Elysian Fields and Capitalist Vultures

Ominously a wrecking crane swings past my window. There to tear down another mistake-in this case the 1960s Colquitt Street College-an ugly example of the past, now surplus to requirements and unfit for conversion.

In its place will rise ‘Elysian Fields’ – named after the resting place of the gods in Greek myth. A moniker that may be a little over the top for what is just yet another one of the many identikit blocks of apartments that are springing up around Liverpool. And it’s symptomatic of everything that is happening in the city centre today.

Originally from the stix on the edge of the city, I’m now lucky to live right in the heart of town – and in somewhere remarkably cheap – as Liverpool celebrates its year as the European Capital of Culture. However, things are changing at an astonishing rate and my digs will probably not remain in my income bracket for much longer.

Every time I leave the house it is a step into the middle of the frantic pace of change. Every day another half-decayed house is surrounded by scaffolding, or a former scrap of wasteland masquerading as a car-park gets a billboard promising a future light and airy block. Walk past a building one day and by the next it will have disappeared. A street that you can get down on Monday will be, by Wednesday, roped off as behind it a white tower crane and another framework of grey and crimson girders rises up-Because all modern buildings look the same on the inside.

There is a palpable sense that the very fabric of the city is being transformed, and it is both frightening and exciting in equal measure. Every part of the town center from the waterfront to cheap shopping area of London Road, from the business district to the edge of Everton, from the cultural quarter of Hope Street to where I live, an area now marketed as ‘The Ropewalks’. By the time I’d first began to hang around this part of town a few years back, its former grandeur had long since succumbed to the passage of time and the pace of change. In all its variety, it was crumbling and semi-derelict. This meant low-rents, and so many of the buildings found new lives as artists studios, independent shops and markets, not to mention some of the best clubs and venues in the city nestling next to the odd traditional business clinging on; from sign writers to drinks wholesalers.

Despite its artistic community the area remained unpretentious, anywhere with so many lock-up garages had to be. The buildings, even as they began to rot, had their decaying brickwork buried under a healthy covering of fly posters, graffiti and the slow reclamation of nature as green growth poked through every crack. The area was falling down, no one can deny that, but it had a great variety of life in it. With Liverpool’s slow economic renaissance – and the rise in the fashion of inner-city living in Britain – some wealthier people began to move into this slightly ‘bohemian’ area and a few apartment blocks sprang up. They were praised – these flats where usually conversions, saving buildings that would have otherwise collapsed.

Their occupants were no doubt attracted to an extent by the rough charm of the area and its rich heritage. The area once housed some of the city’s richest merchants, it contained the city’s first library, and was before that it was an important industrial area, were rope was made – hence, ‘Ropewalks’.

One site in the area, my current home, is the former Royal Institution building on Colquitt Street. This organization was founded by poet, anti-slavery campaigner and businessman William Roscoe in order to bring art and learning to the giant industrial city Liverpool had become by the 1850s; Liverpool University was later to emerge from this. Before that the building had been the home and warehouse of Thomas Parr, the merchant who built it in 1799. It is a unique surviving example of this kind of structure in the UK, it is grade II listed and was a key building listed in Liverpool’s successful bid to become a World Heritage Site of UNESCO. In addition to hosting my digs it is also home to two nightclubs, Barfly and Bar Fresa, thus making it probably one of the few World Heritage Sites to have its own disco.

This sort of unpretentious mixture of rich heritage and modern life in the area is what made it special. But with Liverpool’s resurgence via regeneration, and the subsequent rise in property prices which was massively speeded up by it winning the title of European Capital of Culture for 2008, I wonder how long, I, or people like me, can afford to sleep, drink, dance and work around here.

With the mass of new property being constructed, the city is being cleaned up. The cracks and weeds and graffiti and posters are disappearing, as are the clubs and studios. Replaced by new buildings; for the most part those ‘Elysian Fields’ style apartments with a restaurant/cocktail bar at the base. Over and over again the same mediocre, foursquare structures are repeated, with only different balcony railings to distinguish them if at all. Some older buildings are retained, those with ‘character’, to be converted for similar uses.

The wild reclaiming growth coming out the buildings is replaced by neat but emaciated looking trees in metal-containers. And in between the flats, desolate squares are created complete with imitation marble and uncomfortable benches. Skinny saplings and asymmetric paving may look good in scale models and artist’s impressions but these soulless, dead spaces remain conspicuously empty throughout the day save for the odd homeless alcoholic or skateboarder. People would rather eat their pasties on nearby dirty, busy Bold Street.

One development in particular, the ‘East Village Private Estate’ on Duke Street, must rank as one of the most depressing sites in the city. Its gray apartments surround a dank square, with a pathetic fountain at its center. Hard wired with CCTV everywhere and covered with PRIVATE PROPERTY. CHILDREN MUST BE ACCOMPIANED NO DOGS. NO CYCLING OR SKATEBOARDING signs. It is a bleak place even in the sunshine, even the residents of the building hardly ever sit there. The East Village is actually quite lucky in one respect in that at its base it has restaurants. Many of these blocks simply have un-let, boarded-up voids under them. And with their secure underground parking, razor-wire topped gates and balconies far above the street below they give a sense of being cut off from the street, and the city, and life. This side of Liverpool is becoming a city of straight lines and security measures.

Just across the road however there is a different prospect, showing the city is still at the point of change. It is a row of decaying buildings full of cracked windows. But at its center is the WAH SING CHINESE COMMUNITY CENTRE, while next door is The Big Issue Liverpool office, both with their varying mix of punters usually floating about outside keep some life in the area. But how long will they all be able to stay where they are with the rising rents? The redevelopment now approaches the 1980s social housing between Chinatown and the waterfront with its small community and own schools. Will they too one day find themselves moved on as the land the homes were built on, once virtually worthless, rises?

‘The Ropewalks’ is just one area, but the same story is being repeated all over the city. Slow, organic change has been overtaken at an astonishing rate by mass re-development.  Down on Princess dock, once home of the Irish sea ferries, more new offices and flats are being put up right next to Liverpool’s famous waterfront buildings. Walking around there the thing that you notice-other than how crap the buildings look in comparison to the adjacent famous ‘three graces’-is the silence. There’s nothing above the wind and the vague hum of the air conditioners in the area, despite the fact that so many people live and work there. Another dead space, symptomatic of much of the inner-city regeneration in the UK. Anyone who has spent time in the regenerated docklands of Manchester or Glasgow will attest that even though the imaginative post-modern museums, galleries and flats that fill these spaces look nice sunlit in two-page spreads in The Guardian, in the flesh they seem desolate, cold and patchy, with dereliction still visible just on the edge of the picture.

Not only is much of the new city cut-off, cold and dead, but a lot of it is no more than a façade. I have mentioned the tellingly empty shops under the apartments before and even many of the flats themselves remain un-let. The new cocktail bars and restaurants often close quietly not long after they are launched in blazes of glory, though the local media and dignitaries that were there at the opening are conspicuously absent as the bailiffs move in. And, with the world economy seemingly in downturn, how much more growth can be expected in expensive shops and restaurants?

The key thing at the moment is creating a new image of the city rather than a new city. Liverpool’s administrators are keen to have the city seen as go-ahead place to do business and therefore move it firmly away from the stereotypical 1980s images of militancy, strikes and despair that were only partially consigned to the dustbin with the Capital of Culture win, and that even today dog the city to an extent. But sometimes it is getting forgotten that the city is still not as wealthy as it appears on the surface. Image is important, but there must be something underneath if it is to be sustained. Whilst the new buildings themselves often have a look of being temporary and cheap, flimsy facades hung off steel frames, with the distinct impression given off that they could fall down as quickly as they are rising up.

But perhaps I’m getting a little too Joni Mitchell here-luxury apartments replacing parking lots. It’s easy to be cynical. Things are far from all bad in the Liverpool, and many new developments such as the new arena on the waterfront and the FACT multimedia complex have both been welcomed with open arms. Even some of the flats, cocktail bars and chic offices of graphic design companies have been single-handedly responsible for saving fine, old buildings that were on the slow, painful road to collapse while the council dithered. Much too has been learned from the mistakes of the past, and Liverpool’s last great re-development in the 1960s when vast swathes of the city were demolished at the behest of planners’ grand designs-to many peoples eternal regret. Actions such as the saving of the well-known biker’s pub The Swan-now sandwiched loud and proud between a luxury apartment block and the FACT center, jukebox blaring out. By the same token we are also seeing some the atrocious 1960s and 70s structures that litter Liverpool being torn down; few people lament the loss the Duke Street multi-storey car-park, the Moat House hotel or the Paradise Street bus station.

These changes have also had a strangely positive effect on artists in Liverpool.  Many can scarcely believe that after so many years of stagnation that the city is changing so fast. It is impossible to ignore and for all the artists in the city, from musicians to photographers, it is a subject that many feel compelled to discuss; much as many of Liverpool’s creative people in the 1980s could not help but be influenced by the decline of the city.

Art is often at its best when it is reacting against something and in the wake of these disliked developments and the Capital of Culture win promoting principally the more marketable aspects of culture, a reaction against it has been created and a definite counter-culture has emerged, causing a wholesale examination of what exactly this ‘culture’ thing is. And I can’t imagine that if any other city in Britain had won this title that this would have happened.

One example would be Mercy, an award winning fanzine and independent artistic collective. It had humble beginnings, originally founded by a couple of art students as a way of getting their work noticed. But on its arrival in 2002 it inadvertently became the focal point of a reaction against the creation of the image of the shiny, clean, new Liverpool; a good place to do business populated by well-mannered, educated people. Mercy pointed out that the homeless alchy’s who hang around the Bargain Booze on Hardman Street are as much of a part of the culture of Liverpool as the art-deco Philharmonic Hall up the road. There have been many other reactions. A punk band night was formed under the banner ‘City of Capitalist Vultures’. Massive campaigns were mounted to save the Quiggins alternative shopping complex, the Parr Street Recording Studios and The Flying Picket music venue that were all threatened by new developments, meaning that Parr Street Studios was saved from closure and alternative premises were found for the other two.

And maybe as the city moves into the future it is simply returning to the old. ‘The Ropewalks’ was once home to Liverpool’s wealthy merchant class in the nineteenth century, so why not in the 21st century its wealthy new-media class? The urbane, sophisticated businessmen and women: those who like to eat sushi, buy paintings and attend the theatre. To simply be against these kinds of people or having private apartments in general is nothing more than inverted snobbery. Let them have their apartment blocks with silly, pretentious names. All major cities have these kinds of people, and what many artists find it hard to admit is that it is often these ‘bourgeoisie’ with their spare cash and time help to keep theatres and galleries in business, however unfashionable that may be.

It is also true that it is important for the whole life of the city for it to have successful businesses, because without a strong economic engine underneath, everything else falls apart-as Liverpool found in the 1980s. So it is also daft to be totally anti-business and anti-development. Indeed the buildings that symbolize Liverpool, the famous ‘three graces’ on the waterfront, are all palaces of commerce; insurance, shipping and docks respectively. Not to mention the fact that much of the city’s fine public buildings – from St Georges Hall to the Central Library, Walker Art Gallery and Sefton Park – were all paid for by private capitalist benefactors in their day.

But therein lies the problem.

Because most of Liverpool’s previous wealthy residents, the patrons of arts and charities and benefactors of public palaces quickly buggered off when the going got tough and the city ceased to be a profitable place to live. They abandoned their houses and business and distanced themselves from the city they had once proudly run, leaving only those who could not afford to go behind to try and rebuild something.

So the empty warehouses and homes were turned into markets and studios and clubs and some new life rose out of what was left to rot. But now Liverpool is again, to an extent, a profitable place to be, and the indigenous and independent culture that survived, created by those who stuck by the city and kept the heart of it alive, is being pushed aside and forgotten in the rush to bring in the money. This fiercely independent culture of the city, that stood the years of knocks and ridicule, the culture that made the forgotten ‘Ropewalks’ fashionable, is being pushed out to the fringes again and potentially crushed in a desperate, grasping attempt by the city to become accepted. The strong willed Liverpool that is being lost, though at times arrogant and self-important, was nevertheless honest. But now the city that once defied central government and tried to take on the world (people forget that the dockers strike of a few years ago managed to cripple half the ports in the world before its collapse) now seeks the simpering approval of the South East and the tourist Dollar.

Of course this is not unique to Liverpool. The same thing happens the world over, form New York to London, once an area becomes a fashionable and desirable place it immediate begins to lose something of what made it that way. And there is always that nagging thought; is this brave new luxury apartment filled world is still better than riots, dereliction, despair, ridicule?

Perhaps. But we may find out to late that there was actually more life in Liverpool 1 when it was decaying. Maybe what is being created will become resented as being dead and soulless, the money will leave just as quickly as it came and once again it will be up to those left behind to start again. As much as I hope it won’t, it may come to pass that this new dawn for Liverpool will just be another mistake that we will have to tear down.

By Kenn Taylor