Residents of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate have been giving their verdict on a new musical that tells the story of the gigantic brutalist complex with songs by local troubadour Richard Hawley.
Written by Chris Bush, Standing at the Sky’s Edge – which shares the name of Hawley’s 2012 album – intertwines his lamenting love songs and screeching guitar solos with the stories of three families on the estate through three generations in the 1960s, 80s, and 2000s.
At the open dress rehearsal on Thursday, 87-year-old Kathleen Hill, one of the estate’s first residents, described the show as fantastic. She said: “One couple in the musical moves into the estate in 1960, which was the same year I did. The husband is a steel worker like mine was, and it reminded me so much of the time we spent there – the community where we raised our three boys, where everyone knew everyone else and you never had to lock your doors.”
Those three boys, now in their 50s, also watched the musical. Gary Hill, 56, shows me the faded blue “Park 62” tattoo on his wrist. “When the steel worker and his wife entered the stage, I had tears in my eyes,” he says. His brother Andrew, 59, agrees: “When we left Park Hill in 1976 to move into a house, none of us boys wanted to. We’d keep coming back to go to the pubs and now, with the rebuilding, I often think of moving back. It’s like restoring the Titanic to its former glory.”
The story of Park Hill mirrors the city itself. Constructed at the height of 1950s utopianism and inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation building in Marseille, it was designed to be a futuristic vision of communal social housing, a “streets in the sky” project to symbolise the city’s move beyond its industrial roots and into the modern era. Yet, as Sheffield’s fortunes declined and its steel mills closed, Park Hill became symbolic for all the wrong reasons: crime, deprivation and isolation.
In recent years, it has had a renaissance along with the city. In 1998, Park Hill became the largest Grade II listed building in Europe and is now the subject of a vast regeneration, transformed from grey concrete to pop colours and duplex apartments by Urban Splash. The estate remains divisive, though, and nowhere is that better represented than in the stark contrast of the half-finished redevelopment standing next to the rundown original.
“I would move back there tonight if I could but it’s a bit too expensive for me,” says Jon Jeffcook, a former resident. Having lived at the estate on and off until a decade ago, he explains: “It had picked up a reputation as a tough-guy place, it became unfriendly, which was a shame. The council wanted to move everyone out of there and so the problems got worse and worse. But for lots of us it’s still a community and we meet up for reunions.”
For current residents, it is this sense of community that drew them to the estate for the first time. Chris Dyer moved into a rebuilt flat three years ago. “I was attracted by the way the design facilitates a community,” he says. “Park Hill is a Marmite situation, you either think it’s a shithole or it’s great, but I love it, and the show tonight did an excellent job of showing those differences in opinion.”
“Half of Sheffield still wants Park Hill torn down,” says current resident Dave Watkins. “But it’s a great community. I know by face around 200 or 300 of my neighbours and there’s a real mix of people, from young families to social housing [occupants] and gay couples. When I first moved in three years ago, I was worried it might be a white enclave but I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
With the residents itching to get to the Devonshire pub for an after-show drink, Watkins adds: “Richard Hawley gets it. Park Hill is a really complex place and there are still deep-seated ideas about it, but this musical will heal those divisions. It’s made a difference already tonight in bringing us all together, residents past and present.”
• Standing at the Sky’s Edge is at the Crucible, Sheffield, until 6 April.