‘How diverse are we really?’ is a research project commissioned through the CPP National Peer Learning and Communications programme with funding from Arts Council England. Dawn Cameron looks out of her lockdown window at the start of her fieldwork and describes what she sees.

 

Creative People and Places (CPP) is about creativity and people and places. As I look forward to starting the fieldwork for its new research – How diverse are we, really?  it’s place that I’ve found myself thinking about most. This may be because the places we inhabit have shrunk over the past several months. The last time I used the Trainline app was in early March 2020. I’ve become an expert in what’s happening outside my window. I imagine I’m not alone in this.

It turns out that the world outside my living room window tells separate but interconnected stories of diversity, equality, second wave feminism, immigration and asylum stretching back to just after the Second World War.

In South Chapel Allerton or North Chapeltown (depending on who you want to impress and why) my first Zoom meeting with the CPP Research Advisory Group concludes and I decide to take a break before my next screen-enabled meeting. It’s the first heavy snow of the year and because I live on an incline which in normal weather goes unnoticed by everyone but cyclists labouring around the bend in the wrong gear, motorists are getting into all sorts of trouble trying to negotiate the wide curve to the Harrogate Road lights.

Right opposite my living room, a crowd gathers at the gate of the Polish Church. Black traffic bollards are placed on the road signifying a funeral. The crowd is large and represents the overflow from the Church itself, numbers being restricted in places of worship during these Covid-constricted times.

When I first moved here the church felt as if it was on its last legs. The congregation was diminishing and the largest events were funerals for first generation Polish people some of whom will have arrived in Leeds as displaced people under the provisions of the 1947 Polish Resettlement Act.

Then, a second wave of Polish people arrived in the 2000s and the place was reinvigorated. The mean age of the congregation dropped by a good four decades or more. An impressive church bell was purchased which announced services, the busiest of which were broadcast by PA to overflow crowds. When lockdown started and we were all applauding NHS heroes, the bells rang for minutes on end on a Thursday evening.

The church’s northern neighbour is an imposing detached building which is home to a Muslim Girls’ School and which for a few years housed East Leeds Women’s Workshop[1], an organisation founded in 1981 and developed by feminists who sought to address the under representation of women in trades such as joinery, carpentry and bricklaying. The Workshops gave priority to women who were particularly marginalised: Black women, Asian women, disabled women and lesbians amongst others. We’d call that intersectionality now.

There’s a blue plaque on the wall of the school. It tells us that before it was the Muslim Girls School and before it was East Leeds Women’s Workshop, the building had been the ORT Technical School which was a school for Jewish boys who had fled Berlin during the Second World War[2].

The ORT charity had operated schools across Europe since it was founded in 1880. The Berlin school was closed by the Gestapo in 1943 and 106 of the pupils – along with seven teachers and their wives – managed to flee Germany and ended up in Leeds where they opened the Leeds ORT School right opposite what would become my home. The 109 boys and teachers who were unable to flee were sent to concentration camps.

Funerals remain fairly frequent occurrences at the Polish Church but they have been superseded – in congregation size – by first communions, Christmas and Easter services and other holy days sometimes involving elaborate banners. They draw people from across the city.

The funeral today is unusual both for its size and for the demographics of its attendees. Those outside are mainly young – lads mainly – and many wear a sweatshirt with an image of a similarly aged boy across the chest: a red and white image on black and a name I can’t make out through the snow and from this distance. I assume he must be of Polish descent. Many of the mourners are Black and Asian. They’re likely school friends. Maybe they played in the same football team. There’s no way of knowing anything other than that they must have cared for him a great deal to stand outside in heavy, swirling snow for so very long. They’re mainly in parkas with fur-lined hoods and mainly masked against the pandemic.

Motorists continue to find themselves in trouble outside my house. A group of three or four lads peel away from the funeral crowd and start pushing cars around the most treacherous bit of the bend. When they’ve moved one, they move on to the next. A couple of other young men join them. I don’t know where they came from. One wears a yellow sweatshirt which becomes sodden as time passes. The sweatshirt is yellow with Kodak emblazoned across the chest. He’s not wearing gloves and the fact that I notice this shows my age.

It’s a view from a window. What it tells me is firstly that I really like where I live and I’m fortunate in that. It tells me that things change, that they must and that the trick is to find a way of looking forward instead of making the past a halcyon place where all was perfect. It also tells me that diversity is what diversity does. Outside my window it’s survival and self-help and activism and friendship and faiths co existing and shared grief and immigration stories. Over the next few months, I hope to find out what diversity is and what it does across the CPP places. I can’t wait.

Dawn Cameron

[1] https://explore.library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/477004

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-22142605

Photo credit: Back to Bransholme @JeromeWhittingham2