Book Review: Public Housing, Urban Development in Byker by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen at the Anacostia Community Museum Library

But now you don’t care if your neighbor looks at ye. She might have fifty watches and she’ll not give you the time . . .  ” – Byker by Sirrka-Liisa Konttinen

Published in 1985, and representing over 12 years of work by Finnish photographer Sirrka-Liisa Konttinen, who lived in this working-class community in Newcastle for 7 years, Byker depicts the last days of this public housing development before it was razed in the 1970s to make room for a world-famous architect’s design, the Byker Wall Estate by Ralph Erskine and home to 9,500 people.

Here in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8, the community of Barry Farm is facing similar issues of relocation and development and there are a few local photographers working in those communities producing work, but none of whom I am aware actually live there while engaging in such a dedicated documentation of this community specificity as exemplified in Byker. Her focus and persistence in following this now very different community is remarkable.

The Anacostia Community Museum is lucky to own a second-hand copy annotated by an original Byker resident.  How wonderful it is to see his/her inscriptions under some of the photographs confirming the veracity of Ms. Konttinen’s portrayal of the Byker spirit.

Perhaps most significantly for us, Byker serves as a cautionary tale in the breaking up and restructuring a community.   Much as the Barry Farm Community was bifurcated by the building of Suitland Parkway in the 1940’s, and then further overwhelmed by the relocation of the majority of public housing to east of the Anacostia River in the 1960s, so is the United Kingdom facing a second wave of public housing redevelopment, though Byker Wall is being spared this time, as the original Byker was not in the 1970s.

Despite the authorities best efforts at engaging the community and encouraging participation – architect Erskine famously set up shop in a defunct funeral parlor in the Byker community hosting open hours for residents  – less than 20 percent of the original Byker residents returned after the new Byker Wall had been erected.

“Over 17,000 people lived in Byker at the start of the redevelopment. Fewer than 20% of them were living in the New Byker in 1976. One is only left to speculate what would have happened had the policy not been to retain the community, ” Peter Malpass wrote in a commission by the Department of the Environment quoted in the afterword in Byker

Through Ms. Konttinen’s work in Byker we can see the effects of the forces of neighborhood change and renewal on one specific populace.  In the photographer’s follow-up work in Byker Revisited, the viewer gets more of a sense that isolation and dislocation have taken hold over Byker, even as the subjects of her camera’s gaze become more multicultural and diverse.

To see this book in person as well as browse other titles in our growing urban community photography book collection, you can come to the Anacostia Museum Library (let us know that you are coming and we will pull the book for you), more information on how to contact us and hours is available here.

More resources on neighborhood change and Byker:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/may/21/byker-wall-newcastles-noble-failure-of-an-estate-a-history-of-cities-in-50-buildings-day-41

See more of Sirrka-Liiisa Konttinen’s work here:

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/bringing-color-to-newcastle/?_r=0

http://www.amber-online.com/collection/byker/

http://www.amber-online.com/collection/byker-revisited/