‘Crisis ordinariness’: Grangetown, Middlesbrough

‘Being in Something’ by J.Oware

[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).

Joshua Oware is an Oxford Geography graduate based in South East London. He runs Rare's national social mobility development programme, Target Oxbridge. His research is on the politics and poetics of affect, and fear/threat/hope in everyday life. He is currently working to complete his masters in Sociology at Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He tweets @Josh_Oware.