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Exhibition at Urban Coffee Company

During August, and as an accompaniment to the exhibition at the Box, Urban Coffee Company will host a number of events in surroundings curated by the Hillfields History Group. Their collection of Hillfields images has been digitised by WATCH volunteers and a number were taken to Birmingham Library’s team of photographic curators for cleaning and archiving.

The Hillfields History Group collection includes photographs taken during an era of interest to the Imagine Research Project – the early 1970s when the Home Office funded the Community Development Project, the first regeneration project in the UK, to research and understand the problems of Hillfields in conjunction with the residents. The collection also includes as images of the buildings demolished by clearance and redevelopment: their collection is a vital resource to understanding top shops in Hillfields and it’s past as a live/work part of Coventry.

Below are a few of their images:

Child 1

 Childeren Playing On The Swings Picture1

Urban Coffee will also show the plans and redevelopment of Hillfields through images taken from the Coventry City Council archive. These images, many before not seen, show how ambitious in their vision the council was during the post war period, below:

2015-03-20_6 Hillfields inc Leicester Causeway Road Hillfields Utopia 1950s

The visions however did not match reality as development was slow and local families opposed the move from a work/ live area to one dominated by residential development. Even the popular shopping route along Primrose Hill Street was to be demolished to encourage shoppers to the new city centre. By 1969 government policy had changed from clearance to general improvement: streets earmarked for demolition such as Colchester and Winchester Street were remodelled into a carless format which still remain today.

This exhibition will sit alongside events at Urban Coffee – more on that soon – and the exhibition in the Box.


The Photographic Project

This post is about the recent photographic project, working with Mick Dubovsky and community photographers, and the Herbert Museum. Its aims are described here. This post is a reflection on the process of undertaking these projects from the point of view of the researcher attached to the project. There are also reflections by community photographers and the professional photographer too elsewhere on this blog.

Researcher’s View

The initial thinking behind the project was to work with the community to reflect how they saw Hillfields. Their lens is part of a suite of lenses, including academic, workers, policy makers (in commissioning imagery) and professional photographers (Hillfields has produced three international photographers).

We approached WATCH Ltd to recruit for this project. WATCH are a well known community project in Hillfields with their centre used for community projects and meetings – they also host the local community radio station, Hillz FM, which is a full time FM station for Hillfields.

Over the course of several months attempts were made to recruit using personal and professional connections and broadcasting on the radio station. A personal connection was usually where someone was already interested and wanted to bring a friend, or knew a friend who might be interested. Professional connections were across agencies working with Hillfields residents. For this WATCH produced a flyer which was distributed via WATCH, the St. Peter’s Centre and the Hope Centre. WATCH staff and project staff also spoke to these centres about promoting involvement through word of mouth to residents who used the centres. We were told by staff at WATCH that in Hillfields the word of a person of trust could be more useful than a flyer. As we were hoping to capture something of the activity of residents their engagement through these centres was part of the story – as such also we sought permission for the community photographers to photograph at the centre if those using it were happy to have their photograph taken.

Recruitment was slow. During June and July WATCH recruited two or three of their own volunteers. In August, the time when the project was supposed to happen because of the light evenings, no more residents were recruited. A final push saw a meeting in early September attended by seven residents, including four from WATCH.

At the same time the Herbert Museum was building up to the Jason Tilley exhibition. Some of Jason’s family hail from Hillfields and he took an interest. In particular he offered to help curate the images – helping tell the story as a group of people rather than showing ten images that were selected on individual not collective reasoning. In fact Jason’s involvement was greater. He helped community photographers get the best from their equipment over four or five sessions, went on a few photographic visits with them and what you see is in part due to his efforts.

The Herbert appointed Mick Dubovksy to be the photographer. Mick was the go-to guy. He took photographers out, suggested angles in the places they visited, brokered agreements for copies to be made available (the Roma boys and the barber wanted copies) and worked to the timescales of the community photographers by being there at different times during the week, the weekend, whenever they needed him. Mick has a lot to cope with – he felt the community organisations were not pulling their weight when it came to recruitment, that they were not selling the idea as might of happened in the past. However, Bob Nolan from the Herbert said that they had found it difficult to recruit to projects recently. They wondered whether it was a shift in how people conceive of community participation, that the relationship between residents and community organisations has changed.

The early September start meant a shift in how the project would work in practice: the original plan was for summer sessions, usually structured as half day or day classes. The recruitment issues meant we now had a small group who explained that because of other pressures they preferred a shorter course of two sessions per week. This meant being limited to photographing at the end of the day or under artificial light indoors if the community photographers wanted to use the digital SLR cameras provided by the Herbert. There was some discussion about using mobile phone cameras but not everybody had a smartphone.

As it was three people dropped off quickly: two sisters due to commitments elsewhere and a family bereavement. The remaining core group were all from WATCH. The tutors were flexible, with Mick meeting outside of the core agreed times (1800-2000 on Monday and Thurs) and sessions covering what the residents wanted to know rather than a pre-arranged programme. I wasn’t involved in the sessions as I had less input to give regarding Hillfields knowledge or photography and a co-production model needs me to stay away from activities unless invited.

I attended about half the sessions to get a flavour of being involved, watching the activities, taking a few photos, talking shop with participants. Mick and Bob would pop off with people to take photographs, check out the local area, talk to people. In the room I spoke with those whom were going through the photographs they had already taken, asking who the people were and where the images were taken. This raised some interesting points about permission and: in one instance, Jason went with Shai and Sharda to a community event. All three took photos but Sharda and Shai raised concerns that the community were suspicious of them, suggesting to Sharda that she wanted to make money from the photographs. Sharda was surprised given the explanation she had provided the community as to the project. She felt this reflected the times – that people were concerned about making money in an age of austerity and that people did not trust community projects – this reflected what Bob had mentioned about how difficult he had found recruiting for his Check other courses and how difficult WATCH had found recruiting for this course.

The photographs were excellent and the exhibition too. It was placed outside of the Jason Tilley exhibition and so would receive high footfall. We did not arrange a way for people to feedback – this is something I have taken from this: even a twitter handle might have elicited some responses. I have yet to speak to the participants about their responses and the responses of those they know who visited the exhibition.

The main query that we found was that a shift was being reported in how people wanted to be involved in their communities. This raised a series of questions among us about whether the difficulties were a symptom of something more:

  • Hillfields has a changing community – did this affect recruitment?
  • Yet the attitude from the people at the event Sharda and Shai attended was dismissive – was this linked?
  • Was there a ‘research’ fatigue element in Hillfields?
  • In times of austerity have attitudes towards ‘community’ changed? If so how and why?
  • Did we ‘frame’ the project correctly  – perhaps we should have been more focused on whom we worked with, the voluntary sector for example.



Photographic response to Jason Tilley

Hillfields photographer Jason Tilley is exhibiting images from his Beautiful People project at the Herbert Museum. WATCH, in partnership with the Imagine Community project, will be organising a community response to the exhibition. To do this we have been thinking about Jason’s work as well as our own project aims.

Jason’s photography is an exploration of Indian identity and activity, seen through a lens created by his own interests in his family’s past as Anglo-Indians, but also through his grandfather’s past as a photographer for the Times of India.

Jason’s archive includes images of Highfield Road between 1999 and 2002 – he could hear the roars of the crowd from where he lived as a child and he has continued to photograph Coventry more recently.

What strikes me is that Jason is a portrait photographer but even his pictures of buildings reveal his concern with identity – such as the Coventry Innit series which captures issues that the Imagine project is concerned with – how the future of an area has been imagined through what people have done. In Jason’s images we can see hoardings against buildings ready for redevelopment (such as this image from Allesley)

Jason Tilley – Allesley Old Road


or the attempts of the local authority to make the Binley Road more attractive:

Jason Tilley – Binley Road flowers


The community response will tackle the issue of how community identity is generated but from the position of how the Hillfields community have attempted to make these changes. We have proposed that five residents who moved to live in Hillfields in the 1970s should team up with five new residents who have settled here recently. Bringing these groups together will be a process of exploring how they imagine Hillfields evolved/ evolving in the few years after they moved in.

To do this we will be using an action research photo voice method (Wang, 1999) which will aims to enable participants to find their voice in non-text formats such as images. This will be valuable as we expect the participants to speak different languages but they will also be able to control the process of exploring their environment and the portrayal of their lives. We hope that the images they produce will influence people and policy.

This project will begin in July 2014.


Hillz FM

Hillz FM is a community radio station in Hilfields in Coventry. It broadcasts on 98.6FM 24/7.

Volunteer broadcasters will be undertaking interviews with people who may have something to say for our project. These people are identified by volunteer broadcasters and local connections as well as through the literature on the area.

These people might include long-term residents, those who have worked in the voluntary sector in Hilfields, musicians and artists working in the area, as well as academics, policy workers and community qworkers active in the area. Included are representatives from communities, including the Afro-Caribbean community, those living on welfare, immigrants, those poorly housed and so on. We may explore the issues these people have experience of at a later date as themes and questions emerge.

The rationale for encouraging broadcasters to conduct interviews is that they know the area and its history. In particular the resident DJs have lived the community’s relationship with the political economy of the Hillfields, Coventry, the West Midlands and UK, posing questions in semi-strucutred and unstructured interviews from this intimate knowledge. The first interview is also discussed here.


Update on working with the history group

After visiting Benwell as part of the Durham conference Alice and I came back with a number of publications from the Benwell History Group. They included a very high quality publication called ‘Made on Coal’. This and a few other publications were given to the history group to look at.

Their inspiration led them to think that something might be done for Hillfields, but that ‘Built on Ribbons’ wasn’t the angle to take. Instead the group felt that tackling the poor reputation Hillfields suffers from would be more suitable. Moreover, one of them said that the Imagine project needs some physical outputs. This intrigued me.

Our concentration has been on supporting organisations in what they need, and tailoring what we need to this, so that increased community capacity located wthin the voluntary group leads to better outputs and outcomes for us. For example, digitizing the history group’s images will help them maintain an archive and develop their group, whilst the inclusion of newly-digitized images in the timeline works for our research purposes; improving the interviewing skill of radio presenters through support from me (as an ex-radio producer) produces competent broadcasters to develop the boardcast community at Hillz FM and records interviews for this research is another.

The ephemerality of internet and voice led the history group to want to create the book. Their own physical archive of leaflets and documents represents an earlier age of Hillfields history, and very little else exists, so perhaps their need to produce something physical is to be understood.

To this end we have contacted Culture Coventry to apply for a grant for the publication. The group will apply, with my support, should Culture Coventry give us encouragement. We will see.


Working with the Hillfields history group

In starting this project we had a small number of partners. this increased by one quite quickly as the local history group, sitting on a treasure trove of old images, leaflets and documents about the area, and some 30gb of offline images, were willing to take part.

The history group have particular interests: certainly the early years of Hillfields as the first garden suburb of Coventry and the years as home to the journeymen ribbon weavers, the top shops and Eli Green’s triangle, steam powered looms, funded by community subscription and short-lived antidote to factory capitalism.

We are of course interested in more recent history – the 1970s onwards in particular. The group, constituted by Hillfields aficionados, understood immediately the historical need to save this data. The gaps in their own particular areas of interest told them that. They were also keen to address the general attitude towards history groups as keepers of sepia toned photos.

So we hatched a way for them to be involved. We would introduce them to WATCH, our main community partner, and with the help of WATCH, digitize their valuable collection. This led to immediate results: to support this WATCH applied, with help from another of our partners, the Herbert Museum, to apply for funding for a creative apprentice – and they got it. The apprentice will support the history group in digitizing their archive.

The project itself gets a great partner, keen to provide intelligence on a number of aspects of our work. They are keen to be interviewed, and to interview others, and have put a number of valuable contacts our way which extends the reach of the project.


Setting up a timeline

The aim of this project is to work with community partners and residents to bring together an extraordinary amount of information about Hillfields in Coventry to examine how it has been imagined over time by residents, businesses and various levels of government. From this, new imaginings may take place. There is also a secondary element in which the methodology of this research and the practices that stem from it have an impact in the community by changing practice and building capacity, and that these changes contribute to changes in academic understanding and practice.

Part of our work has been to create a timeline. The timeline can appear in several methods: as text in a technical-looking spreadsheet and as a visual, interactive map. The spreadsheet might be thought of as a base document. It contains all the themes against which paths my be viewed – local policies, national and regional politics, community action, physical development, voluntary organisations, myths, leisure, ethnic population  are a few mentioned so far – and puts them in a chronological order. The interactive online version will not only present these events but also present relevant data such as images, audio and documents, giving residents a chance to work at their own pace on information presented in the timeline.

In conversations with people at a community level involved in this project the timeline may allow them to locate their thinking in the activities of policy makers, community events and major occurrences. From this they will contribute their memories through interviews, photographs or documents. Residents also see the utility of the timeline as a dynamic project. At a recent conference, contributions as to how the timeline might develop ran to several pages, and the debate on myths could certainly have run on long after the event finished.

The timeline in this project will be a legacy website too with the skills to develop it and add to it located in the community, and within the community organisations in Hillfields. Whether there is someone to do this, and whether they, or another, feel the continued value of the timeline, will be a measure of the success of this project.