Thursday, 25 August 2011

Up the Stairs to an Understanding of Topography #03


As we walk the concrete, adamant and flagstone pavements of our town, from time to time our feet stray with purpose onto grass and topsoil desire lines - on the beaten track unrecognised by those who have placed the paving, mis-planned our best route from place to place. And just as often, our feet find us climbing or descending the many staircases of the public townscape. When gradients become too steep for comfortable or safe walking and the ground beneath our feet breaks up into the discontinuities of riser and tread, those stringer-held steps can help us to a topographical understanding of the urban space and the underlying human and natural geography. An understanding of human interventions in the landscape - building up artificial features; bridges and causeways, embankments and revetments to span hollows and valleys, to terrace inclines or consolidate banks and tame hills. And we can reach an understanding of those banks, inclines, hollows, valleys and hills themselves - the treads and risers whisper to us a story of the three; no-four (not forgetting time, not forgetting heritage) dimensional shape of our urban environment.

And so a mental acquisition is gained and augmented by the agency of our calves and thighs and their unconscious unblended apprehension of scarp and glen: the sixth psychogeographical sense is fed by unconscious muscle memory and conscious eye.


Throughout Kincorth, a network of paths and stairways leads through that southern-steep-sloped suburb (or "garden estate" as we are invited now to know it) to the craggy tops of Kincorth Hill - still sometimes know as  'e Grupms. Put a small hot tattie in you mouth and pronounce: The Gramps. Write it out longhand and untruncated and you'll appreciate that this prominence just south of the Dee is the last eastermost finger of The Grampian Mountains, triangling down the whole length of Deeside to a last low summit before finally giving out and giving way to the sea. Known once as Stoneyhill, the area towards the summit is now a nature reserve and is dotted with quarry workings and spoil tips dating from the 18th to the late 20th centuries.

Kincorth has or rather had in the past, a formidable reputation for gang violence, no-go areas and turf wars. But that's all histobunk now. On its traffic-free paths and stairs today, rather than loitering razor-gang hoolies lurking to tax or chib you, much more likely are you to see young mums chatting, the ill-considered parking of their progeny prams the only thing to impede your progress. Or you'll see sullen trendy teens in their jeggings and beehives, sumfily tutting and texting away their duty to walk the family shihtzu, collecting its tiny shits in a little orange plastic bag. But then, from time to time, you might be able to detect an inkling, an afterimage, of this place's formidable past as you note the swallow-tattooed neck of the painfully thin shortarsed shuffling alcoholic old man. His brilliantined attempt to DA his nicotine yellow grey hair betrays the fact that he's not nearly as old as he looks; his face is a contour map of a confrontational past in a lawless frontier. Twitching and grunting, grumbling to himself only, he re-lives past controversies - glories and humiliations -  as he stands smoking outside The Abbot - the area's only pub, near the top of the hill. The pub is named for the Abbot of Arbroath, the medieval religious warlord who held sway over the farms and peasants, crofts and serfs of this area during the days of real strongmen.


If you stand at one end of Ashvale Place or the other, the 'vale' topography is evident. Presumably ash trees once grew in this valley. But what is not perhaps so clear is the fact that the valley's actually a good deal deeper and steeper than Ashvale Place makes it appear, for the road crosses the valley obliquely. The Holburn (or Ferryhill Burn) runs beneath Ashvale Place - at the far west end of the street it runs on the north, but by the east end of the street it runs on the south. A little exploration can show you the true shape of the valley - steep sides can be made out behind the townhouses on the south side of Union Grove, and likewise, the steep valley is evident in the retaining walls and steep drying greens which run behind the messy incoherent collection of buildings and carparks surrounding the Ashvale Chip Shop on the north side of Great Western Road, visible from Cuparstone Court. At the far west end of Ashvale Place, recent (well, within the last 15 years) redevelopment of industrial land has opened a new access for pedestrians up the south west slope of the valley from Ashvale Place to Claremont St. This is of great benefit to the residents of Pitmuxton, allowing greater permeability along the most direct pedestrian desire line between Pitmuxton and the town centre. Ashvale Place is characterised by robust unfussy Victorian tenements, which the recent long economic boom seems to have treated well. All units seem to be recently rennovated and in pretty good shape - singles and first timers occupy these well-enough-mannered apartments very close to the entertainment and employment zones of the town centre. People of my old-dad's generation knew a different Ashvale Place in the middle 20th century when the street was a slum; then known locally as "Ash-bucket Alley".


As we walk the urban environment, it is sometimes hard to appreciate just how great were the interventions made by previous generations; it can be difficult to understand just how transformative they were. Most Aberdonians know that Union Street is a viaduct which crosses the valley of the Denburn. But, of course, it's not the only one; Rosemount Viaduct is a similarly impressive structure, if not more so, for it's spectacular curving grace between Schoolhill at its south-eastern end and Leadside Road at the north-west flattened the hills and smoothed access to the fertile slopes of Rosemount beyond while spanning the Denburn twice. Bypassing the filthy muddy sharny slums of Gilcomston and on proud granite arch the Rosemount Viaduct bore the new Victorians high above the old slums below; behind cast-iron parapet, so they could look down on those left behind in Upper Denburn and Jacks Brae in total safety - a different world. The photo shows a latter-day stairway which links a snicket from Upper Denburn to Rosemound Viaduct. On the opposite side, the street called Gilcomston Park, being vehicular, sort of ski-jumps its carrageway from ground level up to the level of the viaduct. 

Viaducts like these exist all over Europe in formerly hilly town centres with which the Victorians had their vainglorious way. Notably Edinburgh has its many viaducts and bridges with vaulted caverns below, and those vaults are put to work as entertainment venues, pop-up pubs, knocking shops, ghost-tour backdrops, etc.  Similarly, London's Oxford street is, in part, raised above the former natural topography. In parts, entire pre-Victorian streetscapes are preserved below vaults, notably the Georgian shopping street which has been preserved almost in its entirety below the Selfridges department store. We understand that this living psychogeographical fossil (for what else can we call it?) has been from time to time used as a film-set. Back home, we have heard claims of secret access, of strange artifacts and of old cottages and the like existing below the vaulted stonework of Aberdeen's viaducts, but we treat these claims with skepticism. We know that, notwithstanding the odd restaurant and nightclub, the vaults of Aberdeen are most commonly used as underground carparks, and commercial storage. However, we would love to learn of more exotic uses, of secrets forgotten, of stories waiting to be told. We would so love be proven wrong.



Story Quine said...

Great stuff, very much what I'm trying to do in Hidden Aberdeen, revive the hidden city; thanks again for a fresh insight, esp the idea of turning the slums into a sort of human zoo!!

Other Aberdeen said...

Slums are zoos. Separated from participation in the mainstream, the denizens (literally 'den'izens of Upper Denburn and Hardwierd) were an out-group within the city itself.

Ghettos and slums are necessary within our society of the spectacle, because they are required for the educational representation of poverty and ignorance and thuggery and barbarism; they are required to demonstrate to the mainstream what the lowest possible platform in our society of demonstrably hierarchised wealth looks like. Thus slums serve the function of both an educational warning and a didactic safetyblanket: The consequences of failure to work 'hard enough' are dangled before us in a diorama, but also the slums allow the mainstream to feel all the better about itself for having risen above such a lowly condition - comforting. The viaducts of the Victorians merely made literal this metaphor.

Should ghetto-dwellers, or shanty-livers, or slum-denizens dare to approach the condition of the mainstream, by 'aspiring' and playing by 'the rules' which 'decent, ordinary' people adhere to, then they find that the pitch is queered. The closer they approach the mainstream condition of prosperous affluence, then the farther away the mainstream itself moves, for the mainstream is a moveable feast.
Per Debord:
...they come to see that this prosperity is not a fixed state but an endless ladder. The higher they climb, the farther they get from the top, because they start off disadvantaged, because they are less qualified and thus more numerous among the unemployed, and finally because the hierarchy that crushes them is not based on economic buying power alone: they are also treated as inherently inferior in every area of daily life by the customs and prejudices of a society in which all human power is based on buying power...

Because of this hierarchical organisation, slums are relative and the 'pets corner' full of the poor will always be with us, to finger-waggingly admonish us (as we notionally admonish them for their own victim status) and inspire us on to work harder and conform all the closer to our bosses orders, lest we fall from the parapet into the bear-pit below.

Our society has no gulags or purgatories, it does not need them while it has the spectacle of slums and ghettoes below, to catch us when we fall.