GLASGOW – Many call central squares the heart of a city, but George Square in Glasgow bleeds. The square’s violent and tumultuous past filled with riots and protests continues into the Occupied world of today.
The roughly 11,000 m2 square is bordered by by an eclectic mix of 18th and 19th century buildings, including the impressive City Chambers, home of Glasgow City Council since 1888.
The space is filled with benches and seats for visitors, with several fixtures dotting the landscape, including some small shrubby trees and two large stone lions in the area leading up to the city chambers.
Recently a ferris wheel was put on the side opposite the chambers to give visitors a sky-high view of central Glasgow (for roughly 4€ a ticket).
There are statues that dot the perimeter; bronzed depictions of Scottish historical figures like poet Robert Burns and inventor James Watt.
The mix of history and public space and imposing architecture is typical of
many squares in modern Europe, offering a central meeting point for both locals and tourists.
But beneath the fresh-looking pavement, George Square’s history has scars, including many fresh ones.
The square, named after King George III, was originally developed along with Glasgow’s city centre in 1781. For many years, it was a muddy pit used for public waste. As Glasgow’s prosperity grew, so did the squares fortunes, becoming a private garden for the new houses that were emerging in the area. Eventually the square was made public, around the same time the city chambers were completed, according to Glasgow City Council’s website.
As a new public space, George Square became the home of rallies and meetings for Glaswegians. The most infamous of which took place on 31 Jan. 1919, Black Friday, where more than 60,000 shipbuilders and engineers gathered in support of a 40-hour work week.
Things quickly turned violent due to underlying fears of a Bolshevik uprising and the British military was sent to Glasgow to qualm the riot. Tanks and soldiers with machine guns patrolled the streets of central Glasgow, marking a dark time in Scotland’s social history.
The late 90s saw further controversy as Glasgow City Council voted to give George Square a facelift – without consulting the public – that saw much of the square’s grasses, trees and flowerbeds uprooted, an act that directed public anger towards then-city council leader Frank McAveety.
“We can’t deny that the public were not told about the work,” McAveety told the
Daily Record in 1998. “We regret the inconvenience the work has caused but the surface of the square needed upgrading.”
The renovations left George Square in its present state, with red tarmac now covering a large portion of the former greenspace.
In January 2012, two designers launched an online campaign titled Restore George Square, aimed at pressuring Glasgow City Council to remaking the square in its former image.
They say that the current uses of George Square don’t fit their idea of what a central square should be.
“We do not think that the events and businesses that use this space add anything lasting to the city centre,” the group wrote in an email. “We would argue that the transient nature of the use of this space is not worth the sacrifice of greenspace and putting up with a drab void when there is nothing there.”
The group asked local politicians about their parties plans for the square before May’s city council elections, with Gordon Matheson, leader of the winning Labour Party, laying out a clear mandate for the square:
“I can give a clear commitment that Labour will revamp and completely refurbish George Square. This will ensure that we have a public space fit for the 21st century,” he wrote to Restore George Square’s website.
However, not all feel the campaign for the square is well-conceived. Former city council member Alex Glass wrote a response to Restore George Square, asking who exactly the square should be restored for.
“I am in George Square most days and I don’t see lots of unhappy people not using and appreciating the Square,” he says. “There are lots of people both passing through and stopping to enjoy the open space.”
With all 3 city council parties in favour of developing the square as part of central Glasgow’s Merchant City makeover, discussion over the red square’s future will be as big as the discussion over its past.