Ballymena or in Irish, ‘An Baile Meánach’ meaning, the middle town-land, is a market town in the centre of County Antrim famous for its weekly and annual agricultural markets and fairs. To the north of the town a housing development called Dunclug was constructed in the 1970s in a small town-land of the same name. Building on Ballymena’s standing as a trading town the area became infamous in the 90’s as the heroin dealing capital of the North.
During the troubles Dunclug was one of the largest mixed housing estates in the North of Ireland. Catholics and Protestants lived side by side at almost a 50/50 ratio – a social experiment of integration that made it difficult for paramilitaries to take hold of the space. Perhaps it was this political neutrality that left the community so vulnerable as dealers sought out localities where they could openly sell without paramilitary intimidation or control. By 1999 local police estimated Ballymena had several hundred active heroin users with other users regularly traveling the 27 miles from Belfast to score in the Dunclug and the Doury Road housing estates.
Dunclug was built based loosely on the radburn planning principle conceived by Clarence Stein and Henry Wright and Marjorie Sewell Cautley. Around the world, council estates based on the radburn have become synonymous with high crime and social deprivation. The basic principal of the radburn model was to distance roads and cars from pedestrian pathways. Typically, this involved the creation of cul-de-sacs and parking, servicing the rear of houses with the front of the housing opening on to communal gardens and pathways envisioned to help stimulate community relations. This planning style enabled drug dealers to keep look out on the single entry points of the estate and make quick get aways through the warren of pathways in and out of the communal gardens. This problem was common to many radburn estates, particularly in the North with the on-going Troubles, Police were wary of entering into areas with many cul-de-sacs for fear of being lured into a trap. Even entering the neighbourhood on foot posed a problem – pathways and dense over grown bushes create rat runs, with hundreds of shortcuts and hiding places. Almost every aspect of the urban environment became problematic for the police.
The low-rise flats became the dwellings of choice for the dealers, with stairways and shared entrances making entry difficult but anonymous transactions easy. A 1998 BBC Spotlight documentary captured this system, filming drug transactions taking place in the flats with users posting money in a ground floor post box where upon drugs where dropped from a window one story above. With a misdirected desire to eradicate this problem local authorities decided to take action, demolishing the flats in question. This was a standard response by authorities to remove the ‘cancer’ of drug dealing from the area. This tactic only interrupted the dealers from selling until they could find a new location to set up somewhere else within the boundaries of the estate.
In 2006 Dunclug was ranked as the fourth worst area for crime and disorder in the North of Ireland. The council continued to eliminate dwellings, cut down trees and block off pathways in an attempt to increase surveillance practices and open access to the estate. Yet dealers continued to sell, out in the open, using vacant housing stock, hidden behind hedges, anywhere they could, even protected by their own security cameras implicating these seemingly non-descript landscapes into spaces of tactical menace.
In 2013 the impact of over a decade of social dysfunction is revealed through the visible fragmentation of the estate, a shell of its former layout, now full of strange empty voids crisscrossed by poorly lit footpaths, high security fencing and overgrown gardens. The estate is policed from the verges, as if to contain this dysfunction. Its short life has been complex; it is the invisible other, beginning as a sectarian free community, its neutrality leading to vulnerability, descending the estate into chaos, physically collapsing under the weight of its deep seeded social problems.
These photographs are an encounter with the Garden Estate, following the labyrinth of footpaths and rat runs, dead ends and cul-de-sacs, reflecting the tensions and social complexities of council estates found on the edges of many towns and cities, these open dark spaces are the residual landscapes of what is left behind, like contaminated brown field zones they sit dormant as a testament to the failures of the police and local authorities that govern them.