How we helped tell the story of two tower blocks in Oldham and the people who lived and worked there.
Geeks for Social Change collaborated with First Choice Homes Oldham to carry out a digital history project to understand and document the lives of those who lived in and around Crossbank and Summervale towers, which were demolished in late 2021 to make way for low-rise, affordable homes. We worked with them to apply for funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to make this project a reality.
Local history is an area GFSC has a lot of experience with. Every neighbourhood on Earth has a plethora of stories that are completely unknown outside of it. We want to find ways of telling and sharing these stories which are compelling, well presented, accessible, easy to use, and crucially — are designed and owned directly by the communities they’re made with.
From doing this work we know first hand how much the community history of structurally disadvantaged areas can often be overlooked and lost, which prevents people from being able to make sense of where they are and the impact of the state on their own community. By sharing memories of place and experience, a greater sense of solidarity, connection, and community can be fostered amongst residents — past, present and future.
Crossbank and Summervale towers had stood since 1975, and FCHO recognised that these towers were more than just bricks and mortar. They contained many hundreds of people’s memories and experiences from the 45 year period they stood, and for many thousands more, these towers served as a visual ‘Gateway to Oldham’.
There was very little existing oral, photographic, or other history of the area, save for a limited selection of articles in the council archives. This required significant research in the community, with poster and flyer campaigns, community events about the project, and one-to-one conversations with community members on the ground. We were able to gather a number of key ‘storytellers’ who shared rich and detailed memories of living in or around the towers.
We worked with University of York MA Cultural Heritage Management student Sam Benbow to collect stories from key participants, using a combination of written statements, spoken interviews, and collection of artefacts like photos and newspaper clippings. We then identified key quotes and themes from the interviews, using the stories to put together a timeline of the area around and including the towers from the 1920s to the present day.
The resultant website is purposefully easy to navigate, just requiring a simple scroll to see all of the content — while also accommodating more powerful navigation through the use of filters and a clickable decade selector, for those who are more tech savvy. It was vital to make sure the end product was easy to use for people who have lower digital skill levels — several of our ‘storytellers’ said they avoid using the internet, or are daunted by it.
For local history to be compelling and inviting, it needs to tell true stories in ways which are coherent and meaningful. Ensuring that the stories are legible, accessible, and well-presented means that the experience is more akin to reading a good book than it is shuffling through a drawer in someones desk filled to the brim with loose papers and photos. When local history is cared for and presented in this manner, it means more people can appreciate what came before, and how it informed what’s coming next.
We were faced with the challenge of turning a loose collection of stories into one coherent narrative, to pay respect to and champion the lives of those who lived and worked in and around these towers for the almost half-century they were standing, and allow them to share their stories beyond the limits of dusty photo albums and desk drawers. We worked together to create a lasting resource, made with access, structure, and style as key concerns.Find out more