Tobacco Warehouses, Wind Factories and Ten Streets

Liverpool and a new juncture of arts and regeneration

Words: Kenn Taylor
Images: Kenn Taylor and Kevin Crooks

Stanley Dock complex (Kenn Taylor)

Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse is the largest brick-built warehouse in the world. This fact though does not really describe just how striking and imposing it is as it looms over the smaller buildings and now largely abandoned quaysides at the northern end of Liverpool’s old dock system.

My own first memories of Stanley Dock were as a young child in the early 1990s when I’d regularly go with my family to the ‘Heritage Market’ held on part of its ground floor. The market was a bit of grassroots capitalism encouraged in the 80s by Liverpool’s brief Militant Labour administration after the building had shut as a warehouse. My dad liked to go to buy ‘second hand’ tools and my mum liked to buy meat joints that would be sold loudly by auction. I’d usually be kept placid by my parents buying me some form of plastic tat and a hotdog. The vast and decaying edifice, of which the market only occupied a fraction, fascinated me and I’d try and wander off to the abandoned bits, only to be dragged back.

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Stanley Dock Complex, old Heritage Market sign (Kenn Taylor)

From a young age I absorbed from my parents and the wider community, the huge sense of sadness about so much of the waterfront area of Merseyside falling into ruin and abandonment. Especially from my dad who’d trained as a railway fitter just north of Stanley Dock at Bankhall workshops, before they, like so much else, closed as the dock system and related industry shrank from the late 1960s onwards. My mum’s family too had lived in this area on Boundary Street before they were re-housed to Norris Green. My parents were older than some and remembered Merseyside in the post-war boom era. I inherited their sense of the essential tragedy of the area’s subsequent economic decline and of the terrible impact it had on people and the area’s culture. That more things could have been done to mitigate it. As well as a hope, desire, need, that one day things would improve and not be in such decay. That there would be opportunities for people again, that Merseyside would once again be somewhere that attracted people from all over the world not lost them.

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Six-sided Victoria Clock Tower on now largely disused quayside. Part of planned Liverpool Waters development (Kenn Taylor)

Bacchanal spirit

Many years after this, after managing get myself a precarious junior job in the arts, just as austerity is beginning to kick in, I once again find myself in Stanley Dock. By now the Heritage Market was in decline. What brings me to the old warehouse this time is a party for the Liverpool Biennial art festival. There’s free booze, good music, dancing. Lots of people I know. Having grown up wanting to be part of the creative world, but worried I might never be able to, it feels great. I end up chatting to an arts person who isn’t from Merseyside. They say: “It’s great that Liverpool has all these abandoned buildings you can do stuff like this in.”

The sentence sticks a little in my craw. I let it go, but I always remember it, the tension it caused in me. On the one had, who doesn’t love a party in an old warehouse? But then, to not realise that while abandoned buildings are fun and adventurous for some, for many more who walk past them every day, they’re not exotic or interesting or an opportunity. They’re tragic. Palpable symbols of decline, of lack of opportunity, of deep-rooted decay. And while a warehouse to rave in might be more fun than a conversion into mediocre flats, neither really solves the underlying issues such an area has. But hey, it is a party. I go back to dancing.

Later, I read a quote by Marsha Cusic in Mark Binelli’s book The Last Days of Detroit which reminded me of that situation: “Some of the people coming here bring a sort of bacchanal spirit, like they’re out on the frontier and they can do anything…Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”[i]

As I grew older, I became increasingly interested in that hard question, what do you do with buildings, an area, a city, that has lost its original purpose? How can opportunities be created for the people who relied on a now vanished economy? Is it hopeless, will any planned urban change always result in worse outcomes for people already living there? Or is to just leave somewhere as it is to rot or be picked over even worse? Once, such questions were confined to certain regions of the world deemed to have ‘failed to adapt’, like Liverpool, who were often blamed for their own decline by the powers that be. However, in my relatively short lifetime such questions have, tragically, come home to roost for ever more of the UK and huge swathes of the Western world.

Rum warehouse to rum bar

A few years on again I find myself sat outside a now converted warehouse on Stanley Dock. It’s a beautiful sunny day and the new Titanic hotel bar has chairs on the quayside. The water in the dock glints in the sun. The sound of the reconstruction of the bigger, main warehouse across the dock carries over gently. I’m sat with a friend from a similar background who also remembered the Heritage Market as a kid and now lives in social housing nearby. We’re having a cold drink and talking about our experience of this building, how, as much as we enjoyed the market, most of Stanley Dock was barely used by it and was decaying around it. We both find the effect of sitting there almost surreal. While my parents never imagined all this could be ruined, we never thought we’d see this place no longer be a ruin. That was all we had known.

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Stanley Dock Complex. Restored warehouse now Titanic Hotel on left, main warehouse under restoration on right (Kenn Taylor)

I thought then of that person in the Biennial party. How our views would probably offend them. The ‘interesting’ decay replaced by refurbishment and re-opened for this development. But to me and my friend who both well remembered Merseyside at its nadir, to see this building well out from the centre of town restored, lively, well used, and employing people again, was pleasing. The alleged glamour of the ruin, much like the alleged glamour of poverty, is the preserve largely of those who haven’t had to grow up with it.

But as Stanley Dock redevelops, it’s a prominent island surrounded by a series of initiatives, developments and grassroots initiatives which are increasingly attracting attention. Plans which suggest potential solutions to its industrial decay, but also raise thorny questions relevant to the further economic and social regeneration of Liverpool and further afield. Questions of power and place, creativity and capitalism, incomers and long-established communities.

In this piece, I’ll touch upon them all, but focus mainly on the one closest to the hopes and fears in my heart, the Ten Streets.

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Stanley Dock Complex (Kenn Taylor)

What is the ‘Ten Streets’?

The Ten Streets are well, ten streets, from Saltney Street to Oil Street between the Stanley Dock complex and the edge of Liverpool city centre. Streets once dominated by dockside industries and warehouses when the nearby quays were bustling. The buildings on them are in varied states from still thriving use to total decay and abandonment. ‘Ten Streets’ is now also the name of plan for this area.

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One of the Ten Streets (Kenn Taylor)

Claire Parry, who’s worked for Liverpool City Council for 10 years in planning, has worked on the development of the Ten Streets Spatial Regeneration Framework (SRF)[ii]. I ask Claire to explain what this is actually is in simple terms: “It’s a planning policy document essentially, so it sets out land use designations and it looks at development principles, how you want developments to look. So it will describe heights, materiality, the style of building. With Ten Streets given that it’s located in part in the World Heritage Site, heritage is quite an important factor there. So, it looks at new development in relation to the existing fabric. It sets a bit of a vision.”

While plenty of people are increasingly interested in the whys and wherefores of urban regeneration, many switch off once the complex and often seemingly grey world of planning comes into it. However understanding the role, possibilities and pitfalls of planning is essential to getting to grips with such urban change. “We had a launch in Feb 2017,” Parry explains, “which was a vision for the area and ten big ideas, owing to these ten parallel streets which was initially the focus.”

Before there was a plan though, there was already change. The area had long been in decline. Although it retained a fair amount of small scale industry, a lot of this was slowly leaving for more modern business parks nearby. With land and buildings generally having low value, the area was increasingly derelict. So far so Western post-industrial world. And, like in many similar places before, including other parts of Liverpool, this combination of interesting old buildings, few neighbours, especially of an evening, and cheap rents brought creative people into the area.

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Industry in Ten Streets area (Kenn Taylor)

One of them was Kazimier, which first emerged when some artists who’d moved to the city took over an abandoned night club in the centre. ‘The Conti’, once a haunt of Liverpool’s 80s footballers, was turned into a new independent venue called The Kazimier, where I had some of the best nights of my life. Their organisation grew to become much more than that, as its Director Liam Naughton explains: “We’re hands on artists. Pursing some ideological goals in output. A lot of those are to do with placemaking, showmaking, running venues and being vessels for other people’s artistic content. Doing something interesting and trying to blur the boundaries between leisure and social and artistic practice.”

It was practicality that first drove Kazimier to the Northern Docks area: “We came because we were expanding as a creative outlet and we simply didn’t have a big enough workshop in town,” says Naughton. “That worked out and we took on bigger projects that we could deliver out of this building. So we grew whilst still running the venue in town.” This need for space was what attracted them to the area rather than any wider potential, as he explains: “We never chose up here because we thought ‘it’s going to be an amazing, buzzing area one day’. We were just like ‘isn’t it great that nobody is up here, we can do our own thing and be completely left out of the rhythms of the city centre.’”

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Invisible Wind Factory (Kenn Taylor)

Soon though, they expanded their Northern Docks site into a venue and moved wholesale to the area after their city centre club was redeveloped: “We all miss the club because it was a magical room. But it was also holding us back,” says Naughton. Their new site, known as The Invisible Wind Factory, is now one of the largest creative spaces in the Liverpool, as he explains: “It’s a venue on two floors that’s delivering concerts and club nights and installations and immersive theatre, things along that nature. We have a basement venue underground which is more intimate and smaller and is for smaller, more experimental and weirder stuff. We’re a bit Bauhausian in that everything is under one roof. So, we have got a big giant workshop with electronic lab, music and video editing suites, resistant materials workshops. Project rooms were we’re making things and testing them out before we take them to their field. Then above the venue we run 22 artist studios upstairs. So, we have a community of people housed here in the North Docks. We have a café here, I’m probably missing some other things out…”

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Invisible Wind Factory (Kenn Taylor)

Very similar reasons drew to the Northern Docks another of its key cultural sites: “I was a remote worker for a sports governing body,” says Liam Kelly, Director of Make Liverpool. “Worked on my own from home full time away from the head office in London. On the back of achieving a life ambition, representing Great Britain, coming back to the stark realities of working from home, I ended up with poor mental health. One of the remedies for that being to work with and around people. So, I did a call out to friends about sharing office space, studio space, and several friends replied. We gave ourselves a name, became a collective, took a studio space. Then we sort of just scaled that up.” Make then wanted to expand beyond traditional shared office-style workspace: “We realised what our tenants needed was a pool of resources that they didn’t necessarily have to pay for but could pay to use,” elaborates Kelly. “We researched it, realised this was a thing, a maker space, part of a maker movement. So, we pitched the idea to a social investor, the Beautiful Ideas Company, they gave us seed capital to take over a building in the north of Liverpool.”

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Liam Kelly in Make Liverpool (Kevin Crooks)

Make did look at investing in the area that had been their first home, Baltic Triangle. This had been developed over the previous 10 years as a creative industries area south of Liverpool city centre. However, as speculators moved into Baltic to capitalise on its new trendiness, this put Make off, as Kelly explains: “We looked in Baltic but because of the story of an area regenerating, there were buildings available, but they were landbanked and we didn’t want to do something temporary. We wanted a big fat lease where we could put down roots and make it sustainable. We didn’t want to repeat the same old, same old temporary use of space with no exit plan, eventually get gentrified out, wash, rinse and repeat.” So, having been introduced to a landlord in the area by friends at the Kazimier, they took over an old factory in the North Docks that had various times produced scooters and ambulance equipment.

So, for quite pragmatic reasons, this industrial area started to gain a creative bent. The pursuit and use of ‘marginal’ urban space has been deeply linked to art and culture since at least the 1960s. What’s changed in the last ten or fifteen years is where the margins are, and how long they stay margins. As in other places, such spaces were once found right in Liverpool’s centre, symptomatic of its extreme decline that buildings were so cheap in the city’s heart in recent decades. As things improved and the centre regrew, what was the fringe moved further out. This a localised version of more extreme urban change in bigger and richer urban centres.

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Ten Streets area (Kenn Taylor)

It was the redevelopment of Stanley Dock by developer Harcourt after years of schemes never quite getting off the ground (A Historic England article described it as “the biggest adaptive re-use challenge in Europe”) and the start of cultural organisations like these moving to the area, that gave rise to the City Council putting together the Ten Streets plan. Claire Parry notes these streets have been in the Council’s eye for a long time: “This area’s always been looked at, and it pre-dates me, for the last couple of decades. But because it was so big and other projects got prioritised at the time, this one always got a bit left behind. More recently with Harcourt investing in Stanley Dock, that created a bit of a catalyst in terms of interest in the area. Then there was a lot of creative businesses that started to relocate there in the past sort of five years, so that kind of focused our minds.”

So, with this change already starting to happen, why does it need a plan from the Council? “To try and just coordinate it a little bit,” says Claire. “We’re certainly not responsible for this happening, it was kind of already happening anyway. It was to try I suppose to help it on its way. One of the things we’ve learnt from with Baltic Triangle is that didn’t benefit from an SRF. So, there was not really any kind of piece there for planners to use to try and shape development moving forward.”

Learning from the Baltic Triangle

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Former Cains/Higsons Brewery, now part of Baltic Triangle area (Kenn Taylor)

This point from Claire is crucial when considering the role of the local authority and an SRF in the area. It’s worth touching on the related history of Baltic Triangle here at the other end of Liverpool, oft written about as Liverpool’s hip creative district.

Baltic first began to emerge around 2008 when, with Liverpool’s pre Credit Crunch property boom and the city’s European Capital of Culture status, creative spaces such as venues and studios began to be moved on by re-development from the ‘Ropewalks’ area, which had emerged as the new ‘alternative district’ in the 1990s, itself partially deliberately engineered by the authorities since the late 1980s. Ropewalks had grown as the city’s older 1960s-80s ‘alternative district’ around Mathew Street was redeveloped. A familiar pattern, although with Liverpool’s sluggish economy, this was a slow process that took almost a generation to happen each time in those cases, so was much less noticeable than now.

The Council and other authorities response to the issues of creative places in Ropewalks being pushed out was as it had been in earlier decades: ‘move to this new area’, which was named by the planners as ‘Baltic Triangle’ because it was, well, a triangle of land near the Baltic Fleet pub. Prior to that it was known as the ‘Waterfront Industrial Area’. I used to walk through it to my job in a call centre further down the docks when it was still very much a quiet, declining industrial area of small factories and depots. In fact, prior to its new creative status, Baltic was considered as being designated a ‘managed prostitution zone’ by the city.

It’s important to note, as Baltic’s development has sometimes been written about as ‘wholly organic’ that in fact, it was both deliberately planned as a new creative district and that also there was also scepticism from many in the creative scene that it would work. ‘You can’t plan something like this!’ was the mantra. Some of the first creative outfits to move to Baltic were publicly funded outfits such as Liverpool Biennial, who were encouraged to go there. Importantly though, the Baltic Creative CIC was set up around the same time with funding from the now defunct Northwest Development Agency. This created studio space that crucially was directly owned and controlled by a Community Interest Company committed to creative industries and reinvesting any surplus generated in the area and supporting creative industries. This along with other studio space held by the likes of Elevator, led the development of Baltic as a creative district with others, notably venues like 24 Kitchen Street and Constellations, following.

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Northern Lights complex, Baltic Triangle (Kenn Taylor)

Crucially however, no planning framework was put in place at the time. So, as the district began to emerge as cool, Baltic was ripe to be picked over by property speculators and soon what were often poor-quality flats began to be thrown up, threatening the creative outfits in the area. Parry details the situation from the Council perspective: “I think what we realised with Baltic is that while it’s got a mixed land used designation, the feel with that is that it has become very residential dominated. What we have tried to do with Ten Streets is retain the employment focused designation to try and retain the job creating focus of the project. We’re keen not to get an imbalance where maybe the infiltration of residential in here becomes too much and the employment led focus of the project will be lost.” A SRF in the Ten Streets won’t prevent speculation entirely, but it will help a great deal.

Parry details the process of the SRF getting put in place: “We thought this would be something that would be good to do. But we needed a mandate to do that, so the consultation event in February 2017 with these ten big ideas was just a kind of starter for ten, literally, to see what people’s ideas and what people’s feedback on that. It proved really successful, everyone really liked the idea and the plan, so we used that to inform the SRF then moving forward.”

Involvement

“That whole branding announcement and positioning of it came after we were here,” Liam Kelly details, “maybe a year after.” Although he does feel Make Liverpool were involved in the planning as soon as this began: “That all happened really quickly, and they came to us to talk about it.” Kelly continues: “There was no consultation pre giving it a name and an identity and all that sort of stuff. But then they obviously consulted on the SRF, that then came out. Then they set up a steering group to which we were invited to and we host in our building.”

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Make Liverpool (Kevin Crooks)

I ask Parry if Ten Streets with its cultural and creative ideas, has made it different from the usual planning procedures? “We’ve tried to engage with social media a bit more, given that it’s got this creative district twist to it”, she says. “We tried to look through Twitter as a way of plugging that document and engaging with people that way and it’s got its own website. I think it’s got the most impressions on Twitter out of all the Council projects.”

Kelly feels this engagement has been meaningful: “I definitely think we have been listened to. I think our relationship with the Council is excellent. We put quite a lot of effort into that and I feel like we have benefitted from that.”  Though he points out the challenges facing a Council engaging with an area like this: “I generally support what the Council are doing and think they’re sensitive to certain things but they’re a Council and they will inevitably upset some people. People will definitely make mistakes. City Councils are huge, they are always going to struggle to talk to the grassrooots of any community no matter how much they try so they’re always doomed to fail in certain aspects.”

Liam Naughton also feels Kazimier have been part of the conversation: “They basically kept us in the loop. They sort of said it’s all going to change, and they want to do this in the right way possible and these were early stages. As the months developed Ten Streets came as a name and advisory groups started forming. A Councillor was getting involved and they were like, ‘can you contribute to the aspects you care about in this area and inform this masterplan document, the SRF?’ So, we have been staying engaged without becoming fatigued really.” Crucially Naughton feels that they have had impact in the process too: “I believe we have had a good influence on it. Because this could have just been quite simply a development zone for industrial use. And in some level, that’s what it is, if you look at the SRF document. What’s added to it is they want to keep the creative industries at its core and they want it to have culture as a big part of these ten ideas. That was really from just a few of us being involved with that and saying, ‘well yeah you have a great opportunity here’. Liverpool is a capital of culture and is a city that’s negotiating culture in its devolution and it’s the only one in the country that’s wanted to fight for that. That’s got to follow suit with how it develops, and Liverpool relies massively on that. I think we’re very lucky to live in a city were the authorities recognise that and see the benefit.”

Vulcan Studios in Ten Streets area (Kenn Taylor)

However, Kelly points out how thin some consultations on the project are: “I think the amount of returns they got from the feedback consultation stage were really low. I think it was in the hundreds. In terms of collecting feedback, it’s really high, but in reality it’s a sample and that sample goes and forms ‘well 99% of people support of this programme’. Well yeah, out of 150 people. So I do understand why people are cynical about it. But in general, I think they’re doing well. They’re doing a lot, considering how terribly resourced they are.”

This is echoed by Joel Hansen, Editor of Scottie Press, which has been a north Liverpool community newspaper for decades, as he details: “The Scottie Press is Britain’s longest running community newspaper, been going for 47 years. The paper was created directly from unthoughtful city planning almost. In the 1970s, the second Mersey Tunnel was essentially built through the last remaining community in Scotland Road. As a sort of protest against any further city planning destroying communities, the Scottie Press was created to unite locals, unite neighbourhoods and give a voice back to the working-class people who lived in those areas.”

Joel Hansen, Scottie Press (Kevin Crooks)

Once again with Ten Streets and other developments in the area, planning has come back to the fore of their coverage: “I feel there’s an underlying feeling of scepticism in some regeneration projects,” says Hansen, “because of the negative consequences of regeneration projects in the past. It’s one of them, people want to see things before they believe it.”

Leeds-Liverpool Canal, Vauxhall (Kenn Taylor)

While there has been discussion and dialogue between the arts community, the Council and developers about Ten Streets and media and online coverage of this, there has been less thought to how this plan will connect to nearby residential districts and what it will offer them. This is something that’s happened time and again in debates about culture-led regeneration and gentrification. Powerful developers and authorities are always heard and often so too are the usually well-educated, well connected and good-at-communication creative people, even if they have ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ power. While people who have lived and worked in areas for generations can get forgotten: “We’re talking about the people and their descendants, who worked on the docks and worked in them factories,” says Hansen. “They’re the people who made that area what it was today, and I think it’s a shame that there hasn’t been enough effort to delve deeper into the community and not just the surface area of maybe a few of the new arts companies that are starting to crop up.”

Hansen has featured Ten Streets in Scottie Press, but feels he had to do the legwork: “I’ve reached out to Claire and part of the whole project I’m trying  to run through the paper is to maybe perhaps put a little bit more pressure on Ten Streets to include the community more, and make them more conscious of the people living here who have lived here all their lives. They didn’t approach the paper, which has a very good reach to people who might not see advertisements online or see these consultations.”

Close to the Ten Streets, it’s worth noting that neighbourhoods like the Eldonian Village are amongst the best examples of non-gentrification, community-led urban regeneration in the UK. For years Eldonian was the only place in the UK to have won a United Nations World Habitat Award. Yet this is rarely talked about, even in some of the architecture and urban studies press in the UK or the broadsheets. In fact, if Eldonian gets written about at all its often framed in contempt from the small coterie of quite privileged, London-based men who dominate such discourse: ‘The community rejected the visions in glorious concrete of architects, planners and theorists and built instead average looking houses with gardens. How bland. How dare they’ sums up usually how it goes.

Leeds-Liverpool Canal, Vauxhall (Kenn Taylor)

As a result, positive lessons to be learned from urban development in Liverpool, which also built the first ever Council housing and had some of the first housing associations amongst a range of other urban innovations, are often ignored by the wider country and world. Crucial in the lessons being learned with Baltic Triangle and Ten Streets is that, if given the attention they deserve, they could help influence models for areas dealing with the same issues much further afield.

Optimism and scepticism

Liam Naughton feels if Ten Streets is given the opportunity to fulfil its potential, it could be powerful and have UK wide impact in terms of how such areas are developed: “I would love it if just doubled down on being an exciting place for culture and arts. Buildings assigned to just being artist studios or DIY gallery spaces, more places for performance venues. If there’s opportunities there we’ll fill them in this city. People will fill them. Working with the pressure groups and the Arts Council and interesting agencies up for helping with problems. We could do something interesting here. Grabbing those challenges we’re seeing in the arts right now. You could be ambitious with it.”

Yet this positive vision could yet go unfulfilled. Liam Kelly feels the biggest threat to the Ten Streets idea is from speculators: “Concerns are really obvious,” he says. “Spiralling uncontrolled rising rents and property values before anything has actually happened. One of the biggest pains we experienced in the Baltic was land banking and unrealistic expectations from landowners about value property was worth. Then all that crap student accommodation that went up really quickly and started threatening the grassrooots venues in the Baltic.” Kelly acknowledges that the Council only has limited powers to control developers, especially now their funding has reduced so much: “It’s all pretty complicated stuff and the Council doesn’t really have the power that people expect it to. So, unscrupulous people who want to cash in are the biggest threat.” Though he too remains optimistic: “In terms of the positives, we want to create a destination that really does actually do amazing stuff and attract the right kind of investment to be able to keep on expanding what we’re doing. Take the lessons that we learned in the Baltic and bring them here.”

It’s worth noting here the distinctions between culture and regeneration in overheated cities like London and New York and in under-resourced ones like Liverpool which I wrote about in more detail here[iii]. While the former usually dominates urban discourse and the latter experience some of the same phenomena, the challenge for cities like Liverpool is in some respects the inverse.  Rents are rarely a problem outside of a couple of popular areas. An average house in Liverpool costs 1% less than 10 years ago[iv]. The real challenge the city has is the same it’s been for decades, a lack of quality jobs. An issue which sees a shortage of training spaces for young people and more experienced residents piling on trains to Manchester every morning to work. The city loses its talent to the wider world and then further struggles to attract companies and good quality investment because of it. In fact one of the reasons so many poor-quality private flats have been built in Liverpool in recent years, has been that it’s easy money for low-grade local developers. While owners of land that’s been often fallow for decades are keen to cash in on it quickly. With the general low demand, developing space for businesses doesn’t offer the same returns. So new businesses can’t find enough space, while bigger ones stay away from investing and it becomes a vicious circle, especially with public spending locked down. A development such as Ten Streets, if managed well, could help provide for the growing demand for creative business space and the people who use this space in turn support arts venues. However, such space must be free from predatory speculation, both for the creative scene and more pragmatically because the city desperately needs space for the new jobs being created.

Building in decay, Ten Streets area (Kenn Taylor)

I ask Claire Parry if she thinks the SRF can work as intended then, reduce landbanking and poor-quality residential construction? “Yes, that’s what it does,” she says. “The ten parallel streets are very much employment focused, so the development principles and the land use designation in that section of the document restrict residential development.” Having heard similar promises from others before, I ask Claire to state in black and white, if a speculator buys a load of old buildings and wants to kick a creative occupier out for flats, they’re going to come up against the framework? “Precisely that,” she says with confidence. “That’s where this differs to the Baltic, which has mixed used designation. This is industrial designation predominantly.”

How about those remaining industrial users? While over the years many have folded or moved to more modern premises nearby, some remain and provide important jobs. One of the worst aspects of the famous Docklands redevelopment in London was that it pushed out remaining industrial users, further shrinking the number of working-class jobs in London. Parry is also blunt that these should also be protected: “It’s retained its industrial designation in the SPD, so it’s not changed that.”

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Industry in Ten Streets area (Kenn Taylor)

Parry agrees however, for the area to be successful as a creative centre, a delicate balance is required between the Council protecting the area from speculation and being too heavy handed as the project lead. She highlights the tightrope that must be walked between a free for all for creatives, only to end up being removed by the speculators, and a dry Council dominated scheme: “It’s a difficult thing we have to balance. If there was one of these documents in place for Baltic it might have actually helped, but it seems though if the Council steps in it all becomes very kind of clinical and the organic nature is lost. What the hope is with this is we can have the best of both worlds, it’s not too prescriptive, things can just happen, but within the parameters set in the document.”

As it moves on, if those behind Ten Streets can keep all its stakeholders on side and some of the optimism they have, it will go a long way to keeping the best intentions of the plan alive. Inevitably though, doesn’t a massive developer like Harcourt which has invested millions in redeveloping Stanley Dock have more influence that a couple of art school graduates opening a bar? “No that’s not really the way I work,” says Parry. “We have this advisory group, that has a representative from different types of businesses sat around it. It’s an open kind of talking shop for everybody. I wouldn’t say Harcourt have got any more influence that anyone else. I’d hope no one thinks that’s, but I’m sure they do, because it’s the general kind of misconception that you’re sided with a developer more than somebody else.”

Liam Naughton though thinks power imbalances remain, albeit with perhaps with a wider circle of involvement than most urban development plans:
“The big players are quite clear, it’s the City Council, with Harcourt the main developer and then Peel as an important thing to factor in as they’re right next to each other. So really, they’re the major voices in the room as they’re the ones who can make the big decisions. So, it’s more important than, us, in terms of who gets listened to, as that’s where power lies really. That said, I’m not cynical. They have listened to us. The Deputy Mayor Ann O’Byrne Chairs a meeting we get invited to which is about having our say on certain things. It’s an Advisory Group, so they don’t have to do it. But there’s so many important voices in the room, if you suggest something that makes sense, it will get explored on some level. In the end the big boys will get what they want. That doesn’t mean that not everyone is holding hands.”

Dock Road (Kenn Taylor)

Naughton thinks key to success will be putting in serious planning protection for culture, like in Berlin where music venues are now protected in law: “Planning policy just needs to protect music venues,” he says. “Seeing what’s going on with Agent of Change being debated in Parliament. That’s great. You have to protect arts spaces as a matter of policy otherwise you’d never really win against these powerful developers.”

Joel Hansen of Scottie Press shares some of the same tension I do. Not satisfied with the area remaining in so much decay, he wants it to grow and thrive again. Equally he remains concerned about the impact of rush building by speculators: “I’d really like to see it develop,” he ponders. “I’d like to see Stanley Dock and the Ten Streets and the Atlantic Corridor [A wider concept to revitalise the dock system] to put Liverpool on the map again. To put Stanley Dock on the map of the world. Which it once was, as a dock it was central to the world’s industrial process. It would be fantastic to see a resurgence in those streets. I’d like to see all them abandoned warehouses flourish again.” For Hansen though, retaining and more importantly, respecting the human heritage of the people who built and worked these docks and warehouses, is paramount: “We have to put in some effort to conserve the memory of thousands and thousands of people who worked in them areas. How that could be done, you could name a thousand different community projects that you could operate that could support that. I’m all for the growth of the city and in and around Stanley Dock.”

There remains concern from some though about how the Ten Streets plan may impact on arts spaces in the area. Drop the Dumbulls or ‘Dumbulls’ is a venue in a former pub that is the latest incarnation of a grassroots music and arts venue that has existed in several sites temporarily (one an old gym, hence the name) which subsequently got re-developed. In its latest incarnation the founders wanted a permanent base and so bought the shut down former Bull pub, opening around the same time the redevelopment of Stanley Dock by Harcourt began. When the Ten Streets plan came out, it appeared that Dumbulls was up for demotion and a petition was quickly issued to save it. I ask Claire Parry, does the Ten Streets plan threaten grassroots initiatives like this? She feels it was all down to confusion. “The team had gone round and done a heritage townscape assessment of the buildings contained within there. Grade C buildings were identified, which weren’t in keeping with the character of the area, which is the key statement. Which I don’t think the document clearly articulated. Because we had so many comments people’s whose buildings were red, thought the Council was going to come in and buy it and demolish it, which was absolutely not the case. And The Bull pub was, wrongly, coded as red. It was just an error on the plan, which we picked up, changed and I actually went and met with them for about two hours, talking it through and they seemed pretty happy. After that meeting, there was then some kind of online petition saying the building had been coded wrong, even though I’d actually said it had changed and gave them a plan showing that. It’s been changed, it was an error in the first instance, it should have been green from the start. Bit of a storm in a teacup.”

Drop the Dumbulls (Kevin Crooks)

She continues: “The Bull is not a listed structure, but it’s one of the old historic character buildings in the area. We’d never, ever do that again. That’s one the things that through this process we have learned a fair few things as well. I just don’t think it was worded clearly enough maybe to the layman om the street that the red doesn’t mean that it’s a problem.”

I had several positive social media conversations with Jake from Dumbells about the Ten Streets and their venue, but we could never quite make an interview happen. In short though, Jake was keen to point out they had arranged the meeting with Claire and that it wasn’t them, but some of their concerned patrons, that started the petition when the plan came out.

Could this be a wider problem, I ask Claire. The language and structures of planning can seem impenetrable to the layman. Does this not need to change if you want to involve people and have the openness and collaboration that the Ten Streets seems to advocate for?  “I think it just wasn’t explained well enough in the document,” she says. “Because there was a number of people who raised the same concern, you think ‘well hang on, it’s not translated properly is it.”

Liam Naughton feels that there’s an opportunity for the Ten Streets plan to work, if the positive ambitions of the project are maintained and it doesn’t just become another generic urban redevelopment: “It’s going to be a challenging one to please everyone in the Ten Streets and we sort of think, if people just do a good job of it and keep it to the ambition we all said it was going to be a while ago and not retreating on the big ideas.”

Stanley Dock complex (Kenn Taylor)

Beyond the Ten: Vauxhall, Everton and Kirkdale

The focus of the discussion and plans of Ten Streets have been the former warehouses and factories adjacent to the docks. While some people do live in the immediate area, it’s always been principally industrial. Not far away though are residential districts that once relied on this area for their economic life. Vauxhall, Everton and Kirkdale are amongst the most historic districts of Liverpool, some of the most deprived parts of the UK and at the heart of where the idea of Scouse culture was born. These areas have faced challenges with poverty since the industrial revolution and growth of the low wage, insecure work culture that dominated this part of the city of docks, processing plants, warehouses and ship repair. This has only been exacerbated though since these industries fell into decline.

Joel Hansen is keen to talk about the longstanding nature of the communities in these neighbourhoods, rare in our rapidly changing urban times: “The community here and the neighbourhoods are so long lasting. People tend not to move out of this area. There’s a lot of places don’t have those core families who have been there for generations and generations and that is definitely still the case and they’re very close-knit communities.”

Liam Naughton reflects on the past of the area: “That golden era when everyone had a job. Not that long ago. Every building thriving with work. The docks were active. That’s not happening at the moment. But you can bring some of it back.” While some fear economic development, most people in north Liverpool with its high unemployment and low wages, need it. The question is though, will projects such as the Ten Streets provide jobs for local people?

“What I’d like to see from Ten Streets,” says Hansen, “and maybe we will see this further down the line, with the idea of bringing new sort of creative companies in, new start-up businesses. What effort is going to be put into training local people to be in contention with getting these jobs? That was something I brought up with Claire [Parry] and it seemed there was some effort being out in with Liverpool in Work, work on further educational programmes that might start preparing people for the new roles that are developing in the area.”

Scottie Press (Kevin Crooks)

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Again, Hansen would like to see these residential communities more involved in the development of the scheme, even if they are outside the lines of the Ten Streets official plan: “Because when you talk about consultations, there’s not many people who actually live in that area. It’s essentially warehouses. So, who are you consulting? Some of the businesses who are there currently, but there’s not that many people.” He feels there’s a need to reach out beyond the creative community and the developers: “There’s artists, that’s a particular community. In terms of the Ten Big ideas, where they talk about a collaborative approach and celebrating heritage, does that count Vauxhall and Kirkdale, or is that for the artists who are living around there? I think there could be more effort to include the further community.” He feels making the Ten Streets development link to its neighbouring districts will be vital to make it a sustainable success: “I think there needs to be something that’s going to integrate this changing time and hopefully educate people on what’s going to happen in Ten Streets. If there are these tech-based companies moving in, are community centres, training providers and schools putting the effort in to prepare the younger generation to get these jobs? There needs to be a lot more awareness.” Hansen sees Scottie Press as potentially playing an important role in brokering that relationship: “I’d like to work with the likes of Ten Streets and all those creative companies, to connect that out to the wider community, in Vauxhall, Everton and Kirkdale, who might read the paper but not have any connection to Ten Streets. I’d like Scottie Press to become the bridge between these two worlds. Reach out to these creative communities, see if they want to connect to these further neighbourhoods.”

Liam Kelly says Make Liverpool are already offering opportunities to young people, not just from the surrounding neighbourhoods, but disadvantaged young people in general: “On Thursdays we teach a group of kids that would otherwise be NEETs [Not in Education, Employment or Training]. We teach them basic construction skills,” he says. “We’re very much focused on an expanding our education offer. We’ve employed someone to look after that stuff. The kids that come and the people that come on our courses are from all over the city, including north Liverpool.”

Liam Naughton thinks more could be done by Ten Streets to engage nearby residential communities: “I really think the Eldonian Village probably hasn’t been engaged with properly at this consultation level. Because that level was really about the Ten Streets within it. I imagine they’re oblivious to what’s going on.” Key for Naughton is that such redevelopment represents the first significant economic opportunity in the area for a generation: “If you speak to the local Councillor, Joe Hanson, he’s very positive about it [Ten Streets] all of this, because the city has not focused on this area his entire life. So now when people have got an axe to grind about something, it’s because there’s an actual opportunity to grab.” Naughton also highlights that Liverpool has a very long-established Traveller community on Oil Street, them being given this designated site when it was low value industrial land. Have they been involved in the Ten Streets plan? “I have met with them about five times,” says Claire Parry. “We have a Traveller Officer who went to every family with the feedback form and wrote it down on their behalf. So, I’ve had a number of meetings with those guys. It’s only the females that turn up, which is something else I’ve learned in this process. I’d not engaged with the Traveller community before.” What though do they think of the plans? “They’re pleased that there’s stuff happening in the area,” says Claire. “They were keen to know if the road was getting upgraded outside and it is. The initial conversation was they assumed they were getting jettisoned somewhere else, which isn’t the case.”

Ten Streets and bigger plans

While the Ten Streets is the focus of this piece, part of the deeper interest in this area is how it is surrounded by other developments of very different kinds. On one side the award-winning Eldonian Village mentioned earlier and adjacent the already started redevelopment of the Stanley Dock complex. Different again over the dock road is the long planned but slow to progress Liverpool Waters scheme on abandoned quaysides by property giant Peel Holdings, which promises modern flats and offices. Then at the northern tip of this, Everton FC are proposing a new stadium. If even half of these plans completes, it will be the biggest impact on this are since the rapid expansion of the dock system in the Victorian era. How will all these varied developments sit together?

Disused quayside building, part of Liverpool Waters site (Kenn Taylor)

“Hopefully complementary,” says Parry, talking of Liverpool Waters. “They’re two very different offers and very different styles. Tall buildings on one side then restricted heights on the other with Ten Streets. We’ve worked with Peel a lot, Peel are on that advisory group too and they’re obviously keen to see the area regenerated and improved. It’s quite different. What we’re trying to focus on with Ten Streets is the employment side of things. Whereas what they’ve got a focus on is a lot of residential across there. And offices, but different types of offices. So, we see that all as complementary uses being brought together near. Some of the new access roads going in are going to connect the area up in a much better way.”

Parry feels the Council’s involvement will help link things together: “What we’re trying to do and one of the reasons we extended the SRF boundary of Ten Streets was to pick up the surrounding development and regeneration context, so they’ll link to the Eldonian Village and then they’ll link to Liverpool Waters and the potential new stadium further to the north at Bramley-Moore.”

Liam Kelly however is more sceptical that Liverpool Waters will reach them any time soon (it covers the whole dock system between the modern operational port and the city centre) or impact on their plans: “Our tenancy in this building is fifteen years. I’d be shocked if they broke ground within the next fifteen years on the barren land that is opposite us. It’s just not going to happen.” He continues: “They’ve got the Isle of Man Ferry Terminal to build. They’ve got loads to do. So, it isn’t going to happen here in ten years. They will build, but they’ll slowly build down from the sites they’ve already got.”

Disused quayside, part of Liverpool Waters development site (Kenn Taylor)

In terms of the overall ecosystem of the area, Naughton feels the larger scale developments planned might actually help the Ten Streets get the infrastructure it needs, but would not be able to realise on its own scale: “The players like Everton have decided they’re going to move where they’re going to move and there’s things they need to have in place to make that work, they’re going to need access. Us winging saying ‘we need a train station!’ That’s not a reasonable demand, we’re not big enough and we don’t bring enough people. But Everton will need a station, no question, that’s a bigger catalyst.”

Naughton hopes the wider waterside developments will lead to a riverfront you can walk the whole length of, the first time since industrialisation: “Once it starts developing and it will open up. Things like access. Demanding people can walk along the river. That’s got to be a big deal. That area, the dockland, it’s never belonged to Liverpool. The wall was designed to keep people out.”

As regards to the stadium, Hansen like me is an Evertonian and as he says, “It’s hard to be unbiased.” He continues: “I think the Everton stadium is great, for Everton, but I truly believe it will be great for the city as well. Depending on what it looks like, but I imagine the architecture will be significant. I think the benefits it could bring to the further community is that Everton as a club have quite a strong consciousness towards the communities of Liverpool. Everton in the Community their charitable arm is very active all over Liverpool.”

Bramley-Moore Dock, site of planned Everton stadium (Kenn Taylor)

I’m similarly a supporter of the new ground, especially as one of the world’s great stadium designers, Dan Meis, is working on it. Fandom aside, a high-quality modern stadium would be a great asset in such a football obsessed city and could be a catalyst for further development of the whole area. Especially as the planned stadium site is adjacent to a sewage farm, so isn’t likely to be developed for much else. However, as I’ve seen no less than three Everton new stadium plans collapse in my lifetime, I’ll believe it when I see it. Furthermore, very careful planning will be required to integrate it with all these other planned developments.

In terms of engaging the wider community, Liam Kelly thinks Everton’s long history of community and charity work and its Premier League funds might have more impact than the Council in social change in the area: “I’ve got more faith in Everton doing that with Everton in the Community than I would in the Council. Not because of intent, but because of resource. Everton’s community stuff has been amazing really, well documented. If the stadium came down here, I could see them being open to those kinds of conversations and doing more of that kind of stuff.”

Bramley-Moore Dock, site of planned Everton stadium. This former hydraulic tower will be restored as part of the development plans. Sewage Works to the rear (Kenn Taylor)

Echoing Liam Naughton’s comments about decades of under-investment in the area, Joel Hansen notes the impact of the initial development schemes in the area already under way, such as heavy investment in the road system: “Already the new road networks are beneficial. I think these are all great signs, I think that things are improving. There’s also rumours for a new Vauxhall train station, that would be massive. This area is a little bit segregated, you must walk at least ten or fifteen minutes to get anywhere else. I think the new stadium and bringing new accessible routes to the area is great.” But he also sounds a note of caution. While the economic development is welcome, he fears possible negative impacts on local people being able to remain in the community: “In regard to the bigger sort of Atlantic Corridor, Liverpool Waters project, it sounds great. The future of the city. But again, there’s remains some fear that almost the dock area and the surrounding area are going to become more popular and potentially locally people might be priced out.”

What next?

The Ten Streets SRF is in place, a steering group is regularly meeting, things are happening. But what is the timescale for Ten Streets to develop as intended? “It’s a ten-year plan, moving forward,” says Parry. “It’s already happening, and it has already been happening for a number of years. The Titanic Hotel [In Stanley Dock] opened in 2013, the Dumbulls have been there several years, the Invisible Wind Factory. We’ve talked about the potential to develop up to a million square foot, if you look at the vacant sites or if you look were you could maybe bring stuff back into use that’s currently vacant. We have got down £200 million – £500 million development value to be brought forward over the next ten years.”

Where will this money come from, given the Council’s lack of cash?
“We’re trying to get as much money as we possibly can into the area and it will be easier to do that now we have got a plan in place,” says Parry. She suggests they’re seeking mixed funding model: “You have now got private developers putting applications in for a number of vacant sites. We’ve got access to things like Regional Growth Funding, local enterprise funds, Combined Authority funds. I know there’s little bits and bobs happening with the Beautiful Ideas Company, that people like Make Liverpool have been beneficiaries of, so that’s like small scale funds. The Invisible Wind Factory have got Arts Council funding to do certain stuff. So, it’s a cocktail of funding, that’s how we operate now, because the ways in which a Council can invest has changed massively.”

Conclusions

The plans for Ten Streets represent both Liverpool and wider ideas around culture and urban regeneration at an interesting juncture.

For Liverpool, it’s a sign the regeneration that’s been going on nearer the centre for some time is now, for better or worse, moving further outward. Even as Merseyside’s economy remains generally weak, it trundles on in a broadly upward direction compared to the situation when I was a child in the 1980s when it must not be forgotten, to many people it seemed like the area was in terminal decline.

Stanley Dock complex (Kenn Taylor)

On a wider level it demonstrates the growing complexities that have arisen in ideas around regeneration and redevelopment and their relationship to art and culture. Modernist ideas of mass redevelopment led by planners began to crumble from the 1960s onwards, influenced in part by Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and the movement which followed it, which argued for the value of ‘unplanned’ street level culture and historic buildings. What Jacobs didn’t anticipate was her work would also help make such urban areas more fashionable with the middle and upper classes, especially creative people. In short, more people like Jacobs would move in to such areas and this would slowly change the ‘mixed’ community that she valued. As the planners became ever weaker, it wasn’t neighbourhood people as Jacobs envisaged that took over, but developers and financiers. To quote urban theorist Sharon Zukin: “Jacobs did not call for stronger zoning laws to encourage a mix of housing, factories, stores and schools. She did not support more permanent rent controls to ensure a mix of poorer and richer tenants, of successful businesses and start-ups.”[v]

As public authority was sucked out of urban development, property developers took the power and initiative. The likes of London’s Docklands and Liverpool’s Albert Dock were examples of public money priming private development driven by powerful, unelected development agencies. In the UK today, such public funds have largely dried up and the development agencies have shrunk or disappeared. At the same time, deprived local authorities have long since, through desire or more often force, coshed by successive Governments to follow the Neo-liberal approach of Manchester, adopted many of the former development agencies’ ideas. The vast overwhelming reduction in central Government support for local authorities has made every city in the UK think about how it might pay for itself, especially given how low and weak local taxation is in Britain.

At the same time as these power structures have shifted, so too has the view of ‘what works’ in regeneration and re-development. The ‘post planner’ era 1980s schemes were amongst the first to start to value old industrial buildings, but still favoured large scale re-development aimed at large businesses occupiers and private housing. Arts, small business, the grassroots and ‘alternative’ were usually seen as a problem to these schemes, or at least something to be ignored. However, as such developments proliferated, middle class tastes began to shift towards the ‘small’, ‘authentic’ and ‘varied’, against the ‘soulless’, ‘bland’ and ‘corporate’ just as they had done against the Modernist schemes of the 1960s. Developers and planning departments began to increasingly realise the benefits of having certain types of small, independent businesses in areas, retaining cultural venues, the pull of things like street art and ‘just enough’ rough and readiness that made an area ‘interesting’ and developments started to change shape.

Stanley Dock complex (Kenn Taylor)

Sharon Zukin in her seminal Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, captured the role that arts and culture and artists, or more broadly, humanities graduates, have played in changing declining industrial areas. Often bringing back into popular use buildings, even districts, that had been deemed beyond saving and only suitable for demolition. Coupled with the emergence in the belief of the creative industries as traditional industries declined, this was increasingly piggy-backed on and facilitated by developers. As well as local authorities, which critics from the biggest metropolitan centres should not forget were, in many cases, desperately trying to find ways to keep their towns and cities alive.

The speed and scale of such inner-urban change in the UK increased in the pre-2008 boom and indeed carried on in an even more unbalanced way after the Crunch as the power of the public sector was crushed and ever more organisations were pushed towards market-based thinking. Concurrently, the reduction in social security and traditional secure jobs for humanities graduates in colleges, charities and the public sector, pushed more of them also towards market-based thinking, setting up as sole traders or working in small businesses. As this happened, the issue of being disrupted through studios and venues being redeveloped became even more of an issue. Especially as the speed at which this happened seemed to keep increasing and in some major metropolitan areas, space became more of a premium.

Once young humanities graduates may have done ‘radical stuff’ in old warehouses or similar for several years, with little thought for the long term. Sustainability didn’t come into it, because surely the revolution was around the corner? When that didn’t come, most just moved on, getting a ‘proper job’ once they began to settle down. Increasingly though, those ‘proper jobs’ no longer existed, or at least in fewer numbers and far less lucrative than before. What was once the temporary action of the young increasingly became something that had to be framed within longer term thinking.

Developers and authorities have come to realise that crushing the creative aspects of an area can negatively affect the economic and social regeneration benefits they seek. Creative people too are now more aware than ever of their role in such urban change and indeed in urban life in general and what they bring to it. More aware also of the need to work to protect space and of their relative lack of hard power, even if they punch over their weight with their soft power. Similarly, while they themselves can often be exploited, creative people from more comfortable backgrounds can no longer be oblivious of the impact a developing ‘creative scene’ can have on impoverished and under invested neighbourhoods and those that have long lived in them.

We’re now in a mature phase when everyone, from artists to music fans to planners, developers and politicians, should be aware of the potential and pitfalls of inner-urban regeneration related to creativity and the arts. It is in this context that The Ten Streets emerges. While it retains some traditional industry, this will never again grow back in the same way. Thus, this huge swathe of industrial buildings need new uses or face crumbling to dust.

In a booming city, this would probably involve a simple conversion to residential and offices, with plenty of private capital going in because of the obvious return. But Liverpool presently has a limit to the number of flats and offices it needs and the margins on them are low. As stated earlier, it must be remembered that Liverpool is not an overheated city like London, New York or even Bristol. While theoretical discourse around art and urban change is dominated by looking at such places, the context for Liverpool and cities like it is quite different. Liverpool City Council knows well more than ever the truth that many choose to ignore: unless the city develops its economy more, creates better jobs and increases its tax base, it will always be at the mercy of the coming and going of external grants on the political winds to provide the services its people needs. It will continue to lose to many of its talented people and it won’t give its young people enough opportunities. Liverpool’s economy isn’t big enough to develop on its own and needs intervention, but the city has limited financial room to manoeuvre. As grants have been slashed, it’s often at the mercy of the interest, or lack of, external private capital, to develop. Meanwhile, the city is under internal and external pressure to preserve its historic districts, which is very expensive and increasingly hard because of the low demand for property and the slashing of grants. There’s no single solution to all this. Even while a change in Government may help things, it wouldn’t in itself solve the area’s long-standing economic issues which have their roots before WWII.

At the same time Liverpool, always noted, at least by those without prejudice, as an interesting and often radical cultural city, has much potential. It’s now a major centre for cultural tourism and its artistic output is growing in scale and recognition. However, this, like in so many places, has constantly been undermined by property speculation, short-termism and poor planning. Local authorities which claim to care about culture and the arts, in the Liverpool City Region’s case claim to have it at the heart of its focus, can no longer stand idly by when important cultural facilities are decimated in favour of poor-quality developments which, in some cases have shady origins and never get built anyway.

Liverpool is currently far behind in the stakes of getting big firms to move in. This kind of large-scale inward investment is important, not least in reducing unemployment in fell swoops and creating large enough numbers of training places for young people. However, it’s also problematic as big firms often come and go again, as Liverpool has learned to its cost. Encouraging smaller scale creative businesses, based around existing assets and organisations, can be a more sustainable model for economic development. There’s a real opportunity for the city here, but Liverpool has missed the boat more than once in recent decades. In the 1980s it had one of the biggest computer games design clusters in Europe, something that if nurtured may have transformed the city. But the Council navel gazed and never built on the opportunity. Much of it has since left. Similarly, as one of the most location filmed cities in the UK since the 1980s, only now, after many other cities have already done so, are we seeing the development of proper sound stages. Will Liverpool be able to take the opportunity presented by Ten Streets and build on it, generating more jobs in the creative and related industries, or will it squander the opportunity again? Ten Streets represents an opportunity for the city to do something different in urban development, in keeping with the city’s often radical history, rather than chasing generic ideas from elsewhere with increasingly diminishing returns.

With Ten Streets it’s clear that different voices are around the table and there’s some positive feeling about working together. Different people have different agendas, but the redevelopment of this area, if done well, could benefit all of them and benefit Liverpool far more than if it remains as it currently is. Whatever vibrancy exists in pockets, there is also plenty of dereliction that is beyond most grassroots initiative’s capacity to change. Not to mention the lack of infrastructure in the area. Ten Streets has the potential to seriously revive these streets as an economic area and offer space for the long term for the arts and culture scene in the city. It could make money for those that invest in it, create jobs and restore heritage. However serious notes of caution must remain. It could just as easily go wrong and alienate those who are currently putting so much energy into it at a grassroots levels.

A creative district wholly managed by the local authority, both the Council and artists admit would likely not succeed. Equally delusions about ‘just leaving’ the ‘organic’ development, essentially a lassiez-faire attitude, will only lead to the same driving out of creative outfits as the speculators move in, as has already happened in other areas of Liverpool and elsewhere. Thus, the Spatial Regeneration Framework, protecting the area in planning for employment use and restricting building heights, so making speculative residential developments less likely, could be key to seeing Ten Streets grow as a creative area. Such restrictions may also hold land values from skyrocketing. However, that isn’t guaranteed.

For Ten Streets to work though, it can’t just be done on trust, even if it does currently exist between the different parties involved, as the power imbalances remain huge. From hand to mouth creative outfits to impoverished local authorities and private developers with mixed records. The SRF will help, but more needs to be done. Protected land ownership is the next step. While it might not work for the whole of Ten Streets, if certain key streets or buildings could be passed to a Community Interest Company, as in Baltic Triangle, this would give a core base of locked in spaces for creative outfits and venues. However, the risk with this is a CIC would lack capital to secure space against bigger developers, so it would need some form of significant public financial backing to start it off, best leveraged by the City Council. Beyond this, a formally constituted board with equal voting rights for all members and actual clout on planning matters covering the area, could help formalise the relationship between the stakeholders. Such a group would have to be more than ‘advisory’ for it to have real teeth to protect and steer development in the area in the right direction. This could include looking at implementing rent controls in part or in whole in the area.

North Shore Troubadour bar in Ten Streets area (Kevin Crooks)

Such a model could see the CIC as a lead ‘developer’ in the area, generating rental income to keep sustaining and investing in more creative space. Yet at the same time leaving room for other initiatives to set up and operate in other buildings within a wider protective framework governed by a formal area board. Combined with the SRF, these things could make Ten Streets a potential model for other places dealing with the now well-established cycle of post-industrial to creative. If successful, it could attract artists being displaced from elsewhere, helping the city grow. The Ten Streets area being vibrant could help the larger developments nearby attract residents and other forms of business whilst keeping this area protected. While in turn such larger developments will help drive infrastructure improvements in the area beyond the scope and scale of Ten Streets.

Another paradigm needs to be considered though. Time and time again areas like this around the world have redeveloped, for the most part by creative people from middle and upper class backgrounds moving into them, but often they have ended up being cut off from the residential districts that were innately connected to such industrial areas and which suffered greatly when they shut down. A re-birth for the old warehouses of the Ten Streets will be great for Liverpool, but it will retain a terrible emptiness if this area thrives with artists and creatives from Liverpool’s comfortable suburbs and further afield while Vauxhall, Everton and Kirkdale continue to struggle. Much is made of the exclusiveness of certain private residential developments, while ignoring that creative communities can, even if inadvertently, have an exclusiveness all of their own. How can a redevelopment like this be leveraged to generate opportunities for local people as the growth of the dockside industries once did? It is incumbent on the local authority to manage this, but creative and other organisations must also do their bit, and indeed there are promising signs of this in Ten Streets. Any CIC or formal board with power in the area could have baked into its constitution that creating opportunities for residents in north Liverpool was part of its remit as well as protecting and developing creative spaces and restoring heritage buildings. While residents and community groups from these neighbourhoods should also be part of any area board and help steer its development.

Stanley Dock complex (Kenn Taylor)

At the heart of thinking about Ten Streets and other developments in this area, are questions of ownership and power. Who owns and who is responsible for such declined urban space? Property owners? The local authority? Developers who invest in it? The artists and creatives who’ve moved there? The established industrial occupiers? Or nearby long-time residents? There’s no one answer, though the power is as ever skewed to the developers, with local authorities, perhaps once the most powerful, now weaker than ever. Artists have soft power, but that is easily overwhelmed. Established residential communities may have numbers and longevity, but they have had their resilience battered over the years and need more economic opportunities. Everyone has a stake, everyone wants it to work, even if for their own reasons and some compromises will be inevitable. Can the structures be created and resources found to make it happen in the right way?

Ten Streets marketing talks about Ten Big Ideas. Really, for this area to be successful and sustainable, it just needs one big idea to work. That is to put formal structures and ownerships in place to give its mixed stakeholders a real say and control in how it develops. Not leaving it to chance or the whims of private developers. Ten Streets is just small enough to get some people with power and money to be bold and innovative, just big enough to test if it actually works. To help create a real and long-lasting creative district and in turn encourage some more inclusive economic growth. Perhaps in ten years I can revisit Stanley Dock again and see, not just a nice hotel where I can get a drink, but a restored building at the heart of something thriving and far more powerful. That is the kind of cultural urban regeneration we need to dare to hope for, but it is one that will only be achieved if those with the power keep listening, are brave and don’t lose sight of their big ideas.

Dock Road (Kenn Taylor)

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Art and the post-industrial community in Detroit and Chicago

MOCAD, Detroit

By Kenn Taylor

In 2016, I was awarded an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant. This enabled me to undertake research visits to several organisations in Detroit and Chicago who are on socially-engaged art practice in post-industrial communities.

I’m originally from an industrial town in Merseyside and lived in Liverpool ahead of and during its year as Capital of Culture in 2008. Because of this, the relationship between art, artists and art organisations in areas struggling with industrial decline has always been important to me. This has very much informed the approach I’ve taken to programming throughout my career in museums and galleries. Having followed closely many socially-engaged artists and projects in the UK, I also became interested in examples of this practice in America.

The Heidelberg Project in Detroit was the longest-established initiative I visited. Begun by artist Tyree Guyton in 1986, he decided to create ‘something beautiful’ in the run-down Heidelberg Street by painting bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for generations. Soon Guyton began to decorate and modify abandoned houses in the area and then the street itself using reclaimed materials. Thirty years later the project is a world-renowned ‘total work of art’ and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit

MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, meanwhile, is an arts institution established 10 years ago in a formerly abandoned car dealership. Notably, it’s also the base of Mike Kelly’s work Mobile Homestead.

Mobile Homestead was unveiled in 2010 and funded by the UK’s Artangel. A recreation of Detroit-born Kelly’s childhood home (which is still standing and occupied) made as a pre-fabricated building with a detachable trailer section. Kelly’s idea was that this could be transported around the city with the ground floor being a flexible community space and the basement a place for artists. Based behind MOCAD, the Homestead functions as a dedicated space to host community content exhibitions and events; everything from local craft groups to, recently, lively election debate parties.

Mike Kelly’s Mobile Homestead, MOCAD

Over in Chicago, around 10 years ago artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he’d moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 financial crash, he also bought the neighbouring property. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and filling it with cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events. By 2010, he’d established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation and had rehabilitated a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects.

Dorchester Projects, Rebuild

A few years later, Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just a dollar, providing he got the money to restore it. Amongst other things the bank now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. Rebuild’s most recent initiative is Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists and sells products and services to help sustain the foundation’s work.

While all of these organisations are distinct, they are united by having a focus on the re-use of previously abandoned or underused urban space, involving communities in their activities and demonstrating a complex relationship between artist, artwork and art organisation. In the case of MOCAD, an art institution occupied an old building and with Mobile Homestead, ended up creating a semi-permanent new building as an ongoing social practice artwork. In contrast, the Heidelberg Project started out as the creation of an artwork out of buildings and has morphed into also being partially an institution. Rebuild Foundation started out as a project based around art activity in run down properties using reclaimed materials, before growing into a full-scale neighbourhood renewal project, but one that is also an ongoing artistic experiment.

Johnson Publishing Archive, Rebuild

The projects are not only re-purposing and re-imagining buildings and areas in a very different way to traditional urban redevelopment schemes; they’re also highlighting the continued life, activity, creativity and culture in areas often more associated in art terms with the genre of ‘ruin porn’, that seeks to portray them as empty, tragic ruins.

Art projects like the ones I visited may be partially a product of decline, but they speak as much of the potential future of these areas as their past. They may be led by complex theories and an emotional desire for continued community life, but they create outcomes that are very much concrete: housing, artspace, crafts to sell, community facilities, training opportunities.

Vital to the success of these initiatives has been a close and long term relationship to the areas in which they’re situated. Connected to this is the fact that for all the genuine community involvement in such projects, the figure of the individual artist, pursuing their vision against the odds: Tyree Guyton, Theaster Gates, Mike Kelly, remains central in a very traditional art historical sense. This raises the question of what happens to these projects when their founder moves, or indeed, passes on.

Stony Island Arts Bank, Rebuild

While at Rebuild, I attended one of the weekly ‘Tea, Coffee and a Chat’ meetings led by local residents and they spoke about the positive impact the foundation has had on their neighbourhood. While artefacts from such initiatives could be kept in collections or even whole districts be preserved, the people who benefit from them are perhaps their most important legacy. Can the power of this social action also be retained by these projects in the longer-term?

How the founder-artist plans for posterity will be key to this. Mike Kelly, for example, setting in stone the community use for Mobile Homestead as being part of the artwork itself has ensured the preservation of such space for ‘social sculpture’. The power in projects like this is both social and artistic, and if they can retain each aspect in the long term, they will be important parts of both future art and urban history.

This piece was published by the Art Fund in April 2017. You can download my full essay about my research here.

Post-Industry, Art and Play

By Kenn Taylor 

An 1880 painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw, Leeds Bridge, depicts a view of the River Aire that is still recognisable today; the heavy-duty ironwork of the bridge, the substantial brick warehouses, the bend in the river towards the church in the distance. Yet today, the riverbank that was clearly a hive of dirty industry in 1880, is now bound by offices, bars, flats and hotels.

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Leeds Bridge (1880) by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Leeds Art Gallery.

Similarly, in Liverpool, on quaysides where ships once unloaded their cargoes, there are now restaurants, galleries and arenas. In Teesside, the modern stadium of Middlesbrough Football Club sits on the site of old chemical and oil tanks. In Castleford, West Yorkshire, a huge indoor ski-slope has been built over a former colliery. Such has been the well-worn path of the last 30 years. The manufacturing and heavy industry that dominated the landscape of the North of England being replaced by service industries and leisure sites – with art and culture related projects forming a key part of this.

What a contrast from the 19th century of Atkinson Grimshaw. In the Victorian era, the booming industrial cities of Northern England built their edifices of art and culture usually as far from the factories and wharfs that paid for them as possible. In Leeds, from the Art Gallery on the Headrow to the Parkinson Building of Leeds University, a cultural sphere was built that was firmly separated from the hive of industry down the hill around the River Aire and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

But with the rapid de-industrialisation in the UK from the 1970s onwards, a reversal took place which saw sites of industry turned into sites of culture. Sites expected not to just reflect the wealth and sophistication of localities as did the art galleries, museums and concert halls of the Victorian era, but rather to be the economy through generating tourism, attracting inward investment and encouraging the ‘creative’ industries. So from the Wales Millennium Centre in the old Cardiff Docks, to The Hepworth Wakefield adjacent to abandoned textile mills, Gateshead’s Baltic in a disused flour mill and London’s Tate Modern in the former Bankside Power Station, art occupies spaces once dominated by industry.

This has not been a wholly un-problematic shift though. Debates abound about the culture, leisure and service fields not providing the same number or same quality of jobs as the industries they have replaced; who can enjoy this new urban culture and who has to serve in it? Not to mention the thorny issue of gentrification; property developers frequently promote cultural activities to create buzz, increase demand and drive up prices, which inevitably pushes those with more limited means out of some areas. The question remains though, just what do you do with large areas of old industrial land once it is no longer required for its former purpose? ‘Post-industry’ a phrase though bandied around a lot is still a relatively new phenomenon. It took a long and difficult time for society to adjust to the industrial revolution and it’s likely to take just as long to adjust to the post-industrial one.

MG_7083
Leeds Bridge, 2015

Back to Leeds, whose industrial base did not collapse in the 1980s like other cities, but which has seen a significant contraction since the end of the 1990s. One of the key closures was the Joshua Tetley Brewery, an important industrial site in the city for nearly 200 years until production ceased in 2011. The key development on the brewery site since its closure has been the opening in 2013 of The Tetley, a new centre for contemporary art and learning based in the brewery’s former Director’s Offices.

The re-development of the old brewery forms part of a much wider regeneration plan for the ‘south bank’ of the River Aire, where many other former industrial sites are in the process of being converted into new sites for education, offices, homes, and the like. Into all of this, plans are now afoot by The Tetley to bring art outside of its building onto Brewery Green, the new open space that sits on part of the former plant. The intention is that that Brewery Green will soon be home to a new major piece of public art that will be some form of ‘play sculpture’, an artwork that can be interacted with rather than merely appreciated at a distance.

I am presently Curator of Participation at The Tetley. This is the kind of job title that itself has only emerged in the post-industrial era, as not only the location and reasons for civic art and culture have changed in our contemporary urban world, how we expect citizens to engage with it has shifted as well. Once the rarefied artworks collected by diligent industrial philanthropists were guarded heavily in their grand public galleries, lest they be damaged by the citizens they had been ‘given’ to. Out of doors, bronzes of local dignitaries were maintained in public parks amongst manicured garden beds as a symbol of civic pride. Yet ‘Keep Off the Grass’ was a key part of the culture, these creations guarded just as in galleries by a diligent band of uniformed keepers. Culture of one form or another procured in theory for citizens, but often without their consent and only to be engaged with in a prescribed ‘correct’ way.

Later, in the Modernist era, despite the pretence of change, works such as Victor Passmore’s concrete Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee newtown, County Durham, despite ostensibly being more open and democratic works of art, were in practice usually just as imposed and distant from local people, with progressive ideologies falling through the cracks of patronising and bureaucratic structures. The Pavilion quickly, inadvertently, becoming an un-loved place where teenagers got drunk and vandalised, though more recently local views towards it have apparently softened.

In our contemporary era of public art there is increasingly a wider acceptance amongst the public and commissioning bodies of broader ideas, and of people’s engagement with art and culture being as important as an art object itself. From Luke Jerram’s Park and Slide turning a Bristol high street into a waterpark, Carsten Höller’s shimmering carousel works and the sheer variety of Anthony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth project in Trafalgar Square, to art collective Assemble creating a scrap playground at Baltic Street in Glasgow and people clambering around in the startlingly blue, copper sulphate environment of Roger Hiorns Seizure at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: a less precious approach to engagement with culture has developed in tandem with its relocation. Where once public artworks were made to be appreciated from afar, engaging and ‘playing with’ art in the urban environment is, in many cases, now encouraged. Just as the gallery has shifted from the pillars and marble of the past to the cleaned-up old industrial site, so to we have shifted from distanced appreciation to valuing a more robust and open-ended interaction with art in the public realm.

This shift is summed up well by Usman Haque, designer of the fountain and light installation in Bradford’s new City Park; a great shallow pool that is invaded by families on any given sunny day and that has been a key catalyst in re-imagining the centre of Bradford: “I’m interested in how the designer of a system can best support ordinary people’s creativity, by being neither too prescriptive, and therefore unable to accommodate the unplanned, nor too unspecified, and therefore giving no firm take-off points, for people to contribute meaningfully.”

Similarly, institutions like The Tetley are not merely about the display and enjoyment of art as were the civic galleries of old, but primarily focus on its creation and production. The lines between these have become blurred in the way that mirrors wider changes in urban society. Where once industry was in the centre of the city in dirty, noisy brick-built factories, today what remains has usually been sent outwards to the distant industrial zones on the edge of town. To ultramodern, clean plants sometimes deceptively quiet. Back in the city centre meanwhile, in buildings near to the old Leeds Bridge and The Tetley, restaurants and bars sit in old warehouses, people design computer games in former foundries, skateparks thrill in old engineering plants, data centres sit in redundant chapels, new colleges occupy old printworks. Yet in tandem, the growth in the likes of craft breweries, knitting groups, urban food growing and hi-tech ‘fab labs’ have seen people re-discovering the value, and fun, of making, and small scale, local production in urban centres, often led by artists.

Culture in today’s post-industrial, post credit-crunch cities is now often not only expected to be a catalyst for economic development, but to generate actual income. Yet there has been a move away from the Grands Projets of the early 2000s, of multi-million pound statement ‘starchitecture’ that was alone meant to transform areas, economies and people’s lives. Post-industrial cultural regeneration continues apace but, much as bold statements in concrete foundered as Modernism’s ideals collapsed, so too largely has the palaces of the Neo-Liberal regeneration agenda. Meanwhile an interest in smaller scale, more open-ended and people focused projects has grown alongside the previously mentioned trend back towards craft and local making. This was exemplified by the nomination for the 2015 Turner Prize of London-based collective Assemble, for their work to support the regeneration of empty homes in Liverpool with a local community group. In many ways such actions are a return to the original origins of culture in post-industrial space. That is, instead of clearing away the past in some brave new vision, artists restoring things themselves, thinking long term and low cost and working hard to re-use the base of the old in new ways. Yet we remain in a post-regeneration era, when no one can ignore that, however well-meant such initiatives are, they do tend to help drive up the value of former industrial land, with many waiting in the shadows for economic opportunities presented by such grassroots initiatives. Will this new sense of DIY, craft, smaller scale and community focus retain its innocence or become another gentrification tool?

In it is into this context that Think. Play. Do., The Tetley’s exhibition of proposals for a play sculpture on Brewery Green, emerges. On one level it is about fun and wild open ideas; what would some artists, with limited constraints, create if asked to design a play sculpture for this site? However the project also asks, what even is a play sculpture, who would it be for and how would you ‘play’ with it? What role will it play in the regeneration of this part of Leeds and how will it relate to the context of where it is located?

Green
Brewery Green, The Tetley, 2015

The way we engage with art has changed, and so too has the way is it commissioned and produced. As well as the exhibition itself, the project is also a series of events, workshops, talks, publications, interactions and interventions that will all feed into what is an exercise in asking questions and trying things out. Think. Play. Do. is as much about us playing with ideas and concepts of art, sculpture, urban redevelopment and social and cultural change and seeing what happens as it is about selecting a ‘winning’ idea. We want a play sculpture on our post-industrial site, but we’re as much interested in how we get there as what we have at the end. This is a path that we hope ultimately results in a more engaging piece of public art that really resonates with this site’s former, current, and future use. Along the way we want to probe what direction the continued shifts in the use of the former urban industrial landscape as a site for leisure and culture may take. And of course, have a bit of fun while we’re doing it.

This piece was published to accompany the Think.Play.Do exhibition at The Tetley, Leeds in summer 2015. 

“It’s revolutionary” – The Art of Reconstruction in Granby

Granby Four Streets    Granby 4 Streets - 7 

By Kenn Taylor
Images Ronnie Hughes and Kenn Taylor

The Granby area of Liverpool recently became the centre of a brief flurry of international media interest when a project based there was nominated for the Turner Prize.

Assemble, a collective of eighteen London-based artists and architects, all aged under 30, have been working with the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust (CLT) on the re-development of ten terraced houses left derelict after the machinations of the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI) of the 2000s. Once refurbished, the land will remain held in trust to deliver permanently affordable housing.

But the CLT’s work with Assemble is only the latest stage in a spirited and creative campaign to save these homes – one that began many years ago.

“It’s been quite a messy process,” says Lewis Jones, one of Assemble’s members. “Lots of people have been involved, going back 20 years, and we’re just a small part of that. So when suddenly there has been this huge wave of interest when the Turner Prize nomination was announced, we were quite keen to divert more of that attention to the Community Land Trust, to give a more balanced view of the situation. I still think that’s really important.”

The Housing Market Renewal Initiative was a Labour scheme, started in 2002, which was intended to renew “failing housing markets” in economically struggling parts of England. When the Coalition government axed HMRI in 2011, it created a vacuum that left vast areas of housing in limbo.

But this also turned out to be an opportunity for the Four Streets campaigners. “As time had moved on,” says Ronnie Hughes, a housing activist and CLT member, “things had got tighter in the housing market. So the ideas we’d been having, of splitting the streets into smaller groupings and having different kinds of tenure and different kinds organisations working there – well, they turned out to be the only ideas left.”

Granby Four Streets

After beginning their own plans to regenerate these ten houses, the CLT decided it was time to work with some professional architects. “Assemble worked to turn all of the people’s ideas into sketch plans and real plans,” explains Hughes. “They helped to make the community and the Community Land Trust look like a real thing. As time went on, though, obviously they had to stop being volunteers and compete to be the architects for the CLT, which they now are.”

Hughes is keen to stress the CLT and Assemble are not regenerating Liverpool 8 alone, however. A complex web of organisations, alliances and initiatives is working to re-develop empty houses in the area, and the campaigners are keen to move on the from the “heroes and villains” narrative that’s dominated some of the press coverage.

“We couldn’t do any of this without the city’s support,” he says. “They gave us the houses, for free. The council also completely changed their policy in order to allow this to happen.”

The group is happy to work with specialist housing providers, too, he adds: 47 houses being worked on by Liverpool Mutual Homes is working on 47 homes, Plus Dan is working on 26. Other work is being undertaken by a social investor, and by the eco-based Terrace 21 housing co-op “I think it’s that mix which has worked, as there’s lots of different ideas going into the place,” Hughes adds.

Assemble themselves are a relatively recent arrival, for a group nominated for the art world’s most famous gong. “We started working together in 2010,” says Jones. “We came together as a group just to do one project, which became the Cinerolium.”

That was a glittering temporary cinema, created in a former petrol station in London’s Clerkenwell district. “We thought that would be a really great site to test ideas out on. So we brought together loads of friends to help build it and lots of other people to come and experience it. It was a really kind of fun process for us, just testing out ideas and building things ourselves. Lots of the ways of working we developed in that project have gradually been evolving over subsequent years.”

“A lot of us graduated in 2009,” Jones explains, “and were working for a year or so in different architecture practices. We wanted a way to be more hands on and test ideas out within the city, rather than being stuck behind a computer working on a small part of a very large project.” The point of the Cinerolium was to do something “on a small enough scale that we’d be able to have our hands in every different part of it. We’d have to find the funding, find the site, design it, build it, manage it, everything, and have a much more complete and holistic involvement.”

This was to be the first of several distinctive architectural projects around the UK, from a scrap playground at Baltic Street in Glasgow to a temporary arts venue in a motorway undercroft in Hackney. I ask Jones about themes he sees in the group’s work.

“We’re kind of really interested in the idea of resourcefulness and complexity and messiness in the city, as that what makes places interesting,” he says. “So the fact that there are places where there can be overlaps and intersections between historic building fabrics and something new and inserted and also between the different needs of different groups – that’s kind of a very exciting situation to be part of.”

Yardhouse/Sugarhouse Studios, Bow

This sort of ethos is visible when visiting the studio complex they occupy in Bow, east London, with several other creative practitioners. Sugarhouse Studios and the adjacent Yardhouse, with its striking polychromatic concrete tiles – designed and largely built by Assemble – are filled with well-used machine tools, packed storage racks and a busy, bustling office. It’s all a long way from the glass-coffee table minimalism of many architectural practices.

A sense of the practical and of innovative solutions pervades their work. But how does a collective of 18 people work in practice?

“Normally what happens is that if a project or invitation comes in to us,” Jones explains. “Then basically if two people in Assemble want to work on it and no one else has an issue with them working on it, then that’s enough for us to take on that project.”

Each project is managed by two people – “like a buddy system,” Jones says. There’s a group meeting every Monday morning, then a project review that evening. “That was just a way of us being able to take on more work, but also allow us a bit more independence in the way we do work, so that we’re not all trying to hold the same pen at the same time.”

Assemble are currently involved with a range of other projects, including designing a new art gallery for Goldsmiths College in a former Victorian bathhouse. They’re now going international, too. “We’re working on a project now in Berlin, with the House of World Cultures: they partnered four local Berlin based initiatives with four international architecture practices to each develop new models for housing.

“We’re working with this really amazing group called Stille Strasse who are a self-organised seniors group aged between their 70s and 90s who squatted and saved their local meeting house and they run it themselves. So we’ve been working with them to develop a model of self-determined living in housing in old age.”

Assemble and the Four Streets CLT will have to wait until December to find out if they have won the Turner Prize. In Granby however, the work goes on rebuilding regardless, bit by bit, day by day, not headline-grabbing, but with far more important long-lasting results.

Granby Four Streets

“The next thing in the big picture is the Four Corners project, which is the four corners of Granby Street and Cairns Street,” says Hughes. “There are three existing though derelict shop units there and one that sort of accidently fell in on itself. We’ve just completed a six-week community storytelling project that Writing on the Wall ran with us, to involve everybody in the wider Granby and Liverpool 8 in gathering together stories of Granby and out of them we want to start pulling together what people’s ideas are for the best things to do with the Four Corners.”

The Turner judges were keen to set the Granby project in an art historical context, linking back to the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement, the Bauhaus. So, is what’s going on in Granby a new movement in art and ideas?

“Yesterday there were community members coming into their [Assemble’s] workshop,” says Ronnie Hughes, “and doing that proper kind of co-working; while you’re focusing on getting the hardcore into the moulds and pouring concrete on them, people are having deep and meaningful conversations about re-making the place.” It appeals to him, he adds, “in a way that sitting around having endless blue-sky visions no longer does”.

“Let’s make something and see what we come up with while we’re making it. It’s revolutionary.”

This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in September 2015.

Granby Four Streets CLT
Assemble

Residential Dreams

By Kenn Taylor

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep our lost Elysium alive – rural
Middlesex again.1

So wrote John Betjeman in ‘Middlesex’, one of his poems that celebrated the suburbs north of London, suburbs which he further eulogised in his famous 1973 documentary, Metro-land.

The Metro-land he wrote of was created and branded as such by the Metropolitan Railway as it built its route out of London in the first half of the 20th century. The company famously promoted Metro-land aggressively and creatively, even having songs written that extolled the virtue of the new housing estates it built along the route of the line. A private precursor to today’s Stagecoach or FirstGroup, the Metropolitan Railway didn’t build Metro-land to inspire poets though, but to make money by selling the dream of country living to those who could afford it.

Metro-Land_(1921)

It was Metro-land I thought of as I explored the very different environment of Battersea Power Station. This monolithic exercise in brick by Giles Gilbert Scott is, after years of decay and dereliction, being turned into a new residential development with both Normal Foster and Richard Rogers working on elements of it. I was privileged to see it close up before its transformation and pleased that it would find a new use other than to decay into dust. Yet what struck me most as I wandered through, were the slogans on the brightly coloured construction hoardings around it, like those that accompany almost every major, high-density urban development these days:

A PLACE OF VISION AND MAJESTY; A THRIVING. DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY; AN ICONIC RIVERFRONT ADDRESS; A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE

Just as the songs and pamphlets advertising Metro-land once promised, the hoardings around the Battersea Power Station development promote a lifestyle keenly desired by much of the aspirational middle class. It’s marketing of course and whether it’s a fridge, a car or a home, they long ago realised that if they sell you an idea, a dream and a lifestyle rather than just a product, you’re more likely to spend. What struck me in relation to housing though, was how ultimately those seeking a particular lifestyle via where they live often unthinkingly contribute to the very destruction of what it is they cherish most about it.

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In reality the creation of Metro-land saw fields torn up and replaced with row upon row of near identical housing. As Ross Clark notes:
“It was, of course, largely a con. The creation of Metro-land destroyed the very thing – open countryside – which was used to advertise it. The speculative homes thrown up around the new stations bore few resemblances to the Tudor cottages depicted in the advertising materials: most were dreary semis, constructed at great haste.”2

Rural ways of life were replaced by the thousands of commuters Betjeman references in ‘Middlesex’, leaving every morning to their work in the city via a concrete tube station and returning later to live out an image of the country idyll. For many, this is still the dream, a dream which year on year sees ever more green space turned into housing, driven by the desire of so many of us to have our own personal ‘lost Elysium’.

The tear between the respective lures of the country and the city is a long-held one. Yet in the decades since Betjeman wrote about the romance of certain suburbs, we have seen the emergence of a more contemporary dream of attaining a lifestyle via where you live. A new concept of Elysium that, just as 100 years ago, property developers are only to keen to sell to those with the means. That is the lifestyle of living in a THRIVING, DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY and a CULTURAL POWERHOUSE such as is now promised at Battersea. One of the key things to open up Battersea to new residential development is its new tube station. Just as 100 years ago connectivity drives forward the residential property market, only now it is inward rather than outward expansion, driven by the growth in desire for ‘inner city living’.

This desire for a certain kind of urban living that has ‘cultural authenticity’ dates perhaps from the same 1960s when John Betjeman was writing of his distaste for the demolition of Victorian and Georgian buildings for new developments influenced by Modernism.

Many of the people who backed Betjeman’s cause were amongst the first ‘gentrifiers’. A section of society identified by sociologist Ruth Glass who coined the term in 1964. Just a couple of years in fact before Betjeman led the way in saving from demolition the Neo-Gothic Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras designed by George Gilbert Scott – father of Battersea Power Station designer, Giles. In this era Glass noted the changing demographic of the urban environment in North London not far from St Pancras: “One by one, many of the working class neighbourhoods of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences…Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”3

The suburban dream of Metro-land began to be less desirable for some by the 1960s, while the inner-city, where, in the earlier 20th century at least, people only generally lived if they could not manage to live elsewhere, began to be seen as more attractive.
The inner city did physically change around this time and became more ‘liveable’. For example, the thick pollution of central London was significantly reduced by the likes of the decline of manufacturing and the Clean Air Act.4 Yet, the kind of ‘culture’ offered by inner city living remained key to this shift.

In the essay ‘The Birth of Gentrification’, Lees, Slater and Wyly note it was the likes of Betjeman himself that began this trend:
“In both the United States and in Britain, post-war urban renewal meant the bulldozing of old neighborhoods to be replaced by modern housing and highways. As the destruction spread, so did the rebellion against it. In the beginning the protesters were mainly historians and architecture buffs, but slowly these were joined by young, middle-class families who bought and lovingly reconditioned beat-up, turn-of-the-century houses in ‘bad’ neighborhoods.”5

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As I have discussed previously here, ‘creatives’ play a key role in increasing the societal desire for such lifestyles. For years artists, critics and the like left the ‘comfortable’ suburbs in search of the ‘truth’ and the ‘real’ in the inner city, most of all what they perceived as CULTURE, especially for the mega cities of London and New York. Or rather, they headed for the ‘outer’ inner city, away from actual centres of business, tourism and authority, but not so far out as to live in the middle-class suburbs. They moved to areas by and large populated by people who could not afford to live either in the centre or the suburbs.

It was these fringe places that were seen as the ultimate reality, the edge of capitalism, aside from the bourgeois self-satisfaction and complacency of the suburbs and the glitzy but false centre. In these locations, artists could live cheaply and relatively free, with plenty of space for venues, studios, galleries, parties, etc. Such locations became the home of a class of people who came from all over to take up what they saw as ‘authentic’ urban lifestyles. This process expanded as continued post-war industrial decline made such locations even less economically viable and desirable to many than they already where.

As young artists mature though, they usually begin to have changing priorities; they pair off, have children, and settle. Some move out to Metro-land or its equivalents, but others stay and frequently end up transforming the area around them into something quasi-suburban. This has led to a strange phenomenon, where, in many respects, the city centre fringe has in fact become the new suburbs. Locations which are then sold as the ideal spot to live for those who wish, and have the means, to buy straight in to a ‘culturally developed’ area. This was noted by Ruth Glass: “Urban, suburban and rural areas have thus become encouraged to merge into one another; and they have lost some of their differentiating features.”6

After successive waves of people seeking such a lifestyle from the 1960s onwards, year by year the urban cultural authentic dream has become more and more removed from reality. Gentrifiers made such areas more desirable and thus eventually more expensive, leading to the displacement of poorer residents. This prevented new ‘creative pioneers’ from settling and so forced them to seek new places to occupy. Focusing on London, the areas identified by Glass in the 1960s, such as Islington, were fairly quickly transformed out of the reach of new would-be urban authentics. So soon they moved onto other areas of North London, then later East London, now on even further out to the likes of Peckham and Camberwell in South London. This phenomenon was predicted by Bruce London and John Palen back in 1984: “Current urban neighbourhoods are generally sited favourably within the city, having good transport access to the central business district…The future of the renovation movement, and in fact the ultimate future of the city as a place of residential choice, will depend to the extent to which restoration and renovation become increasingly widespread.”7 And so it did.

Where the artists lead, the capitalists capitalise, selling the opportunity to live in A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE to those who can afford it, albeit perhaps one with security gates between the property and the DIVERSE COMMUNITY. The term ‘village’ is often bandied about in such developments, for those who wish to combine the security and order of a ‘village’ with just enough of an ‘urban cultural’ feel, just enough of a ‘village’ feel, just enough of an ‘urban cultural’ feel, and so and so forth, with New York’s Greenwich Village as the archetype.

Yet such areas are neither villages nor urban cultural powerhouses. These new ‘suburbs’ are literally Metroland, the city as fantasy consumer product. Gradually, the ‘authenticity’ and ‘edginess’ that generated the desire for many to live in such locations declines and, more often than not, they become home to a wealthy monoculture, living in generic apartment blocks with, if you have the means to afford it, ‘heritage features’. A carefully managed version of the city, created for those who wish to embody a particular lifestyle by those with an interest in profiting from land. The expensive done-up terraces of East London, previously occupied by the industrial working classes, are now nearly as desired in the property market as Cotswold thatched cottages were forty years ago by those seeking a country idyll in somewhere previously occupied by the rural poor.

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Indeed the strong relationship in ‘authentic culture seeking’ between the desire for a rural Elysium of a previous generation and the newer search for an urban Elysium was noted by Irving Allen in the 1980s:
“If the older generation looked to the suburbs for romantic middle-class communities that represented a new way of life, some members of the young generation may well be looking to cities for romantic middle-class communities that represent an alternative to the suburbs…it is safe to assume that many of the new settlers are seeking a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with the social diversity of city life. Their parents sought a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with small-town and ‘rural’ life.”8

This desire to attain authenticity through your residential location is always tempered by the fact that this desire is in itself pretty inauthentic. As chronicler of the gentrification of New York’s old warehouses into ‘artists’ lofts’, Sharon Zukin, pointed out, “Only people who do not know the steam and sweat of a real factory can find industrial space romantic or interesting.”9 As someone whose grandfather, an agricultural labourer, died short of his 65th birthday, the same could be said for the idea of the rural idyll.

Metro-land cut Mock Tudor furrows through rural Middlesex and sold former city dwellers the country dream to the point that what they liked about that countryside largely disappeared. So to the developers of the late 20th century sold the urban dream to those who fled the Metro-land suburbs, to the point were these new residents ended up helping to drive away what it was they perceived to be authentic about the city. Replacing it with non other than a more high-density version of suburbia, packaged, just as Metro-land was, with slogans promising a life that has already disappeared, if it ever even existed.

An interesting shift in the path of urban gentrification in recent years however is the type of property that fuels such dreams. With many of those Georgian and Victorian buildings so beloved in the 1960s now out of the reach of would-be gentrifiers, not to mention this generation rejecting as ever the fashions and social mores of the previous, a new gentrifier generation has emerged that now embraces rather than is repulsed by Modernism. To these rebellious aesthetes, the Brutalist architectural works by the likes of Erno Goldfinger and Alison and Peter Smithson, once reviled by gentrifiers for their role in the destruction of old neighbourhoods, are the new objects of residential desire. To be just as strongly defended from the ‘cretins’ who care not for the architecture of the immediate past and its association with poverty as Georgian and Victorian properties once were.

As Ruth Glass noted 18th and 19th century housing once occupied by working class people becoming home to wealthy residents, so today former concrete social housing like Trellick Tower in West London and Sheffield’s Park Hill, the latter renovated by trendy property firm Urban Splash, become home to new creative pioneers keen on a new type of character property. That is of course once they have been ‘done up’, just as the former ‘slums’ were, and filled with graphic-designed Brutalist tribute mugs and, if you can afford it, original 60s brightly coloured Hygena Formica kitchen cabinets. Such fashions no doubt inspired in part by the likes of Owen Hatherley writing of the poetry of curving, rain-stained concrete car parks just as John Betjeman writing of the soot-covered Gothic Revival spires of the Midland Grand helped inspire the ‘Victoriana’ of a previous generation.

As a past generation saw new possibilities and a sense of nostalgia for the 19th century city as a reaction against collapsing Modernist ideology, so this generation is filled with nostalgia for the Modernist vision of utopia as Neo-Liberalism crumbles. Connected to this is a lament by many artists and critics for the ‘lost nobility’ of industrial communities. A community and culture increasingly of the past as the people who embodied it have often left the inner city with the decline of the industries that they once relied on, while many of those who stayed are now often being pushed out by gentrification. An idealised vision of industrial communities looms large in the work of those who, as ever, find distaste with contemporary culture and people they see as ‘corrupted’ by consumerism, having left their ‘authentic’ lives connected to industry.

Of course, it is ironic that an earlier generation of artists and critics felt that same sort of nobility and authenticity was to be found outside of the city. In the 1800s the likes of William Morris, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood promoted the authenticity of the rural over the rapidly developing and industrialising cities, even of course as they often sold their expensive works of art to wealthy industrialists. They lionised their imagined experience of ‘peasant’ life in the countryside and despaired of those who left for better pay in urban areas and became ‘corrupted’ by industrialisation. These creatives of the past promoted a romantic nostalgia for a more rural past they usually had little direct experience of just as today’s generation of artists often romanticise the industrial inner-urban era without really knowing it.

Many artists in Victorian times headed out of the cities to embody a certain type of lifestyle they held up as the ideal and thousands followed them. With the market demand that they helped to create fulfilled by developers like those behind Metro-land. To the point that ‘rural Middlesex’ literally no longer existed, the county being absorbed by Greater London in 1965. In reality, agricultural workers were often only too keen to leave the country for better pay as industry and urban life grew and, generations later, many inner-city industrial workers were only too keen to leave those Victorian dwellings, if not their neighbourhoods so much, for better housing. Thus as people try to live out their own version of a perceived past authenticity in these vacated spaces, in both cases, the original occupiers were, in general, moving on to better opportunities.

Scott Greer considered the ideology which rejects the contemporary for an imagined better past, whether urban or rural, labelling it as ‘conservative utopian’: “At one time they believed the rural life to be the only one fit for man, the city evil. Today they remain fixated on the past, but it is now the dense, polyethnic, centralized city of the railroad age.”10 As the Romantics inadvertently brought urbanism to the country and the first gentrifiers the suburbs to the city, so now the Modernist urban fringe is the new frontier. Yet this generation’s dreams will likely have as similar unintended consequences as previous ones as they look back to a supposed better past without the knowledge of what was wrong with it.

So while those with the means pursue their urban and rural residential dreams, those keen as ever to be seen to be on ‘the edge’ and reject society’s current conventions, look for new marginal spaces. The latest move it seems is to find fascination with the liminal space beyond the suburbs; the new towns, isolated estates and small, post-industrial towns that remain resolutely unfashionable and ‘off the grid’. Literally in some cases in relation to transport: Metro-land is yet to arrive there. Some of these locations, in particular some ex-seaside towns, show signs of the same gentrifying change, but many others, often a long way from work and central cities, have become the only places that retain a perceived authenticity. Witness London chronicler Iain Sinclair’s growing interest in the outer fringes of the capital documented in his book London Orbital. Especially so now that the Hackney area he lives in that had formed the basis for much of his work has long succumb to gentrification due to the likes of, well, people like Iain Sinclair moving there.

Sinclair moved to Hackney from his native Wales after study at Trinity College Dublin, Courtauld Institute and London Film School. His criticisms of the development of the Olympic Park in East London and the loss of ‘fringe space’ around the Lea Valley were dissected somewhat on Channel 4 News by Paralympian Basketball player Ade Adepitan, who grew up in Newham, having been born in Nigeria. One gentrifier’s ‘exciting edge’ is of course another resident’s reason to fear for their family and the following exchange reveals a great deal about dreams and realities in gentrification:

Ade Adepitan: “I lived on Carpenters Road, did you see all those dodgy garages, cut and shut?”
Iain Sinclair: “I loved all those dodgy garages!”
Ade Adepitan “Well I was worried about my mum walking home at night on that dark street.”11

Authenticity is always greener on the other side and the more people try to embody a particular lifestyle through property and escape what they perceive as contemporary corruption, the more they corrupt what it is they try to inhabit. As John Betjeman once wrote of the loss of rural idyll and Victorian wonders so today the press is littered with tomes on the loss of inner city culture and authenticity, almost inevitably penned by the same people who began such changes.

The urban life those billboards in Battersea promise is just a much a fantasy as that sold in the songs of Metro-land nearly 100 years ago and just as alluring. One selling the dream of open air, health, greenery, space and peace, the other of connectivity, currentness, vibrancy and culture. As Tristan Hunt notes, “From the beginning, suburbia was more a state of mind than geographical location.”12 ‘Inner city living’ is just as much of an escapist fantasy as the suburbs. The difference perhaps, is that Metro-land’s housing was quite a bit more accessible than many of the inner-city flats now being sold. As Ross Clark notes, a Metro-land home could be “sold for as little as £400 each. Modern first-time buyers can only dream: that is equivalent to just £20,000 in today’s money.”13 Far less that what you’ll have to pay to live in Rogers or Foster’s CULTURAL POWERHOUSE in Battersea.

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Of course, some do protest at all of this. Foxtons, the high-end estate agent associated with gentrification, has had its branches vandalised while Country Life magazine seems keen on extolling the virtues of country life, that is as long as not too many other people have access to it and ruin it for them. Yet since Ruth Glass first noted gentrification, save for some successful islands of resistance and peaks and troughs cause by recession, the market forces of Britain continue to drag development in both directions to sell everyone who can afford it the country dream or the city dream, or, if you have enough capital, both, however diluted dreams both have become.

The more it turns the more London in particular is transformed into a total fantasy. An urban playground for those with the means, Metroland now attracts wealthy people now from as far afield as Russia, Dubai, France and Australia. Just as it span outwards to the original London ‘outer suburbs’ of St John’s Wood and Hampstead on to Ruislip Gardens, Milton Keynes and Basildon, then back inward from Islington to Camden to Shoreditch to Peckham to Barking to wherever next, maybe even out again to Birmingham if HS2 gets built. Everyone keeps on chasing, hoping that, if they try hard enough, they will get their own little residential dream, whatever happens to anyone else. And those who paint pictures of our perfect lifestyle remain only too keen to sell us the ticket to our dream and tell us, Elysium is still waiting.

An abridged version of this eassy was published on Thinking City in March 2015.

References
1. Betjeman, J., 1954. Middlesex. In: Hunt, T., 2009. The suburbs are derided by snobs, yet they offer hope for our future [Online]. London: The Guardian. Available at: <URL:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jul/19/suburbs-snobbery&gt; [Accessed 6th November 2014].
2. Clark, R., 2006. Betjeman’s metro-land revisited [Online]. London: The Daily Telegraph. Available at: <URL:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3353156/Betjemans-metro-land-revisited.html > [Accessed 6th November 2014].
3. Glass, R., 1964. London: aspects of change. In: Lees, L. Slater, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.4.
4. WIKIMEDIA FOUNDATION INC, 2014. Clear Air Act 1956 [Online]. San Francisco: WIKIMEDIA. Available at: [Accessed 6th November 2014].
5. Lees, L. Salter, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.5.
6. Glass, R., 1989. Cliches of Urban Doom. In: Lees, L. Slater, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.130.
7. London, B. and Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p.11.
8. Allen, I.L., 1984. The Ideology of Dense Neighbourhood Redevelopment. In: London, B. and 9. Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p.35.
10. Zukin, S., 1989. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. In: Lees, L., Salter, S., and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.121.
11. Greer, S., 1972. The Urbane View: Life and Politics in Metropolitan America. In: London, B., and Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p. 28.
12. INDEPENDENT TELEVISION NEWS, 2012. What next for the Olympic Park? [Online]. London: ITN. Available at: <URL: https://www.gettyimages.de/detail/video/london-2012-olympic-games-legacy-future-of-nachrichtenfilmmaterial/838772330> [Accessed 4th November 2014].
13. Hunt, T., 2009. The suburbs are derided by snobs, yet they offer hope for our future [Online]. London: The Guardian. Available at: <URL:http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jul/19/suburbs-snobbery&gt; [Accessed 6th November 2014].
14. Clark, R., 2006. Betjeman’s metro-land revisited [Online]. London: The Daily Telegraph. Available at: <URL:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3353156/Betjemans-metro-land-revisited.html > [Accessed 6th November 2014].

A Creative Alternative?

Photo of Bradford Odeon protest by P13 D
Photo of Bradford Odeon protest by P13 Digital Media

By Kenn Taylor

When I was a child, I was taken by my school to see a submarine launched at the Cammell Laird shipyard, a place that had been the raison d’être of my hometown, Birkenhead, for the last 200 years. I was given a flag to wave at the vast, metal object as it went down the slipway. My principle memory is of the scale of the place, as we stood dwarfed by the yard’s huge construction sheds and yellow cranes. What I didn’t quite understand at the time was that this was the end. This was the last ship that was to be built at the yard.

I would to come to realise this, though, and also that it was almost to mean the end of the town, reduced largely to decline and dependency on low-paid service-industry work, benefits and a small number of public-sector jobs. What happened to Birkenhead as a phenomenon has, if anything, increased elsewhere in my lifetime. The sort of decline that could once safely – for others – be said to be located in certain specific areas, has engulfed more and more places over the last twenty years in a rapidly shifting global world. What do you do with a place when its reason to exist has gone? Can it have a future? How can people suffering from the poverty generated by such situations have better lives and opportunities? These were the questions that plagued me as I grew up in a postindustrial area.

Economic decline is inextricably linked to population decline, both of which create surplus land and buildings. In the later part of the twentieth century, in certain urban areas such as New York, London and Berlin, this ‘free space’ was often occupied by artists and those seeking alternative lifestyles. Economically, this ultimately worked out for these cities, since while certain industries and the communities that had relied on them had been hollowed out, they had other industries to sustain them. In New York and London this was principally high-finance and in Berlin, principally government. So this occupation by ‘creatives’ actually helped re-animate what was, in the eyes of local authorities, ‘problem spaces’, bringing them back to economic use as they became fashionable and subsequently attracted new, wealthier residents. Such gentrification has been well documented.1 Writers like Richard Florida suggested that other postindustrial areas should adopt this model, becoming ‘creative cities’2  that attract the highly educated, highly mobile people who set up the likes of Google. This was seen by some civic leaders as a catch-all answer to stemming population decline, creating those lucrative ‘good jobs’ and so increasing the tax- and power-base of postindustrial areas. Based on these theories, many such localities spent big on arts venues, festivals etc aimed at regenerating disused space, attracting culture-seeking tourists and more importantly, those new ‘creative’ business-starting residents.

However, in many other cities, while empty buildings, declining populations and tax bases were also the problem, this solution was not so easy as in New York and London. In a place as large as a city, a ‘creative class’ generally needs a ‘real’ economy to feed off in order to enjoy a supporting infrastructure and audience. Shoreditch may emphasise its mental distance from The City of London, but without the latter’s finance industry paying for the likes of London’s advanced public transportation system via demand and taxation, along with everything from sponsoring theatres to buying artworks and commissioning designers, its ‘creative class’ would struggle. As any artist who has lived in a postindustrial city for any length of time will tell you, cheap rents and easily available space are important, but to lack easy access to a major market or audience (even in these internet days) is ultimately limiting.

While we may love them for their diversity, vibrancy and creativity, cities have since ancient times largely existed for strategic or economic reasons, formed out of convergences of power and money. This is why so many artists and creative people still move to New York and London despite the harsh costs and lifestyle. These cities offer potential for advancement that other localities do not, whether in terms of creative stimulation or more pragmatic personal opportunities. This is why economically successful cities are always centres of inward migration, people seeking their own piece of the growing pie, whether money or culture, which in turn helps gives birth to that diversity, vibrancy and creativity.

Throughout history, art and culture have generally emerged from economic centres that can afford them, rather than being expected to be the economy, or at least not solely. Some unique places such as Venice can, via tourism, achieve an economy based on their cultural histories. Yet even Venice has a shrinking population, which is causing it problems now that it is no longer a centre of manufacture, commerce and slavery. Indeed, despite all the new creative industries being talked about in postindustrial places like Detroit, such as the start-ups at the A. Alfred Taubman Centre,3  making cars is still actually the biggest part of the Detroit economy.4  Likewise, even as cultural-focused tourism does grow in Liverpool, its maritime and manufacturing trades are still bigger economic assets.5  Over in Birkenhead, even the old Cammell Laird shipyard has re-opened and is now booming.6  These most traditional of industries, which had declined for years, are still the main points of growth for such places as trade patterns shift, to a degree, back in their favour. Such growth remains vulnerable, but at least these localities are still playing a significant role in the global economic system, in fields, despite their reduction in staff numbers, that employ far more people than the arts are ever likely to.

In London and New York, the fight for space against the overwhelming power of capital is key, hence the constant shifting of ‘creative zones’ to the latest deprived area. In cities such as Liverpool, though, the fight is for capital or rather any way for the city (including its artists) to sustain itself without having to rely on cross-subsidy from elsewhere to pay for its services. The latter is a dangerous situation, leaving postindustrial areas vulnerable to the whims of the policies of often faraway governments.

Is there an alternative for cities other than to fight each other for a slice of global capital? To take part in a pact with the very ideology that brought down industrial cities? We should not forget that it was also this same ideology that gave birth to these cities and subsequently the culture that rose from them: be it Motown or The Beatles, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals or the metal sculptures made by Arthur Dooley, himself a former Cammell Laird welder.

Despite the continued economic reliance on transport and manufacture in Liverpool, cultural activity has played a big part in shifting both the perception and actuality of the city in the last fifteen years in a way that few residents would disagree has been an improvement, even if most would also agree there is still a long way to go. If, with the right cultural attractions and activities, a town can create a tourist business and transform external views of the place, creating a few jobs in the process, why would any poor locality not do so?

Are these cultural initiatives in postindustrial locations just window-dressing: a bit of art to cover over the economic cracks, encouraging higher-end tourism and providing something to do between inward investment meetings? A chance for globetrotting arty-types to ‘reanimate’ decayed spaces and help pave the way for developers? Or can they offer more?

I would argue that they can. Art’s real strength in this situation is how it can exist in a space between those at different ends of the scale of power and money. In this deeply imbalanced situation, real sway can be had, as Charles Bukowski once said, when ‘an artist says a hard thing in a simple way’. Art has the potential to cut though things, creating a channel through dysfunctional systems. Creative activism in the public arena can, by highlighting errors, showcasing alternatives and probing new solutions, make the prevailing forces of power, at best take a step back, or at least demonstrate to others the holes that exist within their plans and systems.

Such action in postindustrial areas can break the deadlock that can emerge from vested interests. Governments, local authorities, businesses, property developers, investors, even entrenched community groups, while often having plans that may be valid on one level, can, in the inevitable vastness of such organisations, end up letting neighbourhoods, even whole cities, fall down the cracks. As an example, we can look to Liverpool and how the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder initiative affected it and other areas with mass housing demolition. 7  This plan emerged, no doubt with good intentions, from a think-tank at Birmingham University and was adopted by the then government as a way of regenerating postindustrial communities. Dozens of journals, petitions and surveys eventually began to critique this extreme approach. While these achieved a cumulative effect, ultimately they held less power and sway in general public and political opinion than two actions in Liverpool. In Anfield, the 2up2down/Homebaked project,8  re-opening a bakery that many thought had gone for good, and in Liverpool 8, community groups painting bright images, planting flowers and hosting a local market outside abandoned homes. All the secret meetings, investment strategies and ten-year-plans rightly turned to dust in the face of such an obviously more positive use of empty property reduced to ruin by socio-economic policies. Such initiatives may have impacts that are more emotional than practical, but therein lies the ability of such creative action to compete against, or at least square up to, those who control the money and power. Those with their hands on the levers inevitably struggle to respond when they are faced with a public demonstration of obvious failure and positive alternatives.

The question from critics though, and it is a valid one, is what next? When folly or injustice has been demonstrated, what alternative is there? Can such initiatives represent long-term solutions? Creative perforations can open avenues to new situations, but for real change they have to then grow into something bigger. In becoming more established and practical, such projects may lose some of their initial outsider power, but this is essential if such action is to instigate actual change and shift the balance of ideas, power and control.

For an example of this we can shift from Liverpool to Bradford, where creative grassroots action helped not only to save a grand Art Deco cinema from demolition, but began a total re-imagining of the potential future of the building. After being closed for several years, the Odeon was facing destruction, to be replaced with a new office and retail development,9  the need for which was questionable. Slowly, local opposition built into a ‘Save the Odeon’ campaign, with activists often utilising artistic impulses such as covering the building with ‘Get Well Soon’ cards, decorating it at Christmas while a brass band played, and even turning up as a group to clean its exterior to demonstrate that, beneath a bit of dirt, a fine building was languishing. These actions slowly won over more local people and even gained celebrity support from the likes of Imelda Staunton, Terry Gilliam and David Hockney. After much pressure, the demolition was eventually cancelled, with the local authority agreeing that the building should be retained in future plans for the area. The campaigners have subsequently formed into an Industrial and Provident society named ‘Bradford One’ and are now bidding to be allowed to take over the building themselves.10

Meanwhile, over in Detroit, the apparently sensible policy of reducing the city’s size in relation to its shrunken population came up against The Heidelberg Project, begun in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton on the city’s east side. Initially, he painted a series of houses in Heidelberg Street with bright dots in many colours and attached salvaged items to the houses. He went on to develop the project into a constantly evolving work that transformed a semi-abandoned neighbourhood into a creative art centre.11  Twice it was faced with demolition by the Detroit authorities, and indeed some of it was destroyed. Yet, despite these setbacks, it is now a global tourist attraction with its own arts education programme for local schoolchildren, not to mention being one of fifteen projects that represented the US at the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale.12

The question raised by those who wanted to see the demolition and removal of all these places was, ‘Well, what would you do with it?’ In answer, creativity was used against the overwhelming machines of business, media, government and prevailing orthodoxy, to open up alternative possibilities for these spaces. Such projects may not in themselves solve all the problems of a postindustrial city, but their operation in a more open-ended space outside of dominant ideologies can raise awareness, generate new solutions and galvanise people to action. After all, successful local regeneration is based on local enthusiasm for it, which, when people are already facing the multiple challenges of living in a deprived area, can be slow to start and quick to wane. Key to ongoing positive change stemming from such initiatives is the genuine involvement of local people in an in-depth way. The Bradford One and Heidelberg actions were both begun by people who already had a stake in the local area, while 2up2down/Homebaked in Anfield began as an external provocation from Liverpool Biennial. However, all of these projects ultimately took the time to win understandably sceptical people over from outside of their own circles and become rooted in local desires, rather than just agendas imposed from outside. Also vital though, is that such projects moved on from their initial creative perforations and formed organisations, sought funding, liaised with regulators, engaged wider publics and communicated with media and academia. Thus they created a momentum that became sustainable, even through inevitable setbacks and ups and downs.

So, having begun to develop initial provocations into projects with positive outcomes for communities, the question becomes, what next? How does the spark of an alternative become something sustainable or even a new way of doing things in postindustrial areas? The rights of the urban resident of the twentieth century were gained through practical action, engaging, even if aggressively, with the prevailing system and demanding a share, as well as through the development of solid alternatives that functioned effectively, even if these existed within a wider capitalist framework. Bodies from the Cooperative movement founded in Rochdale in 1844 to the early housing associations formed in 1960s Liverpool, determined that inner-city housing had a future, and so it remains today.

Having successfully fundraised via Kickstarter to open its bakery, 2up2down/Homebaked now seeks to establish a co-operative housing scheme13  as part of the wider redevelopment of Anfield, which is centred on a new stadium for Liverpool Football Club. In Bradford, the Save the Odeon campaign has formed into the constituted Bradford One organisation, which is developing proposals that, if successful, will see the historic structure transformed into a multi-purpose cultural venue and centre for creative enterprise. This will include an ‘asset lock’ ensuring that the Odeon’s future use will always benefit the people of Bradford.14  In Detroit meanwhile, the Heidelberg Project is planning to expand into neighbouring properties as part of a broader ‘cultural village’ concept for the area once the site has been secured from recent damage.15  The project’s development committee now includes senior staff from Detroit and Michigan local authorities, demonstrating quite a change from when Guyton spent much of his time fighting officials who wanted to shut down the project. His case was no doubt aided by the Heidelberg’s increasing popularity and global visibility.16

While global big business is probably here to stay, it seems that local control, whether it is of new business start-ups, arts centres, housing co-ops or bakeries, offers the best long-term sustainability for communities. Yet for this to happen, local people must be able to take control. The will must be there in the community for such initiatives, but provocations such as the above, by highlighting alternatives and breaking open new ideas, can have transformative effects, bringing people on board who never imagined they could ever have a voice or play a part in the future of their area.

However, controlling authorities also need to have the desire, or at least the will, to hand such power to communities. So will states grant such power to localities and will local authorities in turn divest power to their citizens? Even if this happens, will it descend into counter-productive factionalism? Perhaps in some cases, but as the examples above show, plenty of projects can exceed even the wildest hopes of their founders, if they are given the opportunity. It may be the case though, as projects such as these have demonstrated, that the only way to gain power is for such organisations to be formed, take the initiative and demand it, creating legitimacy though raising awareness and encouraging action. Equally vital is that the authorities provide the required financial support for such projects at the relevant time. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea of community solutions quickly fell on its face because of a lack of money, something even acknowledged by the academic who came up with the phrase.17  If you hand the levers of power over to people, but with no capital to be able to use them, positive effects will always be limited.

Creative perforations, such as those listed above, are in themselves valid, as a way to speak the truth to power, show an alternative and imagine new possibilities. However, if they are to have lasting effects, they need to change, morph and engage with the prevailing systems of power and money in order to achieve wider goals. This may require compromise, but such compromise will have much stronger social benefits in deprived areas than any academic treatise denouncing failures in the system from a faraway university.

Finally, can these projects be more than interesting perforations, a few gems standing out in otherwise troubled cities? Can they actually become new ways of organising postindustrial urban environments? If this is possible, such initiatives cannot exist in a vacuum. Power brokers need to be engaged and convinced that the system needs to shift and absorb these new ideas. In undertaking such engagement, projects like these may risk losing their outsider power, but they gain the potential to change many more lives and even of becoming new orthodoxies. That is, of course, until the need arises for the next perforation from outside of the prevailing order.

This piece was published in the Stages Journal #2 published by Liverpool Biennial in September 2014.

Footnotes

1  See, for example, S. Zurkin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982.

2  Richard Florida, ‘Cities and The Creative Class’, http://www.creativeclass.com/richard_florida/books… (accessed 24 April 2014).

3  M. Haber, ‘Meet The Makers: Rebuilding Detroit by Hand’, Fast Company (2013). Available at: http://www.fastcocreate.com/1682411/meet-the-maker… (accessed 20 April 2014).

4  T. Alberta, ‘Refueled: Domestic Automakers Poised to Lead Detroit’s Revival’, National Journal (2014). Available at: http://www.nationaljournal.com/next-economy/americ… (accessed 25 April 2014).

5  Liverpool Economic Briefing 2013, Liverpool City Council, 2013, p.9.

6  B. Gleeson, ‘John Syvret commits future to Cammell Laird’s’, Liverpool Echo (2014). Available at: http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/business/john-… (accessed 1 May 2014).

7  I Cole & B. Nevin, The road to renewal: the early development of the housing market renewal programme in England, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York, 2004, pp.9–17. Available at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/system/files/1859352707.pdf# (accessed 22 Apr. 2014).

8  ‘2Up 2Down, a Community Land Trust and Co-operative Bakery for Anfield’ (2014), http://www.2up2down.org.uk/ (accessed 25 April 2014).

9  I. Qureshi, ‘Why does Bradford care so much about a derelict cinema?’, The Guardian, (2012). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/the-northerner/2012/… (accessed 1 May 2014).

10  About Us, Bradford One (2014), http://www.bradfordone.com/faq/ (accessed 1 May 2014).

11  The Heidelberg Project – Great Public Space (2014), http://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/one?public_… (accessed 1 May 2014).

12  A. Goldbard, ‘Public Art as a Spiritual Path’ Forecast Public Art (2014). Available at: http://forecastpublicart.org/public-art-review/201… (accessed 1 May 2014).

13  Homebaked Community Land Trust, 2Up 2Down (2014), http://www.2up2down.org.uk/about/egestas-elit/ (accessed 1 May 2014).

14  Our Plans, Bradford One (2014), http://www.bradfordone.com/bradfordone-news/our-pl… (accessed 1 May 2014).

15  S. Welch ‘In wake of fires, Heidelberg Project rethinks goals, halts capital campaign’, Crain’s Detroit Business (2014). Available at: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20140330/NEWS… (accessed 1 May 2014).

16  G. Anglebrandt, ‘Expansions in the works for Heidelberg, MOCAD’, Crain’s Detroit Business (2011). Available at: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20110421/DM01… (accessed 22 April 2014).

17  P. Blond, ‘David Cameron has lost his chance to redefine the Tories’, The Guardian (2012). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/… (accessed 24 April 2014).

Pre-Worn: art, artists and the post-industrial community

Hackney, London

By Kenn Taylor.

In 2012 the Liverpool Biennial continued its tradition of using empty buildings to exhibit art. This time around, spaces it occupied for the period of the festival included the huge abandoned Royal Mail sorting office at Copperas Hill and the former waiting rooms of the Cunard shipping company on the city’s waterfront. With many visitors commenting that these unused spaces were just as, if not more, fascinating than some of the art on display in them.

In the past, the Liverpool Biennial has occupied everything from a disused Art Deco cinema in the city centre to a former glass warehouse near the docks. The de-industrialisation and de-population experienced by Liverpool over the last few decades meaning there is no shortage of empty buildings to use. The re-animation of such abandoned spaces is a key part of the Biennial’s strategy, with urban regeneration a fundamental reason for the festival’s founding and existence.

Of course, the reutilisation of former commercial space for the creation and display of art is itself an older phenomenon. Dating back to at least 1960s New York and since seen around the world from London to Berlin to Sao Paulo.

As well as being a particular trend within artistic production, the use of post-industrial areas for creative purposes also reflects wider shifts within economics and society in the latter part of the 20th century. Traditional urban hubs began to lose the industrial bases that had helped make them rich and many cities, if they could, moved towards more service-orientated economies based on things like finance, the media, tourism and leisure. The effects that this had on the communities that had relied on such industry for sustenance were usually deeply negative; economic decline, social decay and de-population.

However, this also led to the freeing up of a large amount of previously occupied space which, with demand having collapsed, was available at very low rates. This attracted the some of the expanding pool of artists in the post-war era. Once hubs of this new ‘industry’ began to emerge, more and more of the ‘creative class’, to use Richard Florida’s term, started to move in and slowly change the nature of these areas. With the subsequent upswing in activism and entrepreneurship that saw abandoned spaces becoming art galleries, coffee shops and the like, these areas became increasingly fashionable. To the point were those wishing to live in a trendy locale or buy into a particular lifestyle, even if they themselves were not ‘creative’, began to move there. Then, as wealthy professionals came to dominate these areas, the ‘poor young artists’ were forced out. Despite artists in many cases using their creative strengths to rail against the effect, the process has usually been inevitable and irreversible. Such ‘gentrification’ of post-industrial areas has been well documented, for example in Sharon Zukin’s classic study of its effects in New York: Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change.[i]

What is it though, that attracts art and artists to such post-industrial areas in the first place? That is, aside from the low costs?

The flexibility of industrial space is another key factor. Given the myriad forms of contemporary art that began to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century and the often large spaces it needs to be created and displayed in, huge open-plan buildings formerly filled with goods, machinery and people became ideal art spaces. It was initially artists’ studios, followed by grassroots galleries and then commercial galleries which began using abandoned industrial buildings, but this phenomenon perhaps came of age when public galleries also began to occupy former industrial spaces.

The use of abandoned commercial buildings allowed new museums and galleries to have the same monumental scale of older purpose-built museums and in some cases, such as Gateshead’s Baltic and London’s Tate Modern, even larger. Yet as ‘recycled’ buildings, they didn’t have the same naked self-confidence as a structure created for ‘art’s sake’ as say, Tate Britain or even the Brutalist Hayward Gallery in London.

Turning these buildings into museums was seen, less an act of reverence and ego, as were the museum constructions of the past, with their links to elitism and the idea of a strictly defined high culture, more the humble recycling of unused space. Financially it also made sense. As it became ever harder to justify the spending of public money on ‘fine art’ in a world which had begun to acknowledge all forms of cultural production had validity, re-using abandoned industrial space and bringing a ‘buzz’ to a declined area became another good reason to justify public spending on culture.

However, the notion of tapping into a pre-existing ‘authenticity’ that former industrial areas are perceived as having is also vital to this phenomenon. Like someone buying a pair of pre-worn jeans, the abandoned cranes and switchgear, decay and graffiti in post-industrial spaces lends an immediate character and ‘legitimacy’. A tinge of authenticity that can be taken up by those who are seeking it, I.E. those of middle and upper class backgrounds who inevitably dominate the creative class of any given city.

Copperas Hill Sorting Office during Liverpool Biennial

This seems to be something that is at the core of what attracts creatives, and the cultural institutions that ultimately follow them, to post-industrial buildings and communities. It is inevitably the ‘character’ and the relative ‘wildness’ of such areas which is the biggest draw after low costs and large spaces. The frequent desire for many in the creative community to live as they wish without attracting too much grief from the authorities, leads to the search for ‘transgressive’ spaces. Whilst mingling with poorer populations who behave in a less ‘conventional’ way (I.E. middle/upper class and suburban) also seems to provide in the minds of some an authenticity they crave. And therein lays the rub. The conditions which many artists seem to thrive on are those that are usually negative for the pre-existing communities that they take residence in. Abandoned space, very low rents, cheap intoxicants, an ‘edgy’ atmosphere, a lack of employment and a sense of lawlessness are generally signs of a community struggling.

Creative communities formed in this way also tend to be short-lived, relying on a rapid turnover of young people moving in. Within a few years most leave these ‘authentic’ localities, as they begin to settle down into family units. That is of course, if such areas don’t reach a tipping point and those moving in change the nature of the neighbourhoods they inhabit into more ‘family friendly’, I.E. quasi-suburban, conditions as seen in parts of London, New York and Berlin. A phenomenon which usually sees rents rise and often drives out more deprived and diverse pre-existing communities. When such gentrification does begin, creatives are usually the first to complain about the influx of the wealthier middle-classes and about how artists are being pushed out. Inevitably identifying themselves as ‘fellow outsiders’ with the ‘edgy’ local community they move into rather than the ‘Yuppies’.

Creative inhabitants of such communities are usually much less willing to admit that it is precisely them who begin the process in the first place. Without their studios and venues beginning to occupy such spaces and them being the “shock troops of gentrification” as memorably described by Rosalyn Deutsche[ii], who help make an area fashionable, the richer urban professionals would be much less likely to follow them, softly softly.

Once the notion of creative gentrification was hit upon, it quickly became a tool of local authorities world-wide to ‘improve’ areas on a brutally pragmatic level. Used as a process to quietly drive out often poor and deprived populations and replace them with the well-educated and wealthy, thus seeing an upswing in tax receipts and a decrease in expenditure. Cultural regeneration in that mode serves the interests of creatives who want ‘free’ space and those who seek areas to become ‘profitable’, but in the process inevitably, ultimately pushes out pre-existing communities.

What though of these ‘alternative quarters’ in the period between their industrial decline and their inevitable gentrification? Are they the hubs of originality and authenticity that so many seek? Well they certainly seem to be places where new ideas and artists frequently tend to emerge from, but for all the claims of uniqueness and individuality, the alternative areas of most cities worldwide, if looked at closely, seem remarkably similar. With any difference usually down to factors which predate their emergence as a creative quarter. Common denominators include the aforementioned former industrial space re-utilised for culture, an international and largely young population, more often than not from comfortable and well-educated backgrounds, ‘alternative’ cafes, graffiti, electronic music and independent clothing stores which sell similar, if ever-changing, fashion styles.

Such creative quarters may emphasise their distance from the financial quarters of cities, with their generic glass office blocks and branches of chain coffee stores, but in their own way they are just as generic; international spaces often better connected to each other than they are to the communities around them.

The respective communities that inhabit contemporary financial and creative quarters have more in common than either would probably like to think. Both are often fond of intoxicants and parties and are cosmopolitan, if largely still of the middle-upper section of global society, a section which is highly mobile and international in outlook. Like the CEO looking for the country with the lowest cost of production and tax breaks to set up a business, many artists move around the world looking for the cheapest digs and availability of funding by local authorities keen for their own slice of gentrification.

One set may wear suits, the other retro t shirts, to display their respective capital in each zone they occupy, but both are, in their own way, living off the wider community, creating ‘products’ which, though important, are not the vitals of life made in the far off agricultural and, still producing, industrial zones of the world. While ultimately both branches of this globalised class have, in their own way, occupied former industrial working class spaces of inhabitation and influence, as seen in the case of the takeover of the East End of London by a mixture of the finance class around the former docklands and the creative class in areas such as Shoreditch.

As previously discussed, most creative quarters very quickly become a parody of themselves as, after the shock troops of artists move in, the second wave of urban professionals and cultural tourists follow, occupying an area then, having usually changed it fundamentally into another generic ‘alternative’ hub, seek the cultural capital of being the first into the next ‘hot’ area.

This obsession with the inhabiting the margins seems to stem in part from a desire to exist in an alternative space to the prevailing capitalist system and a rejection of the bourgeois nature of suburban life. Finding, studying, living in and making reference to the margins in the minds of many takes them outside of a system they dislike. Yet the margins are a product of and part of the system. Their gentrification by the artistic and educated classes results in their removal as bases for those who are forced to exist on the edge of society by capitalism and turns them into areas that feed more successfully into the system. In moving into these areas to live in an alternative way, in many cases, such people ultimately help to destroy whatever was alternative about it.

As Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan put it in their essay about New York, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’: “For despite their bohemian posturing, the artists and dealers who created the East Village art scene, and the critics and museum curators who legitimize its existence, are complicit with gentrification on the Lower East Side. To deny this complicity is to perpetuate one of the most enduring, self-serving myths in bourgeois thought, the myth that, as Antonio Gramsci wrote, intellectuals form a category that is ‘autonomous and independent from the dominant social group. This self-assessment is not without consequences in the ideological and political field, consequences of wide-ranging import.’ ”[iii]

So, are there alternatives for the creative class who wish to live in such areas aside from colonising and destroying the communities they profess to love? Well if there is, it’s about integration rather than replacement and, if art and regeneration is to benefit such urban communities themselves, it can only do so by embedding the needs and desires of existing residents into practice.

One possible example is the recent Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, Liverpool, arranged by the Liverpool Biennial. Over a period of two years the project, led by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, worked to embed itself in the local community and through collaboration developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery in the neighbourhood. For the period of the Biennial itself, the group that had been formed around the project also created a tour for visitors based around meeting local people. Homebaked/2up2down thus provided services for the existing community, helped to tell the story of the area to visitors and promote local expression. Those involved are now working towards making the bakery a sustainable community business and refurbishing adjacent housing under co-operative ownership. This stands in contrast to the aforementioned former Royal Mail sorting office and Cunard waiting rooms which, now the Biennial have left, are destined for a new commercial future.

Homebaked Anfield

Yet one of the reasons this Biennial project in Anfield is unlikely to begin the process of pushing out the existing community is because of the small number of professional artists that can live in Liverpool due to the relatively small arts market and the relatively weak economy. This means the process of gentrification will always be limited. Conducting a similar initiative in an area with more opportunities for creatives to make a living and move in, such as London or New York, would perhaps still ultimately be just be another step in making the community into the next ‘hotspot’.

Mark Binelli in his book The Last Days of Detroit examines the ultimate post-industrial city and the various aspects of cultural regeneration that have gone on there, including the Detroit’s emergence as a new, low-cost, wild, authentic space for artists from elsewhere. He’s sees the potential in this to help regenerate the abandoned areas of the city now Motown has far less of a motor industry and Manhattan has almost entirely pushed its edgy aspects away. However, he is also wary of the new playgrounds of the creative class treading on the ruins of communities that in many cases had their existence swept away by factors outside their control. He quotes a local resident, Marsha Cusic: “Some of the people coming here bring a sort of bacchanal spirit, like they’re out on the frontier and they can do anything…Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”[iv]

Similarly, many of the former industrial areas of Liverpool may have no hope of a future industrial use and their re-appropriation as spaces for art, etc, can give great abandoned buildings, even abandoned areas, a new use and prevent decay into dust. Yet it should not be forgotten that, as much as it may be a futile wish, many of people who previously occupied such spaces, from Liverpool to Berlin to Detroit, would have preferred an alternative world. One of secure, healthy, happy communities with busy industries, not edgy, troubled and ‘authentic’ areas suffering at the raw end of globalised capitalism, with plenty of room for art galleries and parties.

This piece appeared on cities@manchester, a blog of the University of Manchester in May 2013.


[i] Sharon Zukin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, rev. ed. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1989)
[ii] Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1998), p. 151.

[iii] Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’,  The Portable Lower East Side, Volume 4, Number 1, (1987) <http://www.abcnorio.org/about/history/fine_art.html&gt; [accessed 2nd March 2013]

[iv] Mark Binelli, The Last Days of Detroit (London, Bodley Head, 2013), p.285.

A Culture of Participation

By Kenn Taylor

When it was announced that Liverpool had been chosen to be the 2008 European Capital of Culture, there was an outpouring of emotion in the city. After so many years of being the UK’s pariah city par excellence, the importance of the accolade to Liverpool’s collective psychology and how it was viewed externally cannot be underestimated.

Beyond the city itself though, of greater importance was how, whilst hosting Capital of Culture, Liverpool became the focus of intense debate and a subsequent sea-change in the way that many people think about concepts of culture, community, participation and regeneration.

Long before 2008 of course, Liverpool had a strong cultural output despite, or perhaps because of, its continual economic struggles. Even Liverpool’s bohemian enclaves are only a short walk from the most grinding poverty and this has always lent something of a DIY and a socially and politically aware spirit to arts in the city.

Arguably the first ‘arts centre’ in the UK was Liverpool’s Bluecoat, founded at the turn of the century in an abandoned school by rebellious spirits called the Sandon Studios Society, unhappy with the then traditional arts establishment in the city. Sixty years later a group of idealistic Liverpool University students set up the Everyman theatre in an abandoned chapel. They wanted to create a space for drama that would reflect ordinary lives and take radical perspectives, in doing so helping to pave the way for socially concerned writers like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale.

In another abandoned chapel, a group of radical creatives set up The Great Georges Community Cultural Project in 1968, arguably the UK’s first ‘community arts’ project, now still operating as the Black-E. Later, in the 1970s a group of photographers ignored by the art establishment set up shop in an abandoned pub. They called part of it the Open Eye Gallery and helped bring photographers of everyday life such as Martin Parr and Tom Wood to attention. Whatever public money was spent by the city itself on the arts in the post-war era was nearly always through the lens of ‘what will it do for the community?’ and ‘how will people connect to this?’ long before audience participation was a section on every Arts Council application form.

It was into this tradition that the UK’s choice of host city for the 2008 European Capital of Culture came into view. The hope in Liverpool was that winning the title would celebrate the city’s cultural achievements, so often forgotten or ignored, and also that it would help attract investment and create much-needed jobs. It was very much in line with pre-Crunch era Blarite ideas of turning post-industrial areas into centres for the ‘creative economy’ that the city’s bid went in. Liverpool was arguably the starting point for the application of such ideas of cultural regeneration in the UK. After the 1981 riots, the regeneration schemes in the city initiated by the then Conservative government included the opening of Tate Liverpool in 1988 in the city’s abandoned docklands. This long before London’s Tate Modern and Gateshead’s Baltic also turned redundant riverside industrial space in centres for culture.

Ultimately Liverpool was to beat favourites Newcastle/Gateshead to the Capital of Culture title. The judges who made the decision said it was Liverpool’s strong cultural heritage, future plans and most of all, the sheer enthusiasm of the city’s population for the bid that won the day. Yet, as that faithful year got closer, more and more people began to ask, what is it for and who will it benefit?

The criticisms tended to be two-fold. The property boom which was already engulfing the UK was accelerated significantly in Liverpool by the title. Soon grassroots music venues and artists studios began to be displaced by luxury flats. Capital of Culture it seemed was indeed helping to re-make the city’s fabric, but was it in a good way for its cultural scene? Secondly and perhaps more fundamentally, many people had objections to what they felt was too much focus on bringing an ‘international’ culture aimed at attracting tourists to the city and not doing enough to encourage local creative expression and involvement.

Accusations of the Liverpool Culture Company, who were tasked with running the year, being remote and lacking understanding of the local arts community were rife, if sometimes unfair. With art it is of course hard to please all of the people all of the time. However, these criticisms were perhaps summed up when a popular local Banksy work on an abandoned pub was covered over with Capital of Culture branded hoardings, something which even made Newsnight.

A whole swathe of independent fringe projects sprung up alongside the official 2008 cultural programme, often using creativity to highlight the above issues. In a city with such a tradition of DIY, rebellion and politics in art, this was perhaps inevitable. As time went on, more and more people began questioning the whole idea of the then dominant mode of cultural regeneration. With these issues highlighted by activists in Liverpool, national critics who had previously praised the cultural regeneration of Britain’s Northern cities began to write of their wariness of the ‘dropping in’ of art from on high to change things in post-industrial areas. There was a realisation that such initiatives were not necessarily bringing benefits to deprived communities, that in some ways they were making things worse and were perhaps ultimately unsustainable.

For a time, it seemed the whole Capital of Culture project was heading towards disaster. In the event, sterling work by all involved pulled it back. Ultimately delivering a programme that was varied and popular, ranging from experimental electronica to a Gustav Klimt exhibition and a play about Liverpool FC. Most local people felt, by and large, that it was a successful year, but also that how the city did culture in future would have to be different.

Yes, culture can bring up the visitor economy; witness Liverpool’s huge growth as tourist destination since 2008, recently nominated by Condé Naste Traveller as its third favourite UK destination after London and Edinburgh. Yet if the same type of art is available in London and New York, why go anywhere else? Uniqueness is what attracts visitors, culture they cannot consume elsewhere. Gaudi’s architecture brings many more people to Barcelona than the works in its contemporary arts centre, for example. More fundamentally, there was also a realisation of the need for a change in how cultural services interact with local communities. That publicly funded culture should not be just imposed from the top down, it should be developed with thought given to how different audiences can connect and become involved at different levels. In Liverpool this was perhaps just a return to the way things were done before, back to the era of the founding of the Black-E, the Open Eye and Everyman, but such thinking is beginning to embed itself within wider cultural policy and thinking.

Liverpool of course didn’t do this on its own, but the city has played a big role in debates about culture, participation and the urban environment over the last thirty years. A line could be drawn from the opening of Tate Liverpool with its ‘international culture’ coming North and its luxury flats next door, the beginning of the property and ‘new economy’ boom and the speeding up of the international art world to Capital of Culture and the Crunch and onto today’s greatly changed arts landscape, with funding reduced and audience criteria higher than ever.

Liverpool’s biggest cultural event since Capital of Culture was The Sea Odyssey Giant Spectacular in 2012 and it demonstrated some of the changes that had taken place in the way the city went about its cultural programme. Delivered by renowned French street theatre experts Royal De Luxe, the project was several years in the making. Much time was spent developing the story so that their giant marionettes, which have been seen around the world, had a local connection, in this case via Liverpool’s links to the Titanic. The procession also took in a route that encompassed Anfield and Everton, two of the city’s most deprived wards, not just the shining regenerated city centre and waterfront where so much of the 2008 programme had taken place.

Plenty of opportunities were given for local people to be involved via a Wider Participation Programme embedded from the start of the project. The Sea Odyssey Spectacular included volunteer roles ranging from ‘local advocates’ who promoted the event in the community to people actually operating the marionettes. In addition, much partnership work was undertaken so that local cultural organisations, community groups, schools, colleges and businesses could interlink their own initiatives to the event. For example, there was an accompanying festival in Anfield’s Stanley Park arranged by local partners. Consequently this event is much more fondly remembered in the city than the not dissimilar La Machine from 2008.

Similarly, while the Liverpool Biennial festival had always worked to encourage participation and engagement, for the 2012 event more focus was given to creating in-depth participatory projects. This included the Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, led by Dutch artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk. Over a period of two years, the project worked to embed itself in the local community and developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery and restoring abandoned housing in the area. For the period of the Biennial itself, the group that had been formed around the project also created a tour for visitors based around meeting local people which highlighted what had happened to the area in recent years with the failure of various regeneration schemes. Thus the project helped to bring abandoned space back into uses that benefit the community and tell local stories to visitors.

Similarly the Biennial commissioned Los Angeles based artist Fritz Haeg to work with the local community on creating a new garden at the stunningly-sited but somewhat rundown Everton Park. Both the Anfield and Everton Biennial projects had aesthetic outcomes, but ones which also addressed real local issues and needs whilst still working with international artists in an international context. Indeed, these ‘community’ projects attracted as much if not more national press attention than some of the ‘mainstream’ art shows in the city centre held at the same time.

Thinking about culture in the city is also increasingly turning towards sustainability. As a legacy from the Biennial initiatives, the bakery hopes to be fully re-opened by the end of 2013 and plans are underway with the local community for the further development of Everton Park, including a new pavilion.

Liverpool as a city appreciates the power and importance of art and culture, but knows that it can not sit in rarefied isolation from reality and shouldn’t just be dropped in and expected to improve a community by its mere presence. This isn’t to say that all art must be totally instrumentalist; as much as Sea Odyssey had regeneration ideas behind it, it was also something that was in and of itself fun and interesting to watch, but with just changing how things were done a little, it became much more than that.

A culture of participation is healthy and necessary, especially as funding cuts continue to bite and publicly funded arts organisations are more than ever responsible to and reliant on their audiences. Projects such as these undertaken in Liverpool can show the way. That it is possible to commission and create work that benefits local people, entices visitors and excites the art world all at the same time and in doing so, create the possibility of changing lives and communities for the better.

This piece appeared on Mailout.co in April 2013.

Culture

P1070262

By Kenn Taylor

Blood flowed freely from both his nose and mouth. He was forced to sniff and swallow constantly to keep it from streaming down his face. The wet metal taste sickened him and he felt pain deep in his limbs with every movement.

He forced a cough when the blood in his mouth started to drip down his throat, a cough that scattered a field of red specs across the pavement. He accepted that this was just what happened, and tonight he had been unlucky, but a raw anger still seared through his stomach, his throat, his eyes. A pure anger the likes of which he’d never felt before. He coughed another mouthful on the pavement.

The rage he felt wasn’t so much for his attackers. No, rather his employers who had demanded once more that he stay behind to help them catch up with work that hadn’t been done. So he had ended up going home in the dark, and they had ended up getting him. And he wondered again if there was any point in trying.

As muscles and bones across his body complained, he gritted his teeth hard and felt enamel jarring on enamel. He would be dammed if he was going to let them get inside his head. They could beat him up, but he would come back stronger, as always.

The four of them had gripped him down by the Baltic Fleet as he walked home from the function in the arena the agency had sent him down to steward. He had stayed behind reluctantly, knowing that if he’d argued, he would have been blacklisted by the agency again. Now though, he knew however late he had worked today, if he turned in tomorrow, black eye and all, they’d accuse him of having been fighting and send him home, “Can’t have your sort upsetting the guests now can we?”

They’d been waiting down a side road off Jamaica Street that he’d had the misfortune to take a shortcut down. There were four of them in big Honda. It was past eight o’clock, but it wasn’t even that dark. He’d seen them eyeing him up as he walked past. Lips pursed, watching everything and giving nothing away.

He’d picked up the pace right away, hoping they had bigger fish to fry. But they decided he was something for them to do while they waited for whatever business that had brought them to that part of town to materialise.

His mistake was to put up a fight. They probably would’ve just taken his money and left if he’d stayed down. But he wasn’t going to go down without a having a go at least. Never. Even though he knew it was stupid, he had always stood up to what he saw as badness even after being knocked down so many times. So he took the beating, lay for a while to recover and consider his situation, and then moved on as best he could. Like he always did

He pushed on up past Cains and the new arts centre where he’d been working on a function the other day, passed the wrecked looking maisonettes that still contained a few families and the big, faded posters proclaiming brand new developments. “What a mad fucking world,” he said aloud through the blood and bile that filled his throat.

His faith in the rightness of things that had once been so strong was now decaying, but with every blow his faith in himself grew stronger. And he knew that it was only by being stronger and fighting harder that he would be able to push past all that had been loaded upon him. His only fear was that this desire to escape would corrupt him, but he took solace in all those others who had made it.

He pulled at his uniform; a nylon polo top now speckled with sweat and blood, and coughed another mouthful onto the pavement. A passer-by glanced briefly at his shambling but determined figure, before quickly averting their eyes and crossing the street.

Sucking the blood back into his nose once more, he hammered intently down the long expanse of Upper Parliament Street. Cars streamed past him, but as this point he had neither care nor thought to if they saw his split lip, swollen eye, bloodied top, and he raised his head and walked faster.

As he readied himself to cross over towards his street, he noticed something odd in the corner of his eye. Something incongruous had appeared in the familiar landscape of his regular walk home. He slowed his steps and the stopped to examine the new addition. All pain was forgotten briefly as he stood and stared at the object.

It stood on a battered and pock-marked field of grass where rows of terraces had once stood. It was a collection of white, flat metal strips. The strips weaved in and out of each other to form a slightly flattened square with criss-crosses at all angles. All-together, it resembled a kids’ climbing frame that had been assembled incorrectly.

He stood stock-still, save for blinking, and carried on staring intensely at the object. Behind him, cars still continued to scream past towards the Women’s’ Hospital and Renshaws.

As he stood, he raised his hand again to wipe more of the blood from his nose and to check on its congealing process. He looked absent-mindedly at the long, black and red smear on his hand and felt again the pain in his kicked shoulder as he lowered his arm.

He stepped over the small ledge of rubble that divided the field from the pavement, the only remaining marker from the houses that had once lined the street, and, with a confident stride and a slight limp, he headed across the grass towards the object.

He walked right up to the frame and lent in close, staring hard at its poles. He moved to one side, then another. Ran his hand along the smooth, coated-steel surface and look at the ridged bits on the edge where it had been folded by machine. He squatted down, lent on the frame and felt its coldness next to his cheek, then stood up again quickly, the blood rushing to his head giving him a touch of dizziness and clear white spots in front of his eyes.

As he regained full balance he looked at the object again. It still revealed nothing of its purpose, why it was here and what it was meant to be. What it had to do with anything in fact. This item, object, thing had arrived suddenly, without consent, and had been planted without asking. Not grown, bled, eeked out, but dropped from on high.

At the other end of the object he spotted a small, tilted plaque on a pole in the ground. He went over and read it: “Playground in a New Media Universe. Coated steel structure, 2008. Otto Lucas b. New York 1974. Commissioned for Liverpool’s Community Culture Programme.”

He read it again, then looked at the object, then read it again, then looked at the object. As he went to read the panel again, a drop of blood landed on it; a bright, bright red spot that expanded outwards a dozen tiny lines.

This made him smile, and he sucked the blood back up through his nostril once more, turned away and walked off purposefully towards a dead tree at the edge of the field.

Beneath it was a pile of rubbish left from the demolition of the terraces; broken brick, crisp wrappers and other assorted crap. A stubby, grey steel scaffolding pole that was amongst the detritus caught his eye. He lent forward slowly and gripped it with intent. The crusting stalagmites of blood in his nose heated and his heart pounded harder with every footstep as he headed back towards the object.

Once he reached the object again, he stopped and looked hard at it once more, willing it to reveal something, to give it a chance to redeem itself.

As he heard the cars streaming past behind him once again on Upper Parly, he smiled wide and manically, raised the scaffolding pole high above his head and brought it crashing down on ‘Playground in a New Media Universe’.

This appeared on Northern Spirit in November 2012.

Liverpool Biennial 2012 – Sally Tallant interview

  

By Kenn Taylor

In September, the seventh Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s largest and most visited visual arts festival, takes place in a city and a global environment very different from its first edition in 1999. With former director Lewis Biggs moving on, the Biennial has just appointed a new Artistic Director and CEO, Sally Tallant, formerly Head of Programmes at London’s Serpentine Gallery.

Despite having arrived a few just months ago, at a festival which began its planning as far back as 2010, Tallant has already made her influence felt: “Many of the artists had already been selected, but nothing was confirmed when I arrived. I’ve mainly been focusing on shaping the curatorial coherence of the Biennial across our programme partners.”

This year’s Biennial theme, ‘hospitality’, which unites all of the disparate artists, works and exhibitions, was already in place when she took over. However Tallant has focused this down further to a title – ‘the unexpected guest.’ “The notion of a guest is interesting,” she says. “We’re guests in the city, the artists are our guests. The art itself is a guest. The notions of hospitality; how long does hospitality last? How long are you willing to offer that? It’s very interesting also with the way in which Liverpool is transforming itself into a tourism and leisure orientated economy.”

When the Biennial began, Liverpool was yet to undergo its vast redevelopment or win its European Capital of Culture title, a status aided in part by the Biennial itself. This is something which has placed both the festival and the city at the centre of debates around arts-led regeneration. Tallant sees this as the Liverpool Biennial’s key point of difference from all the other art festivals in the world: “Liverpool has an amazing history of arts-led regeneration, going back a very long way. I think it’s absolutely crucial to involve artists, writers and philosophers, poets in thinking about how a city reinvents and builds itself. In particular in Liverpool, a post-industrial city, where it’s possible to ask questions around the value of art and its role in urban contexts.”

The Biennial takes over virtually all of Liverpool’s cultural venues, along with numerous public realm interventions and temporary sites across the city. In the past, because of this vastness, the festival has been criticised for lacking coherence. This is something Tallant has been focusing on since her tenure began: “I’ve been working closely with my colleagues to ensure that when people come to Liverpool, they’ll experience something that feels very fluid, integrated and coherent. I’m thinking about the Biennial as a period of time. So it lasts ten weeks, but has eleven weekends. We’ve developed themes programmed with content for each weekend, so each one will be a mini festival in itself.”

Many of the artworks in this year’s festival will be kept under wraps till nearer the event, but one project Tallant can revel continues Liverpool Biennial‘s tradition of interventions into the public realm, literally bringing contemporary art out into the streets: “We’re working with an Israeli artist called Oded Hirsch, who is making a very large-scale intervention into Liverpool 1. It is a sculptural work that will appear to burst through the very fabric of the shopping district and it will be asking a question around ‘what are those places?’ and what is it that lies beneath. I think it will be a very uncanny interruption into the everyday.”

Despite the scale and scope of the Liverpool Biennial, the festival has still often lacked critical attention or recognition and this is also something Tallant wants to address. “If you look at the artists that we’ve had in the Biennial,” she says, “it’s incredible really. Some the most important contemporary artists of our time and there’s been a few hundred of them. What I think is we haven’t always done is communicated that. So I am building on the existing partnerships the Biennial has, but also bringing in stronger, I hope, ones that I have built up by working in London for the last 15 years.”

One of her key aims is to highlight Liverpool as the ‘UK’s Biennial’ and emphases its international role: “By positioning us as the UK’s Biennial, I think we’ll be able to work more productively in terms of collaboration with other partners in the UK, as well as thinking about strong research partnerships internationally. Building on the idea of research with other cities in the world facing similar issues to Liverpool in terms of post-industry and the necessity for rethinking around urbanism and reinvention.”

Liverpool Biennial

15th September – 25th November 2012

This piece appeared in f22 magazine in June 2012.