GOVANHILL on Glasgow’s Southside is an area used to being noticed. But in the last week and a half, it has been attracting attention on its own terms with the third Govanhill International Festival and Carnival.

In recent years the area has featured in headlines in right-wing papers waxing lyrically about ‘Govanhell’, their concern for social issues and inner-city poverty only emerging when Nicola Sturgeon, local MSP, became First Minister.

Govanhill has always been about change and, throughout its history, subject to waves of immigration and incomers – the Irish, Jews, Pakistanis, and most recently, Roma. In each period, people arriving to make the area their home have faced challenges, discrimination, prejudice and racism.

The latest arrivals like all before them brought forth a variety of responses – some friendly, some nervous, some not so friendly, and some outright hostile. Such has been the human reaction to immigration since the dawning of time.

Govanhill has entered its latest phase of change in the last couple of years, and one unexpected by many. It has become a place of arrival for many young people who have brought a new energy and vitality to the area, along with hosts of ethical and ecological businesses, social enterprises, and voluntary initiatives.

One project which has been going for several years but in the last year has opened shop-front premises on Govanhill’s main street, Victoria Road, is Rags to Riches, an upcycling social enterprise run by Nadine Gorency, known as "Blanche" to everyone. The shop is, she says, "a new way of doing business, producing and manufacturing". "We take risks", she states, "to see potential – in working with a great bunch of people in a way hopefully inspiring for others."

A new initiative that opened in the past two weeks is the Outwith Agency, set up by Natalie Whittle on Albert Road – a place for writers, creatives and people looking for a space without distraction. Whittle’s vision is “to create a writing environment that is soothing and a little bit sociable at the same time”.

Numerous enterprises have acted as catalysts for the change in the area – Bakery 47 who came and went the organic food store Locavore, and the MILK Café on Victoria Road. Govanhill now even boasts its own independent music shop, Some Great Reward, and LGBT bookshop, Category IS Books.

The National: Govanhill Gala ParadeGovanhill Gala Parade

MILK was set up in 2015 by Gabrielle Cluness and Angela Ireland, according to Ireland with the aim of creating “a welcoming community in a café where refugees and migrant women can gain critical skills and knowledge ... the transferable skills you can get while working in a café, but even more than that, confidence and social skills”.

Ireland reflects on four years of running a café which is thriving and has expanded its activities every year. She observes that “the women who work here often come from cultures of hospitality” that we have lost in many parts of the UK and that “a lot of people feel that MILK is like coming into a warm living room”.

One of the most pronounced characteristics of Govanhill is its significant social media presence, with numerous prominent Facebook pages debating different aspects of local life. One of the best known is Govanhill Go!, currently administered by Marian McSeveney and which now has over 3,000 members.

The group was established by people “who wanted a bit more positivity online about the area they lived in, something that wasn’t all disrepair, rats and rubbish”, says McSeveney. Instead, they wanted to show a different face “to celebrate the diversity, community, beautiful architecture, quirky shops and an unparalleled range of food available”.

For years many of the most distinctive positive features of Govanhill sometimes led people to feel defensive or reticent. At an event on Friday night to launch the first-ever Govanhill Book Festival (which I was involved in organising), chaired by journalist Catriona Stewart, one resident talked of Victoria Road as “one of the nicest boulevards in the city” and then compared it to Barcelona but admitted that the area had “nae Gaudi”.

THE area faces numerous challenges – pressures on housing, problems with fly-tipping, rubbish and bins, and stretched public services. Annie Macfarlane, chair of Govanhill Housing Association, takes the view that “the quality of some housing in the privately rented sector is particularly poor, which has been well publicised, and this has a knock-on impact on other housing providers, homeowners and the community.”

David McGuire, fire officer for the area, grew up in Govanhill and was born in Butterbiggins Road. He reflects through the community outreach work that his service does that “there isn’t a lot of mixing going on. It is the kids I work with. Many of the Roma kids already have a wee Scottish sense of humour.”

The National: Govanhill Gala ParadeGovanhill Gala Parade

Romano Lav is an inspiring project working with the local Roma community and in typical Govanhill spirit has organised the first-ever Roma film festival in the UK, CineRoma, coming shortly. Rahela Cirpaci, who works with Romano Lav, is originally from Belgium, came to Govanhill via Ireland, and now runs language classes teaching Romani: “When I was smaller I was always angry that there was no one teaching Romanes.

"I found this opportunity that I can teach Romanes, I thought this is an amazing idea. Nobody’s doing it – and I can do it.”

The sense of home and belonging is important and something many see as one of the most affirming aspects of life in Govanhill. ‘Blanche’ has lived 28 years in the Southside after growing up in Paris and makes a bold statement that “the only place in Scotland I have felt at home as a black woman is Govanhill”.

Recent changes, perceptions and expectations may not be the whole picture but they raise numerous questions about whether people living in Govanhill believe it is going in the right direction, and how they assess that?

The answers to such questions aren’t straightforward. It entails talking about local politics, the role of the council, years of cuts at a local and national level, how consultation is done, and how genuine local conversations are held – something in which the Housing Association are active, along with numerous public services and projects like Romano Lav.

Catriona Stewart comments that perception is a big issue in this. “Any positive news story I write about Govanhill inevitably leads to someone commenting that I must never have been there when I have lived here for years.”

In certain small sections of Govanhill, any good news is challenged as ‘fake news’, while others feel any negative news is talking the area down. Sound familiar? But it does feel acute when brought down to a local area.

There are many Govanhills, just as there are many Glasgows and Scotlands, each with their own right to be heard.

A starting point would be to agree with mutual respect and civility towards differing opinions, something which doesn’t always happen in the world of social media or beyond.

Marian McSeveney of ‘Govanhill Go!’ notes that “There has been conflict in recent years in the community about who has the right to be the ‘authentic’ voice of Govanhill”.

There are many authentic voices, but people cannot deny the positive changes going on while recognising that there are many future challenges.

Something has changed in Govanhill these last few years.

The inspiring example of Govanhill Baths – the 18-year campaign which refused to lie down and accept the council closure of their Edwardian baths, leading to the transfer of this asset to the community, through which it will be owned by thousands of local people – has been a catalyst to further change.

The area feels different with the main street, Victoria Road, buzzing, and lots of the side roads beginning to have a similar feel.

McSeveney believes something profound has shifted: “The most optimistic change for me is there’s now demand to live here, a sense of optimism and a confidence about the place even though we haven’t found the silver bullet solution to some of the really difficult issues.” But she says, pausing: ‘It feels like that energy is starting to make a difference’.