Demolishing public housing as spectacle in Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland is planning to blow up five 29-story public housing high-rises, the tallest buildings in the city, and broadcast the event live on local TV and set up a viewing in a nearby soccer stadium:

Glasgow has a novel plan for grabbing viewers for this summer’s Commonwealth Games opening ceremony: It’s going to blow up the city’s tallest buildings live on television. For the Games opener on July 23, Scotland’s largest city will demolish five towers (most over 290-foot high) in just 15 seconds, screening the explosions at the nearby Celtic Stadium.

This combination of celebration and mass destruction, announced Thursday, would be unusual in any circumstances. What makes Glasgow’s plans even stranger is that the towers being dynamited – part of a huge housing project called the Red Road Flats – were once the city’s pride. By uniting a cheering stadium crowd and TV cameras with explosives, the ceremony might come off as a sort of latter-day Disco Sucks, but for social housing…

Still, the city has been moving on. From the ’80s onwards, Glasgow started an ultimately successful re-branding of itself as a cultural and business center. The Red Road and its ilk became emblems of the run-down Glasgow that the city’s promoters wanted to forget. Demolition of the first few towers started back in 2012. Now the games will dramatize its final transformation in the most eye-catching way possible.

But is it really in good taste? This video, shared by the games organizers themselves, proves that many former residents still remember the place with affection. What’s more, the project isn’t totally uninhabited, as one tower, currently occupied by asylum seekers, will remain. For these people, witnessing a ceremony that enacts their neighborhood’s destruction as unfit for human habitation while leaving them on site, should feel uncomfortable at the least. A petition is going round against the plans, and there’s a sense among locals that they, rather than just the buildings, are the targets of a ritual purge to do away with a side of Glasgow officialdom would rather forget.

The whole process sounds similar to the demolition of public housing high-rises in American cities, starting with the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis in the mid-1970s (a good documentary about it here) and accelerating with the HOPE VI program that began in the mid-1990s. Of course, the buildings tended to get blamed for the problems at the complexes when there was a whole host of other issues involved including deindustrialization and residential segregation.

But, it does seem a bit odd to make this such a spectacle. It is relatively rare to demolish large buildings so I could understand how that might be interesting. In contrast, while the demolition of Chicago’s public housing buildings drew attention (particularly the last high-rises at Cabrini-Green), it seemed like the general public wanted to move on rather than celebrate the demolition. Instead of publicizing the demolition, why not devote some air-time to showing how the city is trying to tackle the larger underlying issues (unless, of course, they are not and the demolition is meant to be a distraction from the true issues)? As the residents at Cabrini-Green who fought the city’s plans argued, what is the point of demolition if there many other options planned down the road?

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