Stevenage: A Place Where You Can't Be From
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The town of Stevenage, England, 30 miles north of London, was once a small patch of farmland with a few thousand people. After World War II, the British government created a massive planned community there, and hoped it would become a model for public housing for the world.
Gary Younge is a writer for The Guardian newspaper. He grew up in Stevenage, and found it to be a mixed blessing. Younge wrote an essay about it for the spring issue of the literary magazine "Granta." We began our conversation by asking him to read us a passage.
GARY YOUNGE: (Reading) The town felt planned. It was color-coded, with each neighborhood assigned a specific shade so that you always knew where you were. In Bedwell, for example, where my mother had taught, all the street signs were blue. In Broadwater, where I grew up, they were brown. Designed to promote a sense of community, each area had its own small shopping center with butchers, green grocers, launderettes, news agents and chip shops.
(Reading) The street names were also themed. One area paid tribute to great British women: Bronte Pass, Pankhurst Crescent, Elliot Road, Austin Pass, Siddons Road.
GREENE: Wow, you really get the sense of a planned community. You even wrote that you didn't have to ask neighbors where their toilets were because all the houses were designed in exactly the same way.
YOUNGE: I think it's true that when the town was built, it was almost 100 percent social housing. That was partly the point of it.
GREENE: There were downsides to this. You said you look back now with some surprise - that Stevenage, this planned development, was the reason that farmland was disappearing. It's something you didn't realize at the time. You wrote that new development was snacking on green space.
YOUNGE: Yeah, we just kind of landed there. And so the notion of there being a history to the soil was one that hadn't really occurred to us, although it didn't take much to really work that out. The Irish would call it blow-ins. We were blow-ins. We just kind of blew in from all over the place.
GREENE: That's such an interesting phrase. I do want to ask you about how your family landed there. You know, Stevenage was part of this government effort to rebuild after World War II. And that same program was bringing in people to work. And your mom came from Barbados. The government paid to have her come in and work as a nurse.
YOUNGE: Um - I mean, Stevenage was the product of this great postwar effort that built the National Health Service, that nationalized the Coal Board, and so on. It built new towns, and Stevenage was the first. But it also brought in large numbers of people from the colonies, to Britain. Now, I say the colonies because my mother came from Barbados, but she came with a British passport. And she arrived to be a nurse and to build the NHS. So her arrival in Britain was very much part of the same, government-led effort that Stevenage was.
GREENE: Later - your father is out of the picture; your mother - as you wrote - at age 44, dies suddenly in her sleep. And the community really - sort of was shocked. And, you know, you said that some wrote in to say that they had just seen her in the town center.
YOUNGE: That's right. And if we come back to the way that Stevenage was planned, it's an interesting day, the day that my mother dies, because she goes shopping. And Stevenage has this - it was the first town with a huge, open, pedestrian center. And she had been a teacher. She had been a community worker. She - shopping with my mother was kind of contact sport.
She would - kind of meet all these people that she knew - she, you know, lived in the town for 20 years. And then she literally, she goes home, drops off at Number 8. We lived at Number 14. She drops off at Number 8 to say hi. Goes home to Number 14, and dies in her sleep. And her passing is front-page news in Stevenage because pretty much, one way or another, everybody knew her - and standing room only in the church.
And as Stevenage develops - or under-develops, as one might say - one of the points I make in the piece is that you go from this open area, pedestrian place; to kind of out of town, big box shopping stores; more people are driving. And so the town becomes fragmented. I don't know, if my mother were to go shopping today, how many people would see her because everybody is off and out doing their own thing, in their own way. It's a very different place
GREENE: Well, Gary, what does Stevenage look like today? You describe a place that is very, very different from where he grew up.
YOUNGE: Yeah. So as time went on, government built it. And then come the '80s, government has a different project. And so you start seeing less government planning. And you also - people get the right to buy their own homes; essentially, a fine thing. But that then, some areas fall by the wayside; others go up. You start getting no-go areas. It starts getting a reputation as a tough town. So the town center kind of falls apart a bit. And you start having boarded-up shop fronts.
And the other thing that happens is, it turns from being a satellite town in its own right, to being a commuter town. Better train links means that you can be in London in 20 minutes. And so you move from a time when none of my friends' parents worked in London, to a time where you're - people are as likely to work in London has anywhere else.
GREENE: And what lesson should we draw from the evolution of that community?
YOUNGE: Well, I wouldn't want to be too prescriptive. But I guess if there's one lesson, what I would say is that government has a role. I don't think the government can create communities. I think only people can create communities. But I do think that governments can help lay down the conditions for what kind of community you have a chance of having, for better and for worse.
And that while it's quite fashionable - in Britain, certainly - to kind of pour scorn on these fairly unfashionable, not very pretty towns, actually, government produced Stevenage, and Stevenage produced me. And I'm happy with me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
YOUNGE: I'm happy with the kind of - the world that I grew up in, where I went to my local schools and played with my friends down the street. And we didn't have a car, and I never knew that that was a problem; or that that was, in any way, a specific way of growing up, until I met lots of people who had materially more than I did, but I would say socially, far less.
GREENE: Gary, thank you so much for talking to us.
YOUNGE: Thank you.
GREENE: Gary Younge is a writer for The Guardian. He's written an essay in the current issue of Granta magazine. It's called "Stevenage."
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
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And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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