Chinese Playground, 1980

Between 1955–85 an estimated 6,050 private houses were demolished in Smethwick. The wholesale demolition of Victorian terraces and back to backs led to the development of high rise tower blocks and ‘concrete jungles’ locally, this ‘Brutalist’ architecture bringing a host of new problems. Pictured here, the so-called ‘Chinese Playground’ in Grove Lane was not really a playground. It was designed as a car park, albeit one originally planned to be four storeys rather than two, for the convenience of motorists who would occupy new high-density townhouses. The lower walls were constructed of brickwork, topped with rectangular panels of reinforced concrete bearing abstract geometric designs. These various motifs were not actually oriental, but apparently based on castings from a handbook of dentistry.

This car park, in our urban imagined future, was barely used – it would be another decade before more than 50% of households in the borough even owned a car. This was an area with high levels of vandalism and crime, soon dubbed by the Smethwick News Telephone as ‘Horror storeys’. Local kids called the two levels Little China and Big China and before long the council installed a slide and a roundabout. With a large patch of grass adjacent, it was a convenient space to park the Jubilee Bus and start a summer programme of play activity. Soon they began to redecorate the walls of this former car park with murals designed in a comic strip style.

Here we see one of the members of Jubilee, Steve Trow, talking to the kids, some of whom are wearing strange animal like masks. Notice the two girls on the right, almost an echo of the ghostly twins in the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, released only the year before. One of the murals can be seen to the left of this image.

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