A Descent From Utopia

Now…


Mile upon mile of concrete and tarmac. No greenery in sight. Rain bounces off the paving flags. The glass pane of the bus stop for the 67 is shattered all over the floor. It’s after dark but the precinct has a “floodlight” glare from its array of security lamps that beam out a whitish light. Police cameras look down from every corner of every street. Men in high vis jackets and steel capped boots pull the death out of cig ends before a bus comes to take them to another night shift. Home Bargains, The Pound Bakery, MoneyLine, Cash Converter and the arcade are all closed. Only BetFred lights its windows up after hours. A crew of hooded lads in their low teens lap the precinct at increasing speed on souped-up bicycles with no lights, bagging out e’s and snatching bags and phones from anyone daft enough to let them. The only place open is the off license at the foot of my block. Inside, past the shelves of sweets and alcohol, Aubrey and his assistant stand to attention behind the counter, hip-hop music blasting. They are nodding in unison like Churchill dogs. Bouncing to Skepta.


Then…


In 1952 Salford Councillor Albert Jones proposed a massive urban regeneration scheme in an area of town called Hanky Park. Six thousand terraced houses were to be demolished over a three hundred acre stretch of land. Improvements to the A6 road adversely affected one hundred and forty-seven shops that ran along it and a further one hundred and sixty corner shops were to be caught up in the demolition. This was known as the Ellor Street development centred on Heartbreak Hill in the M6 postcode of the city. In more recent times the boundaries of the City of Salford have been redrawn to include what was then considered the far-flung and somewhat distant towns of Eccles, Walkden, Worsley and Swinton. You know, long before the private motor car was a standard luxury. But in 1952 Salford was a City hanging onto the coattails of the city of Manchester, to the west of the latter’s main concentration. A forty-five minute walk along Broad Street connecting the two. I still make this walk often.


The concept of Ellor Street at Hanky Park was to build two hundred and sixty brand new shops within a new shopping precinct, to recompense the retail outlet destruction wrought upon local businesses, more or less in neat mathematical symmetry. A hotel, offices and a multi-level car park would surround what would be the highest skyscraper in the North West and gave oxygen to the fervent chatter of this scheme being “among the finest in Europe”.


Ten years later, in 1962, the building work began and in 1970 the new local markets opened for business. In 1971, this being also the year that I was born, retail units began to open in the precinct proper and one year later in 1972, the flagship residential tower around which the whole complex spread, Heartbreak Hill, at twenty-four stories and a height of two hundred and fifty feet, welcomed the very first residents into the shiny new apartments that steepled high into the Salfordian clouds.


Soon, things were to go wrong. Councillor Albert Jones was jailed for financial corruption and much of the money that was earmarked to complete the project disappeared. Only ninety-five shops of the proposed two hundred and sixty ever came into existence while the hotel and car park were discarded from the original plan.


Don’t Go Breaking My Heart


Heartbreak Hill and the buildings that spring from it were loosely designed in the fag end of the Brutalist/Modernist mash-up architectural style typical of that British era. Loud, courageous statements of concrete and prefabricated browns and greys, where form follows function, could suddenly be seen from miles around in a declaration of a utopian zeitgeist, crudely altering the lay of the urban horizon. There are no hiding places when the Modernists move in.


My home is at the top of a tower containing two adjacent elevators and no service lift. There are six one bedroom flats on each floor apart from the first floor which has a concierge office and an exit onto the loading bay areas on the roof of the retail outlet. The second floor has only four flats as the communal laundry and the caretaker’s office are to be found here. In total there are one hundred and thirty-six residential apartments, some containing couples and some with single occupancy. A garbage chute runs from top to bottom at the side of the lift shafts and there are two staircases. There are no corridors to speak of. On exiting the lifts you either turn left or right. There are three flats on each side and a staircase on each side. The whole thing is a vertical pile of concrete condo’s.


I live on the top floor. I moved in in the summer of 2015. This book has been written between mid-August 2017 and mid-January 2018 so as I write I have been a resident here for a little over two and a half years. Long enough to have settled in. Long enough to feel that this block is my true home. Long enough to fall in love with the place. To have surrendered my heart to Heartbreak Hill.


In the early 1990’s the complex underwent a £4 million refurbishment which gave some of the outdoor parts of the shopping centre an all-weather roof covering – effectively turning some of the local streets – including Heartbreak Hill, Marsden Way, Robson Way and Fitzroy Way, into homogeneous sections of strip mall – but the street history is given homage and testimony in the mall signage that sits overhead as you stroll among the shops. I have before and after recollections. In 1988, as a sixteen year old, I spent a day with mum and dad, traipsing the markets and shops. We had made the forty miles trip west across the Pennine mountains from Heckmondwike in dad’s car. It was the year of the Seoul Olympics and mum bought me a sports T-shirt from a stall on Salford markets that I would wear to race in the winning team on the 4X100 metre relay sprint event at The Princess Mary sports arena near Cleckheaton in the Spen Valley. On that day I was a student of Heckmondwike Grammar School, racing for Priestley House.

Extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill by Gary Knapton
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