Hard lives and early deaths in Calton, Glasgow

Hard lives and early deaths in Calton, Glasgow
Mike Gonzalez, The Guardian

Calton, near the centre of Glasgow, was always a divided community. The huge mansions of the tobacco barons in Monteith Row look over Glasgow Green, a favourite open space for the people of the city’s east end. At its heart, the People’s Palace – a museum of Glasgow life – is a popular place for grandparents to tell their grandchildren how it was back then.

But just behind the grand houses is the old Calton. Once a village of domestic weavers, it was absorbed into the industries of the Clyde. It gave the city its first working-class martyrs, the Calton Weavers, killed in the course of a long strike in 1787. The 19th century brought immigrants from Ireland to work in the new industrial economy. Along the Gallowgate, the main thoroughfare through the area, pubs recall the origins of many of its older residents – the Emerald Isle, the Tir Na Nog, Bar 67, painted brilliant green.

There is very little left of the city they came to. Just some tenements on Stevenson Street, beside the firmly shuttered John’s Bar, and the Walker factory, which was established in 1887. Today, trees grow through its walls. The tenements were built very close to one another, and the backyards where the kids played saw very little light. But the crowded, one-room "single ends" they lived in were even darker and certainly had no space to run. The men worked in the mills or the markets or the shipyards, and the women who did not find a place in the city centre shops went to a job for life in Templetons Carpet Factory on the Green, an extraordinary building whose facade imitates the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Wages were low, living conditions harsh. Little wonder, then, that by the beginning of the 20th century, Calton had a reputation for hard lives and early deaths.

The old tenements have gone, replaced by neat, small houses and three-storey brick blocks with green spaces and trees. They are the product of a regeneration plan that finally gave up on high-rise blocks. Some forbidding 19th-century structures survive, but they are mostly boarded up and abandoned, like the Green Street School. Only the Barras, the market at the heart of the Calton, still looks and feels the same – thriving at weekends with crowded stalls, with the same old market men and women auctioning lace curtains by the pair. The furniture stores have got wise in the post-Antiques Roadshow era – now the old furniture is called bric-a-brac and the wheat carefully sorted from the chaff.

People will readily tell you, over a pint at the Hielan Jessie ("strictly no children" – this is a traditional pub!), that at 54 the life expectancy of men in Calton is the lowest in the country, if not in Europe. Elsewhere in the city, the average rises to the mid-70s. You would expect an older generation, eating poor food, living in unsanitary conditions, smoking hard, working harder, to die young. And the truth is, the area has already changed dramatically.

Calton figures high on every measure of deprivation. Where smoking takes up 1.5% of the average weekly household income in Glasgow, here it is nearer 15% – a sure measure of poverty. The provision of hostel accommodation for the homeless is the second highest in the city. It is an area where the most vulnerable in society are concentrated, including a high proportion of the elderly. It is changing in parts: St Andrew’s Square, just a block from the Barras, has been gentrified, and a new inner-city middle class is making its home there. The great arch that marked the entrance to the old meat market, where many of those who lived in the Calton found work, now invites the passerby into a complex of new flats, almost certainly built with an eye to the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

There are dedicated and committed people in the area working to improve conditions, offer advice and services, create jobs. But the campaign to keep St James School open did not stop its closure, and it’s hard to imagine that the real population of Calton will benefit from the new facilities planned for the 2014 games, any more than they will in east London.

Recent figures from the Greater Glasgow Health Board tell a clear and powerful story. Poverty continues to produce ill health, insecurity and alienation. More cuts are coming, and those who are without the means or services to improve their lives will suffer the effects the most. Deprivation feeds upon itself, so likely as not Calton will continue to occupy its unwanted spot on the falling graph of life expectancy.