Returning to the gritty, provincial city of her childhood, Elaina Richardson discovers a Glasgow that's a worldly version of its former self
When I was five years old, I thought that Glasgow at twilight was Fairyland—there was so much beauty and, in the twinkling of the green and orange streetlights laid out before me from my 17th-floor bedroom window, so much power in the vast expanse of brightness that refused to allow the night to take hold. Given that this was the late sixties, when to the rest of the world, Glasgow was equated with slum, I was essentially flying solo in this notion of my hometown's greatness.
We had left our inner-city tenement flat for one of the new tower blocks (skyscrapers, as they came to be called) that were sprouting up all over Scotland. After more than a decade in opposition, the Labour Party had returned to power, and it was determined to finally keep its postwar promise of homes fit for working families. And so, when I was born, Glasgow was in the grip of a construction boom, with whole swaths of Victorian tenement buildings bulldozed into oblivion, and Le Corbusier-inspired apartment towers giving the skyline an achingly pierced look.
These new buildings—such as the Mitchellhill Flats, where we set up house—with their balconies and tiled entryways, were the realization of a grand dream of urban renewal: forward-looking, European-styled monuments of efficiency and cleanliness. We were the first tenants in our apartment, and the freshness was overpowering. The school I would attend was brand-spanking-new, as was the veranda my mother was optimistically filling with potted tomato plants and begonias—and the sense of space provided by our distance from the ground and the rolling hills of the Cathkin Braes that surrounded us was disorienting after years spent in the gloom of the old. Literally and figuratively, we felt sure we were moving up in the world.
Unfortunately, what Le Corbusier had envisioned for the mild air of the Mediterranean quickly fell into disrepair in the damp, mold-ridden Scottish climate, and the dilapidated look of rain-soaked, graffiti-clad concrete became the defining architectural image of my childhood. Optimism gave way to a sense of isolation—we pioneers of skyscraper living were trapped in these fortresses of modernity, cut off even from our neighbors, never mind the larger world. As the industrial unrest of the seventies took hold, various strikes made power outages so common that walking up to the 17th floor because the lift wasn't working came to seem normal. Nearby, entire buildings stood frozen, partial victims of the wrecker's ball, exposed on one side like dollhouses, their front walls torn off.
To counteract the grimness of this city we called home—where unemployment and abandoned plans were epidemic—my mother took to saying (like a character from Angels in America), "Look up, look up—all you have to do to see beauty in Glasgow is open your eyes and look at the carvings on the buildings, look at the woodwork around the doorway, look at how the arch frames a whole street." Hers was the Glasgow of Alexander "Greek" Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, of Victorian wealth displayed in palaces of public virtue: the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow University, Pollok House, and the Martyrs' School. We traipsed around these landmarks every Sunday, unwitting heirs to their founders' hopes that art and culture would uplift the masses. My mother's message wasn't lost on me, and I fell under the spell of hidden grandeur that many post-industrial port cities can cast—the radical chic of a city that was born to the bourgeoisie but inherited by the dispossessed.
A few months ago, on my annual trip back to visit family, I was sitting at an outdoor table at Café Ostra in the Italian Centre, thinking about my mother's passion for the intricacies of Glasgow. The café is surrounded by a plaza that was oncefilled with staid solicitors' offices but is now dominated by a Latin nightclub and Armani and Versace boutiques. The weather was beautiful, and the cappuccino just right, served with a small wedge of fudge on the side to emphasize the Celtic setting. Glasgow is once again in the grip of a building boom—a few blocks away, jackhammers were pounding, and cranes and scaffolding dominated both sides of the river Clyde. But this time around, the city seems to be building new structures that don't undermine its controversial 1990 designation as Cultural Capital of Europe. There's little sentimentality or clinging to a tartan cliché (other than Mockinslosh, as the endless supply of faux Mackintosh trinkets has been dubbed). Beginning in about 1983, with the opening of the strikingly modernBarry Gasson-designed museum that houses the largely medieval Burrell Collection, Glasgow has staked its future on high-concept contemporary architecture and experimental art.
This is the neighborhood where my mother once worked, in one of those solicitor's offices, and it has always been prone to name changes, depending on which way the political wind is blowing. Her office address, for example, flipped overnight in a blaze of anti-apartheid fervor from St. George's Place to Nelson Mandela Square. The old commercial buildings that line Argyle Street over to George Square were themselves recently dubbed the Merchant City—a decade ago, they were just "toon" ("town"), or city center if you were trying to speak clearly for a visitor—and they are now among the most sought-after real estate in Glasgow. Renovation has transformed banks into clothing stores, newspaper offices into hotels, and train stations into nightclubs.
When the Italian Centre complex first sprang into being in 1991, I was skeptical—it seemed truly unlikely to me that there was a strong enough economy in Glasgow to sup- port luxury labels in stand-alone boutiques. Glasgow had always been a trendy place, with fashion and musical fads blowing through at high speed: when I was in my teens, Oxford "bags" were the trousers to wear one day, a green Mohawk was essential the next. But the depressed economy tended to mean thatknockoff style predominated, instead of the real thing. Thirteen years later, like so many other industrial cities in the swagger of affluence, Glasgow has changed dramatically.
The banners fluttering around George Square, home to the government buildings and watched over by a plinthed sculpture of Sir Walter Scott, offer up a clue to this newfound confidence. For years, the marketing of Glasgow labored under the dreadful slogan "We're smiles better," with a cheerful line drawing that underscored the point. Some genius has made the smiley face go away, and now banners proclaim "Glasgow: Scotland with Style." This is interesting for all kinds of reasons, not the least being that throughout my childhood, until I left for university as a 17-year-old, Glasgow never laid claim to a central role. Pretension was perceived in the smallest gesture, and the clear message that to be Glaswegian was to embrace an inferiority complex was endemic. The city may have once been "the second city of the empire," but it was generally understood that it was never the first, that Edinburgh was the more impressive Scottish city and that London ruled the south. This was both believed and not, in the sense that there was great disdain for the "sassenach" (anglicized, in effect) leanings of Edinburgh, and for the fancy-pants nature of those who ventured south, combined with an equally powerful feeling of not measuring up—and so now, to declare yourself both the center of the country and aesthetically superior?This is more than a marketing moment; this is a psychological breakthrough!
When I was a teenager, George Square was the traffic hub of my life—the source of the all-important last bus home, where the gangs of us spilling out of nightclubs at 1 a.m. ran to catch a ride to whatever part of the city we came from. My last bus rollicked noisily southeast and now I found myself on autopilot, retracing its route over to the Tron (which has become the home of one of the most experimental and talented theater companies in the country, and of a bustling bar scene that holds out the promise of a Peter Mullan, Bill Forsyth, or Billy Connolly sighting on any given night), and the remnants of medieval Glasgow, including the small gem of a museum, Provand's Lordship (an outstanding example of 15th-century domesticity, where it seems not even a chair has been moved since I was a kid), and the glorious Glasgow Cathedral, built in the 1330's. The tentacles of gentrification have insinuated themselves here, but the "mean streets" atmosphere of the East End hasn't been completely eradicated, and the nosiness that characterizes Glaswegians is still in evidence. I stood at an intersection trying to decide whether I should continue south to the banks of the Clyde; go north, to indulge in a Mackintosh fix courtesy of one of his earliest buildings, the Church at Queen's Cross; or head west to the manicured slopes of Kelvinside and my hotel. Within seconds, several passers-bystopped to ask me what I was doing, and proceeded to cross-examine me, in the nicest possible way, about my plans for the rest of the day. Glaswegians are not shy people, especially on their home turf, and they can spot an exile or outsider a mile off, even though what constitutes an "insider" has shifted considerably in the postwar period. Two of the women who stopped to help me were wearing vibrant, sorbet-colored saris, though their accents were as thickly Scottish as mine once was. They offered the same "nae bother" (basically "you're welcome") when I thanked them, as all the others had, and when I mentioned how much the city had changed since I moved to New York in the late eighties, they gavethe ubiquitous response, "Aye, it's right cosmopolitan now."
There's no escaping the energy and verve that the influx of Asian immigrants added to Glasgow during the sixties and seventies. In all manner of ways, they have brought bold color to the hesitantly muted Scottish palette, and encouraged in their subdued neighbors an appreciation for the flashier side of life. The influx of Bangladeshis, Hong Kong Chinese, and Pakistanis also played an important part in establishing the groundwork for an economy switch from heavy industry (shipbuilding and mining) to a service sector that thrives on tourism. An instant indicator of the cultural change is the emergence of chips with curry sauce as the favorite take-out item, but the haute side of the scale has taken off, too.
At the Killermont Polo Club, I found all the usual curry candidates, but there was also a menu of innovative dishes served dum pukht-style—a Moghul technique for clay-pot cooking. Five years ago, the food was good. But now, like the city itself, it has been ratcheted up a notch, with sharper presentation and more surprising combinations—an improvement that seems profound to those of us who knew Glasgow in the days when vegetables were always boiled into oblivion.
The town's official motto, Let Glasgow Flourish, was a joke for most of the 20th century, but now, on the unlikely back of belief in art and culture, Glasgow has indeed made itself a destination city. The appearance in the last five years of every major hotel chain (from Hilton to Marriott, Radisson to Novotel) seems proof that if you build it, they will come.
Making my way back to the West End (the original home of Glasgow's mercantile class, with Georgian terraces and sandstone villas) and my town-house hotel, I found myself in a nostalgic zone. Many of the Sunday outings that my mother insisted my sister and I join her on while my dad worked overtime were to the marble halls of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum. There, we visited favorite paintings before marching on to the Glasgow Botanic Gardens and the serene walkways along the river Kelvin.
This is the turf of the University of Glasgow and its students, and although my mother never went to college herself, she found it soothing to be in the hallowed halls of higher learning. As a matter of course she would read aloud to us the descriptive cards that sat in front of any display, be it a cactus or a Rodin. (I haven't visited a museum with her in several years, but the fact that she still reads the newspaper aloud to me, sometimes even on a transatlantic call, probably confirms that her impulse to share facts hasn't abated.)
The Kelvingrove is closed for at least another two years for a major overhaul. The centerpiece of the gardens, the 1873 marvel of conservatory engineering called Kibble Palace—where I would jump nervously back from any leaf that brushed against me, believing my granddad's tales of kid-eating plants—is also closed for a face-lift. But old friends from Kelvingrove, like Rembrandt's Man in Armour, can be seen at the McLellan galleries. The silence of these empty spaces held me for several minutes, a tape of childhood playing in the recesses of my mind. It seemed a long way from the child in "Sunday best," searching for loveliness in a battered landscape, to the tourists who milled around me now.
Where to Stay
Boutique hotel known for its melding of Edwardian details with modern design.
DOUBLES FROM $210
129 BATH ST.; 44-141/221-6789 www.arthousehotel.com
One Devonshire Gardens Hotel
Luxe, with a high celebrity quotient.
DOUBLES FROM $265
Where to Eat
LUNCH FOR TWO $48
ITALIAN CENTRE 15 JOHN ST. 44-141/552-4433;
Killermont Polo Club
DINNER FOR TWO $66
2022 MARYHILL RD. 44-141/946-5412;
Formal, but with an intimate feel. Serves Scottish-French fare such as "venison dauphinoise."
DINNER FOR TWO $139
652 ARGYLE ST.; 44-141/221-8188
WHAT TO SEE
POLLOK COUNTRY PARK, 2060 POLLOKSHAWS RD.; 44-141/287-2550; www.glasgowmuseums.com
Gallery of Modern Art
ROYAL EXCHANGE SQUARE; 44-141/229-1996; www.glasgowmuseums.com
From October through March, open 9:30 A.M.-4 P.M. Monday to Saturday,1P.M.-4 P.M. Sunday; April through September, open 9:30 A.M.-6 P.M. Monday to Saturday, 1P.M.-5 P.M. Sunday.
CATHEDRAL SQUARE; 44-141/552-6891; www.glasgowcathedral.org.uk
Shell Shock, a modern izakaya (Japanese tavern), combines the talents of James Beard Award-winning chef Nobuo Fukuda and native restaurateur Peter Kasperski. Expect Asian dishes, like katsu burgers and tempura squash blossoms.