At the weekend, I paid a visit to Craigmillar for their annual parade and Fun Day, and ended up at a combined exhibition of old photos of the area and plans for the continuing regeneration. Craigmillar is quite close to where I live now, and I have Strong Opinions on the place.
Craigmillar’s older than it seems, as the massive 15th-century castle on the hill will tell you. Most people, though, see the reams of old housing estates and the few surviving high-rises and give it a wide berth. Certainly, its 80s and 90s reputation precedes it. Back then, its future seemed bleak: poverty and crime were rife, and there were riots over a lack of amenities. Our neighbour mentioned that his policeman friend, who worked in the notorious Tiger’s Bay area of Belfast, was shocked at what he saw when he visited Craigmillar in the 80s. It seemed to me as if the powers that be had run with the ‘if we put the poor people over there they won’t trouble us’, rather than bothering to fix any problems in the area. At the Breathing Space exhibition, Allan McGregor notes in his introduction that he feels Craigmillar Castle gets more money than the area’s residents. Much more important to pull in the tourists to the cultural landmark than address the folk round about who might not be able to afford the entrance fee. Folk, incidentally, like my protagonist, who lives at the top of one of the 60s high-rises that overlook the castle, buildings whose days must surely be numbered.
Fortunately, there were enterprising locals who fought back, chief among them being Helen Crummy, who founded the Craigmillar Festival Society when the local school wouldn’t give her son violin lessons. (Incidentally, she’s only the third woman to get a statue erected in Edinburgh. Astonishing, huh?) It’s the activities of this society that McGregor set out to document, while unwittingly providing a valuable piece of urban history.
Today, the CFS continues in the euphemistically-roadsigned ‘Fort Kinnaird Arts Centre’ (och, dinnae mention the natives!), the annual parade and the shiny new library’s creative activities. When I moved, I would walk there once a week through the local park’s shady underpass to the new Niddrie developments. They’re completely unrecognisable these days. Shiny new playground, well-tended gardens, a mixture of young professionals, kids playing football and mothers pushing prams. No air of menace that I can report. Even the new joint primary school was full of life, though raised some wistfulness for my sad primary days with the signs dotted about the playground, bearing slogans like ‘Remember to ask children on their own if they want to join in with your games’. The library’s always busy- if you’re a YA reader, fancy Minecraft lessons, or just love really geeky sarcastic librarians, it comes highly recommended. The East Neighbourhood Centre shares the building, and not long after I moved the lamp posts outside were festooned with posters urging people to get help if they couldn’t pay their council tax, alongside more homemade ones urging people to fight back if their benefits had been sanctioned.
I can’t begin to understand how hard it is to scrape by here, tough though times were for me occasionally as a child. I came some way to understanding during indyref, when I did some canvassing in the area. As we headed off, the looming omen of a Home Office immigration enforcement van drove past, prompting words I won’t repeat here. (A fellow canvasser told me sadly how his Polish friend was moving with his partner to Ireland, because it was just too much strife to stay in Craigmillar.) A good doorstep chat not only gives folk a chance to put the world to rights, but broadens your own mind too. For a place dismissed as stuffed full of immigrants, single mothers and benefits ‘spongers’, I got more common sense and articulate arguments from the people I met that day than a lifetime of noise from any well-paid journo, folk like the woman with a soldier son who slammed Blair and the Iraq War, or the unfortunate soul on heroin who apologised for ‘not having a good day’ but true to his word showed up the next day for a peaceful procession to the polling station.
(As an aside, you’ve never seen so many terrified London hacks as were gathered that day by those two 60s high-rises, smiles pasted rigidly on their faces, eyeing the single van of bored-looking officers. ‘What do they think we’ll do, throw balloons at them?’ asked the lady next to me. Quite.)
I digress. The Fun Day was brilliant, with everything from highland dancing to the noisy Goldwings and Harley Davidsons, and local bands and choirs. Around me I heard revellers speaking Spanish, Polish, Italian, Russian. Some of the local Cairntow traveller community were there too, transfixed by the Mickey Mouse and Cookie Monster mascots wandering around. Everything was pretty good-natured, in all. Everything had a sense of community. We headed for the restored Art-Deco splendour of the White House, where a pair of suits were manning the CGI mock-ups of the next regeneration phase. One of them was engaged in an increasingly desperate defence of how the plans made Craigmillar ‘an attractive offering’, bringing benefits to the inhabitants, with a local man who was ripping apart their arguments in glorious fashion. Who was making money from this- the locals or the council? Would he be able to afford one of the new ‘affordable’ homes? What was wrong with the existing high school? We had a few questions to ask too, and I was mostly satisfied with the answers. That said, the man from a certain budget supermarket who declared that adding toilets to the proposed new branch was ‘thinking outside the box’ made my soul die a little. (I was very impressed, though, with the plans for eco-friendly ‘passivhaus’ homes. I hope those happen.)
It was all very light on practicalities, and I think residents were right to get grumpy about it. At times, it seems like the council are paying lip service to these places with their plans. Be seen to be doing something good, throw a few token flats and shops their way, then retreat to a safe distance. With the relentless march of gentrification and all things upmarket, I’m a bit worried for Craigmillar. Look at the abomination of SoCo on the site of the Old Town fire, or the plans for the old Royal High. (Or, er, all of London.) If those things happened in south Edinburgh, it would cement my view that architects and accountants basically trundle through places on a little class safari, refreshingly detached from the real world where people would just quite like somewhere to live that isn’t a 14th storey flat that shakes when it’s windy, and maybe a job so they don’t end up sanctioned to the eyeballs, instead of £12 artisan burgers and houses that look like they’re going to be built where the Fun Day is held. Which wouldn’t be fun for anybody. So, don’t mess this up, EDI. I’ve got my eye on you.