A small, two-line subway system called the Metro runs through Newcastle-upon-Tyne, connecting the airport and the city centre with the coast, the quayside, and nearby Sunderland. Previous to its construction, my mother always told me, people refused to even take jobs across the river in Gateshead. This was before the quayside was redeveloped, before the appearance of the Sage and the Baltic gallery, long before the Angel of the North’s imposing silhouette began to greet cars returning to the homeland on a hill just above the A1. It was a time when a lot of Tyneside’s residents stayed within strictly delineated microcosms, and travelled between them very little. For my mother, growing up on a tight-knit council estate in Heaton that barely extended beyond two streets, the furthest her and her childhood friends could imagine were the seemingly distant communities of Gateshead and Byker.
The adults wouldn’t work in Gateshead, but Byker had a mythology all of its own among the children. Foreboding whispered warnings to “never look over the Byker Wall” were common on the playground. But then the Tyne and Wear Metro appeared in 1980, and attitudes began to change.
If you travel from the city centre to the coast nowadays, the easiest way is a direct train on the Metro’s Yellow line across to Tynemouth via Byker. It is impossible to avoid the imposing structure of the Byker Wall, a winding, multi-coloured high-rise development that comprises 620 maisonettes. The Byker estate – of which the Wall is the most prominent part – has been recognised for its architectural innovation a number of times, most recently being lauded as the best council estate in Britain by the Observer in November 2013. It features in UNESCO’s list of outstanding 20th Century buildings and became a Grade II listed building in 2007. Yet its small, north-facing windows that punctuate an undulating structure of dark brick look far from welcoming. Those who have never ventured off the Metro to explore might call it bleak.
One day, I took up the ancient playground challenge of my mother’s friends and looked over the Byker Wall. Needless to say, I was instantly won over. The shape and size of the Wall is famous for creating Byker’s own unique microclimate, and because of this, residents were busy enjoying surely the most frequently used balconies in the entire North East. Tree-lined streets of well-kept houses comprised the rest of the immediate area. The view from the top of the Wall itself was one of the most spectacular in the city: the Tyne River coursing below the Millennium Bridge, the museums and hipster cafes and music venues that have now made the quayside their home, the clustered shops and the rooftops of innumerable houses beyond.
It was this vantage point that had in part attracted Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen to the area in 1969, the year that construction on the Byker Wall began. The artist’s images of a vibrant working class community overlooking the rest of the city were profiled internationally: their air of optimism, despite the region’s obvious decline, had sat well with the profiled residents. But the existing estate was about to be demolished, its occupants quite possibly scattered. Konttinen’s photos were intended to preserve memories for those who believed their days in the area were numbered.
Unlike other areas that have undergone dubious “regeneration” by local authorities, however, Byker was never cleansed of its occupants and summarily gentrified. Architects throughout the seventies worked unusually hard to keep existing residents within the community, demolishing streets only when new accommodation had been built. The Byker Wall now houses a sizeable community that has lived in Byker for generations; meanwhile, Byker itself remains little changed from when my mother was being warned to avoid the Wall, apart from the fact that people in Heaton have stopped believing folklore about their neighbours further down the Metro line.
Indeed, these days, the only myth about Byker that truly persists is the existence of the thoroughly fictional Byker Grove.