For some time now I’ve wanted to write about my home town of Sheffield. I grew up in Sheffield during the late ‘70s and ’80 – a time during which the industry on which the city was built went into dramatic decline. After twenty years living elsewhere, I returned to Sheffield as it struggled to deal with the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis.
A product of its physical environment, Sheffield grew out of the hills of the southern Pennines by utilising the raw materials that lay beneath them and the rivers that ran down from them. By the end of the nineteenth century the combination of gritstone, iron, coal and water had made Sheffield a byword for cutlery and steel production. A distinctive cultural ethos was created with the expansion of the city: the image was established of Sheffield as an intensely physical place, a hard working city, a city of sweat and smoke.
Today Sheffield boasts some of the finest tree cover, woodlands and countryside in Britain (a third of the city lies within the Peak District National Park). Sheffield’s trees and clean air illustrate how far the city has moved from its industrial past. Facing up to a post-industrial future, a service and knowledge economy has been promoted that transcends the material base. Coal tips have been grassed over, quarries turned into country parks, factories converted into flats. Grand visions have routinely been proposed by the city council, and European funding has been used on a number of public infrastructure projects that have shaped the city.
But surveying contemporary Sheffield it is easy to see why many people feel it is a city divided. Working on a project investigating the causes of inequality and poverty in India I was struck by the thought that, while not wishing to downplay the kinds of oppression and exploitation I saw there, similar degrees of depravation also exists in Sheffield. In his 2009 ethnography of industrial work and politics in Sheffield, the Marxist anthropologist Massimiliano Mollona describes the creation of ‘volatile post-industrial spaces marked by informal labour, industrial sweatshops and levels of risk and deprivation that divide citizens along lines of gender, age, and class’. Though the city is enveloped by the arms of the Pennines, the leafy south-west can feel a long way from the north-east. The origins of this divide lies in the prevailing wind coming down from the hills and blowing factory smoke east from the city centre. With many feeling left behind by the processes that transformed Britain, a narrow majority voted to leave the EU.
The past has a powerful pull. I’m interested in the ways in which people in Sheffield engage and interact with their history. De-industrialisation has meant the old links between production in Sheffield and the material resources of the region have been broken. What is left to link the city? What integrates the people of Sheffield into a collective whole? What is it that connects Ranmoor and Pitsmoor, Nether Edge, Sky’s Edge and Low Edges, High Green and Nethergreen, Attercliffe and Brincliffe? By recognizing the continual recreation of the past within the present, and by exploring the emotional co-construction of place in the post-industrial city, facets of a shared culture may be revealed and Sheffield’s past can be tied to its future.