Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Townscape afterthought

I wonder if the city government, which is after all the major partner with Land Securities in putting together this development project, has really insisted on strategic quality control in the management of such a major urban upheaval, to make sure that at every level decisions are implemented, including on the human relations level?

All too often information affecting shoppers and commuters has come out too little, too late, like the posters appearing a month after they were first needed. Cardiff's local authority is so keen to project a progressive competitive image to impress a waiting world, and has high ideals for its achievement, but there's often an unaccountable lag between formulation and delivery of ideas, as if work is done either frantically, or dead slow. Is the local authority really able to call its collaborators to account for their overly languid, and (in practice) indifferent attitude towards ensuring that citizens are kept in the know and on-side?

We live in a world obsessed with communication by every possible means, yet the quality of our communications, not to mention content often falls short of achieving its objectives, and can short sell the truth. The outcome is frustration and alienation. I see it in the church, I see it in the city, I hear and see it daily in the mass media. I too am most likely afflicted by the same malaise in some areas of my life. None of these concerns are impossible to address, but they do require an application of the will, total honesty, compassion in understanding, and belief that uniting people through times of great change is more valuable an objective than one powerful group getting things done, rendering everyone else as people being 'done to'.

I think the heart of the matter may be to do with participants' higher values, i.e. moral and spiritual aspirations. Do great leaders, architects, planners of projects have a sense of accountability to anything other than clients, investors, local authorities, government, the public? You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. But you can't fool all of the people all of the time ... and you can't fool God - source of our being, ultimate reality. You can hide the truth from God, you can lie to God, but finally you're the one who suffers. Ultimately truth will out in relation to God if nobody else. If we practice truth in relation to God, it is less burdensome to practice it in all other relationships.

Townscape without captions

At last, the blue painted hoarding around the churchyard has some large prints of children's art work on it, the winners of a competition run by 'Keep Cardiff Tidy' in Cardiff primary schools. Although they are large posters, they float in an expanse of blue, so long and tall is the site hoarding. So far, three winning entries appear, and the best of them is duplicated at either end. All contain messages to encourage people to bin their litter. I wish they'd been as large as the full hoarding sized posters mounted by the SD2 developers (in English and in Welsh) trumpeting about their sponsorship. It's a glaring anomaly, not exactly conveying the intended message.

I heard today also that there's a delay on producing the posters to cover all the expanse of blue hoarding around the construction sites - posters meant to inform the public about what's going on behind, and what the outcomes will be. This merely makes it a lot more difficult to get the public on-site, make all citizens into interested spectator participants at least, rather than hoi polloi to whose social and cultural environment huge things can be done without the courtesy of a decent explanation.

There seems to be a lack of will on the part of SDII's high level of leadership to understand how it would be in their best interests not to leave Cardiffians in the dark, to compound their apathy and disinterest. These are the people who'll be needed eventually as loyal shoppers, maybe employees. They don't need to be convinced that none of this is for them at such an early stage.

Those at a high level concerned with the interface between the development enterprise and the public are neglecting to ensure that good ideas are followed through with efficient progress chasing, so that deadlines are met, so that staff on the ground are not constently left apologising for the failure of suppliers to deliver or people higher up to issue timely permissions. Not enough energy, nor, for all I know, money has been invested in selling the SDII vision of the future to those who'll have to live with it.

The construction companies plan well, work hard, chase progress and may well finish ahead of time. Delays cost. There are penalty clauses in contracts for failures to deliver to deadlines on which others depend. I wonder if those contracted to take on public relations aspects of the project have deadline penalty clauses, high level progress chasers and trouble shooters hounding them? It certainly doesn't look like it, judging by the lack of progress I am able to observe from the sidelines. I feel sorry for the people I know and see every day with worried looks, apologies and excuses to offer, rather than smiles of satisfaction at a successful achievement. At a most interesting time in Cardiff's history, we have a townscape without captions. Without them when we need them most.

Losing Vincent

Vincent, the regular 'washer-upper' on the St John's Friday tea room team died Monday night. He was in his eighties. A fortnight ago he'd been found on the floor at home, having collapsed, and maybe lying there overnight. He recovered, but was kept in hospital for tests to find out why he collapsed, but he died quietly in his sleep. He was a quiet, friendly man, very private, and he lived alone. The police had to break into his house as no neighbour seemed to have a key. He had several hospital visitors including the chaplain who used to take Communion at home to his infirm mother, friends from a local Methodist lunch club in Cathays, from the tea room, and myself.

However, he shared very little personal information with anyone. The hospital had not succeeded in extracting from him any details for next of kin or others to be contacted in case of need. The only relatives ever mentioned live in Australia and the USA, and nobody is sure how close they were to him or whether they are older or younger than him. Indeed, last night, I was 'helping the police with their enquiries' as the saying goes. Two police officers came visiting at home around nine thirty, made aware of his church links by the hospital, to see if there was any information that could help them contact someone on his behalf. As nobody seems to have been able to come up with anything, a police officer or coroner's court offical will now have to go through his house and personal effects in search of a will, or a phone book to get them started. An unhappy task in dealing with a stranger. Work is not all about catching crooks for them.

Members of the congregation are all wondering if and how we'll be able to hold a funeral service for him, so all his friends can say goodbye. Although he appeared to be a loner, (probably an effect of growing deafness and poor sight) he endeared himself to many people. He had a way at looking you in a way that suggested trust and openness of heart. He was constant in attending Sunday worship. He'll be missed on Fridays and Sundays.

More and more people in modern society, of all ages, now live alone, some of them feeling secure in their anonymity, some not liking anyone to know their business. As long as they can manage on their own that poses no problem to anyone, but once they are ill, incapacitated or they die, lack of information about them becomes an urgent concern, involving many in the community as well as health services and agencies of the law. So, while I have doubts about the overly fancy technology of government identity card policy, and its potential for abuse, the principal of obliging all people to own and carry an identity card is to everyone's benefit in the long run. It may even help to make grieving a more bearable process.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lobster claws

That's what they call them on the demolition site - I just found out. Those hundred foot long articulated arms that reach up and bit a chuck of concrete, as if it were merely a biscuit are called lobster claws, obviously but I didn't guess it, though they even look at bit like claws. Two of these huge are chewing away at the face of the Tredegar Street car park now. An orange one and a yellow one that's been redeployed from chewing down Oxford House,at a standstill for the moment.

Recently I noted that the closing of Currys Digital in Queen Street left the city centre without no retail outlet selling mainstream PC computers, although the new shop selling Apple Macs seems to be doing well. Well, I was wrong. Jessups the photography retailer, having lost a shop on the Hayes side of Oxford House, has opened a new superstore on Churchill Way, and this shop, uniquely among its stores is selling PC and Apple laptops. It makes sense, since the use of digital still cameras, and even more so video cameras, requires use of a computer to process picture data. The store also provides a very full direct 'camera to print' service as well as a 'print via the internet service'. Nice to see a business opportunity taken up which is up to the moment, rather than lagging behind. Interesting though, I found this out by going into the shop, not by their advertising.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ashes and images

I don't much like Mondays, because Sunday generally leaves me feeling wiped out. For me it's recovery day,starting with an unashamed lie-in plain and simple. I have 'God on Mondays' in the afternoon during term time, and I need not to feel jaded for that. Not this week, after half term holiday however. This week, an early start. A nine fifteen whole school assembly to celebrate Ash Wednesday five days late, with a simple ceremony of ashing for teachers and children, together with Fr Roy Doxsey, my colleague and neighbouring pastor in Adamsdown.

Some of the younger children looked a bit uncertain and apprehensive during the ashing. The older ones, who have experienced it before and are well instructed, were happy to follow their teachers' example. It made me wonder if this was altogether the right thing to be doing with a whole school group. I think I need to do some 'educational' homework on the age of reception for activities like this, which, when all is said and done, are a bit arcane by the side of other ceremonies we perform.

Later I took my camera with me to do a circuit of the building sites in the centre, continuing my photo-logging of progress made. A week after the car park closures, people are still driving in to try and access them, still unaware that the new replacement ones have opened. I wonder if the promised signage has turned up?

Talking of signage, the expanse of hoarding surrounding the churchyard renovation site was due to be covered with blown up versions of children's drawings on an anti-litter theme for the duration of the work. After a month of them being up, the hoardings are still clear blue paint - even the town's graffiti squad seem to be stricken with indolence. I received two different emails last week promising the posters would be up there today. At four thirty, the hoardings were still blue.

I'm impressed at the co-ordinated progress being made by both demolition and construction teams, not to mention the good morale and confident pleasure in the faces of some of the workers I've met. The people doing the community liaison and public relations side of events just don't seem to be able to deliver as efficiently. They're nice people, but often seem to be anxious, let down by others in the chain of command. Some people higher in the pecking order seem not so interested in pursuit of excellence, in keeping would be future shoppers on-side, as they are in building shops. Strange really.

One nice thing, I bumped into Peter Blake the official site photographer for Bovis Construction, kitted out with hard hat and florescent jacket, and free to access all areas with supervision. We compared notes about our pleasure in all the visual elements of a big engineering project, and joked about our different roles. I told him how jealous I was of his photo opportunities, also about my photo-blog.
He said he wasn't web-publishing. I hope he gets the opportunity to do something similar with his pictures, so that they don't just end up being seen as d├ęcor on a shareholders' report. What's going on behind the blue hoardings needs to be valued more widely.

Scores of people and machines are now at work under the skies come rain or shine - vital stages in wealth creation, not mention social engineering. The brown soil, the bright colours of the equipment, and the backdrop of buildings all add up to some unusual beauty, even surrealistic, sinister de-constructive images of demolition are food for thought. I look at them, and see complex human creativity on a big scale, designers, engineers, team workers, and a public interface with the city about its business - taxi drivers, deliverymen, business 'suits', porters, hawkers, stall holders, druggies furtively looking to score, mums dragging kids around, newspaper vendors, old men sipping from styrofoam cup at the Hayes Island snack bar - people all relating to each other - workers and those like me watching others work, trying to uphold its value by looking, photographing and thinking about what it all means.

Is this what contemplative life in the heart of this city is all about?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Another match day in town

Considering that at least seventy thousand people came into Cardiff today around the event of the Carling Cup final, services were attended by the usual numbers of people. The earlier timing of the main Sung Eucharist poses little problem on match days now that worshippers have got used to it.

At eight o'clock, two lads, looking as if they'd been out all night clubbing, or maybe travelling a long way overnight to watch Arsenal play Chelsea, came in as the service started, wandered up to the chancel and peered in. I welcomed them and invited them to be seated. The entered, and sat for a few moments, then upped and left without a word as the Old Testament Lesson started to be read, leaving behind them only an odour of stale cigarette smoke. Well, at least they didn't mouth obscenities on departure, as did the last interloper at eight o'clock, six months ago.

Andrew Thomas, an ordinand at St Michael's Llandaff, on placement with me this year, preached very well at the nine thirty service. I enjoy having him around. He's an active member of the Order of St John, and still does duties regularly, despite his family and college schedule. He gives the impression of being at relaxed and at home when sharing in worship and when preaching - doing what he's meant to do with quiet confidence, and no angst - which bodes well for his future.

Mary, one of our most determined elderly regulars was taken with a bad turn during the service. Struggling with intense back pain, she was de termined to stay until Communion. I watched her being taken from her seat to the back, as the Agnus Dei was sung. Usually I take her Communion in her seat. She insists on sitting in the Mayoral pew. Or, as she would say with a twinkle in her eye, he sits in her pew, when he can be bothered to come, which is less often than she does. Instead of leaving her until last as I usually do, Andrew and I strode through the Communion rail, as the choir were making their way up, heading up to the back with the Holy Gifts, so that she wouldn't miss out if her taxi arrived while she was waiting to receive. Everyone from the choir and congregation saw and understood what we were doing. They're just like that, always looking out for each other. And, within a couple of minutes we'd resumed and Mary was taken home by two stewards.

After the Tredegarville School service, just half a dozen of us, I had to queue in traffic to get home, due to the match having just ended. Ten minutes to get there and over half an hour to return, only just in time to get down by bike to St John's for evening prayer, against the returning tide of fans walking to their coaches. Despite the deterring noisy crowds of revellers around the church, there were still eight of us to pray together. One of them was Mary. She explained that she'd sat with the pain wondering what to do next, and after a couple of hours it had disappeared completely. Being determined to have a time of worship uninterrupted by pain, she called another taxi and came down for Evening Prayer! The Spirit and a courageous will are a great combination.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Conversations and entrances

On really horrid days, it’s good to have one like today to remember.

I walked down to church for the Eucharist – for a while at least it wasn’t raining and the sun came out. The lady who stands in the City Hall underpass quietly witnessing to her faith,(see 14th Feb posting) looked up as I passed and for the first time caught my eye and gave me a beautiful radiant smile, which (I hope) I returned when I said : “God bless you.” as I passed her. Contact at last.

After the noon Eucharist I had a conversation with a visiting couple from Toronto – she was a Quebecoise and he an Italian Canadian of fifty years standing. They were trying to work out what sort of church St John’s is, as well as fascinated by its history and relationship to the city and country. Coming from another bi-lingual city, they were impressed by the visible evidence of two languages in the way the city presents itself to the world, and wanted to know what degree of political autonomy Wales has. It was one of those moments of feeling pride in our particular social experiment, and feeling that our little corner of world Anglicanism has made a strong contribution to healthy pluralism - living together with our differences – despite apparent problems elsewhere in the Communion.

Oxford House South section demolition is now under way, and I was able to grab some quite spectacular photos of the demolition machine in action. Being half term there were more people causally watching than usual. I must find out what the site workers call these machines. I don’t even know their proper technical name. When this one toppled sections of a brick and breeze block end wall, or smashed a window and grabbed out its entire frame and mounting in one blow, there was an audible gasp of amazement from passers by. Live entertainment for half-term week!

I had a chat with Gerald (it said on his hat) one of the site foremen, who in between sentences was redirecting traffic at the junction of Bridge Street and the Hayes. Although the NCP multi-storey car parks had finally been closed for demolition three days ago, the banner notice announcing they were still open was not taken down until two days ago, and out of habit, motorists were driving in search of parking right in front the building site, before having to turn around and exit frustrated and denied. Gerald told me that he had worked on a similar development in the centre of Plymouth for four years, and how he’d got to know the local photographers, including a septuagenarian who’d researched old film archives of building, rebuilding and redevelopment of his city over his lifetime, as a way of documenting social change. That’s a bit more ambitious than my photo-blog, but I fully understand the kind of enthusiasm that drives such a project.

I left Gerald sorting the chaos and went to visit Nia Wynn-Jones in her workshop behind the ‘temporary’ city library over the railway from Bute Terrace. (Check out Nia's website) She’s making the ornate wrought iron gates that will grace the entrance of the south churchyard, once the new east-west path has been completed. She's copied the fleur-de-lys motif from the existing railings to use as decoration - hundreds of them ! She's also replicated the corner ironwork pillars from the churchyard, and will be re-cycling the pieces of fencing taken out to create a gap for the path, to use in the gates. It's going to be an eye catching design, that will fascinate visitors and enhance civic pride. I'm determined to get Nia to do some work on the church tower porch gate which could do with something kinder than renovation. It only fills two thirds of the gothic arch it encloses. Extending and embellishing it to fill the complete space, in a way that echoes the design of the gates would give the entrance a lift.

The churchyard site manager, Danny McGee was consulting with Nia when I arrived. He and I had spoken on the 'phone, but so far I'd not succeeded in finding him there, so it was good to have a face to face with these two people whose labours are going to transform one small ancient corner of the city centre into an open air sanctuary from all the hustle and bustle. I got some great pictures of the ironwork too.

Last but not least, I had an email from someone I know well, who has been thinking through life the universe and everything for some months, and has shared some of the journey with me, now asking to be prepared for Confirmation. It’s one of those things that crowns any day, no matter how bad or good it may have been.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Tools for urban contemplation

I have a modest sense of achievement tonight, having web published the beginnings of my photo journal of the redevelopment work in the city centre. Five pages, each with six captioned pictures to start with, charting the first stage of the Oxford House demolition. I'm going to need a fair chunk of webspace to cover the work ahead, and I'll have to go shopping for this. There are plenty of offers around, annoyingly in different currencies so it'll take me a while to agonise, as I'll be spending my own money on this. But, I can't spend too much time, given that I've almost filled my existing quota of webspace provided by my regular broadband ISP.

Taking pictures of demolishers and constructors at work may seem a bit nerdy. However, one of the tasks of a missionary pastor in the heart of the city, is to learn how to value and cherish the lives people actually live, how their creative urges are expressed and celebrated, how they manifest their own inner longings - not through their handsome well deserved pay packets, but through their daily quota of job satisfaction. It's great to hear some of the guys in the hard hats enthusing about what their doing and the equipment they are using, even when they have had little or nothing to do with half a decade of debate about what changes to the city centre there should be and how these should work to the benefit of all citizens.

Another aspect of the photographic record is that it reminds people of the journey the city is taking. As someone grappling by vocation with the question T S Eliot put into Christ's mouth: 'What is the meaning of this city?' The angles and perspectives I discover myself selecting, the photo captions that emerge as I prepare a fresh page unconsciously reveal something of this engagement. Also, I write in order that I may understand what is going on. I write also in an effort to put myself in others' shoes, from time to time. It's doing what you love and loving what you do, as a witness to really important things about life, the universe, God, destiny, everything that challenges the banal and the trivial aspects of our existence.

The hard part is having the discipline to pick up the camera as habitually as I (nowadays) pick up my hat - I've only become a regular hat wearer since I returned to the UK. The camera obliges me to stop and look at what's going on, and try to take it in, to contemplate, rather than hurry on. I contemplate out of doors in town or country far more than I ever do in the holy places where I am obliged to spend a fair proportion of my working life. The inner peace and quiet acquired in the latter somehow nourishes the former.

I wish I had to nerve to photograph people with the degree of attentiveness I give to surveying the general scene. But then I am reluctant to arouse people's ire by pointing a lense at them when their faces are already communicating their desire to be somewhere other than here, or they are somewhere else because they're plugged into to a mobile phone and walking without looking, adopting that strange angled gait that used to shout 'cricked neck!'.

Unless they are wrapped up in awkward public intimacy, most people don't much look at each other in the street, being busy negotiating their passage. We're not a culture that goes in much for bold stares, as happens in parts of Europe and elsewhere. It's all done with the sly glance - except for children, of course. Gazing is mostly reserved for must-have products in the shops - such a narrowing of our vision.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

To be a public witness

There's a demure youngish middle-aged woman of afro-Caribbean origin, I'd say from her accent, who stands a few hours at a time, several days a week in the Boulevard de Nantes subway close to the City Hall. She simply stands there saying clearly, simply without ranting "God is alive. Jesus saves." Nothing more, hour after hour.

It's her personal act of witness to her faith, week in week out, all weathers. No banners, no tracts, no conversation. When she first started, she spoke quite shyly and quietly, with obvious sincerity and humility. As her confidence has increased, her voice has become stronger, but it remains unforced. This is not 'argument weak, shout louder' territory. Her action may be deemed eccentric, yet it's touchingly beautiful.

I always smile at her, but I never manage to catch her eye. It could be a cultural thing. Some African and Caribbean women don't look a man in the eye. It's not because they are necessarily shy or consider themselves inferior, it's more like a gesture of respect for someone to glance at them and then look away, especially a priest. It was something I found quite disconcerting when I first encountered it in the black community where I served as a young pastor. Fortunately, a colleague explained this to me, which was a reassurance.

It'd be inappropriate for me to interrupt her, or to comment aloud, though doubtless some passers by may well do. She must, by now, know many of the regulars who go back and fore. She's not doing it to be appreciated, nor to confront. She's declaring what gives her life meaning and purpose in the most simple and direct way, in season and out of season, whether it meaks sense or not.

Quietly, shyly, she's encouraging me to be myself too.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A handover and a launch

Well, the snow of the past few days may have prevented many people from coming into the city in their usual shopping routine, but by Sunday, things were back to normal, with a decent average attendance at services, morning and evening. At Evensong we had a small ceremony in which the Bell Tower Captain for the past fourteen years (actually sixteen, because he did two years unofficially), Richard Hall, handed over the old bell tower door key to his successor Bob Hardy, in the presence of a number of the ringing team. After the service we had refreshments in the South Aisle, for the second time in the day - only this time with a glass of wine - to mark the occasion, provided by our indefatigable tea room co-ordinator Pauline Grainger, who has a sure-fire touch for lifting an occasion by the judicious application of just the right amount of food and drink. Richard, who is Vicar's Warden and Secretary of St John's Friends, is taking on the task of editing a new Parish magazine that will present our life and new identity to both members and visitors. The first edition will be out next week, and hopefully soon after that, a web-link to it, as well as the link to 'Capital Ideas'.

Talking of which, the latest edition has gone down well amongst those who have received it so far, in church circles and among members of the City Retail Partnership, at today's monthly meeting. The news it contains about the redevelopment work going on was more up to date at the time of publication last week, than news from the official sources which have been somewhat slow in promoting their own enterprise. Only in the past couple of days has the re-vamped St David's Two website gone live, with feeds from their two static webcams publicly accessible. It was actually quite useful this afternoon. I was able to check on demolition progress, to see if it was worth my while going back into town in the rain for a few more interesting photos. I'm going to put these into a few web pages in the next few days, so that it's possible for people far and wide to check the course of the work without getting cold and wet, or crossing the world. They'll tell a story from a little closer than a web cam, and from a different angle.

The role I have as unofficial city centre missioner is able to take a fuller shape, now that I no longer have responsibility for the two Cathays Parish Churches. I have a little of the freedom to explore, enquire and think creatively that I really need in order to flourish. I have time to spend with people, loitering with intent, camera in hand, chatting to passers by, answering questions on an ad hoc basis, offering encouragement, support and a little eccentric humour into the city mix. 'Knowing and being known' is an essential component of a pastor's life, and it never takes up enough real time, unless you are as fortunate as I am with the opportunity I've been given. We may not instantly get city people back into the church, but slowly humbly, I dare to believe the church is getting back into the heart of the city, where it always belonged. But, like evey other bit of precious heritage, if you're not active in maintaining it, you risk losing it. So thanks boss, for giving me this to be getting on with.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Snow business

Two days running we woke up to discover that snowfall had transformed the view from our house - a brief delight only, since the not so low temperature ensured the few centimetres quickly melted underfoot. I was glad of the new hiking boots I bought last weekend, having binned a tired 22 year old pair at the end of my visit to Switzerland. The fresh enjoyment of the comfort and warmth of my late sale bargain purchase, as I strode in to church, made me aware of how few other pedestrians about were wearing either boots or Wellingtons. I noticed many expensive damp pairs of trainers, and 'indoor' shoes with slippery soles being worn on slushy streets, and looks of discomfort being worn on the faces of their owners.

It struck me how ill-prepared most 'townies' are for a bout of bad weather. People appear poorly clad, without top coats or pullovers or rain gear when it's cold and wet, dashing from cover to cover, through shops, malls and arcades (thank God for Cardiff's arcades), hardly anybody can stand around and enjoy a brisk winter moment out doors. And it's not because people are poor, for often their scant clothing is expensively branded, and most pairs of damp trainers cost double my bargain boots, if not more. It's not as if we're unused to bad weather - we get too much wind and rain for my pleasure too - but we seem to have difficulty in being prepared. Six inches of wet snow causes traffic chaos. Motorways get closed. People scurry home early from work, just in case, causing all-day traffic jams. City buses stop running because they can't get up the mild gradients with which the city's flood plain environment is blessed (or affilicted if you miss having a decent viewpoint). We seem altogether less prepared to cope with the vagaries of weather, individually and socially, than I recall in my youth. Or was it that I just didn't notice in those days?

Work goes on

Anyway, I noticed that the weather didn't stop the demolition machines from getting on with chewing up Oxford House. But those pieces of equipment, menacing though their countenance may may be, are the epitome of robustness. Further south, on the John Lewis store construction site, there were fewer people in evidence on foot, but the cranes were active, drilling in the steel tubing piles. Some slightly well meaning person has cut large observation holes into the blue painted wooden shuttering that surrounds the site, covered with mesh grilles, to allow outsiders to see the work going on within. One problem. There's no pavement there, on which to stand and peer through the holes, and it's near a traffic junction, so that only car drivers could safely see through as long as they were stopped. But this is, of course nothing more than a distraction from being attentive to the traffic lights, and a potential safety hazard.

Taking advantage of the snow induced lull in traffic, I went and surveyed the scene on-site. Already dozens of piles and steel shutters have been sunk to define the boundary of the excavation area from which tens of thousands of tonnes of material will eventually be removed. In place where it seems as if excavation has begun, once can see the reason for this in the form of smallish concrete platform bases sprouting steel re-inforcement rods, already inserted as mountings for the framework of the building to be erected above. The excavations will work around these. It's a little glimpse of the immense forethought and planning that must go into construction work of this kind, to ensure time (and thus cost) efficiency in the overall run project - many small projects, all conducted in a huge chorus of engineering activity.

Inspiring stuff here for curious kids - better than video and computer games any day.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Overheard on the Hayes

"It's disgusting .... How can they do this .... It's such a waste .... It's the Council's fault ... No, it's that Assembly's fault .... "

"When I walk around here, suddenly I don't know where I am any longer."

While I am busy standing in awe of great mechanical monsters chewing the concrete platforms and pillars of Oxford House to dust and transportable rubble, I hear comments from passers-by un-fascinated by the logistics of demolition like me, shocked at this assault on their sense of a familiar urban landscape. It's been happening for many months, but people are so entrenched in routine ways of negotiating themselves through the city centre to buy, park their cars and catch their buses, that any change which eventually has impact upon them is disturbing, disorienting. Older, rather than the younger among citizens, I guess.

Many of grumblers were growing up when the first construction phase of the St David's centre cleared out almost all the remaining city centre residential quarter that Hitler's bombers hadn't destroyed. There was prolonged open resistance to the project, attracting public interest and debate, but in the end the developers' arguments prevailed. The new building project was finally completed. Generations since then grew used to the benefits of a new city centre shopping centre, with added parking and office facilities thrown in.

However, the same generations of people lived long enough to see an environment destroyed which they may once have resented or resisted, but have long gotten used to, such is the nature of changing times. They don't understand why it's happening now any more than last time. They feel as powerless to shape the course of events now as then, despite all the best intentions of City Government and Development Corporations to make their intentions known, and persuade people of the benefits of their decisions.

Despite costly efforts made in public relations exercises, the level of common understanding about what is needed to ensure a city lives and has a future,is still poor. Consumer culture doesn't encourage anyone to think broadly or freely, nor to exercise understanding or judgement about what's in the common interest. The world is still divided between the doers and the done to, the haves and the have-nots. We're still a long way from the 'just, participatory and sustainable society' we need to be to face a future in which we need to pull together against the threat of ecological catastrophe.

During my melancholic musings, I began to wonder what it must have been like back in the middle 1880's, when my giant of a predecessor Canon Charles Thompson 'redeveloped' St John's church, adding a north and south aisle, moving the ancient south porch out by thirty feet into the churchyard, demolishing and rebuilding the chancel, removing the recently-installed (i.e. 35 years earlier) stained glass window from the sanctuary to the east wall of a newly built vestry, expanding and transforming the 'look' of a church that hadn't changed that much over the previous four hundred years.

On top of that Thompson agreed that the City could dig a path through the churchyard. After a hundred years, the church only recently agreed to the making of a second path, now in progress. He would have been backed by the church officers and council, a few dozen at the most, among thousands of churchgoers. What did they all think when builders moved in? What did they say? I'm not sure if anyone recorded anything by way of protest or criticism of the Canon's ambitious plans, but I'd love to know.

I just wonder if 'disgusted' of Whitchurch or Roath in those days was overheard by anyone like me or whether people kept their thoughts to themselves and waited to see if they could live with the outcome. Whatever you feel, it's clear that we've been here before, albeit, not on such a grand scale.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Disturbing images

For the past few days, I've had enough time to get on with producing the fourth edition of 'Capital Ideas',a newsletter about the city centre from my viewpoint as an urban missioner. It's a good three months behind schedule, as a result of the extra 'terminal care' demands of the Benefice of Central Cardiff, but my three weeks away from Cardiff did me the world of good. I was able to tackle necessary writing and layout tasks with gusto, and enjoyed the task greatly.

Naturally at this time, when redevelopment work gathers pace, there's much to tell about what's going on, to 'Capital Ideas' readers across the diocese and the city. I'm often out and about with my camera recording visually extraordinary moments (I must find time to get a photo narrative website up and running) and it's irritating to find that when I write about what I've seen, the matching photograph may not be there among the hundreds I've taken. What's eye-catching and what's relevant is not always the same. So, make myself a 'shopping list' of images to match the text I've put together, and try to capture them next time I'm out.

With this as context, it was a co-incidence when, yesterday evening, I was making my way back to church to collect my bicycle for the journey home, when I spotted of one of the demolition machines at work on the Oxford House site - they seem to operate in bouts of activity with long pauses in between - so I stopped to take a photo. It was using its long claw like arm to pick up pieces of wood and metal and deposit them in a giant skip. As I was getting the camera into focus for a shot, it picked up what I soon realised was a tree trunk shorn of its branches, but still attached to its roots.

Earlier in the week a colleague remarked on the sudden disappearance of several trees from the northernmost end of the demolition site. I'd just assumed that a team from the City Parks and Gardens outfit had been in and removed them, perhaps to a better home, since they were healthy well established specimens, not so big that moving them would have caused them serious injury. Now, it was evident that nothing of the kind had happened. Indeed, I noticed that bark had been stripped off the tree trunk in places, in a manner that implied the tree had been dragged from the ground by some machine's powerful claw, swiftly and efficiently.

Now I've seen the master plans, so I know the uprooted trees are to be replaced. I don't recall what if any proposals were made to take out and re-cycle the existing trees that could be removed. I must presume that somebody somewhere evaluated the situation and made a decision based on what would be the most efficient procedure. If they were worth saving and could be saved, somebody more conscientious and capable than I would have insisted on it. So why do I go on about it at length?

In my last posting I mentioned, without knowing anything about the fate of the trees, how demolition machines of this kind (Made by Caterpillar Corporation of Peoria USA) have been used by the Israeli military in Palestine to demolish Arab homes, AND to uproot thousands of olive trees, some of them hundreds of years old.

The sight of an uprooted tree in the grip of a demolition machine outrages me. It reminds me of the proud Palestinian farmers I met when I stayed there two months in 2000, rendered helpless by the violence meted out by both sides to no good purpose, left angry and quietly despairing of humanity. And it only gets worse for them.

These vehicles remain impressive as pieces of modern technology - they show what the machine-human interface can achieve. But, they are tainted by what men, notably armed men do with them in the Holy Land. Destroying homes and communities with them is bad enough, ecocide is another. It's the solemn guarantee that nobody wins.

Invent such capable machines, and somebody will work out how to misuse them. Do the manufacturers ever think of things like that? We can't undo what's been done. Will there be enough future for us to try and change things for the better?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Monster machines at work

Demolition of the Oxford House shopping centre and office block on the Hayes has now begun in earnest with the arrival of even larger machines with even longer articulated arms and threatening looking pincers attached for chewing through walls and girders. The largest of them stands fifteen feet high and can reach up 60-70 feet. Yet their operators can manipulate them with great dexterity and what seems like delicacy in the way they can home in on, and pick up quite a small piece of wood or metal, as well as pull things apart. I was most impressed by one operator who made his machine pick up a long plank right in the middle, and then use it like a broom to push a bizarre mix of concrete and bricks plus polystyrene foam bits in their millions from some discarded insulation material.

If only I could stop myself from thinking about the use of these self-same machines (offspring of the Caterpillar Corporation of Peoria USA) in the Holy Land, where the Israeli Army have been using them to destroy Palestinian Arab homes and uproot olive orchards (deemed a 'security risk'), since long before I was there in 2000.

But, back in Cardiff, at the same time, scaffolders are at work creating temporary platforms up to the highest points of the external surfaces of the buildings, section by section, to allow access to window frames that are to be removed piece by piece. It came as a surprise to see in one of the gutted sections already exposed to the elements, washbasin water pipes hanging off the tiled wall of a toilet, and the hot air drier still there on the wall opposite, probably adjudged not worth recycling.

On the site between Bute Terrace and Bridge Street, cleared before Christmas, where the new John Lewis department store will be constructed, there's now a forest of huge mobile cranes up to two hundred feet in height. Attached to them is specialised core drilling equipment, linked to hydraulic rams, which push cylindrical steel tubes into the ground to a depth of 40 feet or more, as soil is removed. It's an great piece of modern engineering technology, accurate and efficient able to deliver an impressive rate of progress with little noise, compared to the pile drivers of yester-year. Thousands must be inserted around the perimeter in order to contain the empty space which excavation of the basement parking and service areas will produce in the year ahead.

Wherever I can, I take photographs, which I'd like to publish to illustrate what's happening as it happens. Yesterday I met one of the project managers when I was out and about. He told me about the webcam mounted on the roof of the Alto Lusso apartment block on the South side of the site, to give an up to the minute overview to site supervisors. I was told that the URL of this will soon be made public, so that we can all share in watching progress unfold day to day. I hope to be able to bring that link to you soon.

It's pleasing the way some of the workers, when they see the cleric with the camera, enjoy a brief chat when they are taking a break. The older, more experienced ones are quite excited about participating in such a high tech building project. I confess to wondering what they felt about the presence on this site of a ladies', as well as a gents' loo among the stack of portakabins that serves them as office, canteen and stores - just where the checkout in Toys 'R Us used to stand - but I didn't ask.

In the lunch time period, the area is full of guys (and gals too) in hard hats and hi-viz jackets queuing with all the rest to buy lunch, making the most of the fact that it isn't raining at the moment. It makes a change from business suits and overcoats. Retailers, apart from the fast food outlets are noticing the impact on trade, with the downturn in the number of regular shoppers. Yet, it'd like to think that the centre could be flooded by Dads and their offspring at weekends and half terms, all come to see the monster machines in action.

Wales play Ireland this Sunday afternoon. It'll be a huge challenge, not only for the hospitality industry locally, but also for retailers and others hoping to make the sporting event worthwhile to accompanying families as well as fans. The Park and Ride schemes are up and running, but the new surface car park in Adam Street is not yet open to visitors, and won't be until the multi storey parks due for demolition have been officially closed (they have already been deserted by the punters despite being open). As yet there's been no success in getting a shuttle service organised to link the Adam Street parking to the shops, despite a year's worth of calls to ensure this happens. On some fronts, there's impressive progress. On others, it seems very jerky indeed.