A mile away, but miles apart

Sat, Aug 4, 2012, 01:00

Dublin's Gasworks building has the highest rate of employment in the State; Gardiner Street the highest rate of unemployment. ROSITA BOLANDwalks the short distance across the Liffey between the two, and uncovers a tale of two cities

‘GOOGLE LAND’, DUBLIN 4

THE FIRST THING you notice about the Gasworks Buildings apartment complex by Grand Canal Dock in Dublin is the striking absence of even the smallest piece of litter. The blinding white paintwork on the complex walls is graffiti-free. The many carefully-tended flowerbeds and lawns are spiked with cheery signs that implore variously, “No Playing in the Flowerbeds!”, “No Ball Games”, “Keep off the Plants” and “No Smoking”. This, it seems, is an orderly community.

It is also a community that this week provided a striking finding in the Central Statistics Office’s (CSO) small area population statistics data. They showed that 94 per cent of residents of one of the apartment buildings in this complex were in employment; the highest percentage in the State.

The Gasworks complex fronts on to Barrow Street, which used to be best known as a film location site, and for the Factory studio space. That was before Google arrived. While there are other large companies nearby – Facebook, BT, and the corporate law firm, Mason, Hayes Curran, which is on Barrow Street itself – this compact area between Grand Canal Dart station and the top of Barrow Street has become unofficially known as Google Land. The flagship 210 apartment building, the former gasworks itself, sold in June for €40 million, and it was reported at the time that 80 per cent of the apartments are rented to Google employees.

When you have spent some time wandering round the area, you slowly become aware of something less obvious than the lack of litter and pristine urban flowerbeds. It is the fact that every person who comes into view on the street, whether darting out of Eurospar, striding briskly through the Gasworks complex, or coming out of a building, is wearing a plastic identity tag or swipe card somewhere on their person. These tags usually mean one thing: you’re an employee.

Des O’Toole, a contractor for Google, is taking five minutes outside a building for a cigarette. “I think the reason this area developed the way it did rather than the Gardiner Street area is that business development in the northside only got as far as the IFSC,” he says. “There wasn’t the land anywhere else.”

“Look at all the taxis,” says Chris Logan, who works in one of the offices on the street. There’s a rank outside one of the Google buildings, and an overflow of taxis on the opposite side of the street, awaiting to cross over and enter the rank. “They’re always there, and they wouldn’t be there without fares.”

Taxi driver Christopher Igbokwe is at the top of the rank, awaiting a fare. “This is a very busy rank,” he confirms. “Especially from Friday lunchtimes. They are the airport fares. I take people working at Google to the airport who tell me they are going home for the weekend, to Germany, France, Belgium, Spain. It’s Google and all the ancillary operations that provide the employment here: the catering, cleaning, security, maintenance and all the other bits and pieces.”

Nicola Scullion, manager of Meagher’s Pharmacy, breaks off our conversation to attend to a customer. The customer, who has a Spanish accent and an ID tag, is complaining of a problem with her ears after a flight the previous day. “We are never not busy,” says Scullion. Then she considers. “It’s usually busier than now, but that’s because it’s August and the builders have started their builders’ holidays. They’ll be gone now for a few weeks.”

She points across the street to a Google building, where the builders have gone on holidays. “Builders’ holidays! You don’t hear that expression in Ireland too often these days,” she says with a laugh.

Scullion has worked in the pharmacy for a year, and makes a point of relating how consistently clean and crime-free the area is. The enormous and well-stocked Eurospar that anchors the street sells produce you don’t routinely see in inner city groceries. There is, for instance, an olive bar. There are six different kinds of olives on sale, at €18 a kilo; among them, chilli with coriander, garlic and thyme, and stuffed pepper. There’s also a designated aisle, branded “Dinner to Go”, filled with pre-prepared food, including a smoked salmon and tarragon quiche made by a company whose slogan on the box declares, “Lovely Food for Lovely People”.

“I work here but live beside Christchurch. There couldn’t be a bigger contrast,” says an employee who explains she can’t give her name as the company she works for has a policy of not permitting its staff to speak to the media; a line echoed by several others. “Around Christchurch, places keep opening and closing all the time. Here, they open and they stay open.”

A Google employee who has worked in Barrow Street for several years says he is not surprised at the high levels of employment in the Gasworks apartment complex. “I’ve seen Google increase in size roughly 10 times since I started working here,” he says. “The area is kind of like a campus, in that you live in one of those buildings and walk across the road to work. The community is transient; people are always coming and going from other countries. So they’ll rent, not buy. They’re often young and single; people at the beginning of their careers, and don’t have families, so apartment living suits them.”

Gordon Street, an old established street with one-storey cottages and redbrick two up, two down houses, runs off Barrow Street. Residents can see the Gasworks complex and the Google buildings from their upstairs windows. One of them is Aoife Cunningham, who is not surprised to hear of the employment levels in the complex her house overlooks. “You’d have to have a job to be able to afford to rent one of those apartments,” she points out. She laughs when asked if she thinks there is 94 per cent employment among the residents on her street. “Most people here are unemployed, or on the dole. And the rest are pensioners.” Cunningham is currently looking for a job.

GARDINER STREET, DUBLIN 1

IF YOU WALK briskly, you can go from one end of Gardiner Street to the other, about a mile, in 15 minutes. It runs from the Custom House on the quays to Dorset Street in the north inner city. It’s one of Dublin’s oldest planned streets, and is named in three sections, Upper, Middle and Lower, with Mountjoy Square at the halfway point.

Gardiner Street, along with adjoining Sherrard Street, has the highest level of unemployment in the State. The CSO data released this week from the 2011 Census found that six in 10 people living there were unemployed.

Gardiner Street and Barrow Street: the two streets are in the same city, but tell vastly different stories.

Lower Gardiner Street, which is close to Busáras, Connolly Station and departure points for ferries, has long been dense with BBs and small hotels; among them the Anchor, Chelsea, Durban, Hazel Brook, City Manor, Adelphi, Avondale, and O’Shea’s.

Some, like the Holyhead B B, have been in business for more than a century. “I’m the current lease holder,” explains Shane Campbell, whose grandmother once ran the premises. The 1901 census shows there were 15 people in the house that night, among them commercial travellers, bookkeepers, a butcher, draper, and cook. There are still 15 rooms for rent, and the previous night, they had been occupied by guests from France, Spain, China and Italy.

Terry Hanna is the third generation of his family to own and run Tops in Pops, a grocery and vegetable shop, which first opened in 1931. Every item in the meticulously tidy shop is carefully labelled with prices that rarely exceed €3. There are shelves with big jars of bottled carrots and tins of marrowfat peas, and there are also boxes of fresh produce.

“I started working here in 1988, when this was the only shop on this part of the street. There were no apartments here then.”

Much of Middle Gardiner Street is now filled in with apartment complexes built during the boom, including Custom Hall and Gandon Hall.

“The biggest difference are the customers. In 1988, all of them were Irish. Now I have Chinese, Polish, Latvian, Africans, and Irish, of course.”

Hanna observes that the fact so many young people locally – “especially fellas” – drop out of education at an early age has a direct impact on the numbers unemployed in the area. “During the day, you would see kids in the shop or out and about who should be at school.”

The CSO data also revealed that the Gardiner Street/Sherrard Street area had the lowest education levels in the State, with eight in 10 people recording only primary-school education, or lower secondary.

DID Electrical has long been at its distinctive corner site opposite Mountjoy Square. Manager Bob Farrell first worked at the branch a decade ago, and moved back there 18 months ago. “Most of what we sell here in this branch is paid for by social welfare; washing machines for example,” he explains. “This area was always an employment black spot in Dublin. It’s always been a rough area. The lack of education is, I think, part of the legacy of the drug explosion in the 1980s. It affected a lot of people round here, and it must have affected their kids somewhere along the line. What I see around us here is a lot of people just surviving from day to day, money-wise, food-wise.”

The farther up Gardiner Street you walk, the more rundown it appears. Many of the original Georgian houses are derelict or in disrepair. A long stretch of street has scores of sacks of household rubbish illegally dumped on the pavement, each stickered with warnings of fines from Dublin City Council.

John Fagan, now retired, has lived on Gardiner Street all his life. As we stand on the street talking, the smell of marijuana emanates from a nearby open window. “The unemployment has always been the same on this street,” he says. “I first noticed it when I was 14 or 15 and trying to get my first job. Back then, I gave my aunt’s address on my job application because I knew I wouldn’t get an interview otherwise. I don’t think it would be the same now.”

Fagan’s daughter has completed a university degree, and is about to embark on a master’s programme. “I heard on the radio about this street having the highest unemployment in Ireland. I was wondering how many people in Gardiner Street are in a position to be looking for work, because they’re mostly foreign nationals living here now, and not what we call local Dubliners.”

The Hill 16 pub has been in business in one form or another since 1850. There are photographs of Jack Charlton on the walls, and images of sporting events. For the last 25 years, Hill 16 has been owned by Mayo-born Tom O’Connor. “I’m not surprised to hear those unemployment figures,” he admits. “I am afraid that if unemployment continues for the next two or three years that this area will be in severe trouble.”

He repeats this sentence during the conversation. “In the boom, a lot of the men had jobs in construction and now they’re all unemployed. If you have a lot of young people in an area with no work – that’s not good. There is already a lot of petty crime on the street; phones and handbags being snatched, car windows being broken, that kind of thing.”

O’Connor says he had noticed the atmosphere changing on the street in the last couple of years. “There is a huge non-national population living round here, and I’ve noticed a slight undercurrent of anti...of anti...” He hesitates. “You’re talking racism,” O’Connor eventually says in a whisper, his face contorted. “You hear people shouting things to other people on the street.”

O’Connor also speaks movingly of increased cases of suicide locally in the last year, including several people known personally to him.

“It’s young and old. Young and old. What this area needs now is a little bit of hope. I don’t know where it will come from because the whole country is looking for it, but a little bit of hope is what’s needed in this area.”

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