by | May 27, 2024

Left: Photocopied report for the Cross Streets Housing Action Group, 1975. I drew the illustration after the style of Daily Express cartoonist Giles, added some Letraset Helvetica, and with no budget for Eurostile type, designed and drew the logo, rather badly. Right: My 1976 design and illustration were a bit more sophisticated, for a city-wide coalition of activist groups. The fonts are again Letraset: Dynamo and Times.


How I helped preserve Leeds’ historic back-to-back neighbourhoods

I had always thought that the housing action group I co-founded in 1975 was a failure, as we were unable to save our homes from the bulldozer. However, other such neighbourhoods were subsequently preserved and today Leeds has the largest stock of back-to-back houses in Britain, with such properties considered quite respectable. So the ideas and arguments we publicized and presented to City Council may not have been entirely futile, instead contributing to Leeds’ long-standing identity as a back-to-back city. Here follows a tale of the serendipity in my life, of chaos and butterflies.


I didn’t like living in a flat. My flat mate Lenny, from whom I sublet a room, was OK, but not the people downstairs with their shouting matches and loud music all night. This was in 1971 during my first year of art school in Leeds, Yorkshire. That summer I got a job in a foundry. It was hellish work, hot, boring and dangerous, but I made enough money, with a few bob from mum and dad, to buy an early Victorian house in a condemned neighbourhood, for £400. I figured to break even on rent money over the next few years, and have a little more elbow room. It was a two-up two-down, back-to-back row house on a short cobbled cul-de-sac, with the toilet in a stall in a yard at the end of the lane. But solid brick and stone, with a slate roof, very Coronation Street.

Margaret Street, 1975, looking towards Mickley Street. My girlfriend Karey and I outside my home, Nº 4. The façade is impressive, but the house is only one room deep, with a footprint of a mere 200 sq. ft (19m²). 

Opposite my new place were an old working class couple. He’d go to the factory weekdays, she was a housewife who kept the place spotless, down to scrubbing the front doorstep every morning. The day he retired, that night he died in bed. She said she woke up the next morning and he was lying beside her, cold and wet. On my side of the road, arrivistes. To the right Malik, a refugee from Uganda, ran a convenience store out of his very small property. We’d play squash occasionally. The home on the left was owned by a gay man, his boyfriend lived there, whom he’d visit from time to time; homosexuality had only been decriminalized in 1967 and there was still a certain amount of stigma, which may have been why they didn’t live together in a posher part of town. And there I was too, a bohemian student from down south.

Note milk box, clothesline hook, coal hatch and boot scraper.

This 19th century development of dozens of streets and hundreds of houses, soon to be razed for a new housing estate, abutted an 18th century farmhouse, a survivor from pre-industrial times that was now a 20th century community resource, occupied by Interplay, a group of idealistic young folk who ran social programs and entertainment for the residents of this neighbourhood afflicted with planning blight. I went to some of the events they organized, got to know them, and discovered, amongst the many working class people who lived in my new ’hood, an undercurrent of displeasure at being designated residents of a slum area and being forced to “upgrade” their well-established lifestyle, with the destruction of the homes they owned, to be replaced by modern buildings of unknown quality. The folly of the Quarry Hill development, a huge modernist housing project in inner city Leeds, built in 1938, was notorious—it had proven a social and maintenance disaster and would be demolished in 1978. I liked my sturdy little old house, and saw no reason it should be pulled down just because of its steep and narrow staircase and the lack of a bathroom, which I set about installing in one of the upstairs rooms.

My parents, who were architects, showed me a recent article in their professional journal Architectural Review about a town planning project in Oxford involving Gradual Renewal, an emergent movement in which the equity—physical and social—of old neighbourhoods was updated on a piecemeal basis, without massive disruption and wreckage. I joined with other dissidents and we formed the Cross Streets Housing Action Group. Yes, there was Upper Cross Street, Middle Cross Street and Cross Grasmere Street, and we were cross. We canvassed and organized meetings. We conducted an opinion poll of residents, raised funds, hired health inspectors for a survey, secured the support of other local action groups and the Leeds Civic Trust, produced reports advocating gradual renewal, were interviewed by the press, marched in the street and addressed City Council—to no avail. 

The farmhouse was demolished and I acquired the flagstones that were its roofing material, a gift for my mother who used them as paving in the garden of the converted 16th century barn where she and dad lived. I sold my house to Malik and moved to Toronto in late 1976. Today, there is no trace of Margaret Street. However, perhaps we had some positive effect, contributing to the changing fabric of the age, as Leeds did subsequently preserve several historic back-to-back neighbourhoods, beginning in the 1980s, and the homes there are now much sought after for short-term rentals, student accommodation, and as low-maintenance properties. 

And in the old “Cross Streets” neighbourhood, with its development of small-scale, low-rise homes, much of the new architecture echoes the old brick buildings and built form of the previous establishment. ●


View down Mickley Street, 2022. Margaret Street has been erased—the house at right, with front garden, driveway and garage, is on the exact same spot where my old back-to-back used to be.