By Aled Singleton, PhD candidate at Centre for Innovative Ageing, Swansea University
This blog article is an account of an event sponsored by a BSG Small Grant and with support also from CADR. We enjoyed a late morning psychogeographical exploration of neighbourhoods on the western edge of Cardiff’s city centre and an afternoon discussing the practice of researching communities. One main message for the study of gerontology came through all elements of the day – whether it was a guided tour of Riverside from socially-engaged artist Rabab Ghazoul [pictured below left], the drawings of Marega Palser or the afternoon presentations from Sherman 5’s Guy O’Donnell, Kate Spiller from Swansea RIAH and Charles Musselwhite from Swansea CIA – namely that neighbourhood is fluid and that we can only build up a picture of what it means to age [and to have aged] in a given place by making efforts to tap into groups, spaces and shared narratives.
It is important to reiterate that we were trying to understand what the neighbourhood – the place and site – may mean for the collective experience of ageing; furthermore that we were also looking to both the future of ageing and understanding life for those who are are already older. As a taste of the event, this blog gives some background on three main themes which emerged:
- Importance of meeting spaces [and spaces to meet];
- Methods of psychogeography and
- How committed [and imaginative] individuals help us connect.
Further findings and emerging questions will be expanded upon in a presentation at the BSG Conference in Swansea on Friday 7 July and also through my PhD as it develops. The following uses examples from the day to expand on the above themes.
- Importance of meeting spaces [and spaces to meet]
The first half of the walk allowed us to explore the importance of public spaces for people to build attachments throughout their lifecourse. For example, our guide Rabab stopped us on Wyndham Street in Riverside and explained nearly two decades’ experience of art projects in the area – including running community choirs and film clubs – and what these social gatherings meant for people to meet in their neighbourhood. We stood adjacent two buildings The Diner and Riverside Warehouse where such gatherings had happened. The former was established after WWII and is currently branded as a space for older people to meet for lunch whilst the latter is focused on providing space for young people.
As we stood we had a chance encounter with Terry; as a Riverside community organiser of many decades he was able to explain how public sector budget cuts were squeezing community and youth services harder and harder. For example, we learned the importance of locally-based voluntary and charity sector organisations in keeping these spaces alive. There also used to be other nearby public spaces in the past, including the Mitre Pub which closed in 2011, so the evidence suggests a thinning out of the remaining community. One of the discussions we had with Terry centred on Ismael Velasco’s question about gentrification; or the increasingly desirability of older properties which nearly always results in rising house prices. Terry suggested that it was not happening here and slightly jokingly called the area where we stood as ‘Lower, lower Pontcanna’ – referring to the northern or part of ‘upper’ part of ‘Riverside’ now called Pontcanna.
As we journeyed ‘upwards’ we passed through streets influenced by the Islamic faith – including Cardiff Central Mosque and the Bangladeshi Centre – to the location of a bar that was called Rajah’s. Rabab [pictured above right] took some time to explain how this place was run by a ‘Taffastani’ called Charlie and how it had acted as a meeting place for people from all backgrounds [link to YouTube film]. As such, this venue was on the edge of places and peoples: exploring the story had started to connect with psychogeography and how the act of being in certain space leads to the recall memories and emotions. The second half of our walk was an opportunity to go much deeper into this realm and sense how streets stimulates recollections.
- Methods in psychogeography
This part of Cardiff is completely flat, which means that there are few vantage points to survey the landscape. Furthermore, the built environment explored on this figure of eight-shaped route has changed little since the late nineteenth century. Such charms contribute to making the upper or northern part of Riverside – only in recent decades dubbed Pontcanna – a desirable place, but can also make it hard to negotiate. There was a definite edge to Pontcanna as we passed from the previous site of Rajah’s and terraced housing on Lower Cathedral Road into a collection of office and small hotels on Cathedral Road proper. As recently as half a century ago large houses on this street were being converted in offices for lawyers, charities and leisure-related businesses like hotels and bars. However, we saw how economic times are changing again and a large office building on a corner had recently been converted into 2-bedroom residential flats costing nearly £400,000 with a cafe at street level. One of our group Marega Palser was a child who grew up nearby in the late 1960s. She explained that this area had previously been not at all desirable; and so gave a local insight that would be hard to understand to most first time visitors.
Marega also added a further dimension to the day by mapping the route as a drawing (above). As we got deeper into Pontcanna we explored what it means to be lost and found. We accessed the final space on our walk from an innocuous rough lane off Romilly Crescent and down the side of a car repair business. Our group emerged at a space containing a collection of creative businesses in brightly-coloured containers called the Bone Yard; an old warehouses now hosting artist studies called The Printhaus and a fashionable pop-up pizza place called the Dusty Knuckle. Amidst this space Marega [pictured below centre] was again able to give some perspective: she described being a teenager playing in what was then an untidy space [and to a large degree still remains so] before connecting to her life as an artist and the previous incarnations of the Printhaus. This groups of buildings and yards had once been a hive of light industry where clothes were dyed and washed; yet today there are only signs of lifestyle business centred on people one supposes have disposable incomes. It would be interesting to follow this up and bring some people here who had worked on this site.
We emerged on to Llandaff Road on another rough lane and moved back to Chapter to have some lunch and to share our stories of research.
- How committed [and imaginative] individuals help us connect
The walk around Riverside had been designed as a way for Rabab to introduce us to a neighbourhood she knows well. However, pure chance introduced us to Terry and we were lucky that the walk triggered so many remembered experiences and insights from Marega. After lunch Elin Wyn, chair of trustees at Chapter, introduced three presentations which gave us a chance to consider different methods and approaches for researching communities. The first was from Guy O’Donnell from the Sherman Theatre.
Guy has a background as a community arts development officer and has been working on the Sherman 5 project for the past few years. He describes his project as ‘breaking down barriers’ to develop different audiences for the theatre and also as a means for ‘organisational change.’ He connected with the stories of spaces closing down – as witnessed in Riverside – to offer the Sherman Plays project. This latter initiative takes writers into communities and allows people to get together and share stories. Guy described the Sherman’s community work as what academic researchers would consider as being truly deductive method: that’s to say admitting to not being what he calls an ‘expert’; having the ability to make mistakes and for people to learn as they go along. Amongst many initiatives that Guy described at the Sherman Theatre, including work to encourage deaf audiences and to develop a family group, there are many little things that help older people to access the theatre. One of the great achievements for gerontology is how such initiatives have helped the Sherman Theatre to test their commitment to being dementia friendly. For example, they now produce a visual version of plays and have amended parts of their performances to be sometimes less ambiguous and less frightening. As such there was evidence of a real personal commitment from Guy, the venue staff and artists at the Sherman Theatre which came through.
The second speaker was Kate Speaker from the Research Institute for Arts & Humanities (RIAH) at Swansea University. Kate described her previous experience as a community archaeologist and how this understanding of ‘how things join together’ now helps in her role within academic research. A lot of Kate’s work has centred on the industrial history of the Lower Swansea Valley. She described the importance of industry to Swansea’s history and how the Hafod Morfa Copperworks had closed down in 1979. Similarly to Riverside the local demographics have greatly changed since that time and a feeling that the heritage of everyday lives were being lost. Kate described her work on a project to research this copperworks site. There was a sense that it takes time to get beyond the people that Kate describes as the ‘usual suspects’ to reach more people; in this instance 18 months. Kate recalled how the University had remained committed to successive projects. By helping community organisations use the foundation of academic research and historical artefacts to then access different funds, she she explained one of case a play being produced. This wider RIAH programme has trained 1,500 people as community researchers and this approach to engagement has spread through Swansea University. We got the impression that the energy which drives Kate links to her own biography: as somebody who comes from the Hafod area that she initially researched.
The third speaker was Charles Musselwhite from the Centre for Innovative Ageing at Swansea University. As the most well-established academic presenting today Charles was able to show that promising research can sometimes go nowhere; especially as people move jobs and completely change their geographies – such as coming to Wales in his case. The specific research that he outlined was in Southampton, where he had helped to consider plans for a future redevelopment of the Royal Pier. He called his research method ‘deep mapping’ involving walks similar to what we had done earlier in the day. The pier had closed in the late 1970s and so the research involved people who used to go to the ballroom on the pier; former ferry workers who docked there and also local residents. The process had uncovered the lovers liaisons between dancers and dock workers. As such Charles argued that these were more authentic connections to that specific site than some of the ideas that the developers had proposed. Again this involved people going back through their memories of experiences from many decades before. Although Charles was very excited that this event had touched on a type of research that he was passionate about, he admitted that the Southampton work had unfortunately not come to anything solid.
Discussion and concluding thoughts
As the sessions concluded with questions and comments from the audience it became clear that this range of people were all researchers – Rabab and Guy [and Marega] from an arts background alongside Kate and Charles from academia. Amongst them there was a shared sense that commitment to particular places was important, though not all had been able to sustain their relationships over time as Rabab or Kate had been able. Sheila Peace, a former president of the BSG, welcomed the approaches from the day and described how academic researchers have to ‘learn a few tricks.’ She also shared her own experience of researching the Hafod area in Swansea that Kate had previously described. There was a sense of multiple lines of symmetry through all of this – and certainly potential for further discussion. As the author of this blog, and the organiser of the day, I hope to pursue my PhD in this spirit: to focus time in neighbourhoods and to gain further insights into what it means to grow older and to spend a life course in a given place.
As a final point the central argument of having reference points through which to explore the past was also backed up by the setting at Chapter Arts Centre: a charity established in 1971 within a former secondary school. Chapter as an organisation has developed alongside its immediate neighbourhoods and can be another site for collecting, performing and holding stories; for example it is now developing a film and arts programme dedicated to dementia which is launched on Wednesday 17 May [see above].
Thanks to all who came along on the day and the opportunity through the BSG (and CADR) to make it happen. There were a number of people who unfortunately had to made late cancellations, but still want contribute, including Ian Thomas the Chief Executive of Age Cymru, Rhiannon White from Commonwealth Theatre and Sarah Goodey from Gwent Arts in Health.
I look forward to sharing more at the BSG Conference this July in Swansea.