Despite all the efforts, the great soul of Glasgow is intact

Just around the corner, I catch the end of a conversation that ends with the comment that her boyfriend has been “beaten to hell too many times.” Another acquaintance of hers seemed to have been drinking quite a bit the previous night, but just saying he was drunk is not enough. He was rather “walked through a bouncy castle”.

People here like to paint pictures with their conversations.

This is my first real visit to the Barras since my parents took me here on a rainy Sunday afternoon looking for a bargain with what they had left over from a mortgage that was slowly choking them. The place is bustling and there are echoes of its post-war heyday.

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Arnold, whose stand sells both ancient and modern Scottish memorabilia, agrees. “There has been some kind of revival, my man. It’s really starting again.”

His friend agrees: “There’s a good atmosphere here, even if it’s maybe a bit different than before. There are a lot of young hipsters out there now, but that’s great too.

“We’re just trying to prepare for the bike race next week. There will be chaos here. We’re more worried about that than what people think of a couple of empty shops on Sauchiehall Street.”

Glasgow’s famous weekend street market is the first stop on a walk that took me from London Road in the east of the city to Byres Road in the west.

Glasgow has suffered a severe crisis in recent months, with dozens of commentators and political figures suddenly concerned about signs of decay in the city centre.

So I wanted to walk around my city at street level and hear what the people who live and work here think about the fuss that Concerned of Nuthatch Avenue, Bearsden is making about their neighborhoods.

Glasgow is the largest and most important city in Scotland.

Almost half of the country’s population lives within an hour’s drive. For more than a century, it has been home to some of Britain’s most deprived neighborhoods. But only now, it seems, have the country’s political and media elites decided that it needs their attention. Most of them would get nosebleeds if they ventured beyond the High Street on the eastern approaches to Glasgow.

HeraldScotland: Kevin McKenna surveys Glasgow. Image: Gordon TerrisKevin McKenna surveys Glasgow. Image: Gordon Terris (image: free)

The looming withdrawal of night bus services and the introduction of the LEZ zone have compounded challenges for Glasgow’s hospitality sector following the recovery. The boarded up shop fronts of Sauchiehall Street, the city’s flagship boulevard, seem to exude a spirit of decay.

I have seen critically how this road has been reduced to such a state of disrepair and perhaps as a result I am part of the manual mass destruction Glasgow is undergoing right now. But maybe now is the time to shut up and stop talking about the city suddenly becoming a bomb site.

In families we are allowed to criticize ourselves, but when outsiders dare to do so, it is a different matter altogether.

The walk back along the London Road towards Bridgeton Cross, starting in Celtic Park, will reward you if you’re willing to look closely. Less than a generation ago, these roads were described in apocalyptic terms: the worst in this category; the ugliest thing in it.

Now you’ll be greeted by rows of well-designed, social and affordable homes not dissimilar to those transformed by the Gorbals in the park and across the river. A group of volunteers load shelves of school uniforms into the Kindness store. This is a street team supporting the homeless in Glasgow, and its founder Laura McSorley is driven by boundless optimism.

“The school uniforms are for families who find the store prices too high,” she tells me.

“People here are so generous, even those who face their own challenges. You don’t have to look far to find big hearts in Glasgow. Sometimes I feel like we’re too down.”

On the way down to Glasgow Cross, more previously unseen treasures are revealed.

I stop at a copper public art work by Iain Kettles entitled “Cut From the Factory Floor,” which references the patterns used at the old Templeton Carpet Factory across the street.

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At an entrance to Glasgow Green there is another small landmark that I had previously overlooked. It is a cobblestone memorial dedicated to Maggie McIver, the founder of Barras Market. Right behind is the People’s Palace.

Have you seen what they recently did with the landscaping of the People’s Palace? That’s great. The old Doulton fountain is overcrowded, making it impossible to light a cigarette on the benches next to it. Thomas and his family from Riddrie explain the story to them: ‘Who needs to go to London when you have something like this on your doorstep?’ he says.

Continue through Glasgow Cross, where tall cranes – always a sign of buoyant economic activity – are busy erecting new retail projects that are already changing the skyline of this ancient street. Even at this late afternoon hour, the streets around the Merchant City are beginning to swarm with early arrivals from the Saturnalia, who will rock them from now until dawn.

Here, however, one sees the fault lines between the wild pride of the people and the neglect of the citizens. On a pedestrian stretch of John Street, next to the City Chambers, the buildings look chic and elegant, and café-bars with outdoor seating give a sultry European ambience.

But where the responsibility of the Council begins, the problems become all too obvious. Cigarette butts and fast food wrappers are strewn about and it’s obvious that no effort has been made to clean them up. But as Kenny Fraser, a local store clerk, points out, “the site will be neat for next week’s bike race.”

On the steps of Buchanan Street, a vocal Cockney agitator spreads conspiracy theories about 9/11, Covid and Big Government. “Am oi roit,” he calls out after each slogan. A little Hare Krishna man pauses and asks me what’s going on. “We’re all going to hell,” I say. “Be at peace,” he says.

And now I’m at the top of Sauchiehall Street. Is it my imagination, or does this much-maligned promenade look busier than I’ve seen in years? Still, one simply cannot escape the hollowed-out façade that disfigures almost the entire north side.

This is where the Greaves Sports Center, Victoria nightclub and Marks & Spencer used to be. Upstairs, about ten ghost properties, including the old ABC, tell of the damage caused by the art school fires.

I start counting the empty seats and get to 26 as I hit the freeway.

No unforeseen circumstances or natural disasters; No pandemic or unfavorable market forces can explain why Glasgow’s most revered thoroughfare has been allowed to fester. It’s a disparagement to the character of these happy, upbeat and imaginative Glaswegians I met on a Saturday afternoon, who strive every day to show their city at its best.

At the mouth of Woodlands Road, which means your official West End, there is an immediate change, like crossing from one country into another. The cars are newer and bigger; The coffees are artisanal and the sidewalks are cleaner. Here are man buns.

A bachelorette party meanders by, not yet glittering, and apologizes. There are art galleries. The smell of roasted onions and kebab sauce has been replaced by that of scented candles and essential oils. The fruits are delivered in wooden crates that are in front of the shops and not on the Bacardis floor.

And now I know where Cail Bruach is.

On Byres Road it looks like someone did a Boys From Brazil act for white guys under 30. They all have beards shaped to the same, universal facial coordinates. They are all called “brother”. But it’s still Glasgow. A little less rugged, perhaps, than the roads across town, and with the confidence that money brings.

There is a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald called The Lost Decade. It tells of a man – once an alcoholic – who views his city and its people with the clarity that comes from sobriety. On Saturday I walked through Glasgow and paid attention for a change. There is much to be repaired in my city, but its soul remains intact.

Grace Reader

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