St Mellons is a large housing estate South East of Cardiff. Partnered with Trowbridge the bordering estate, this district has 14,801 people living there making it the 4th most populated area in Cardiff.
Its main areas consist of a Tesco shopping complex and a boarded up retail unit once a Hyper Value and Kwik Save. Within the Tesco shopping complex a warren of smaller businesses and a community centre and library.
In 1993 St Mellons hit the news. John Redwood (Welsh Secretary of state) came to the estate and released a damning report. A Guardian article documented (Toynbee, P 2013) him brandishing St Mellons as a den of female vice.
St Mellons was a place, Redwood said, where there was "no presumption in favour of creating a loving family background". he said that "the assumption is that the illegitimate child is a passport to a council flat". The single mother is "married to the state". If the father cannot be found, grandparents should be made to pay or adoption be considered. The welfare state was offering "incentives to entice young women to become mothers before their time".
This was his story of St Mellons, mine of course was very different.
I grew up in St Mellons and my family still live there today. We were actually one of the first families to live on the estate when it was first built, my mum so proud of getting a house for us would drill it into us how lucky we were.
I grew up in a single parent family my mother worked three jobs to keep food on the table and clothes on our backs. She never saw us go without but of course things weren’t easy bringing up three kids alone. My brother left school without GCSEs and at 16 was signed up to the navy and sent to Bosnia, my sister worked abroad.
We were fortunate to have a library on our estate, a place of sanctuary, somewhere for us to go, something we could do without money. I spent most of my time in the library getting lost in books. It was these years that taught me how important culture is to communities like mine.
The street we lived in was full of kids. My childhood was spent playing games in the street, old games that got handed down and new ones we made up by ourselves. My street was designed for playing in, gardens to hide in, lampposts, gullies and subways surrounded my house – it was perfect for us. We had space to play and we had a community around us that gave us freedom to do just that, storytelling was a massive part of our playing. I used to dress kids up and put on plays in my garden inviting parents to come and watch. Culture and art was part of our everyday.
The impact of that legacy was huge. The story that Redwood told people about us was hard to shake off.
St Mellons Youth Centre Workshop
The workshop takes place in St Mellons youth centre where I used to go as a kid. It is opposite the Tesco’s in the heart of the estate and manned by two youth workers employed by Cardiff Council. I’m surprised that nothing has changed in the 18 years since I was last here. The furniture, the walls, the posters all the same.
I meet with a group of girls in the small TV room. The walls are painted social worker yellow, there are bars on the windows and everything in the room looks damaged or broken. The girls are restless but they sit with me. Between the distractions we talk about life in St Mellons and what class means to them.
They talk about what they do with their time, how they’re treated by the police, the school and what they’d like to do if they get the chance. One says I want to be an archaeologist another a make -up artist. She shows me pictures on her phone of make -up she has done on her friends they tell me they tell me how those things feel out of reach. For us there’s nowhere to go and there’s nothing to do.
I talk to them about the arts (which feels weird because why should they care). I ask them if they’ve been to a theatre before, they haven’t but they would they would if they could afford it, if there was something good on. No one’s invited them though.
It feels inappropriate to record it feels intrusive, so I don’t.
Outside we meet more young people, we talk about art and hear the same story from them. They would like to be more involved, maybe go and see something but they don’t know where to go and how to get there. I ask them who they think art is for and what they think art is. It’s for Boris Johnson they say. I laugh. It sums it up.
I arrange to re-visit the centre the following week to have a session with the girls to see what we could do together. The following week I return but the girls are not there. I wait but no one knows anything. The key contact doesn’t return my calls. I find out from another worker that she’s off sick because of stress.
This is the first set of contradictions that I have found. A group of young people excluded from participating in creativity – lack of provision, support and engagement - has left these young people with the bare bones of a community centre and not much else.