Street view

Joe Holyoak

In UD 137 I mentioned the photographs that Janet Mendelsohn took in the streets of Balsall Heath in the late 1960s, when she was studying under Stuart Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham University. Her photographs were forgotten about until recently, when a researcher documenting the history of the CCCS discovered some of them, and they featured in a rather ad hoc exhibition in Balsall Heath last summer called Ghost Streets. In January a more professional exhibition of her photographs opened at the Ikon Gallery in Brindleyplace, called Janet Mendelsohn – Varna Road.

Varna Road was one of those streets scheduled to be demolished and redeveloped that Mendelsohn documented. It no longer exists, but it was famous in Birmingham and beyond in the 1960s as a signifier for prostitution, just as Fleet Street meant newspapers and Whitehall meant government. (Its name commemorated the Crimean War, the Bulgarian city Varna on the Black Sea being a landing point for British troops). One of Mendelsohn’s documentary themes was prostitution, and in particular she photographed a prostitute we know only as Kathleen, who worked from Varna Road.

In the 1970s the 19th century grid of streets next to the river Rea which included Varna Road was cleared of all its buildings, and redeveloped with new houses. Having a convenient geometry, the street pattern was retained. The street names were retained as well, with the single exception of Varna Road, which was renamed Belgravia Close. (Close, because it was made a no-through road to deter nostalgic kerb-crawlers). The associations of the name were clearly too strong to allow it to survive. It is quite common for inanimate places to be treated as though they have moral characters, can absorb guilt for events which have happened there, and deserve punishment. Houses in which murders have taken place are often demolished, as in the case of Fred and Rose West’s house in Gloucester, which was demolished in 1996 and replaced with public open space. Demolition is seen as a form of cleansing. I am reminded of Richard Sennett’s 1970 book The Uses of Disorder, in which he uses the word ‘purification’ to typify orthodox modern urban redevelopment, in contrast to what he saw as a more mature attitude which could embrace and make use of diversity and disorder.

A symposium was held in connection with the Ikon exhibition, presenting and discussing issues around 1960s culture, community photography, and prostitution and other forms of street life. In discussion the playwright David Edgar, a resident of Balsall Heath, raised an interesting issue about CCTV, which I suppose is a form of street photography. He cited two instances of CCTV in Balsall Heath, which produced different responses from residents. In the 1990s there was a successful organised campaign by residents to deter kerb-crawlers (in a later, post-Varna Road manifestation of prostitution, by then migrated to a different part of the neighbourhood). The residents’ Street Watch organisation was assisted by police-installed cameras, although many probably didn’t have any film in. The cameras were recognised as being on the side of the community.

In 2010, a large number of automatic number plate reading cameras were installed in Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook, in a move by police to track the movements of terrorist suspects among the Muslim community. The installation was done covertly, and generated a huge reaction against Big Brother-type surveillance. The police backed down, and agreed not to switch the cameras on. Edgar contrasted these two instances of surveillance of public space, with and without the knowledge and support of the community. He also suggested that CCTV, now so omnipresent in Britain, may be replaced by drones. But who would monitor the drones?

URBAN DESIGN 139 Summer 2016 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 139 Summer 2016

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Varna Road 1964. Reproduced by permission of the Library of Birmingham


Varna Rd from Balsall Heath Rd 1964 Reproduced by permission of the Library of Birmingham


Belgravia Close from Balsall Heath Road


Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation.

He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.