A growl from Tiger Bay

A £2bn scheme is designed to put Cardiff in the big league of maritime cities. But, say those who live in historic Butetown, it will knock them off the map. Raymond Mgadzah reports
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Sunshine breaks through winter clouds and the Inner Harbour on Cardiff Bay, the Tiger Bay of old, is transformed into a bright picture postcard. Yachts are moored on a glistening mud-bank. Seagulls soar, flying towards a silvery sliver of water far in the distance. On the bay, which lies just a mile south of Cardiff City centre, is three and a half square miles of hotchpotch: road works, a business park, new homes and offices, abandoned and derelict factories, renovated buildings around the old Coal Exchange, and council tower blocks and maisonettes. Amid all this, the people of the bay, who belong to one of the oldest multiracial communities in Britain, talk of doom and gloom.

"They've been building all around us, and we are stuck here like an eyesore," explains Lee Ahmun, 28, a docker who lives near Loudoun Square in Butetown, the heart of the old Tiger Bay. "This is a a good community. Everybody is happy living here. But it's a standing joke in Cardiff that they are going to get rid of us and redevelop this area as well."

This community was forged out of coal, iron and the docks that brought merchant seamen to Tiger Bay more than 150 years ago. They came from as far afield as West Africa, Somalia, Norway, Yemen and the Baltic states. They were Christians, Muslims, Jews and Greek Orthodox. "We had every nationality here you could think of, including an Eskimo," says Daniel Commander, retired landlord of the Paddle Steamer, a pub on Loudoun Square, propping up the bar.His father was a seaman from West Africa.

"We are very close, no matter what colour, what religion," adds a man who calls himself Joukes, 57. Today the Chinese and Somali gambling dens are long gone, as are most of the pubs and the cosy coffee houses. But 13 languages are still spoken on the bay by some 15,000 people.

Their community weathered the booms and busts of the old industries, they endured ostracism from outsiders and a race riot in 1919. The stigma of living in an area that sailors had made notorious for wild living - gambling, prostitution and theft - blighted the lives of many residents. Thirty years ago, slum clearances shredded the social fabric. But they survived. Until now, locals say. They fear that the ambitious docklands regeneration plan now gathering pace will wreck their community.

"Whoever is putting the money in is going to get the benefit. This community will go, it will all be flattened," Daniel Commander says.

For some, the strain of coping with the changes is showing. Sidney Gabb, 55, pulls a pint of bitter towards his bearded face. "I'm lost," he says, "I've lived here for 30 years. But now I'm lost."

It is eight years since the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation (CBDC)unveiled its regeneration game plan: a £2.25bn state and private sector venture. If events match the blueprint, by the end of the millennium business enticed by this scheme will start to boost the Welsh economy, putting Cardiff on the world map of top maritime cities. Boom time will return to the bay.

After five years on the drawing board, building work began in earnest in 1992. Three key projects will kick off shortly. A barrage at the Inner Harbour will create an "arc of entertainment", with goodies galore for tourists, around a 500-acre freshwater lake. There is to be a mile-long boulevard joining the bay and the city centre. A road linking the bay to the M4 has just opened. Meanwhile, on the waterfront, a prime site has been set aside for the Cardiff Bay Opera House.

But seeing all this, locals, many of whom live in two Sixties council tower blocks and maisonettes on Loudoun Square, are worried. Redevelopment, they say, will make their community a "blot on the landscape". After enduring the dust, dirt, noise, and damage to their homes, because they are now "living on a building site", they reckon sooner or later they will finally be moved to make way for fancy office blocks and expensive houses.

"There are two hot potatoes here," says one close observer of the bay regeneration programme. "Whether local people are going to benefit at all from the regeneration, and whether they are getting any jobs which regeneration is bringing."

From his plush offices on Mount Stuart Square, near the old Coal Exchange, Michael Boyce, chief executive of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, says that Butetown people have nothing to fear from regeneration. "They are short-term victims because of the inconvenience of living in the area during development, but they will be long-term beneficiaries", he says.

But many locals don't believe a word of it. In part, this scepticism is a legacy of the ostracism of Tiger Bay. As Cardiff spreads out, many on the bay wonder whether the townsfolk would rather they were cleared out first. "At the last public meeting, one woman stood up and asked where her house would be in five years' time," says Olwen Watkins, a retired schoolteacher who lives near Loudoun Square. "They couldn't answer that one."

Others point to the compulsory relocation notices issued to companies on the route of the planned Bute Avenue boulevard. "For many companies, moving proved very expensive," says Martin Scherer, chairman of the Cardiff Bay Business Forum. But the avenue is vital to the project's aim of reuniting the city with the bay. Butetown people fear that it's only a matter of time before they also fall foul of some regeneration scheme. Then they will have to go.

The regeneration scheme is the second biggest of its kind in Britain, after London's Docklands. But some people, unimpressed by how the London scheme turned out, reckon the bay may face a similar sad fate. "Large- scale regeneration schemes like London Docklands tend to be too physically driven," says Roger Zogolovitch, visiting professor in urban strategy at Portsmouth University. "They are about putting up buildings, instead of holistic approaches for helping local economies and communities. They are doomed to failure."

But Mr Boyce insists that lessons learnt from London's Docklands are helping to ensure that the bay project prospers. Roads and rail links are being constructed ahead of major buildings. All the 6,000 houses being built will be of the same standard, and a mixture of public and private. This way the CBDC hopes to avoid the creation of ghettoes of wealth amid pockets of poverty.

Mr Boyce says that job training schemes, some of which aim to help combat racism, will enable Butetown people to clinch a share of the 30,000 jobs that will be spawned by regeneration. And because the corporation must seek planning permission for its schemes, it cannot ride roughshod over locals' wishes.

But Mr Boyce has his work cut out convincing locals, especially of the likelihood of a regeneration jobs bonanza. As Mr Scherer, who runs a bay property development company, Scherer and Partners, points out, big employers such as NCM Credit Insurance and the Welsh Health Common Services Authority, which have already been persuaded to relocate to the bay, arrive virtually fully staffed. Locals can only compete for the remaining manual vacancies.

Besides, he adds, locals just do not have the "middle class" skills required. "I find with office jobs I have advertised locally that I don't get a response, or, when I do, the people who do apply are not suitably trained," Mr Scherer says.

To regeneration watchers this has a familiar ring. Peter Hall, Bartlett Professor of Planning at University College London, says that in areas targeted for regeneration locals are often just not equipped to get jobs. "At London Docklands, superannuated dockers could not become journalists or money-market traders," he says.

The CBDC's own figures show that of 7,000 jobs already created by regeneration, 3,504 are temporary and it is mainly these that have gone to locals. To some this is not much of an improvement on the past. "People round here have always got work doing odd jobs, such as being tea ladies," says Ms Watkins.

"What we really need is growth in smaller businesses," Mr Scherer says. "But 95 per cent of jobs in the bay have always been taken by people from outside."

In this area, where unemployment is high (in Butetown, 36 per cent of the workforce is out of work, compared with an unemployment rate of 11.6 per cent for Cardiff as a whole), some find that even casual work is beyond their reach.

"People have been knocked back and knocked back," explains Andrew Heath, 30, from behind the counter of a grocer's on Loudoun Square. "I've just given up trying to find work as a labourer after weeks of trying."

"Work?" Steve Johnson, 28, who is sunk in a sofa behind the counter, looks up. "You must be joking. There is no work here for us. For outsiders from the Valleys and beyond, maybe. Both Mr Heath and Mr Johnson are white. Even today, residents say the stigma of living in Butetown affects them all, making it difficult for many, whatever their race or creed, to get work outside the area.

Travers Merrill, community development manager for the CBDC, points to a major training centre now on the bay. He says other training and community schemes are being backed. But in the Butetown Youth Club, just opposite the Paddle Steamer, there is no youthful optimism.

"People here think the development corporation is only in it for itself," says 16-year-old Eugene Abdi. "As long as they can get the tourists and businesses here, they don't give a toss for us. Many young people don't bother with training. They don't think it's for them but for outsiders."

For Ms Watkins, regeneration stirs up memories of the Sixties clearances. "I could cry. Sometimes I do, when I think of what we have lost," she says. "Coming here used to be like entering an embrace. I was so choked up last time they redeveloped. There should be conservation for communities."

Irish, Italian, African: Butetown's 150 years

1845: The Second Marquis of Bute builds Butetown to house workers at his new docks. Loudoun Square and Mount Stuart Square house the lite. Irish dockers, Spanish, Italian and Arab seamen arrive as iron and coal shipping expand.

1886: The Coal Exchange on Mount Stuart Square opens, business booms. A bigger exchange is built. The lite retreat from the now crowded bay and poor families move into Loudoun Square. Sailing into choppy waters outside Cardiff docks is likened by Portuguese seamen to being "una bahia de tigres" - a bay of tigers. Tiger Bay is born.

1914: Ships trading with Africa are requisitioned for the war. Somalis, West Africans, West Indians and Arabs work on the docks.

1919: The shipping bubble bursts after the war. Returning soldiers claim that black men are "stealing" their jobs and their women. A race-riot erupts.

1925: The Gold Standard renders Welsh coal uncompetitive on the world market. Oil fuel replaces coal. The bay declines.

1950: City fathers decide to clear the slums.

1965: Tower blocks go up on Loudoun Square, "a two-fingered salute," says a resident.

1979: Hopes of the old Coal Exchange on Tiger Bay housing a Welsh Assembly are quashed by the referendum result.

1987: Cardiff Bay Development Corporation is set to regenerate the area. Building starts five years later.

1995: Regeneration projects are under way.