I grew up in a region that was scarred by economic decline and disinvestment. It was a surprise to me as I got older and travelled further that some people thought decaying buildings, places abandoned and boarded-up, areas of wasteland that stayed there forever, were unusual, exciting even.
Sure, I can appreciate the more interesting visual layers to be found where nature is eating away at human effort. But I’ve also experienced how so many places get reduced to just that decay. How the media will pick out declined structures to capture a picture they had in mind before they even arrived, avoiding the dozens of well-maintained streets nearby. Grab a few shots of the shittest alley they can find, then back off quickly to the better parts of London or Manchester to file their story. I’ve seen the power of such stories to distort perceptions and how that can damage people and places.
People living in communities like the one at this crossroads face many issues; a shortage of good jobs, a frustrating lack of amenities and declining public services. Parts of the media though will portray it as if that’s all there is. A litany of decay and despair for their readers to consume so they can feel that, however miserable their lives are, someone somewhere else is living worse than them, so that’s okay. Yet yards from that shitty alley, there are houses and gardens in good nick. Footy banners out. Railings brightly painted. Chalk paint on the floor from kids playing. The buildings which are empty have long faded into the background of everyday existence for those who live here, which might seem strange to those from places where every square foot is intensely capitalised. People have got their corner here, however modest, and they get on with it, despite all that is stacked against them, all that is thrown at them.
This landscape, though, visibly demonstrates the pain that its residents have been through. So much writing on urban life for the past 10-15 years has been about too much growth – too many people, too much construction, too much development. At least the writing from the richest metropolises which dominate the media, arts and academia. Yet that growth never reached many places. Such urban decay is scar tissue in a community whose environment has been wrought time and again by decades of disinvestment and bad decisions by people far away. Political stripes may change, but people still find themselves used or forgotten.
This was and is a working-class community. Unlike the London narrative of gentrification, the environment around this crossroads is what happens when first you take away the economy. Then people start to leave. Then there’s too many buildings that are no longer needed. Then so many of the things which make a coherent, thriving neighbourhood shrink away. As more people leave, especially the young, and aren’t replaced by new incomers, optimism for positive change declines. There are still useful bits of public infrastructure from when various governments had brief periods of largesse, but these are now too often falling apart, shutting and slipping away. ‘Left behind’ is the narrative frequently used for these places, but ‘fucked over’ is more accurate. What happens when a state treats a place as, at best, a problem, more often, with indifference and, at worst, with malign intent.
What was done to places like the community at this crossroads is not all they are. It doesn’t mean though, that people who live here don’t feel the pain this neglect causes to collective and individual psychology. Rundown buildings are the visible manifestation of an experience that burns into the mind of people across generations.
This is what affects middle class writers and photographers when they come somewhere like this. It’s alien to them, what others have gotten used to. When culture seekers and artists are attracted to inner-urban ‘grittiness’, they want visible vibrancy that’s rough around the edges, not people dealing as best they can with unglamorous multigenerational poverty. There’s too much edge for them here, without the soothing balm brought by street art or street food.
Perhaps such landscapes were unusual once, contained to a handful of areas that could be safely written off by the powers that be. These days, this abandonment of people and places creeps into everywhere in the UK, outside the gold-plated parts of the south east, as shops close and good jobs disappear. Now even some well-to-do areas are seeing their high streets decline. You can’t say though that the people who live at this crossroads didn’t warn them, but were told: too bad for you, but it couldn’t happen here.
Yet in the places where the new normal is the old normal, people still go on. Places where neighbours are the same for years, the families often outlasting the buildings in the cycles of clearance. Communities intertwined for decades. More so than in supposedly permanent rural idylls which have long become professional commuter towns. Those who remain somewhere that has dealt with large outward migration tend to be stoic about a place and each other.
What people don’t want in a place like this are more promises of grand gestures of change. Because most of the time, it doesn’t happen, and when it does, it’s usually indifferent to them and has often made things worse. Knocking down and rebuilding endlessly, but never really providing sustained investment in a community or addressing the lack of serious economic opportunities.
This crossroads is an amalgam of the decades: Victorian pubs, New Labour schools, 1980s bungalows, 1970s flats, 1990s petrol stations. It is not a place that’s dead though. It’s a place where the idea of catching a decent break can seem remote, but people go on. Despite the fucking over and the predominant media interest being poverty porn, people do their own rebuilding. The housing co-ops here: communities with well-built houses, plenty of green space and long waiting lists to move in. These sorts of places are often hated by much of the left and right though, neither fulfilling the nostalgic desire to have brave workers gratefully accepting their soaring new concrete wonderhomes from the paternalistic elite who designed them, nor the ruthless Home As Castle acquisition of your own thin slice of Faux Olde England. A working class which has its own ideas about what it wants is horrifying to many. As a result, their successes are ignored, and others don’t learn.
Yet, as local authorities crumble to bankruptcy, government action stumbles over the consequences of the last forty years, and the grass on sites of long demolished buildings grows high and unkept, perhaps now is the moment for those with their hands on the money and the cameras to hand them over. To those who have tried to exert positive change on their patch, despite everything. People who have ideas and skills, though are rarely given the opportunity to exercise them or to control resources. This place is the crossroads the UK stands at. The country has been here before and went a long way down a dark and now thoroughly broken path. The stakes are higher than ever. They need to learn from those who have had to deal with the mistakes of others for decades, and yet who still go on.
The vastness of the vista when you reach the peak of the Freshfield dunes is enough to encourage a sharp intake of breath, even when the winds aren’t up. Just before the shuffle, often ankle-deep, down the loose grain sands to sea level.
Such expanse so close to intense urban life can surprise many, the lay of the land keeping all that density just out of view here. Very different to the beach at Crosby, with its Iron Men, suburbia just behind and the striking colours and angular shapes of the container port adjacent. That’s an attractive scene too, but not otherworldly like Freshfield can seem, just a few train stops further along.
A line of sky, a line of water, a line of sand. Long stretched streams of cloud vapour, separating at the edges like torn cotton wool. Freshfield can almost seem like a child’s picture of the coast. The thin frames of the wind turbine clusters waving at a steady beat in the distance, the only continual indicators of the industrial world in this space. Beyond those though, a view further to the black undulating hills of Wales.
In some lights from the top of the dunes, the Freshfield sands seem almost grey. A stretching moonscape butting against water that often appears far more tranquil than the reality of the intense currents and tidal range of the Mersey estuary and Liverpool Bay. The optical illusion across these horizons makes the huge industrial block colour ships that sail past appear much closer than they really are. As if you could paddle out in shallow waters and touch them.
The Irish sea winds whip the sands into wisping streams, giving visibility to the air and a flecking of grit that on some days forces you to close your eyes against it. The wind and moreso the tide never let up here, eating away day after day at the coastline, slowly pushing it back and advancing the course of the sea. The dunes are the principal barrier, their tufts of grass struggling to the surface, curved in the direction of the wind like punk hairdos. Behind them, the other barrier: tall pine trees, the sun breaking through their foliage to spotlight the ground. They can give the impression of ancient forest, though in some respects they’re almost as artificial as the wind turbines and often shorter lived. It’s only once through these trees you can see the road back to wealthy commuter towns and those frequent electric trains.
The sands seem smooth from a distance, but their dips and craters, fragments of dirt and life, soon show up as soon as you get close enough. Sand deeply ridged by the pull of the tide. Sand sucking down and piling up, devouring flimsy fences.
And there, revealed by collapsing, receding dunes, piles of odd chunky fragments of rubble shaped by years of tides. All this hastily dumped during WWII after the heavy Blitz raids on Merseyside, a temporary fix in an emergency with no thought for long term. Here they still are.
Jagged, bubbled lumps of aggregate sit next to once deep red angular bricks now washed pink and smoothed around the edges. Large, ominous looking chunks of concrete, their original purpose now lost, stand out squat amongst them. Here though clearly what was once two steps. There, the straight, carefully-laid remains of a wall, chunks of crumbling cement still futilely clinging to it. Rusting twisted spiders legs of re-enforcement stick out, escaping the pile where they can. Still a danger, these fragments of long lost buildings. A reminder of the terrible destruction of that war on the nearby city. This debris slowly, ever further, getting broken down. Now coloured pebbles. One day sand.
Freshfield is an outlet valve for the city. An easy place to go without needing a car to get lost amongst the many peaks and troughs of the dunes with yourself or others. There’s always a human craving for wide open space that overwhelms us. Reduced to our smallness when separated from our crowds and our constructions. Casting our shadows on the waters, footprints are soon smoothed away, as this landscape remains as indifferent to the human presence as it can. The remains of the war will take longer to disappear, but will do just as inevitably.
When the ships have stopped and the electric trains too, there’s just the wind and spinning of the distant turbines powering kettles and lighting lamps back in cities and towns. The space in Freshfield goes on and on and that going on is a deep reminder. A blowing away of the narrowness that we build around ourselves in screens and queues and buses and cracked paving stones. A reminder for when we go back to our urban lives where the wind has no sand grit nor strength to blast the eyes and the lungs.
Birkenhead was built around a shipyard, Cammell Laird. When I was nine years old it closed down. Our school was taken to the yard as the last submarine built there was launched. As we waved our little flags, we had little understanding that we were effectively waving away the local economy and our own future. That year, 1993, male unemployment in some parts of Birkenhead was 52%. Our town just a microcosm for the wider region around Liverpool, which faced huge challenges of economic decline and all the negative social impacts that cascade out from that.
What is the point of a shipbuilding town, or any kind of place, when the economic or strategic situation that brought it into being no longer exists? What happens to the culture of a place and its people when it is left to rot? Urban areas have always been the cradle of art and culture. These are also amongst the few things left when urban civilisations throughout history have collapsed. If culture is all somewhere still has, can a place survive on it?
As long as there have been cities, they have attracted artists. In fact, the professional artist, distinct from a member of a community who makes art only as part of what they do, is dependent on a wider superstructure to support them. To be a professional artist, someone, somewhere else, has to be growing the food, generating the energy, erecting the buildings and removing the rubbish.
With the rise of industrialisation from the 18th century onwards, nouveau riche cities that grew rapidly powerful on the back on industrial wealth were earnest to stress their cultural credentials by funding artists and major cultural buildings. Such buildings often adopted Neoclassical styles inspired by the ruins of the ancient urban civilisations of Rome and Greece. These new cities viewing themselves as the heirs to such power and culture. Aping Rome, Liverpool even wrote SPQL in its grand civic hall’s metalwork, such was the imperial confidence. These buildings were often built far from the factories, docks and warehouses that paid for them, industrial cities and towns wanting to avoid notice of the grime and ‘unsightliness’ of the very things that made them rich. Indeed, while some artists of the industrial period celebrated the rapid changes taking place, most initially sought refuge from it. Seeking out in their art an alternative to the dark satanic mills and the poverty of the over-populated city. These artists favoured the romantic ruin, the rural idyll, the ‘lost beauty’ of pre-industrial times, like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement which ironically found favour with rich industrialists in Britain’s urban North. This would not be the last time that an artistic protest against social and economic change ended up being consumed by those who were at the heart of such change.
In the later 19th and early 20th century, the movement against the urban blight and poverty begat by industrialisation grew. Figures such as William Morris and John Ruskin were influential in inspiring the likes of the Garden City movement. This, along with the development of public transportation and technological changes, led to an increasing movement away from industry and human habitation in the inner-city.
After WWII, a range of factors formed a pincer movement against the industrial city. Businesses wanted new, large single-storey industrial buildings, with ease of vehicle access and parking, close to new motorway networks. No longer brick multi-storeys near railway and river. Residents began to leave too. Where suburban rail lines led in the first part of the 20th century, the rise of the car accelerated the trend. Once only the wealthy could have their ‘house in the country’ and still get to a place of work, now this was open to many more people. Rising incomes, easier access to mortgages and record house building saw a trickle become a flood. Some people were forced to move though. Many architects and artists were desperate to make the world anew after the horrors of the two World Wars and the Great Depression. They saw the only possibility of getting away from such corruption and destruction in urban areas was pretty much starting from again from scratch: creating new urban areas along more ‘rational’ lines after mass demolition. With such Modernist planning ideas reaching their zenith in the mid-1960s, the development of New Towns and vast overspill estates far away from the centre saw a large inner-city exodus. With housing in inner urban areas often being replaced with high rises, further breaking up older urban patterns, their structures and communities.
By the late 1960s, all these shifts had created vicious circles which sucked away people, activity, wealth and power from central cities. Expensive infrastructure and services that had developed over decades became ever harder to maintain with the declining tax base that came with people and organisations moving away. This was starkly illustrated in the population changes of post war cities. From Detroit’s population height of 1.8 million in 1950 it is now down to just 700,000. Liverpool’s population meanwhile shrank from its 1939 peak of 857,000 to 439,000 today. In 1939 the population of inner London was 4.4 million, by 1988 it was 2.5 million. In 1980 New York City’s population had dropped a million from a decade before and the city narrowly avoided bankruptcy in the 1970s.
The solutions proposed to arrest this decline were again heavily reliant on Modernist planning ideas. The future of these inner cities, it was said, was for large, office-based businesses, while the remaining urban population were condensed into housing blocks. So huge new office complexes were built. Examples include the Renaissance Centre which today dominates Detroit’s waterfront, and the similarly grandiose but never built ‘Aquarius City’ office complex in Liverpool, which would have seen the now Grade I listed Albert Dock complex razed for it. However, as the western economy declined into the 70s, the funding and demand for such schemes dried up, leading to pockmarked and devastated urban areas and remaining populations with few employment opportunities.
Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities critiqued what had by then become orthodox planning, noting: ‘This is the most amazing event in the whole sorry tale: that finally people who sincerely wanted to strengthen great cities should adopt recipes frankly devised for undermining their economies and killing them.’[ii] Jacobs was incredibly influential in getting wider society and those in power to take a different look at the qualities of the older, inner-city. However, her passion and those she inspired, for such areas and their communities, would later have malign consequences around gentrification and development that Jacobs and her followers did not foresee. Or perhaps wilfully ignored, because of the role they played in them.
There was a point in the 1970s when London, Liverpool, Detroit, and New York all seemed to be on a roughly similar path, but from the 1980s there was a strong divergence between cities who re-forged a new base of existence, along finance and creative capital, even if it didn’t offer a new future for all these cities’ existing residents, and those cities who found it harder to adapt to the growing Neoliberal, ‘post-Fordist’ world.
‘Through its complex orchestration of time and space, no less than through the social division of labor, life in the city takes on the character of a symphony: specialized human aptitudes, specialized instruments, give rise to sonorous results’[iii] Lewis Mumford
Art and culture in industrial cities was traditionally bankrolled by either the city’s authorities or its wealthy industrialists, who were frequently one in the same, This was usually limited to ‘high culture’, with ‘grassroots culture’, consumed by those working in the factories, warehouses and dockyards owned by these industrialists, often existing on its own terms. This culture was paid for by its mass popular base rather than by a small number of wealthy individuals. Thus, the industrial city had two aspects of artistic production supported separately by its small number of very wealthy individuals and by its large, mostly poor mass.
Often there was artistic and social tension between these forms of artistic patronage. Just as the United Auto Workers were gaining strength in 1930s Detroit, Edsel Ford was sponsoring Communist-sympathising Diego Rivera to paint his Detroit Industry Murals. At the other end of the spectrum, occasional autoplant worker Berry Gordy later used his experience on a production line to influence the creation of Motown Records’ system of ‘hit’ production. In Liverpool meanwhile, dominated by its vast port, the arrival and departure of many different sailors brought musical influences from around the world, especially the US, helping to influence the sound of Merseybeat and The Beatles.
It was this flux between large, diverse mass populations and a relatively small number of extremely wealthy individuals that helped produce the vibrant cultures of industrial cities. But the gulf between these two parts of society fuelled increasing tensions between them, which were played out through the 20th century. The 1960s would see the start of a decisive break in culture, cities and industry. Merseybeat and Motown were at this time reaching their peak, their global influence far outreaching the impact of all the ‘high culture’ that industrialists had bankrolled in their respective cities the whole century previous. These Black and working-class, marginalised cultures, rooted in the cities they were created in, ended up far surpassing in importance the elite’s version of art in their host cities, so often based in replicating the past of other places and cultures. Yet even as this was happening, Liverpool and Detroit were already on the path to their economic decline. The increasing power, wealth and leisure time of the mass working class which helped fuel these scenes was also reaching its peak before it began to fall.
By the late 60s culture and artists were frequently seen as having a dangerous power by those in charge of increasingly challenged and struggling city authorities as the power of the patrician elite began to decline. The actions in Paris in 1968 were the most famous, but London too was rocked by art school occupations and anti-Vietnam and anti-nuclear protests. In Detroit the devastating 1967 riots were a key turning point in the city’s fortunes. In 1970s Liverpool, the city already by then desperate to develop its economy, gave little opposition to The Cavern Club being demolished by British Rail for a new underground line. Both Liverpool and Detroit becoming globally known for their vibrant music, which replaced their previous reputation as centres of industry, transitioned quickly to them being seen as bywords for economic decline and urban decay.
All this went in tandem with the continued thrust by civic leaders in the virtues of Modernist planning, but with diminishing returns and increasing opposition. In these cities, like many others, hard drugs like heroin and later crack cocaine began to flood into deprived and desperate communities with an attendant rise in street gangs and crime. This in turn saw even more people and businesses leave and more urban decline. The city, many declared, was dead.
Yet, it was in this very atmosphere that some inner city cultures began to flourish. In New York, unwanted tenements and industrial buildings began to be utilised as new spaces by creative people making new forms of art, exemplified by Andy Warhol’s Factory. Clubs like CBGBs developed in run-down parts of the city, with Television, Talking Heads and Patti Smith emerging as New York sailed towards bankruptcy. Detroit had the MC5 and Iggy Pop. Eric’s nightclub in Liverpool helped birth bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The Teardrop Explodes. Hip-Hop and the culture surrounding it grew, generating interest globally even as New York’s leadership despaired about the ever more elaborate graffiti covering its run-down Metro system. The very fact that parts of the centre of New York were so empty made it a magnet for people who were not accepted or couldn’t afford to live elsewhere.
In Detroit and Chicago meanwhile, the empty factories and warehouses made redundant by industrial changes became home to flourishing dance music cultures, House from Chicago and Techno in Detroit. This in turn found favour in the UK, with clubs emerging in the abandoned industrial spaces of Liverpool, Manchester and London and rave culture finding popularity amongst their disenfranchised and unemployed youth.
In the late 20th century the inner city was a place of tension, decay and poverty, but it was also the cradle of change. Far from being dead, the spaces left by the receding economic tide became home to some of the most cutting edge aspects of global art and culture. Yet, in many of these cases, those in charge of these cities did their best, not only to not sponsor, support or even cash in on this, but to shut it down. The pop culture flourishing that saw the birth of Motown and Merseybeat, while initially being seen as harmless and positive, began to upset the status quo and subsequent radical cultural outputs were treated with concern and often hostility. Being targeted more often than not with enforcement action by local authorities and police. But as the hope for Modernist style mass renewal began to fade and crumble, a different perspective slowly began to grow. As the old dense urban landscapes were being swept away. Because of the very fact they were disappearing and were associated with radical, even dangerous, culture, such landscapes soon began to attract a new generation, the children especially of those who’d for one reason or another, left such places for the suburbs.
What would start to save these cities, it began to seem, was their radical cultures. Something which could have only reached its peak as the contradictions inherent in these places began to cause their decline.
I find myself back in Stanley Dock, the huge, crumbling warehouse on the edge of the city. When I was a kid my dad used to take me to the rough and ready market held in it so he could buy ‘second hand’ tools. What brings me here over a decade later is a party for the Liverpool Biennial art festival. There’s free booze, good music, dancing. Having grown up wanting to be part of the creative world, but worried I might never be able to, it feels good. 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.’ This sentence sticks a little in my craw. On the one hand, who doesn’t love a party in an old warehouse? But then, to not realise 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. But hey, it is a party, I go back to dancing.
‘The Birth of Gentrification’ by Lees, Slater and Wyly, describes succinctly the change in how such urban places were perceived by a new generation from the 1960s onwards: ‘In both the United States and in Britain, post-war urban renewal meant the bulldozing of old neighbourhoods 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’ neighbourhoods.’[iv]
One of the roles of artists from the industrial revolution through to the post-industrial one has been that of highlighting the value of things which wider society has discarded. Those in the Romantic movement in the 19th century wanted to highlight the beauty that they saw was being lost in the fields and hamlets and small workshops, the long-established ways of life being swept away by industrialisation. While the artists moving into New York’s emptying loft buildings and London’s decaying docklands in the later 20th century also wanted to reflect and argue for the worth of such places and cultures that had been written off as economically unviable and of the past.
As documented by Sharon Zukin in Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change[v], art and artists played a particular role in the development of gentrification in decayed urban areas. The ‘character’ and relative ‘wildness’ of such places was a draw, with them seen to be outside of mainstream culture, just as the countryside was for artists 100 years before. In these locations, artists could live cheaply and relatively free, with plenty of space for venues, studios, galleries and parties. Yet 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 in more ‘conventional’ places. That is of course, if such areas don’t reach a tipping point and those moving in shift the nature of the neighbourhoods they inhabit to suit their changed needs. Such changes attract more people who wish to buy into such developing locations. This drives up property prices, which in turn attracts further intense private investment and price rises. Once an area starts to gentrify, it is almost impossible to stop – a single building or even a block may be kept in old use due to protections or campaigns of one form or another, but usually everything around them still changes.
This pattern has now become so familiar to be almost banal. It’s important however to note the date of the publication of Zukin’s Loft Living, 1982, and how long it took for her points to become mainstream. This is related to the speed of gentrification. Slow, at first, almost unknowable in the 1960s, moving through to today where districts can go from ‘off the radar’ to impossibly expensive at a speed where the process is clearly visible to all.
However, importantly, this phenomenon predominantly only has significant impact on economically successful areas with a large enough creative and media bases; the post-industrial cities which became leading centres of service industries such as London, Berlin, LA, San Francisco and New York. Places like this have become so hyper-successful and keep growing at such intense rates, that not only have their former industrial communities and artists been pushed out from the centre of the city, but much of their professional middle classes too.
‘London may soon be faced with an ‘embarrass de richesses’in her central area and this may prove to be a problem too.’ Ruth Glass, who coined the term gentrification, writing in 1964[vi] ‘The problem in the South Side of Chicago is the same as it is in Liverpool, or wherever, it is: what do working people do now the industry has gone?’[vii] Theaster Gates
In cities which didn’t catch this bandwagon though, like Detroit and Liverpool, communities don’t really face being pushed out by Modernist development as in the past, or gentrification now, rather many are instead pushed to leave by the lack of opportunities and declining local infrastructure and services, or risk getting trapped in negative cycles of deprivation. Such cities lose more talent than they gain. Job opportunities can be few and those available often low quality and not well paid. Fewer companies being headquartered in them means such places have less agency and a lower tax base, being dependent on the whims of central governments re-distributing national taxes or big companies choosing to invest there. Educational attainment is usually lower, meaning there’s a lower skills base and fewer new companies and organisations are founded. Gaining media attention for anything other than a negative story is hard as most media is usually based far away and mainly interested in things which re-enforce the existing views of its audiences.
Yet, as gentrification is a major issue in the cities that are amongst the biggest centres of arts, the media and urban academic discourse, it presented as something that is a key threat to all urban areas. When instead, it is a symptom of a wider issue where a smaller number of global megacities become ever larger and more powerful and ever more exclusionary for people without wealth and other former industrial cities and their populations increasingly struggle.
Art and culture in these latter cities, while often vibrant, are always threatened by their weaknesses. There may be plenty of ‘cheap and wild’ places for artists and culture to happen, but markets and support are limited, attention hard to find. Artists which do emerge often are attracted to better opportunities elsewhere and while individual success happens, wider cultural scenes tend to be fragile, transitory and dependent on student/graduate populations moving in and then often, back out again. As well as come-and-go subsidy from elsewhere. Cultural institutions, if they still exist, are often impoverished and risk averse, reducing opportunities for new work and new artists.
Despite the arguments by people like Richard Florida in his The Rise of the Creative Class, cities attracting artists are not in themselves a solution to their economic problems. Artists moving in can help an area be revitalised, as repeatedly seen, but that cannot form the whole economy of anything other than a small, specialised settlement – for example Japan’s ‘art island’, Naoshima. The megacities such as London, Berlin and New York which have huge creative and cultural sectors, still always find them playing second fiddle to the bigger still corporate and public administration sectors.
A taxi driver in Detroit asked me, ‘Do you want to see the abandoned Packard plant, lots do?’ I thought for a while and replied, ‘No thanks, you know we also have a lot of abandoned factories where I’m from too.’ My time was short and I wanted to see some of the community arts and renewal projects, decaying warehouses I could get in Birkenhead. The familiarity in visiting Detroit from the Northern England was stark. However, Detroit was in a worse condition, though of course it was nothing like the stereotypes of the media. There were plenty of beautiful, fully occupied buildings, lots going on, There was also the real positivity people had that you were visiting and interested in the contemporary life of the city and what had been restored, not just what was decaying.
I visited the Motown Museum and it was joyous, seeing the original recording studio, the enthusiasm of the local tour guide. Afterwards, I understood better why people got so excited visiting Penny Lane in Liverpool. When we consume culture, there’s a fascination that can grow about the origins of that culture which propels us to engage with it. Of course though, engaging with a real city is always different. And living somewhere that had a vibrant past culture is not the same as living somewhere that has a vibrant contemporary culture. The tour guide reminded us that Motown Records left Detroit for LA in the 1970s, and I was reminded of Warp Records leaving Sheffield for London in 2000.
We tend to love cities for their culture, be that food, music, architecture, literature, sport, film. That view of a city though is of course a projection, often many projections laid over each other to create a powerful, chimeric image. It must be tempered by the actuality of a city: its messy, complicated reality; that most cities are ever changing. And if they’re not, they’re often dying.
Art and culture can help drive social change. It can even form part of an economy, but you cannot run a major urban settlement on cultural production alone. Trying to do that leaves cities, their populations and the culture they create vulnerable. Since its industries left for more modern places and it became a wholly a tourist city, the population of Venice has declined significantly. The fact is, far less interesting things, dull even, are also needed to help the residents of declined cities: hi tech manufacturing, decent government jobs, a diverse economic base. Yet, as anyone who works in economic development in a depressed city will tell you, getting such ‘good jobs’ and the social benefits that come from them is damn hard, especially when you’re battling against the seemingly ever growing power of the global megacities. Meanwhile, the fallout from the still relatively new phenomenon of post-industrial cities continues to grow, causing profound political shifts, as exemplified by the rise of Trump and Brexit, both significantly backed by those living in places smashed by industrial decline. Though it must be noted both also drew support from other demographics too.
The cultural tragedy is for Liverpool and Detroit is, in becoming less sustainable, in seeing a lot of their young talent leave for other quarters, even if a handful of arts graduates moving in find their ‘edginess’ more interesting than where they grew up, is that the vibrant, transformational, radical art that grew out of such bustling diverse working class cultures, like Motown and Merseybeat, is far less likely to be repeated. An economic underpinning giving their working classes power, time and money is needed to create these conditions. These beautiful cities and others like it deserve better, but they cannot do it on their own and years of laissez-faire rule by successive central governments has allowed them to fall so far it will be hard to pull it back.
I’d been working in Hull a couple of years and not been into a bigger city for a while. Arriving in London for a day’s training, the effect was alarming. I’d lived in London in the past, but after so long in a city struggling, with its retail centre in decline, to suddenly be dropped back into the intense stream of the capital running full tilt – every shop occupied, every park filled, every piece of shining new public transport packed and constant, was jarring. It dawned on me how, if this is all you saw every day, how hard it would be to understand or even comprehend the challenges of a struggling city. What it’s like to live in a place where every decent job created is cancelled out by a job lost. The grinding down of any belief in anything ever getting better if you have to fight for every single thing to even be kept afloat. How easy it would be to think your urban problems – house prices, gentrification, too many tourists, a transport system that’s too busy – were the only urban problems.
London and New York are becoming gilded cages. Art and culture helped rebrand and reshape them, but this was just the surface section of the much larger iceberg of dematerialised capitalism honing into view. The culture that renewed them is now being driven out. Of course, they are not short of culture to consume: every possible permutation of art can be experienced and bought. Places like this will always attract artists because there will always be a market, but will they again be the epicentres, the crucibles of art and culture that cuts across classes and national identity, culture that helps change the world? Or rather, just rich places that can deck themselves out in the best they can buy? Much as the city fathers of the industrial age did in aping the styles of Rome and Greece to cover the fact they were built fast on hot money largely derived from exploitation. While there’ll probably always be shows on Broadway and in the West End, even after Covid, as the poor and even the moderately well off are forced out of London and New York by hyper-development, how many of them will be written by people who can afford to live there?
At the other end are the under-invested cities. Detroit and Liverpool, Glasgow and New Orleans, Baltimore and Hull. Places which despite everything against them, still have vibrant cultures. Yet they face a crisis not just economic, but existential. These cities will always produce talent, have creativity within them, but with the jobs, markets and media elsewhere, how often will people have to leave to make it? How much will any cultural success provide a future for their wider urban populations? To quote the film Billy Elliot: ‘What about us? We can’t all be fucking dancers.’
Post-industrial cities didn’t really start to emerge till the 1970s and the finance driven megacities are an even newer phenomenon. So, just at it seemed cities were doomed in the 1970s, there could yet be decisive turns for places on either side of this dichotomy. The huge impact of Covid-19 has thrown things up in the air in a way not seen since the Oil Shock and we can only speculate as to what will follow. I hope for change and want to see underinvested towns and cities get a break so can thrive not just survive. As well as the overgrowth of the megacities reined in so they can breathe. At the moment both are being slowly strangled by the deep imbalance between them.
Our cities are screaming to live, but they can’t do it on their own. With the right investment and support, and public control, perhaps we can see again a more balanced urban life, which supports thriving cultures. Only then will the new equivalent of Motown or Merseybeat be able to rise from them again to change the world.
Detroit Is No Dry Bones. Detroit You Shall Live[viii] Street graffiti
From The Guardian to Lonely Planet, Tech City UK to RIBA, everyone is talking about Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle: a cutting-edge area of culture, nightlife and rapidly growing creative and tech businesses, all in a district that didn’t really exist 10 years ago.
So how did it develop – and what can other cities learn from it?
Baltic Triangle was originally an industrial area nestled between Liverpool’s city centre, its waterfront and its southern residential districts. As businesses folded or moved to newer premises elsewhere, many of its buildings, from 19th century warehouses to 1980s light industrial units, lay abandoned.
In the pre Credit Crunch property boom, sites closer to Liverpool city centre were occupied by artists and creative businesses, and the area saw rents rise, flats and shops built on venues and studios – all the usual tropes of stage two gentrification.
But 2008, as well as being the year of the Credit Crunch, was also Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture. While that served the property boom, it also gave creatives a weapon to fight against it, and Liverpool’s authorities faced a conundrum: how could a real capital of culture allow such things to be swept away by property development? The city needed significant external investment to develop its economy – but how could it also protect and nurture the culture that had helped to turn it around?
Not everyone could see the potential of an area which barely had street lighting – but a few pioneering organisations, such as Elevator Studios, could sense an opportunity. As Mark Lawler, director of Baltic Creative Community Interest Company (CIC), explains: “The people who make strategic decisions thought, okay here’s an opportunity to actually protect some space long-term for creative and digital industries so they don’t get pushed out as values rise.”
The Baltic Triangle’s name comes from it being a triangle of land near the historic Baltic Fleet pub. Some have suggested that the district emerged entirely organically; the reality, as is often the case, was a little more complex.
The way Lawler tells it, Merseyside ACME, Liverpool Vision, Liverpool City Council and the North West Development Agency (NWDA) got round a table, and discussed what assets they had available. “The NWDA said we have 18 warehouses let’s stick them in the pot and grab some grants to redevelop them.”
A new organisation was established to lead this project – and after some discussion about whether it should be a charity or private firm, the coalition settled on the CIC as a halfway house. Lawler explains: “We have a community statement which is about supporting the growth of the creative and digital industries in the Liverpool City Region.”
Organisations such as Liverpool Biennial were encouraged to move to the area, and Baltic Creative CIC’s small units began to attract new creative businesses; soon, more eateries and venues were opening to cater for the growing cluster. Meanwhile, as the council improved the public realm, two new University Technical Colleges (one for computer games, one for life sciences) brought students to the area.
Carl Wong is the CEO LivingLens, a company innovating in the use of video in market research. Founded in late 2013, it now has eleven staff – “three in London, the remainder in Baltic”.
“We recognised that, for us to build a team and a talent pipeline, it would be much more valuable to be in the heart of a technology cluster that was really vibrant,” Wong says. “We looked across the North West and indeed across London and other places as well. For us it was clear that Baltic was at the heart.”
But the Baltic Triangle risks being a victim of its own success as space runs out, he adds. “Baltic is full. There needs to be the right infrastructure there to engender more businesses to come and this momentum to continue.”
This is something the team at Baltic Creative are already working on. They’re currently redeveloping space on Jordan Street, which is already pre-let. They’re also planning 16,000 sq ft of creative business space in a former Guinness bottling plant on Simpson Street, and working on the new Northern Lights studio complex in part of the former Cains Brewery, both of which Lawler hopes will be on site within 2016.
But Baltic Creative isn’t the only outfit developing property in the area now it’s fashionable. As Carl Wong notes: “There’s a massive amount of development in and around Baltic – but it’s not necessarily to support new tech start-ups. There’s new halls of residence being built. You have retail development. It’s great to extend the vibrancy of the city, but it doesn’t support technology businesses.”
But Baltic Creative itself is working with some of these very developers to leverage new space for creative businesses, says Lawler. “We work with private developers to say, ‘You don’t want a ground floor, first floor problem of boarded retail units. We’ll take them off you and develop them and fill them full of creative and digital industries’.”
So, is Baltic Triangle a model for other cities keen to nurture the creative and the digital? “We’ve done a bit of travelling and we’ve seen different approaches to creative clusters,” says Lawler. “The biggest difference that we have compared to any model I have seen is control and ownership. The sector here owns circa £5m worth of assets in Baltic Creative CIC. Let’s imagine in 20 years that’s worth £50m or even £100m – what that does is provide a bedrock for the sector in Liverpool to continue to grow.”
Through its CIC model, Baltic could offer space long-term to those in creative fields, rather than them just being a staging post in the property development cycle. Yet as Mark Lawler notes: “The market is moving faster than the planning.” The NWDA which supported Baltic Creative’s first phase no longer exists – and Liverpool’s authorities have only limited funds for development.
Baltic has the ability to grow creative space through the development of its own assets, but it will only be able to do this if it gets significant strategic and planning support from local authorities. Liverpool’s culture and economy needs it – and if it continues to succeed, it could also be a shining example to other cities. The planners helped birth this creative district: now they must help nurture and protect it.
This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in June 2016.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Art is a call and response but, assembling in the Bluecoat, we anticipate listening. Tonight, we have come to hear some voices from the North.
Our first is Dinesh Allirajah, who tells us of the characters he has created and how each one has a little bit of himself in them. His experiences slipped under the radar into a story, from a bad knee to a favourite record, all taking on a life of their own.
“Like I did with my asthma in 2008 and like I did with being Asian 1992 – 98.”
Our voices are shaped by our experiences. Personalities determined by the connecting of synapses as we each go through life’s commonalties in our own unique way. From this our stories emerge. Changing and modifying, we iron out the details and preserve the best and the worst. The stuff we don’t want to lose or can’t throw away.
Some though, go further and write their voices down, make narratives from their own stories. “These people I have created,” says Dinesh, “in order to preserve slivers of my own life I want to keep. Preserved forever in the chilly embrace of a writer.”
We are all taken into this chilly embrace in the clean, dark auditorium. As the characters that writers create struggle for life, we see it all through our own filters of experience. We have come to listen but, as we do, we dig inevitably into our own memories and neurosis. A call and response.
Rebecca Sharp puts her own voice onto the spaces painted by Anna King. We are taken to insignificant patches of rough grass and distant tower blocks, worn looking wooden sheds and bent fences. The everyday changed by paint and then once again by verse.
We find ourselves in a faded and blurry place, somewhere in the back of our minds. We know we have been here before because it is everywhere. Places where everything of real importance usually occurs. These are where the true voices emerge from, not the seven wonders and centres of the universe, but the insignificant spots of ultimate reality.
Andrew McMillan talks to us about family. His own nephew impressed, not by poetry, but that his mum’s boyfriend can bench press him.
“Everyone has a family, even War Criminals.”
Andrew takes us a long way from here. To a crumbling building on the edge of a Serbian forest, or even a clinical but comfortable cell in The Hague and Ratko Mladić, wondering about his children. Like we all wonder. about. our. children.
In the interval, waiting for a Coke, we stare at the dead flies in the lightbox above the bar.
Back and, as the sound of seagulls fills the auditorium, Chris McCabe takes us to the Mudflats. Here in the theatre there is a theatre that has come from the basement. The place where we keep all the things from our lives and our families that we can’t or won’t throw away. What we hear when we are young embeds in our minds and we pass it on even as we don’t mean to. We may forget about the things we carry around, but it all lies buried. Writers may mine their lives for characters, stories, truths, but when we are faced with a question we can’t answer, we all do the same. A call and response.
All the love and pain of a family are revealed by the four on stage. People, and the ghosts that they live with. When those we love leave this life they remain in our minds, shorn of many of their layers and complexities. Only a cipher of what they said and did to us and what we said and did to them, all of the love and all of the pain and everything in-between. And their ghosts are strongest when they shape what we say and do to others. They are gone but their voices remain.
Grandmother talks to dad and dad talks to Chris and he talks to his son. Generations of change, but the same struggles continue. The same questions and confusions, getting by, trying to be there for each other despite the world, trying to make each other understand what we have been through.
We all tell our own story, drawn from the actions and experiences of our lives. Our own story, to suit ourselves, but others will tell it different. Our lives in the chilly embrace of others.
“WAR WOUNDS and WORD FIGHTS, that’s men!”
Dad once wrote a book because he had to but, in true Liverpool fashion, tells his son, “Don’t look at the dark stuff, tell the jokes!” Look back and try to view the past through the lens of humour. Let us forget the dark stuff. Leave it in the basement. It never goes away though, always waiting with the ghosts to come when you have to draw on your past to make sense of the present.
“What’s a tide dad?”
“It’s when the motion of the sea hits the shore.”
Tides come in and go out but the pattern always repeats. Like Dinesh said, it all starts with a memory. We pass on the experiences that we each have to go through, a flow between different generations, all waiting on the same tides.
Why be away from your family. “I have to work.” “I had to work.” We all have to work and we miss each other. Miss those who we love as we work to support them. This is the particular story of a family, a particular story of Merseyside, of ships and the lack of them. Of the North and the continual struggle were wealth and opportunity is limited. There are the truths and fallacies, triumphs and regrets, exaggerations and myths. The lies we tell ourselves and others.
The tide goes out in the Mersey and reveals the mudflats underneath. Authors may sit and write and we may listen, a call and response in the places of culture. What really matters though is that we pass our voices on. Whether through family or through art it is all part of the same attempt to communicate all that we have learnt and seen before we depart. As individuals, we’re merely keepers, of genes, but also of stories. Messages. All artists steal from the past, their own and others. We create voices from the voices we have heard. We refine and change again and again but fundamentally the stories remain the same.
The writing is done now, because it had to be. Because you have to work and you have to pass on. A call and response.
Now, “let’s go and play.” Before the tide comes in again.
This piece was commissioned as a creative response to the ‘Mudflats’ evening of spoken word. This was curated by Michael Egan, orginated by Northern Elements and held at Bluecoat, Liverpool in March 2013.
From the 17th May until the 15th June, photographers from around the world will have their work on show in Liverpool for the second edition of the city’s LOOK photo festival.
“We’ve worked very hard on learning from our experience of two years ago,” says Patrick Henry, LOOK/13’s Director. “LOOK/11 was very rich and expansive, with loads of activity spread over the city. In LOOK/13 we’ve tried to create a tighter, more focused core programme and to be realistic about what we have the resources to do.”
This year’s festival theme is ‘who do you think you are?’ Patrick tells me more: “Our theme in 2011 was photography as ‘a call to action’. The 2013 theme is a reversal of that. Instead of asking how photography can change the world, it asks what happens when we turn the camera on ourselves and others.”
Patrick describes the festival’s origins: “The impetus to create a festival came from a group of photographers based in the North West. They wanted to get more people involved, create new work, bring the best photographers and photography to the region and share it with a wider public.”
The hope is that LOOK will continue as bi-annual event on the city’s art calendar, running in the opposite years to the Liverpool Biennial. Patrick feels that LOOK fills a niche not just in Liverpool, but the UK.
“Photography festivals have been hugely successful all over the world, France alone has more than sixty, but they’re very thin on the ground here in the UK.” He continues: “Liverpool is the perfect festival city, with the best collection of galleries and museums of any regional city in the country. This gives us the infrastructure we need to do really ambitious programmes. There are really strong links between the venues and an unusual willingness and ability to work together. The programme grows out of close, long-term collaborative conversations and each exhibition and event is a genuinely collaborative effort.”
And there also seems to be something about photography as a medium that suits Liverpool as a city: “Liverpool also has a very strong photographic culture,” says Patrick. “It’s home to Open Eye, one of the UK’s very few specialist public photography spaces. The city also has great collections of historic photography, some of which we’re mining for LOOK/13. And some of the UK’s best-known photographers have made their most celebrated work here, Tom Wood and Martin Parr to name just two.”
One LOOK/13 exhibition that definitely relates to ‘who do you think you are?’ is Kurt Tong’sThe Queen, the Chairman and I. Kurt’s project, on display in the Victoria Gallery, explores his family history across several continents. He explains: “The title came from the fact that their actions ultimately lead to my grandfathers coming to Hong Kong. My paternal great-grandfather came after the fall of the empire in 1911 and my maternal grandparents came in order to escape from Mao’s advancing army.”
“We will be exhibiting my photographs, found photographs, some of the actual family items and a home movie form 1948,” says Kurt. “The idea is that visitors will get a glimpse into my private history. However the main focus of the exhibition is really in the storybook that I have produced for my daughters.”
The exhibition will have an unusual element: “We will be installing a working Chinese Tea House where visitors will be able to sit down, have a cup of tea and spend some time with the book,” says Kurt. “I have always found that the book gets people talking about their own history and their ancestors.” He continues: “I am basically saying, I have gone and done this for my daughter and in the process, gotten closer to my parents and discovered and gotten a better understanding about myself, go and try it for yourself.”
Based in Hong Kong, Kurt grew up in London and studied at Liverpool University. Photography has been a second career for him: “I wanted a job that I could travel with and that’s why I chose nursing. I headed out to India during and after my training and started taking pictures for the NGO that I was working for. They started to pay me and I started taking jobs from other organisations. I figured that was a more interesting job and decided to try to do it full-time.”
Meanwhile, at Bluecoat, Liverpool-based Adam Lee will be exhibiting Identity Documents, a project that looks at the identity of others through photographing their bookshelves. Adam elaborates: “It came from a conversation with a friend at university about ten or twelve years ago. We were joking about being robbed and I said facetiously that I would be nothing without my things. While neither he nor I agreed with this statement it got me thinking about the relationship between our possessions and who we are. I came to believe that while we shouldn’t define ourselves through our possessions, we define them, through our interests in the things they represent. I think it’s a reciprocal relationship and that our possessions then come to say about our identities, as representations of these interests and tastes.”
Where does Adam get his participants, and their shelves. from? “I began by asking personal connections of mine. I work part-time for John Moores University and began by asking lecturers there if I could photograph their offices,” he says. “Following on from these, I asked friends, family, colleagues in the arts, and other personal connections.” Identity Documents remains an ongoing project: “I have also had an extensive social media campaign to try and find self-curated participants, which has mixed met with mixed success. I’m always looking for more participants.”
I ask him, what is it about books that tell us so much about a person’s character as oppose to, say, wardrobe contents? “I feel the sheer variety of them, in terms of genres, topics and specificity, means that they can give a very broad but also detailed picture of someone’s interests. I feel that it is this massive variety of specificity that makes them more interesting than say clothes, or for me, films or DVDs.”
Lee thinks that LOOK/13 is not only great for visitors but offers good opportunities for photographers based in Liverpool too: “I think that for photographers and artists who get involved, through the core program, parallel program, competitions, conferences and any fringe activities, the festival offers an international and high-profile platform to get work seen and network.”
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.
His mind felt like it was cracking open, his eyes were puffy and red, and his skin itchy and sticky. He lay cocooned in his cheap, battered leather jacket and a t-shirt stuck to him by three days worth of sweat.
He held his head in his hands, keeping his burning, swollen eyes closed for as long as possible, only looking up occasionally to see the couple of Arab ladies opposite chatting through all his suffering.
The sound of the many washing machines turning was reassuring, though barely enough to drown out the brooding thoughts that threatened to career into his mind.
The laundrette had a stifling atmosphere. Strip lights on even in the day, walls plastered with brightly-coloured flyers advertising long past events and every surface covered with a thin, sickly-static residue of detergent.
He felt like he was breathing it in, the powder going deep, searing away at his already cigarette-abused lungs, slowly suffocating him as he sat beneath the grim yellow fluorescence. He put his head back in his hands again for a long time. Squeezing his eyes hard to try and take control of the throbbing, trying to take control of the feeling in his body.
When he looked up again the two ladies had gone and he found himself looking straight out through the large front window of the shop that looked across the junction of Upper Parliament Street, Catharine Street and Princes Avenue.
Cars, vans, buses, bikes and people all moved rapidly in all directions through the crossroads, all speeding along their own paths through the city. He felt a little better now, and continued to stare out at the never-ending flow through the window that was scarred around the edges with the dust and grease of a million washes.
He stared unblinking until his eyes started to stream and the Escorts and Polos and Hyundais and Transits began to blur. Blue and chrome became brown and plastic; the back of one car began to connect with the front of another.
As he watched, the pedestrians began to walk slower, their every action becoming long and fluid. Every single movement of every body could be seen in minute detail, dragged out and fractured. Eventually, their whole forms began to fragment and disintegrate.
The cars became viscous, their components stretching and flexing before losing their forms and turning into fluid shapes. These too began to flux and bend, breaking into pieces and floating off in many directions.
He saw a bird rise out of the now cracking tarmac on Princes Avenue, a Phoenix that struggled hard to free itself from the fragmenting road surface, eventually, violently, pushing its body outwards and turning the remaining tarmac to dust. It stretched out its brilliant red and gold wings as it rose away.
As he looked back to the road, he saw it had turned into a foaming torrent of a river, roaring forwards without pause down where the avenue had been. In it floated the last few forms of vehicles that quickly sank.
The Georgian terraces that lined the road began to crumble, their facades falling in on themselves to reveal thick jungle, soaring golden temples and, in the distance, jagged, snow-tipped mountain ranges.
The remaining people on the streets turned there, in the bright sunshine, into lions and stags and dragons and mermaids.
And, as the last vestiges of Liverpool 8 erupted, he saw the drive-in NatWest consumed by a waterfall and, far across the plains, the Renshaws factory was shunted aside by an emerging volcano.
Here were a million colours and forms rising before his eyes. Animals grazed on the rich plains and leaped through the surging waters now deep blue, then viscous green, now crystal clear.
It all became too much and, his eyes aflame, he closed them, squeezing them tighter than ever, but still he saw the colours on the inside of his closed lids, burning into his mind.
He concentrated all of his thoughts, all of his energy, on containing what he had seen: the sounds of the volcano; the continually rumbling drums from far away; the vivid, liquid brown of the stag’s eye; the flock of small, bright birds emerging from the dense, damp undergrowth.
All surged inside his head for what seemed like an age. When he eventually peeled open his dry, sticky eyelids again, he was confronted with only the dirty window of the launderette and a shrunken old woman gently snoring on the bench opposite.
Through the window, a Hackney Carriage honked and careered down Princes Road; but behind it, in the corner of his vision, he could see a Phoenix still rising.