From grand townhouses to modest flats, Albert Drive in Pollokshields is probably the most socially and ethnically diverse street in Scotland. Now an ambitious arts project is encouraging these Glasgow residents to share their stories
It’s a blustery Thursday afternoon on Albert Drive in Pollokshields, Glasgow. Or, as it’s simply known to residents, the Drive. The wind tugs high fluffy clouds across the sky, casting one of Scotland’s most diverse streets into shadow, then sunlight, and back again. It tickles the leaves of the mature trees at the west end of the street, the address of some of the most prestigious Victorian villas in the city. On the east side, home to Tramway, Pollokshields East railway station, churches, Scotland’s first purpose built Sikh temple, and more Asian shops than you might find in an entire city elsewhere in the country, the wind dances around the legs of the women doing their daily shop, making their hijabs, abayas, chunnis, and saris billow like sails. Children whiz past on scooters. Old men in sandals chat on street corners with their hands clasped behind their backs. Shop owners stand on their thresholds, surveying the scene with the combination of contentment and indifference that comes with watching the world go by from the same spot every single day.
On the corner of Glenapp Street and Albert Drive, in front of St Albert’s Catholic Church and its imposing B-listed bell tower, a group of strangers are drinking tea, eating cake, and talking shop in a small transparent house. This house – or “the tea shack” as it’s known to 89-year-old resident Bob and his fat barking dog Jock – has been travelling up and down this long, remarkable street every week for the past year. It has hosted an open mic session, a tea party, a pop up disco, and countless conversations between old and young, Asian and white, and middle and working class neighbours on the Drive. The hub of an ambitious year-long art project about what it means to be a neighbour on Albert Drive, today ‘Everybody’s House’ is so busy I can’t even get a seat.
“I’ve lived on the Drive for 17 years,” says Muna Sultan, 61, who has been coming here for months and loves it because “it’s good to get out and when I’m on my own at home I eat too much and get depressed”. She used to run a fashion business in the area and has the most perfectly plucked eyebrows on the Drive. “I’m from Lahore and spent 30 years in Dundee before I came here. Believe me, this is a very friendly street. Everyone talks to each other. Everything is so near. My daughter says ‘I need jewellery’ and I tell her to just cross the road. My son says he wants to go to Pakistan and I tell him to just cross the road.” She laughs. “My children say to me ‘what is this? Is everything across the road on Albert Drive?’. Yes! It is.”
How much has the street changed? “A lot,” she replies. “When I got here it was quiet and a wee bit down. You had to go to the women’s centre for Indian this and Pakistani that. Now everyone is in the one place and I like it much better this way.”
We talk about how the Drive changed again following the murder of Kriss Donald, a 15-year-old white schoolboy, for which two Asian men were convicted in 2004. He was abducted from Kenmure Street just around the corner. Pollokshields for a long time became synonymous with racial tensions but in fact the community pulled together and now it’s a much safer and more harmonious place to live. “There were difficult times when new people would come in and young people lost their way,” Sultan continues. “When that poor boy got killed his mother was amazing. I was so scared. I knew if she said anything bad about our community we would be in trouble. It would pull us apart. But she didn’t and we all supported each other instead. There are so many different countries represented here now. I’ve never seen anywhere like it.”
“I’m just a normal person on Albert Drive who knows everybody,” Rizwanah ‘Rozy’ Ajaib says chirpily. The 27-year-old pharmacist with shrewd eyes, a hijab, and a nosebleed fast Glaswegian accent moved here from Rutherglen when she was four. She’s basically the unofficial therapist of Albert Drive, doling out advice along with her prescriptions to all who walk through the door. “I’m the first one to know anything about anyone on the Drive,” she says airily and then lowers her voice to a dramatic whisper. “But of course it’s all confidential. I like to know what everyone is up to but I’m told I talk too much.
“It used to be more of a posh upmarket street,” she motors on, living up to her reputation. “A lot of the older people who come to the pharmacy tell me it used to be more elegant here. You get the odd one complaining about the foreigners coming in but look, it’s great the way it is and there’s still the other end of the drive with all its mansions. The point is it’s a genuinely close knit community. You should see the Drive during Eid – it’s crazy. And when the BNP and EDL come here we always stand together – all the white people come out and say they’re not welcome here. I’ve never once experienced racism on the Drive and that tells you everything you need to know.”
The Albert Drive project is led by Pollokshields based company Glas(s) Performance and supported by Creative Scotland. It’s a large-scale, sprawling, and ingenious endeavour, involving performance and visual artists, photographers, choreographers, filmmakers and, of course, dozens of members of the local community who will perform in a show at Tramway this weekend alongside various other celebrations and exhibitions. Many of them had never set foot in the internationally acclaimed arts venue before, let alone taken to its main stage.
Other aspects include an alternative Neighbourhood Watch: a group of young performance artists in white boiler suits who patrol the Drive on scooters, spreading the “good news” of the street. “It’s not about spying on people,” explains NW member Tom Hobbins. “You never hear about the good stuff happening in a community like this. We do things like introduce the lollipop lady to everyone by name and get impromptu football games going.”
There is also an ongoing letter campaign encouraging neighbours to write to one another. The letters have been attached to lamp-posts up and down the Drive over the year and tell a sweet, funny, and occasionally sad story of their own, reminiscing over bakeries long since disappeared, plans to meet up at “the tree stump that looks like a table”, and unspoken loneliness. “I love the Asian shops,” writes ‘Jane’, “but as a non Asian feel a bit awkward going into some stores even though the welcome is there. Can you help me get over this?” Or what about the invitation to neighbours to “come in and have a cup of tea” with Allison, Paul and Reenie, residents of a care home further up the Drive. “We are all wheelchair users and we all have Cerebral Palsy – we call it CP for short,” they write. “Reenie likes to go to Mayfield in Govan on a Tuesday afternoon to have a wee drink, sing songs and see people for the bingo. Paul loves the guitar and singing into a microphone. His favourite song is We Are The Champions.”
What makes Albert Drive so special is its diversity. It may be the most multi-cultural street in Scotland. The most recent census from 2011 records the Asian community as making up 2.1 per cent of the national population. In Pollokshields, which by the 1970s was home to the majority of Glasgow’s 12,000 South Asians, that figure jumps to around 40 per cent. But there’s more to Albert Drive than its ethnic diversity. It also represents every tier of social class and, by extension, every kind of architecture. As you cross over the boundary of Shields Road, the smaller tenements and flats change into increasingly ostentatious mansions surrounded by private gardens at the top of the street. Beyond is the wide green expanse of Pollok Park. Here is a street that includes one of the greatest industrial buildings in Glasgow – the Coplawhill tram shed, built in 1893, which until the early 1960s was the terminus, depot and factory for Glasgow’s trams – as well as an original Alexander ‘Greek’ Thompson house.
In fact Edo Architecture, which built Everybody’s House for the project, discovered in its research that Albert Drive was originally constructed with rigid class structures in mind. It was envisaged as a street that would be able to accommodate both the richest and poorest in Glasgow. And if anything, class conflict outweighs racial tensions here. Lots of people I speak to talk about the upper end of the street keeping itself to itself, there seems to be an invisible barrier between the two halves of the Drive, and I learn that the letters attached to lamp-posts at the west end were mysteriously removed by disgruntled residents.
“There was a very genteel presence on Albert Drive 25 years ago,” explains Ria Din, who has lived on the Drive for 26 years. Her own story is a prototype of Albert Drive integration: her mother was a Scottish Catholic from the Gorbals, and her father was from Pakistan. “I used to bring my mum down to some of the wee tea shops. Now it’s mostly a street full of Asian businesses with one or two exceptions like the electrical shop which is very quaint and used by the older residents from the big houses. They still go there to buy their toasters. The fact is some people don’t want to mix and that’s often a class rather than race issue.”
“There are still two parts of Albert Drive,” agrees Michelle Montgomery Masters, who has lived on the Drive for 16 years with her nine-year-old son, Adam. “The upper half of Albert Drive hasn’t changed much while this end has changed massively. Technically we live at the top end but I send my son to the local school, which is very multi-cultural. Most of the other people at my end wouldn’t do that – they would go private.”
Before I venture west, I pay a visit to the New Victoria Gardens, off the main thoroughfare. Once a Victorian pleasure garden, it’s thought to be the oldest of Glasgow’s 27 allotment sites and is surely Albert Drive’s best-kept secret. It’s a magical, hidden place, entered through a small, battered, green door that’s straight out of a fairytale. Inside, all is flowers, birds, and blissed out locals pushing wheelbarrows. And Nic Green, an acclaimed performance artist who has spent 45 consecutive days in the lovely old barn, watching, listening, and recording the bird, plant, and human life of the space.
She has walked the length of the Drive most days of her residency. This is no mean feat: it’s six kilometres there and back. “I wanted to focus on the non human living aspects of the Drive,” Green explains. “I noticed that at the Shields Road/Albert Drive intersection you can look up the street and it’s like a green corridor. There are so many trees. And then you look down the street and there are barely any trees at all. I looked on Google maps and quickly realised that on this end of the Drive, all the green spaces are hidden. And then I found this place.”
Green decided to invite allotment holders to come and talk to her in the barn and record their experiences. Her final piece will be an audio-tour of the gardens. “I wrote a letter to everyone and went round delivering them to each shed one evening as the sun was going down,” she says. “Slowly people came and talked to me about their relationships with these gardens. They were all stories of growth, whether that was to do with how this place had supported them or how they had tried to grow asparagus.”
Throughout my day spent on the Drive, one name keeps cropping up. A local character called Frank Norton, in his sixties, who lives at the top of the Drive. Adam, Masters’ son, tells me his favourite part of the project has been “getting to see inside Frank’s house”. Tashi Gore, one of the artists who run Glas(s) Performance, says that “Frank is a legend. He has lived on the Drive his whole life and his house is like a museum”. There’s only one thing for it. I decide to head west to his grand Victorian villa, one of the few houses left on the Drive that hasn’t been split into flats. There’s an Easter display in the window of the lower drawing room, despite it being June, and a project poster in the window of the large vestibule proudly announcing ‘I’m on Albert Drive’.
Norton eventually appears from the back garden. Born in 1944, he is a charming and enthusiastic man with an accent as well sculpted as his hair. Today he is casually dressed for gardening but I’m assured that he has “lots of good striped suits for sitting on benches and so on”. He then takes me on a tour of his house.
“Only three families have ever lived here,” he says conspiratorially as we wander through rooms so beautifully preserved it’s impossible to imagine him living in them. The painted cornices and ceiling roses are the most ornate I’ve ever seen and in the upper drawing room a set of Victorian parlour games have been laid out as if in mid-play. “The second family was the chair of the Bank of Scotland who I believe was born here.” He opens a door. “And this is the pink room, rather excessive,” he says with a grin. “We call it the Barbara Cartland...”
At the top of the house, where apparently the maid used to live, we stand at the window. It looks back down the curve of Albert Drive and right across Glasgow. An extraordinary view of a city that never tires of reinventing itself. “You don’t get much better than this,” Norton sighs. “I remember standing here as a boy and watching the leerie man come to light the lamps every night. He came right up the Drive, lighting one lamp after the other.”
He remembers the trams too. “The number three went from the university all the way to Moss Park. It was rather unreliable and there was a lovely rhyme about it. ‘You never could get to heaven on a number three car / Because the number three car don’t go that far’.” He laughs. “I remember putting a penny on the rails so it would become bent when the tram went over it. Or we would roll snowballs under the tramcars and then watch them explode as they set off.”
How much does he think Albert Drive has changed? “Well I suppose Mrs Robertson, who lived just over the hill, did go down to the shops on her horse,” he concedes. “And that doesn’t happen now. We’ve lost a tobacconist and the shops used to deliver to us up here. But they still sell the same goods. It’s just that now they’re run by Asians and the quality is much better.” He pauses and gestures back down the Drive. “You know, we were always a pretty harmonious bunch. Albert Drive represents the best of Glasgow. It’s moved with the times, adapted to new people coming in, and so it has survived.”