Cities change. It’s their nature. They grow. The old comes down and the new rises up, taller, grander, glossier than ever. We hang on to bits of our history as slender reminders but we junk most of our past as if it was rubbish.
And fine, there’s much that should go. The slums are a prime example, those Brutalist office buildings (what were we thinking?), the tower blocks of flats that stand like abominations and threats to the idea of community. But, and it’s a big but, when we tear them all do, we lose sight of who we were and how we got here.
Several months ago I took a walk around Hunslet, Cross Green and on to Marsh Lane in Leeds, on the trail of my ancestors, addresses from census records. Some of the houses still exist – inner city, you’d call them now – but many more have vanished. Big swathes of Hunslet are now for business, not housing (factories and houses used to stand cheek by jowl in the 19th and early 20th century). The old places that remain are derelict, boarded up.
My upcoming book, Two Bronze Pennies, takes place largely in the Leylands, an area that no longer exists on any map of Leeds (much like the place known as the Bank, now Richmond Hill). It runs in a triangle from an area more or less north of Eastgate, bounded on one side by North Street (give or take), and on the other by Regent Street, meeting close to Sheepscar. It was a working-class area, and when Jewish immigrants arrived, this was where they settled, to the degree that it was almost a ghetto. Yiddish was the lingua franca there, the common European Jewish tongue that people of all nationalities used.
They came…and came…and came. In the early years of the 20th century, more than 10,000 of them were packed into the area. Prejudice meant they were safer together. Most worked in tailoring, in the sweatshops dotted around the Leylands, sewing for 12 or 15 hours a day, most of the garments for the big manufacturers who didn’t want to employ Jews in their factories. Male, female, young, old, everyone worked.
Those who acquired some money moved a little farther from the city centre, into Chapteltown – then very genteel and after that to Moortown, Roundhay, and Alwoodley. The relentless march of the middle classes. But human nature means that not everyone is a success. We don’t all make money.
At that time Leeds’ money was still based on manufacturing. We’d been one of the cradles of the Industrial Revolution, one of the great cities of Empire. But one war saw the decline of much of that, and a second was the nail in the coffin. Look at the skyline now and it’s dominated by office buildings, not chimneys. The houses in the Leylands were classified as slums – and indeed, they were – and finally all tumbled down. Those still living there moved out to new housing estates. Better living, less community.
And all that ground? You won’t find any houses in it. That memory has gone with the bricks. It’s small industry these days. The cries of children yelling in Yiddish on the street are a distant echo of memory. The Polish synagogue, the Great synagogue – they just exist in tales now.
These days it’s…anonymous. Of course, much of Leeds is becoming that way. More shiny shopping for the consumer-led economic recovery.
But if you didn’t know about it, you wouldn’t have a clue now that the Leyland ever existed. It’s been neatly erased from history by the planners, and with it so much of the city’s history, and the fact that the area gave sanctuary to people fleeing pogroms and seeking hope, a better life that many found.
It’s as if those people sitting and working out how our cities should look forgot that the biggest contribution to life isn’t made the those considered to be the great and the good. How can we know where we’re going if we choose to forget the path that brought us here?