In Govanhill

When Amir Butt goes to bed at night in the Govanhill flat he shares with his wife and five young children he finds, too often, that he cannot sleep for the smell of urine and excrement rising up from the close. The 45 year old taxi driver moved to this part of south-east Glasgow from his native Pakistan in 2004. Driving around the city, his mind drifts back to the flat which is both fortress and a kind of prison. He and Roheeda argue about why they cannot find a better district in which to bring up their kids. No one will buy the property, he tells her; no one would choose to make a home in a tenement full of problem neighbours who use the communal landings as a toilet and throw dirty nappies and decaying food out of the windows into the back court.

He is the only owner-occupier in the building. The other flats are rented out by private landlords, some willing to see extended families of Eastern Europeans crammed into a few mean rooms. Mr Butt is on anti-anxiety medication. He feels helpless and trapped; frightened for his daughters and his son. Does he have any optimism that his life might improve? For a long moment, he stares out at the street, unwilling perhaps to admit the answer even to himself. “No. There is no hope.”

RD Laing, the psychiatrist and author of The Divided Self, was born in Ardbeg Street in 1927, a short walk from where Amir Butt lives now. One imagines that, were he still living, Laing would be fascinated by the divided community this has become. There are two competing ideas of Govanhill. Some will tell you that it is a vibrant multicultural community, the historic gateway to Scotland for immigrants seeking a better life. Others call it a hellhole, a sinkhole, the no-go stinkhole of the city. Ellis Island or Alcatraz – can both those things, or neither, be true?

“There’s so much more to this community than rubbish and rats,” says Jess Yuill, 33, who has lived in the area for ten years and is on Twitter as @GovanhillGirl, a handle intended as “a deliberate pushback against all the negativity”. The area reminds her of pre-gentrification Hackney – working class, multicultural and villagey, with a community of young artists. She hopes to get involved in Love Govanhill, a project intended to foster local pride and make a noise about positives such as the reopening, in 2018, of the historic public baths. “Govanhill has always been an area of immigration,” she says, “so I don’t understand why anyone would feel uncomfortable here.”

The local population is reckoned to be 16,000, around 40% of whom are ethnic minorities speaking an estimated 53 languages. Stroll along Allison Street and you’ll hear little English. Romanian, Slovakian, Urdu and varieties of Roma are among Govanhill’s guddle of tongues.

Orginally a mining village, Govanhill expanded significantly from 1839 with the foundation of the ironworks known as Dixon’s Blazes. By the 1960s, large numbers of Irish and Asians living in Govanhill led to it being nicknamed Bengal/Donegal.

The major change of this century has been the arrival of Roma immigrants from Slovakia and Romania. There are an estimated 3,500-4,000 Roma in the city, the majority in Govanhill; the initial draw was cheap rent, but now it’s more to do with a feeling of safety in numbers, and the natural desire of new arrivals to settle in a community of familiar faces. Difficulties in finding work, plus problems in accessing benefits, mean that rents are beyond many Roma, hence large extended families pooling resources and sharing quarters that are far too small. The dirty old Glasgow of overcrowded tenements, romantic in sepia hindsight, is harder to stomach in the 21st century if it means a dozen or more people sleeping in a bug-ridden two-bedroomer with sewage backing up through the kitchen sink.

“None of us were ready for the big first wave of Eastern European migration,” recalls a senior member of the Govanhill Housing Association. “It was like a tsunami. Schools were pressured. Medical centres were pressured. Although we’re all trying to provide a service, it’s not enough.”

Deprivation statistics give a distorted picture of Govanhill. Low income, low life expectancy, high numbers of drug and alcohol deaths – all of that is fact and has been for a long time. Community spirit is not so easily measured, though, or the area’s palpable street energy. Unlike many poor parts of Glasgow, Govanhill does not feel as though it ought to be given the last rites; rather, it would be a fiery baptism for anyone who wished an introduction to the city’s famous gallusness and garrulousness.

Still, there is no getting away from those statistics, or headlines which decry “Dickensian squalor” in Nicola Sturgeon’s own constituency. The First Minister is MSP for Glasgow South, and at a husting last month, during the election campaign, was confronted by a member of the Let’s Save Govanhill campaign who asked why, if the area receives so much investment, it remained a “ghetto” and “a shitehole”.

How does Sturgeon respond to the charge of neglecting her back yard? “It’s not true,” she says, noting that she has just been reelected to represent the area with more than 60 per cent of the vote. “But if I was living in Govanhill, I would also be frustrated, and I would look to point the finger at elected representatives. I don’t for a second take umbrage at that. It’s my job to be part of finding the solutions for Govanhill.”

One solution may be a significant expansion of a pilot scheme to purchase private flats, bringing them under Glasgow Housing Association control and up to a reasonable standard. Sturgeon supports this and is in favour of the further radical step of forcing rogue landlords to sell. “I don’t want us to get into a situation where compulsory purchase is seen as the first option,” she says. “But I do think you’re only going to get so far with voluntary acquisition.”

There is a lot of anger in Govanhill. Some of it expresses itself in racism directed at the Roma. Pressures on local infrastructure are challenging Govanhill’s idea of itself as welcoming. “Send them home!” shouts one shopkeeper, the tears in his eyes provoked by a mixture of rage and shame. Given that his father was a Pakistani immigrant, he cannot believe he is using the language of bigotry. “But I’ve had Police Scotland in here four or five times in the past two years about bad incidents in the street outside. An old woman got mugged. There was a serious assault. An attempted murder.”

A recent spate of muggings of elderly people by young Eastern European men made headlines and added to a narrative that the criminality in the area is largely down to the Roma. Not so, says Chief Inspector Graham McInarlin, police commander for the area. “It’s important to make the point that the majority of Roma do not go out and commit crime. A small number of families that we are aware of do. Fifty per cent of crime in Govanhill is committed by white Scottish, and the rest is made up of a whole number of other ethnicities.”

Members of three Roma families, in particular, he says, are responsible for a number of high-profile street robberies – “Pensioners were being picked off at will” – and his team is working with the UK Border Agency to have around twenty people removed from the country. But such action takes time. “There’s an expectation that we can put them all on a plane and send them back to wherever it is now. But we can’t because of EU legislation,” explains Constable Lynsey Galloway, whose beat is Govanhill.

Fear of crime is disproportionate to the reality, McInarlin believes. Police figures show large reductions in anti-social behaviour, violent crime and robberies since 2010, but rises in the two latter types of offence between 2015 and 2016. He estimates that 80 per cent of his working day, and 70 per cent of his resources – “feet on the ground” – are focussed on Govanhill, even though he is responsible for the entire south-east Glasgow policing area.

Last month, following the muggings, he instructed officers to begin to disperse the groups of Roma men who gather on street corners. These groups vary in number: usually around ten, but it can be a couple of dozen. This new policy comes after several years in which police tolerated as a cultural practice behaviour that many elderly residents find intimidating. “It’s not acceptable that we have a section of the community frightened to go in parts of the city,” McInarlin says.

Erik Gazi is an 18 year old Roma man in a black leather jacket, an angel tattooed on the back of his neck. He has has lived in Govanhill since he was eight, having moved from Slovakia, with his parents and two sisters. His father had been unable to gain employment in his home country; he was effectively blacklisted because of his race, and he worried his children would experience similar discrimination within the education system. He now has a job in construction. Erik is a youth worker, but intends to join Police Scotland in order to improve understanding between his community and the police. A language barrier and lack of trust creates difficulties.

“Roma people from Govanhill report nothing,” Gazi says. “They are scared.” A few months ago, he was attacked in Queen’s Park by a group of Scots in their late teens, the worse for drink, and his nose was broken, but he did not tell the police because he felt it would provoke reprisals. This, it seems, is not an unusual situation. There is fear on both sides.

If there is hope in Govanhill – the hope that Amir Butt no longer feels – then it is, perhaps, to be found in the schools. In none of the area’s four primaries does a majority of children have English as a first language. Annette Street Primary has been the subject of particular focus recently, with headlines declaring that none of the children are Scottish. “These children are here in Scotland, they’re part of a school in Scotland, they’re learning the Scottish curriculum. To me, they’re Scottish,” retorts head teacher Shirley Taylor.

Most arrive at school unable to speak English. The school has a variety of strategies aimed at helping them overcome this while progressing through mainstream schooling. Poverty brings additional challenges. Children may be coming to school hungry, tired, in poor health, without adequate clothing, or not coming at all. The teachers of Annette Street tackle these issues with patience and compassion. It seems more than a slip of the tongue when Shirley Taylor talks about “my children”. It will not be long, she thinks, before the first Roma child to have gone through Glasgow’s education system achieves a place at university – “I’ll be delighted and so proud.”

Good news when it comes. Meanwhile, there is impatience in the tenements and shops. The council points to the extra millions it spends in the area on housing, cleansing, pest control, CCTV and the like, and the pressure group Govanhill Community Campaign points back – at the filth in the closes, pavements and back courts. Integration takes time, the one resource that folk here have in plentiful supply and yet are least willing to spend.

What, then, is in the future for Govanhill? “A failed area,” say some. “Gentrification,” say others. The answer, no doubt, lies somewhere between the two.

Mixed, pressured, precarious; citizens caught between reaching out to one another and recoiling in mistrust – Govanhill, in an era of mass movement of migrants and refugees, feels like a glimpse of a new reality unfurling far beyond the district’s boundaries. “You are at the vanguard of something,” Philip Tartaglia, Archbishop of Glasgow, is said to have told teachers during a visit to St Bride’s, another local primary school with pupils from a number of different nationalities and faiths.

His words – a kind of prophecy – might stand for the whole of Govanhill: “This is the way the world is going and you are at the start of it.”