‘Crisis ordinariness’: Grangetown, Middlesbrough

Joshua Oware
June 9, 2014

[Mark Easton narrates as the camera moves through dark images of Grangetown. The sense of loss weighs heavy]

‘The place had believed in itself […]  there were proud people determined to fight for their community […] I  left convinced that their fortunes would change [1990]

[The accompanying music becomes a drone of dissonant sounds. The  rhythm eerily mimics that which can be seen on the screen […] it’s a  sensorium that captures a town that has stuttered, fallen and been  abandoned]

‘I could barely believe what I saw [2004]’.

*   *   *

Grangetown, four miles east of  Middlesbrough, on the north-eastern edge of the United Kingdom, emerged  around 1851 between the iron ore of the Eston Hills and the first bends  of the River Tees. Grangetown, blessed with resources of all forms,  became a unique geographical sandwich: in nature – from mine through ore  to steel – and in humans – from birth through life to death. At that  time, and for the century that followed, the town, built to house  workers in the nascent steel industry, was alive, vibrant and largely  self-sufficient. A north-eastern Macondo, a world unto itself.

I was born in Grangetown but have never  lived there for longer than a collection of isolated moments – holidays  and those stray visits that appear during family dramas, or short-lived  parental separations. The ‘elsewheres’ of my life, however, in Bristol,  London, the Bronx and Accra, have always folded back to the North:  through memories, and lurking questions, which, for many years, I didn’t  have the words to ask. Grangetown has always been lodged within me, but  – until now – the self-reflexive consciousness that develops with age  struggled to understand quite how. While ‘the work of writing is always  done in relation to something that no longer exists’, as Georges Perec  writes, here it is an active attempt ‘to grasp something pertaining to  my experience, not at the level of its remote reflections, but at the  very point where it emerges’. My writing, here, is pregnant with all  that has come before: the time in the summer of 1996 (age five), as I  played football in the alleyway behind my Nana’s house, when a car  careered off the road and into the wall of no. 62. It was a time when  everything slowed, a heavy present: three boys burst out, there was  shouting and finger pointing as the two passengers fell into a raw and  intensifying blame game. The driver methodically circled the wrecked  Cavalier fiddling with a canister of substance I later, years later,  realised was petrol. The car erupted in a dance of flames. It was  beautiful; I stayed standing, fixed, as my mum ran out to steal me away  from the alleyway show. Apparently the word for this eruption was  ‘TWOC-ing’[1], but for me it was a peculiar, gently exciting and little understood ‘thing’.

So in writing through experiences of  being in Grangetown, I am and I was led back, by already being there.  I’ve watched Mark Easton, Darcus Howe and Kirsty and Phil,  but never did their words connect with my Grangetown. They felt like  strange appendages, or prostheses that used crude associations to  silence the lived experience of this supposed ‘showpiece of industrial  decline’. In returning to Grangetown I wanted to understand how my  family, friends, and all those I encountered had felt and moved through a  changing and chastised town. How could it be that dancing flames were  the semblance of a ‘crisis’? How is ‘crisis’ simultaneously ‘industrial  meltdown’ and an interrupted game of football? What is ‘crisis’ moment  by moment?

Grangetown  from the Eston Hills. Iron ore was discovered in the hills from which  the phtograph is taken in around 1851. Grangetown (pictured here in its  entirety) grew-up between the ore and the ‘works’. Six of the original  eight streets, demolished in the 1960s, are now covered by the A66  dual-carriageway, which, in this picture, runs along the border between  the houses and the Plant. For an explantion of figure “A” please see  image two. Source: author’s own collection, September 2012.


In the late 1800s, Grangetown’s steel industry  was one of the world’s largest, most technologically advanced and  highest quality producers. During the course of the twentieth century,  and particularly over the last thirty years, however, the relation  between Grangetown and its industry has grown increasingly abstract.  Between the mid-1970s and late 1980s, one quarter of all industrial jobs  in Grangetown and the surrounding area were lost. The disassociation  between the town and the production was coupled with a persistent flow  of out-migration, as the population declined from over 13000 in 1975 to 5000 today. Of those left behind, more than half are considered ‘economically inactive‘ and life expectancy  is on average 8-10 years less than in places just three miles away.  People have little to do with the complex of cooling towers, slag heaps  and industrial buildings that hem the town in. That notwithstanding,  large-scale steel and chemical production still goes on, but the  traditional ties between Town and Works have largely disintegrated.  Since 2008 the local authority has been working towards an abandonment  of the name ‘Grangetown’ in favour of renaming it and the surrounding  area ‘Greater Eston’. How have the changes described – this so-called  ‘crisis’ – been sensed in various forms of impact amid everyday life?  How might I remember moments like the time I was playing football, with a  language that allows an exploration of daily life abstracted from the  grand narratives of industrial decline and austerity? In this short  space we’ll follow three departures: interruptions, how long they  ‘last’; and where, specifically, they happen. [2]

A  map of the original 8 streets of Grangetown. The footprint of the  original town is represented by figure A in Image 1. Only one street  remains, and that is Bolckow Road. To the North of Bolckow Road,  Cheetham street to Bessemer Street have been replaced by the A66 and a  small industrial estate nestled between what remains of the Dorman Long  boss plant and the edge of the road. To the South, the street houses  that were built as Grangetown grew towards the Eston hills, have now  been levelled.

Interruptive moments

Area for Change. 11 July 1986.

An “industrial and commercial  improvement area” is to be declared [in Grangetown…] it was hoped to  restore the confidence among firms and investors in the long-term future  of the area.

Life’s Looking Up On The Estate. 21 May 1992.

Residents in Grangetown are being  promised a better quality of life through a scheme to upgrade almost 50  houses on the estate. […] Run-down properties in the high crime and  unemployment area will be overhauled, transforming them into modern  homes in landscaped surroundings.

Where do we go from here? 26 October 1998.

School children drafted into the future decision-making process in troubled estate.[3]

Every moment transmits an energy or  impulse beyond itself: it can catalyze other things. Perhaps it is the  collection and accumulation of these situations, or various situations  like them, that serves to resonate as a so-called ‘crisis’; a feeling  that ongoing is in some way disrupted. These scenes of impact can erupt  or slide into being.  As a collection of innumerable ‘moments’, we begin  thinking of ‘crisis’ and ‘crises’ not necessarily as events but as  atmospheres, attachments, and a series of potentials (in their capacity  to connect and accumulate). Community change can be seen in the  impressions or events as described above, as well as more mundanely  through an attentiveness or attunement to ordinary time:

Ann and I decided to go for fish n’  chips before we set off to her mum’s for our final interview. The row of  shops of which the chip shop is part has a long history in Grangetown,  dating back to the immediate post-war years. The chip shop looked as  much. It is ragged and blackened on the outside, its windows covered by  permanent wire-meshing to the extent that, at a glance, it looked  boarded-up. Inside: change, warmth, atmosphere. Three lovely women  talking, local, relaxed, and seemingly happy, but separated from their  customers by an entire wall of iron bars, the sort of prisons, or wild  animal cages […] Then, three lads, maybe around 16 or 17, flooded-in  having dumped their bikes outside. Saying little, and looking, almost  obviously, at more than the menu. Conversations elsewhere were forcibly  continued, but with that tacit acknowledgement that ‘something’ was  happening, or might happen. A collective understanding of a new  uncertain now-ness: somaesthetic sensitivity. An unconscious ‘us’ and  ‘them’ swallowed the small waiting area. But then, no sooner than they  had come, they left. No orders placed, just gone. Things fell back down  from where-ever they were ‘up’. People nodded, some even tried to  verbalize that moment of ‘something’. We all knew though, this is what  Grangetown is now.

[An excerpt from a co-collaborative  writing exercise performed between one of my interviewees – Ann (63, a  close family-friend, former Grangetown resident of 40 years, and  part-time school cleaner) – and myself].

Such atmospheres emerge in the  transition between life events, accrue in their unfolding, and get  caught in the relation between bodies and their environment. They are  catalyzing forces of an ordinary life that is tensed by pressures of all  kinds – from the fear of petty crime through to intense disaffection  with the crumbling environment that surrounds. These forces keep us  grasped by reality, and in Grangetown it’s a tense one; a living  uncertainty.

Being in Something

Living uncertainty inhabits the passing  of time. Processes, practices and routines persist such that, despite  things happening, we uncritically attend to the business of living on.  There are ins and outs: deaths, births and migrations, but ordinariness  exists here too. There is no time to despair, or hope, or stop to think  in a moment of the unfolding event because there is living to do. The  consideration of how things truly resonate within us and upon us brings  new understandings to ‘crisis’ and what it actually is both to be in and  to produce a ‘community’.

Hiatus and practice

In my second conversation with David, a  lifelong Grangetown resident, we sat in his living room, a regimented  place, little by way of self-expression, and it was during this informal  session that he began talking about his working life:

All the works have gone now though. You see, I used  to work in the shipyards, that went in about 1987 […] I think there is  only one steel plant working now, at Lackenby. ICI has gone. A lot of  work has gone from the area.

David is a man of few words by his own  admission. We never drank tea or pulsed through the common courtesies  almost assumed upon the arrival of a guest. The orderliness of David’s  home formed an opposition to the uncertainty 13 feet beyond where we  sat: out-there. He always sat adjacent to the large bay window, speaking  out through it. He gestured towards Grangetown:

A lot of people like me-self have finished work you  see […] well I’ve been out of work about 10 year now, and I’m only 62.  At first it hurt. But then dad was ill so I did that, you know, cared  for him and what not […] Then after, you’ know, well, I haven’t worked.

[There is a long pause as he adjusts his position on the sofa]

I’d say most people round here are working in  supermarkets or retail. We’ve got a Tesco just over the bridge and an  ASDA as you know, so we’re alright for supermarkets! It’s ok now, but  without jobs there’s not much you can do.

The period of unemployment to which  David refers began during the downsizing of Corus steelworks in the  early 2000s. He lost his job, his father fell terminally ill. The  uneventful routine that had made life controllable, as David so seemed  to enjoy, collapsed inwards. How is it then that people sustain relative  normality and go on? Practice and routines emerged as buoyancy-devices.  Many of the conversations I had were of moving through the same  patterns, almost ritualistically. “The same friends in the same places”,  said John during our second meeting. Other changes may rock this  rhythm: people move away, die, and disengage, but after such overhaul,  what is left of routine? Something that emerged was the routinization of  certain spaces (e.g. pubs, walking paths, shops). They were spaces for  encounters that gave that feeling of being in something. Hiatus rarely  befell these jostling activities of being-in-the-world ‘undramatically’.  Certain spaces provided a reliable base through the present,  affectively and materially, to enable a feeling of ongoingness.  Dependable life relied on this attachment. In these examples, practice  goes on as a means of dissipating the affects of forces beyond our own  limited control.

Spatialised ‘crisis’

John, my first interviewee, was born,  raised and still lives in Grangetown now after retirement. He told me  about his encounters with and within various spaces:

Life hasn’t been the same since they knocked the  street houses down […] I used to live in Bessemer Street, you’know.  They’ve knocked down all the street houses where I live, they’ve all  gone now. They’ve been gone about four years now. It’s odd you’know.  There’s just nothing there n’more.  Yeah, life has changed.

The spatial organization of parts of  Grangetown appears to play a double role: one involves the production of  communal atmospheres (in pubs and on playgrounds); and the second, the  material presence of spaces containing the psychic projects (hopes and  excitements). ‘Crisis’ might be the literal absence or decline of these  spaces. After the car crashed, I was never allowed to play at the back  of Nana’s house again. ‘Crisis’ is not simply a way of categorizing  areas in which particular socio-fiscal policies have ‘adversely’  affected a population. The twofold valence of space can be detected in  John’s comparative description:

There’s no pubs, no pubs [chuckling]; where working  men used to go for their drink. There’s nothing like that round  Grangetown anymore…We used to have the Salvation Army down the Trunk  Road, that’s gone. It’s a housing estate now […] Luckily we have the  Boys Club, or what they call – ‘Community Youth Centre’. That’s  something good about the area. I’d rather have the good old days if  you know what I mean. I’d rather have the street houses, because  everyone knew everyone, but where you are now, you live in the house,  you very rarely see your neighbors […]  I’m lucky though, because I live in a Close. If I lived in those houses  just up the road here, neighbours don’t talk to you. Everyone being  friendly an all that. A lot of that is missing you see, talking and  stuff. That’s why I say I’m lucky in the close […] everyone talks to  each other, everyone knows each other, otherwise, if I lived in a normal  street, or a normal road I probably wouldn’t see anybody. I wouldn’t  say I’d be friendly to anyone next-door you’ know.

The careful description of the Close,  and the openness that this, in his mind, permits, is telling. The built  environment seems as much a communicator between people as people  themselves. I was told how the fencing-off of the boys’ club football  fields following a spate of joy-riding incidences, as well as the  physical practice of isolation caused by road-blocks built in reaction  to the ‘TWOC-ing’ endemic, closed down and affected ways through which  the community became. As Paul, 42, a former resident and now filmmaker  describes:

It was just manic with the TWOC-ing […] Scary […] 14  year-old kids driving through the estates at 60mph. Roads got closed  off, people boarded up, shops closed, they even shut the fields over by’  boys club […] just shocking. […] So a lot of people left you see, all  down Argyle, up near Kwicksave, down yonder by Bolckow […] a lot of my  friends too you see. All of these went after They promised people it  would get better. You know, it started in the 1990s […] they moved the  good people out to improve the houses they were in, cost them millions  they say. But when they were done, nobody wanted to come back, they’d  escaped, so the houses were ruined, burned. They were disgusting […]  Grangetown has kind of kept the same footprint, but with demolition and  people moving, you see, there are just empty spaces left.

The ‘Boys Club’ playing field. Source: author’s own photograph.

Situational changes create uncertainty.  Uncertainty, in many accounts, became a powerful force that produces  shakiness, necessarily limiting the faith someone has in affective  forecasting, picturing themselves, emotionally and psychologically, in  ten years time, or even six months:

[John] I thought these houses here would have been  knocked down by now […] I heard a rumour, I heard a rumour, someone said  to me: ‘they’re knocking the houses down in few years time’ and I said  ‘hah, right’, that was two years ago, so we’ve got another year to go’.

The ongoing community is precariously  placed between an affective/material disintegration; and the forms of  sustenance that persist. The spaces of Grangetown enact a force on  people’s lives. Community is realised differentially across time and  variously produced spaces: the cloister of the Close mentioned by John,  in contrast to the bare open spaces behind him for example.

Continuing on

Habit through hiatus suggests more than  mere continuity, though, it alludes to a continuity in the ordinary  despite “crisis”. This necessitates a re-working of how we might  understand ‘crisis’ both as an affective term associated with the  dislodging force of a particular event or combination of circumstances;  but also as it relates to, and is realised in space and time. Firstly,  what elements of ‘crisis’ are characterised by the presence of the  unspectacular? David spoke of caring for his father, attending his  garden, and meeting friends to play bingo in Whitby during his ten year  hiatus from work.

‘Well, I pop over to  Whitby to see my friend when I can. We’ve been friends since he lived  round here. I have a fair bit of time I guess these days, but it goes’

Ordinariness persists despite the fact  that these ten years have witnessed dramatic changes to the way he  relates to the world and negotiates life, including the sad passing of  his father. And that’s the point. ‘Crisis’ becomes less an Event, but  rather, an environment not experienced as panicked suspension or chaos.  Secondly, ‘crisis’ becomes a condition of living that concentrates in  different places at different times – as the moment of redundancy or the  feeling of unease when queuing for cod and chips. Huge structural  changes often do not maintain an impact at the level of the human body –  emotionally, psychologically, affectively – that reflects their  supposed economic, social, and political size. Words like ‘austerity’  and ‘Thatcher’s neoliberalism’ often do not capture these micro-elements  of everyday life. Changes gathered and understood as ‘crisis’ seem  indifferent to other aspects of the ordinary. ‘Crisis’ feels, at the  level of bodily and communal activity, more subtle than our common  understandings of the word itself.

“Crisis ordinariness”

Grangetown has shown us how crisis can  become an uneasy term: lives unfolded amid changing atmospheres of daily  life, whether tense or synaesthetically ‘uneventful’: crisis  ordinariness. This punctuated time recursed between oblivion and  security. In our experienced time from moment to moment, there are  breakages, undulations, and bumpy presents. But then, hiatus: the moment  when the repetitive loops of daily life fall in on themselves. These  periods of impasse, caused by crime (Craig), deaths (David) or an  interrupted football game, often came from-the blue, and carry an affect  beyond their temporal happening. These are the moments where ‘habit  meets event’. These interruptions and the sensation of the passing  event, resonate upon and within human beings. They lodge themselves in  lives, to the point that they become life itself.

People in Grangetown have always been  told to look forward, encouraged to do so by the production of things  intended to carry hope: redevelopment projects, new parks, and new  houses. But what is it that they should look to? The attempt here has  been to approach how people cope and have coped living in a community  that has been dragged between habit and shock, a community continually  told to ‘look to a future’ that always fades into distant indeterminacy.  At the time of writing it all seems to have broken down. Three decades  of the same unfulfilled mantras, punctuated by job losses, housing  demolitions, crime epidemics and increasing health inequalities, appear  to have left Grangetown in its death-throes. Change resonates among  everyday life expressing less an event, but rather an environment, or  condition of living. People find ways to cope, and go on in themselves  and alongside others. After-all, we all still need to go to ASDA, cook  dinner, iron shirts, sleep, love, and live. Life goes on.


[1]  A Phenomenon Nicknamed Twoc-ing ‘taking-without-consent’ – Something  That Sadly Famed The Town During The 90s When It Was Popularly Known As  The Car Crime Capital Of The Uk (‘north Of The Road’ – Craig  Hornby,1991).

[2]  The Following Stories Are Based On Fieldwork I Conducted In Grangetown  As Part Of A Research Thesis In The Summer Of 2012. The Names Have Been  Fictionalized But The Experiences Are Real.

[3] Collection Of Newspaper Clippings Taken From The Local Gazette Archives (Not Available Online).

All by
Joshua Oware