Colours in Concrete

An essay by Sheffield born Johny Pitts in response the Streets in the Sky photographs.

Johny is a broadcaster, writer and photography and is the author of Afropean: Notes from Black Europe which won the 2020 Jhalak Prize, the 2020 Bread and Roses Award and the 2021 Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding.

Colours in Concrete is included in the Streets in the Sky book.

Colours in Concrete

Look at most recent coffee table books about postwar, high rise architecture, and you’ll likely find carefully curated profiles of middle class media types who now inhabit such spaces, in their black square rimmed glasses and French worker jackets, perhaps sat on a chair by Charles and Ray Eames or Mies Van Der Rohe, a poster of some graphic design in muted midcentury colours behind them. But I remember when Brutalism was out of fashion, and so does Bill Stephenson.

Only a few years ago, before Modernism was back in vogue, another, very different cliché – best summed up by what David Cameron called ‘sink estates’ – was everywhere; that of inner city poverty, first generation immigrants and violent teenagers in hoodies. These buildings represented a failed Socialist vision, which allowed consecutive British governments to blame architects and residents rather than the underfunding and unequal distribution of resources and amenities, that began in earnest under Margaret Thatcher’s government in the late 1970s, to which they fell victim. Between these high and low superlatives, though, is something else; real working class people getting on with everyday life.

I grew up in an area of low-rise council housing in Firth Park, to the north of Sheffield, which was originally built to serve workers in the Firth Brown steel works. The area was immortalised in the The Full Monty (1997), a film guilty of reducing the British working class experience to that of the white community, weaving out a multicultural make-up that included my Yemeni next door neighbours the Shaifs, and the Thompsons, a Jamaican family across the road, not to mention the sizeable Pakistani and Somali communities, and mixed-race people like me.

Hyde Park and Park Hill flats, along with the old Castle Market, were part of my working class topography in the late 80s and early 90s. After shopping with my Nan, Ruth, we’d pay a visit to my great auntie Eva, who lived on the Wybourn, then wander down through a concrete labyrinth that was at once edgy and invigorating. It’s true that by the late 80s there were problems on these estates, but there was also culture – a thriving Graffiti scene second in Europe only to Berlin, walls covered in legendary tags and pieces from Fisto, Mist1, Crome and Des. From the top of Hyde Park, Sheffield’s black-run pirate radio station SCR (Sheffield Community Radio) would occasionally broadcast, frequently moving around the tops of the city’s various high rise estates in order to avoid detection and police raids, and get the best broadcasting position possible. That radio station supported a local Hip-Hop scene, and family members (the Edwards) were one of Sheffield’s best known crews, Hoodz Underground are included in this book.

The residents of Hyde Park and Park Hill were also served by one of the best Afro-Caribbean barber shops outside of London, the legendary ‘Mister T’s’, run by the late Trevor Darien, in a now demolished section of Park Hill known as ‘The Pavement’. There, I’d get patterns shaved into my head, and hope to get a glimpse of Prince Naseem Hamed or one of the numerous Black footballers for Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday who frequented the salon. Sometimes I’d buy bootleg Martial Arts and Asian Horror VHS tapes from a Chinese man who brought copies over from Hong Kong, or later, when I was a teenager, buy designer goods that some resident would say, using that old classic, ‘fell off the back of a lorry’. He offered cut price goods when my Mom and Dad couldn’t afford them. These particulars aren’t included in Bill’s photographs, but they are hinted at. We see a community we know are working class, but with touches of the things that made life at Hyde Park about more than just survival- a woman tending her flowers, girls delivering papers on roller-skates, teens from different ethnicities hanging out, joshing each other, playing football or gossiping about love interests (we imagine) – all the things that brought a multicultural community together, despite the worst odds.

Bill Stephenson’s work is the first time I’ve seen a depiction of Sheffield that really chimes with my childhood memories of it. There are other astonishing visual documents of Hyde Park flats, perhaps most notably Ken Loach’s Looks and Smiles, shot by Chris Menges, who would go on to win Oscars for his cinematography. But despite the nuances in that film (courtesy of the late great novelist and screenwriter Barry Hines), the black and white imagery rendered the flats into something imposing and other worldly – impossible to imagine from the vantage point of a 21st Century in which so many estates are being bulldozed or renovated – some might say gentrified – beyond recognition. But the important intervention Bill Stephenson has made here – and this took my breath away when I first saw the images at Park Hill’s S1 Art Space – is the extraordinary use of colour. It’s sometimes hard to imagine that the Thatcher years in Sheffield weren’t lived in black and white, but colour. Stephenson experimented with different types of colour negative film before settling on consumer grade or amateur film which produced punchy and intense colours, in particular reds and greens rather than professional film stock which he felt was too subtle and refined for this subject. Stephenson reminds us of a kind of resistance – of a music that is missing in similar black and white images by other photographers. Even those who worked in colour around this time, people such as John Bulmer, who made masterful work in the north for the Sunday Times supplements, came with heavy preconceptions; Bulmer would wait until the weather was foggy in order to reduce his colour palate and paint a portrait of grim northern struggle. The result is atmospheric and incredibly beautiful, but not what I remember growing up in the north in the 80s and 90s, where communities persisted and so did joy in tough times. It would be easy, too, to situate Stephenson’s work in the orbit of the now legendary British New Colour movement that included classic works by Paul Graham, Peter Fraser, Anna Fox and Martin Parr – works that eloquently documented the Thatcher years in all its greed and gaudiness. But there’s something about Stephenson’s work in particular that centres the community, rather than the photographer. As beautifully crafted as the photos are, you don’t feel a hunt taking place, these aren’t ‘decisive moments’, but rather slow, gentle moments where the photographer has taken his ego out of the equation.

Perhaps this is how Stephenson’s work also avoids falling into the ‘it was much better back then!’ nostalgia-fest tropes of the twentieth century we sometimes see within Sheffield’s local publishing circuit. It’s true that these images make me wistful about a time in Sheffield when people weren’t afraid to identify as working class, when there were less ten-bob millionaires, lamentable changes that seemed to begin in the city as Hyde Park was torn down or covered in postmodern cladding for the World Student Games in 1992. But though we might sense a stronger sense of community in these pictures, we don’t look at them and want to go back to the late 80s. Rather, the images encourage us to remember the good and the bad, and maybe glean something from the rubble of this vision of Sheffield; this dream gone awry, the spirit of an obsolete future, the possibilities when we all muck in together.

Johny Pitts February 2023