RAFTT design diary #2

Co-designing a local history archive with Oldham residents

A black and white shot of a tower being demolished by a tall piece of heavy machinery with colourful birds flying from the wreckage

It’s been a few months since I last wrote about RAFTT — the local history project we have been working on with a housing association in Oldham.

As a quick recap, RAFTT stands for ‘Rise and Fall of Two Towers’. The two towers referred to are Crossbank House and Summervale house — two iconic housing blocks which were situated on the western edge of Oldham. During the course of our research, these were often referred to as ‘the gateway to Oldham’, which sort of sums up their importance to the local and wider community. They were a wayfinding tool, a welcome, an unavoidable feature of the landscape, ever since they were built in 1975.

First Choice Homes Oldham (FCHO), the housing association who have managed and run the towers since 2011 made the decision in 2018 that the towers needed to be demolished. They were no longer fit for purpose, and it was felt that the local people would be better served by lower density, non-high-rise, family housing to be built in their place.

And so, in early 2021, the demolition of the towers commenced. However, FCHO recognised the significant place that the towers might well hold in the hearts of the local residents, and wanted to find a way of exploring and documenting that — both to commemorate the towers, and to engage with their residents and the surrounding community. GFSC worked with them to apply for funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, so that together, we could build a hyperlocal digital history project focussing on the towers.

I am continuing to refer to the project as RAFTT in the title of this blog for clarity and continuity, but since I last wrote, FCHO have decided to change the name of the project, and it is now titled: “The Towers: A history of Summervale and Crossbank”.

The aims of the project

The aims of the project were twofold —

  1. to create a digital space that tells the story of the towers, their residents, and the close surrounding area, and
  2. to involve local residents in the project in ways which would increase and develop their own digital skills.

Firstly, we have always been imagining some kind of stimulating and easy to explore online archive containing old images, news stories, and — most importantly of all, first-hand stories, anecdotes and memories from people who actually lived in or near the towers. Local storytellers have first-hand verbal histories, which can so often be lost if specific efforts aren’t made to gather them.

Our original goal was that we would be able to support some of these storytellers to learn digital skills that would — in the first instance, aid them in telling us their stories (and get their stories into a digital form so that they are storied and documented for posterity) — and in the longer term, generally be useful to them in their day-to-day lives.

Some concrete examples of this might include:

  • Using a word processor to write down their memories
  • Using a voice-note tool on their phones to record verbal stories
  • Scanning old photos and other artefacts, and learning how to safely file and store them digitally
  • (For more advanced folks) using basic photo editing tools to enhance their old photos.

And other similar tasks.

The project progress to date

As mentioned in the ‘gathering data’ section of the previous blog, the plan was for FCHO — using their in-depth local knowledge of their residents and the area — to identify a number of potential storytellers, meet and interview them, and use some of the (limited) archival materials which the council holds on the area as talking points. These materials include things like old photos and news stories, which can help elicit stories and memories from residents. FCHO would also organise and facilitate relevant digital skills workshops with those participants who would be interested in learning more.

Sadly, neither of these areas have gone as well as we might have hoped.

Some of the greatest challenges that FCHO have faced in their search for storytellers are data protection issues. Data protection laws of course exist for a reason, and GDPR regulations mean that people’s data cannot be used for purposes that they have not explicitly consented. This meant that FCHO have been unable to access records of, let alone directly reach out to, any former residents of the towers — and have instead had to rely on community outreach to try and draw in former residents to get involved with the project. This has had fairly limited success.

Based on the original plans drawn up, GFSC have had limited involvement with this ‘data gathering’ phase of the project, and have sat more as interested/concerned onlookers to this process.

FCHO have tried a number of community outreach efforts, including poster and flyer campaigns, community events about the project (perhaps the most successful), as well as one-to-one conversations with people they meet during the course of their work to try and spread the word, but they have still struggled to identify many former residents of the towers, let alone those willing to ‘storytell’ for the project.

The towers stood from 1975 – 2021, and each of them contained over 100 flats. While of course many former residents will have moved well beyond the area, many will most likely remain… Our great frustration has been — why aren’t we reaching any of them, and/or why aren’t any of them willing to get involved with the project?

Through our own research, we found a wealth of more general Oldham history/nostalgia content online — in places like Facebook Groups, and the comments on relevant Youtube videos. There are a significant number of people out there who are actively interested in, and engaged with, the history of Oldham (including our specific area). The comments thread on the demolition video I shared above was a particular eye-opener. Comments included:

“One of my school friends lived in crossbank house in the 80’s, it would of been about 12 years old then and it looked old, I remember them replacing all the windows with upcv ones.”

“my sister lived there in the 80s”

“Lived on the 6th floor in summervale for a short period 20yrs ago.”

All these people — why can’t we reach them? (And again, for GDPR reasons, FCHO weren’t able to, for example, reach out directly to them off the back of these kinds of comments, and in Facebook groups that were identified).

We flagged that a lot of the discourse and interest in the history of this area was happening in these very particular online spaces, and suggested that FCHO (or representatives of) join these communities, to share the project and its goals, and to try and see if people would like to share their stories in a way that would contribute to this exciting local history project — but unfortunately FCHO had a lot of internal permissions hoops to jump through which meant this didn’t happen until very late on in the process, and when it did, it was much less proactive than it could have been.

I talked a little bit with others in the GFSC collective about an appropriate analogy here, and we agreed that it’s a bit like hosting a house party, not directly inviting anyone, but still hoping people will show up. Some situations need that proactive inviting process for potential ‘guests’. Even if not everyone who is directly reached out to actually shows up, on the whole people are much more likely to get involved with research, voluntary opportunities, and other unpaid but potentially rewarding projects when they are directly asked, rather than when they need to reach out to the organisers themselves. (Being invited vs. inviting oneself — I know which is more appealing to me!) For a wide range of reasons (many documented above) FCHO were not able to be proactive in this way, and were instead relying on people coming to them, which was not as successful.

I mentioned in our previous blog that the wonderful Colleen Morgan (part of the Anarchist Archaeologist Black Trowel Collective) recruited University of York Cultural Heritage Management MA student Sam Benbow to assist us and FCHO in the data gathering stage of this project, and to make it the focus of her MA. Her MA dissertation[1] has turned into a bit of a ‘why do these kinds of projects sometimes struggle to recruit participants’ analysis, and it was fascinating to read her thoughts. It helped inform our key findings, which are below.

Why do these kinds of local history projects sometimes struggle to recruit participants?

As evidenced in the various online channels mentioned above — people LOVE to tell their stories, share memories, and compare notes with other people who might have shared life experiences. The goal of this project was to facilitate that, and start to share these stories in a way that even more people can enjoy and learn from. If people love to talk about their own stories — why don’t they want to share them with us?

We started to drill down a bit into the key issues:

1) You can’t find the people you want

a) They are not geographically where you expected them to be
b) They are not in the engagement spaces where you expected them to be

2) The people you want don’t actually exist

a) They are all dead (from old age or some tragedy that may relate to your project)
b) The ‘community’ you have defined doesn’t actually exist

3) The people you want don’t want to engage with you

a) because they feel they have no time (what the project is asking is too great a commitment, or appears that it might be)
b) because they are not interested in the project
c) because they don’t like and/or trust whoever’s running the project
d) because they don’t understand the project and/or the project doesn’t reflect what they see as reality
e) because they would expect financial remuneration for their time, or some other more tangible reward

4) You’re not actually allowed to contact the people you want, even if you’re available to identify them

a) because GDPR or other legislation prohibits the use of their contact information for that purpose
b) because works were not done to proactively reach individuals at times when when it has been appropriate to use their information in this manner

To consider some of these potential challenges in more depth:

1a) We had hoped that a significant proportion of former residents from the towers over the years would have stayed in the area. But perhaps this simply isn’t the case to the extent we had imagined? Particularly at the end of the towers life, there may not have been enough local housing for the residents to stay in very close proximity to the towers, and so they may have simply moved outside the radius of the on-the-ground outreach FCHO have been doing.

1b) As described above, we had to face the possibility that our project simply wasn’t reaching the right people. Despite being shared in the local newspapers, poster campaigns, word of mouth, local events and so on — did it reach those enthusiastic youtube and facebook nostalgia sharers? Possibly not. It is a real shame that FCHO weren’t able to reach out more directly on those platforms — in the exact spaces where people go to intentionally share exactly the kind of content we were looking for.

2a) The area which the project focusses on is a deprived area with many challenges, including lower life expectancies and more risks to health like drug use and crime. That said, the towers were only demolished in 2021, and many children and younger people will have lived in them throughout their life. There should still be a large group of former residents who are still alive and well, they are simply, as mentioned above, distributed or hard to reach.

2b) For some time at the start of the project we struggled a bit to define exactly what community was being explored in the project. Is it JUST about the towers, or is it also about the surrounding area? If the latter, how do we define the edges of that surrounding area? What is the cut off point? Are we trying to create a ‘community’ that doesn’t exist? At one point it was suggested to simply draw a half mile radius around the towers and for that to be the area of consideration — but that isn’t how real communities and connections exist! For example, on one side of the towers, the community is cut off by the large overpass roads that mean social connections on either side of that road are much weaker. But on the other side, housing that extends beyond half a mile in another direction might have much closer social and emotional ties to the towers. Ultimately, given our challenge to recruit storytellers, we have kept the geographic framing of the project intentionally vague, which isn’t ideal, but does keep our options a bit more open in terms of involvement.

3c) We had to face the possibility that, for better or for worse, FCHO may not be a well loved entity by many in the area. It is inevitable that any body which operates from a position of power (which housing authorities undoubtedly do), will come under scrutiny, and criticism, from those who are subject to, or who observe that power. Regardless of whether FCHO are a well run and managed entity or not, they are ‘the man’, and many people may not want to engage with ‘the man’, regardless of how worthy or interesting the project might be. Would we have had better results if we had been able to frame the project as being facilitated by another source (for example, a research project by a local university, or a more community led research project?) — we will never know, but it is a possibility.

3d) Another interesting issue that emerged from Sam’s conversations and research was the dissonance between the stated goals of the project and the reality of the area concerned. The project is meant to be a ‘celebration’ of the history of the towers and local area — but the reality is that this part of Oldham has a long history of challenges and deprivation, and many of the stories that centre around the towers are quite dark. Take for example, the murder of Debbie Remorozo in her flat in 2002, or the fact that one of the ‘penthouse’ top floor flats was for years occupied by one of Manchester’s most notorious drug barons before he was sent to prison for multiple murders and other crimes. Perhaps the contrast between the upbeat tone of the project’s promotional materials, and most local people’s knowledge of some of the lived realities of the area were too contrasting to square.

4b) As Sam uncovered, ‘FHCO had not asked to keep the residents updated about the future of the flats when they were doing consultations and moving out (Benbow, 2022 p.66). This lack of foresight meant that many residents who were able to be identified, weren’t able to be contacted for inclusion in this project as they’d not explicitly given their consent under GDPR. It was suggested that ‘this was likely in part because FCHO were unsure whether they would get the funding. The lack of confidence implies that more could be done by funders […] to make heritage projects become accessible as it is much harder for a “lasting difference” (Heritage Fund 2019, 13) to be made if the organisations they are hoping to support are unconfident in being granted the funding.’ (ibid.)

But, moving forwards…

It’s not all bad news

We do have some storytellers. FCHO’s community events and other initiatives over the last few months have welcomed a small number of people who were excited about the project and willing to share with us, albeit not as many as we might have hoped for. (Another issue is that none of them were especially interested in the ‘digital skills’ side of the project, which would probably take a whole ‘nother blog to discuss. FCHO are hitting this funding criteria by instead running digital skills workshops with other groups of residents who are interested in learning more digital basics, but are unrelated to the towers and the storytelling aspect of the project).

These people have shared their stories, verbally and/or in writing, and after one final push with one last event in late 2022, as well as a workshop with our already recruited storytellers to facilitate more memory sharing, GFSC is cracking on with the task of actually figuring out the shape of the final outcome, based on the source material we have to work with. The site will be going live, and shared with the public, at the end of May!

The process of getting to this point has been so interesting, as well as challenging. The insights we’ve gained along the way will go on to inform our approach to future projects.

  1. Benbow, S. (2022). An evaluation of community heritage projects to consider how successful they are at achieving their aims [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of York

Support our mission of a fairer world using technology & join our email list.