an asset to the landlords and they’re now really happy it’s happened.

“So just because you’re experiencing resistance doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t just go out and do it. In the same way that direct action maybe against the law but morally justified, it’s the same for radical gardening. I mean you may not have direct consent but you’re in the right and once you’ve done it you can’t really argue against it.”

This radical background is reflected in the volunteers’ strong sense of ownership of the garden which has meant they have found it hard to work with established organisations such as housing associations. “I mean we do get a lot out of it but at the same time the garden has a strong sense of identity and we’re reluctant to give that up,” remarked Mick. Radical gardeners have also noted that housing associations, some of which own huge quantities of empty land, could do more to support and encourage community gardens.

Community and radical gardens have recently witnessed a resurgence due to the role that they play in building resilient communities that are able to deal with the impacts of climate change. Moving away from a dependence on supermarkets and food that is flown from all over the world by growing food locally is an aspiration of many climate activists. And despite the move away from growing food, the Leaf Street Community garden still grows pears, apples, plums, berries, squashes and pumpkins.

Taking a wider perspective, Mick states that working with the community garden is a ‘coping mechanism’ that allows him to deal with the enormity of climate change. “It’s very easy to get quite apocalyptic about the changes that are going to happen so being able to grow my own food locally and work with my neighbours is one way of dealing with climate change positively and constructively.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Hulme Mural: From Tranquil Pastures To A High-Rise Age

The 84-foot long mural at Hulme Library is an impressive work of public art which chronicles the history of Hulme from Roman times up until the present. Capturing the constant battle for decent homes, immigration following World War Two and the tumultuous periods of regeneration, the mural is a reminder of the transformation of Hulme across the ages.

The Hulme mural was designed and made by the staff and students of the pottery classes at Adult Education Services, which is currently located in the same building as Hulme Library on Stretford Road.. They originally wanted to make a sculpture to display inside the building but they decided that a mural on the outside wall would have a greater impact. The mural took two years (from 2000-2002) to complete and the history was carefully researched to make the mural factually accurate.

Brigitte Soltau, a local pottery instructor who was involved in the mural, explains why they chose to record the history of the city. “There was a lot of changes happening in Hulme as we were planning the mural. New housing was being built opposite the education centre and we felt that we were in the middle of an important time of change for the community. So recording a longer period of other significant changes for Hulme felt like an obvious subject matter for us.” The mural consists of six panels and is accompanied by a poem commemorating the changes that Hulme has been through.

From Hulme all blessings flow, in this valley there is scope for motion… flowing forwards from tranquil pastures to angry winding rivers…
Hulme received its name from the Norse (Scandinavian) word for a small island surrounded by water or marshland as it was encircled with water on three sides during the time of the Norman invasion of 1066. In fact, Hulme was a separate community from Manchester in the 15th century and was a predominately farming community until the 18th century. This is depicted in the first panel of the mural which shows Hulme as rural community with cottages surrounded by water, trees and nature.

When shadows danced like leaves across childhood…And angel raged across glittery moon… when silver cloud shadowed steel heartbeats…
Industrialisation swept into Hulme in the 18th century when the Bridgewater Canal brought trade into the surrounding neighbourhoods of Castlefield. This is illustrated in the second panel of the mural that shows the expansion of the village into a town with a library, factories, shops and inns. The canal supported the rising textile industry, which boomed at the time, bringing people into the city to work. The number of people living in Hulme multiplied 50-fold in the first half of the 19th century as they flocked to the mills and homes were built rapidly to help accommodate the rising population. However, many of the homes were of extremely low standard and poor sanitation meant that diseases such as cholera were rampant.

The situation got so bad that Manchester Borough Council (now Manchester City Council) passed a law in 1844 banning the construction of any more houses in Hulme. Even so, homes which were more accurately described as slums continued to exist and were inhabited up until the mid 20th century. Hulme’s link to the Rolls-Royce company is also depicted in the mural with a model of the car in the second panel. In 1904, Henry Royce and Charles Stewart Rolls met in the Midland Hotel in central Manchester and decided to start their own company making a unique version of a new invention – the motor car. They opened the first Rolls-Royce factory in Hulme and many nearby streets now commemorate this bit of history, including Royce Road and Rolls Crescent.

Remembering wartime, endless years of hot fire… Safe houses ‘homes fit for heroes’…
The third panel of the mural looks at the Second World War and calls for decent homes following an extended period of austerity as well as the rise in immigration and the development of a multicultural Hulme. There was a concerted effort to clear slums in the post-war period and Hulme’s slums were eventually demolished in the 1960s after local resistance delayed their clearance by a generation. Once again, however, a rush to build the homes meant that they ended up with a unique variant of the high-rise tower blocks named the Crescents. Four sets of curved low-rise buildings, the Crescents were completed in the 1971 and were architecturally based on terraced housing in Bath and Bloomsbury. More than 5,000 housing units had been built in less than eight years and the redevelopment of Hulme was said to be on a scale surpassed only in Rotterdam, Warsaw or Hiroshima.

From the sea, a rush wind blowing…Embers turn to carnival glow, universe spinning strong below our feet…
The fourth panel of the mural is of the annual carnival that paraded through Hulme following the Second World War. Migrants from the West Indies and Asia came to the UK and settled in the large cities such as Manchester and in particular areas such as Rusholme, Moss Side, Cheetham Hill and Hulme. “Immigration after the Second World War had a huge impact on the area and we wanted to show that in a positive sense…” remarks Soltau, who helped to design and make the mural. “The carnival scene was important to us as it showed the resilient and positive aspects of Hulme and I think lots of people had many fond memories of the carnival procession. Loads of local people were involved in the planning of it so we wanted to show that and the creative sense of community during the 70s and 80s, before the redevelopment phase.”

In a high-rise age, in a delicate rage, we do not shrink before them… Demolition like thunder, all ears stiffen to the vast flooding scream…
The fifth panel records the rising concerns around housing, demolition and the regeneration of Hulme in the 1990s. Housing is a recurring issue in the mural and reflects the fact that Hulme became is widely known for its social and economic decline during the 1970s and 80s and (questionably) more successful regeneration in the 1990s. As Soltau explains: “Hulme was re-developed three times in a short period of time, so that means that buildings were razed to the ground three times which is a significant amount of upheaval for such a tiny place. To be wiped out and reinvented that many times over is quite unusual.”

Shortly after residents began moving into the Crescents in 1971, it became apparent that the buildings were poorly designed (cutting Hulme off from the rest of the city), the workmanship of low quality and the houses required a level of maintenance that was not forthcoming. The oil crisis of the 1970s made the homes almost impossible to heat for the low-income residents, families moved out of the Crescents by the 1980s and were replaced by students, artists and travellers as well as drug addicts. The Crescents became notorious for being cold, damp and riddled with cockroaches and crime. In 1977, people living in Hulme were seven times more likely to commit suicide compared to the national average and thirty-one times more likely to be a victim of crime. In 1986, over 59% of adult males in Hulme were unemployed and youth unemployment was recorded at 68%.

The situation got so bad that reports state that “there must have been times when simply abandoning Hulme to the forces of nature would have seemed the easier option.” (cited in Alison Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment, 2001, p230). The sense of community and neighbourhood friendliness of the former slums of Hulme had been lost, to be replaced by a huge social and economic problem. Within a decade of their construction, the Crescents were declared unfit for purpose and new plans were under way to try and resolve the issues that they had thrown up.

In the 1990s it was agreed that the best solution to Hulme’s problems was an extensive programme of physical, economic and social regeneration. Manchester City Council secured £7m from central govermment to raze high-rise buildings and replace them with new Housing Association homes. The Hulme City Challenge was also launched in April 1992 with £37.5 million of government money to bring together the various players in Hulme to help regenerate the town. High-rise flats were replaced with better planned homes (both council and privately-owned) and Hulme’s reputation as a socially deprived area declined. Local amenities such as the Zion Arts Centre and the Hulme Community Garden Centre give the area a friendly community atmosphere and illustrate the important role that locals played in turning the city into a unique and desirable area to live in.

Reconstruct an order on the other side of chaos, there is scope for motion, flowing forwards once more…
The sixth and final panel depicts modern day Hulme at the millennium. As Soltau explains, “there have been a lot of questions about the future of Hulme but we didn’t want to end the mural on a negative and pessimistic note as there is a lot to be hopeful for in Hulme.”

Manchester City Council recently announced that Hulme Library was under consideration for closure due to the difficult financial circumstances and will be replaced with either new or alternative provisions. Many have shown concern that if the library closes, the other remaining tenant in the building – the Adult Education Services – will be put under great financial pressure. As Brigitte Soltau explains: “the Adult Education Service have been struggling massively themselves and they’ve been winding down with cuts to staff and courses already so if the library goes, it does make the others future more difficult…
“If both the library and the Adult Education services leave, the issue is what does the council decide to do with the building. If they let it out to another group than all well and good for building and the mural but if they decide not to, than that would be quite worrying because these days it seems that in Hulme one day a building is closed and then the next day its been demolished. That would be extremely worrying for us.” The £20,000 mural is made out of 2 tonnes of clay cannot be removed from the building without damaging it.
Neil MacInnes, Head of Libraries insisted that no final decision has been made on the future of Hulme library and added that the concerns about the mural are being taken into consideration. Comedian Johnny Vegas, who unveiled the mural back in 2002, has backed a public campaign to save the mural from destruction and Soltau and the team behind the mural are attempting to get the public art piece listed by English Heritage. “We built the mural with every intention that it would be there as a lasting tribute to the community and what Hulme is about,” says Soltau. “We want it to always be there as a record of the city’s history.”

Images of the mural by Arwa Aburawa can be seen in this gallery.

The consultation on the libraries in Manchester, including Hulme Library, is running until midnight on Sunday 5th June 2011. To take part log on to www.manchester.gov.uk/libraryconsultation.

Sources:
Ex-Hulme
Alison Ravetz: Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment, 2001, Routledge, London.
Cletus Moobela: From Worst Slum to Best Example of Regeneration: Complexity in the Regeneration of Hulme – Manchester’, 2005, International Journal of Emergence, Coherence and Organisations