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.
By Kenn Taylor Images by Robin Clewley and Graham Smillie
Growing up in an overspill estate of Birkenhead, with Liverpool being a short bus ride away, the city always seemed to be the nearest place where things happened. Where those posters and flyers led to. Where independent shops and venues existed which gave further glimpses of a world of art and culture. One that seemed fascinating but also closed off. Later, when I did enter that world, I found that while it did open up so much for me, some of the cultural scene was indeed elitist and exclusionary. Remote from how many people in Merseyside lived their lives. Trying to navigate a way into the creative industries when you had no family connections or real understanding of how it all worked was not easy, and there seemed to be nothing to help you to figure it out. It was experiences such as these that later led me to spending much of my career doing community cultural projects.
Birkenhead itself did have its own cultural gems, including the brilliant, long-established Skeleton Record Exchange, where I would visit regularly to part-ex CDs so I could buy new ones. Trying to get the best deal so I could hear enough new music in a time when there were few other options. Skelos and its big, brightly painted red arrow are, I am pleased to say, still going. Meanwhile the music chain stores in the ambitiously-named Pyramids shopping centre, which represented the future in Birkenhead in the 1990s, have long shut down.
Birko was the classic boom town of the 1800s, which grew rich quickly off the back of the shipyard set up by the Laird family. This wealth paid for the fine Hamilton Square, the largest concentration of Grade I listed buildings outside London, and Birkenhead Park, the world’s first municipal public park, with Europe’s first street tramway running between them. Since then, the town’s fortunes have been inextricably linked with the rising and falling tides at the shipyard which still looms over Birkenhead physically, psychologically and economically. The dramatic vista of Hamilton Square, with its station tower promising FREQUENT ELECTRIC TRAINS, retains its visual impact though. However, for the moment, many of the buildings around the square are empty, including most of the Town Hall itself.
For a long time, the centre of Birkenhead was dominated by its post-war shopping centres, while this older part of town slowly died off. However, as retail struggles, new attention is being paid around here. The founders of the key Liverpool region music magazine, Bido Lito!, have set up a Community Interest Company (CIC) and turned an empty building into a new 350 capacity music venue. Called Future Yard, it’s planned to be the UK’s first carbon neutral grassroots venue. As a precursor, they painted THE FUTURE IS BIRKENHEAD in bright pink letters on the front while work went on inside. The venue builds on the Future Yard music festival held in 2019, which took place over several locations including the historic remains of Birkenhead Priory. Hidden behind an industrial estate, the Priory, which includes the oldest standing buildings in Merseyside, represents the history of ‘the headland of birch trees’ before the industrial revolution. Its tower gives dramatic views across the Mersey and the waterfront, with you standing high above the massive vessels in the shipyard propped up precariously for repair.
Future Yard’s venue opening was hit by Covid, but they have delivered online shows and have an array of gigs lined up as restrictions lift. As a CIC, Future Yard has a social mission which asks questions like: ‘How do we leverage the social and economic power of music in struggling towns?’ and ‘How do we provide new career pathways into the live music industry?’
Nearby meanwhile, in what was once the Borough Council’s Treasury building, a new venture called Make Hamilton Square has opened up, set up by another CIC which already runs successful studios in Liverpool. Housing creative workspaces, it also includes a new small urban farm and an events space. Make similarly has a social mission which includes: ‘to remove barriers to people joining the economy, by making things themselves and becoming self sufficient’.
As central Liverpool has redeveloped, areas which I knew as largely derelict have become the Ropewalks and Baltic Triangle and cultural centres in a way I couldn’t have imagined. As sure as the wind blows though, cultural spaces in them have been threatened by redevelopment. As such development in Liverpool grows, could Birkenhead become a new local mecca for culture and music? Or is this just the cultural scene being pushed further out – a ‘temporary utopia’ to facilitate more traditional forms of redevelopment?
Hopefully, with Future Yard and Make being CICs planned with sustainability in mind, this could make the difference. Future Yard recently received financial support to buy their own building. A long way from trashy but cool venues existing until their landlords get offered a better deal. If these initiatives and others like them are to succeed, they need to be able to control their spaces and receive proper protection and support long term from institutions, authorities and funders.
Still too many young people in Birkenhead and many places like it are not given enough opportunities to experience creative arts, develop their interests or get their own work out there. Despite everything that’s happening at the moment, places like Make and Future Yard are progressing and offering people new spaces to grow in. Projects such these could create a situation where those FREQUENT ELECTRIC TRAINS are bringing more people to the town than they’re taking out. They point to a different kind of future for Birkenhead. A different kind of future in general.
In 2016, I was awarded an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant. This enabled me to undertake research visits to several organisations in Detroit and Chicago who are on socially-engaged art practice in post-industrial communities.
I’m originally from an industrial town in Merseyside and lived in Liverpool ahead of and during its year as Capital of Culture in 2008. Because of this, the relationship between art, artists and art organisations in areas struggling with industrial decline has always been important to me. This has very much informed the approach I’ve taken to programming throughout my career in museums and galleries. Having followed closely many socially-engaged artists and projects in the UK, I also became interested in examples of this practice in America.
The Heidelberg Project in Detroit was the longest-established initiative I visited. Begun by artist Tyree Guyton in 1986, he decided to create ‘something beautiful’ in the run-down Heidelberg Street by painting bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for generations. Soon Guyton began to decorate and modify abandoned houses in the area and then the street itself using reclaimed materials. Thirty years later the project is a world-renowned ‘total work of art’ and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.
MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, meanwhile, is an arts institution established 10 years ago in a formerly abandoned car dealership. Notably, it’s also the base of Mike Kelly’s work Mobile Homestead.
Mobile Homestead was unveiled in 2010 and funded by the UK’s Artangel. A recreation of Detroit-born Kelly’s childhood home (which is still standing and occupied) made as a pre-fabricated building with a detachable trailer section. Kelly’s idea was that this could be transported around the city with the ground floor being a flexible community space and the basement a place for artists. Based behind MOCAD, the Homestead functions as a dedicated space to host community content exhibitions and events; everything from local craft groups to, recently, lively election debate parties.
Over in Chicago, around 10 years ago artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he’d moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 financial crash, he also bought the neighbouring property. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and filling it with cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events. By 2010, he’d established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation and had rehabilitated a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects.
A few years later, Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just a dollar, providing he got the money to restore it. Amongst other things the bank now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. Rebuild’s most recent initiative is Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists and sells products and services to help sustain the foundation’s work.
While all of these organisations are distinct, they are united by having a focus on the re-use of previously abandoned or underused urban space, involving communities in their activities and demonstrating a complex relationship between artist, artwork and art organisation. In the case of MOCAD, an art institution occupied an old building and with Mobile Homestead, ended up creating a semi-permanent new building as an ongoing social practice artwork. In contrast, the Heidelberg Project started out as the creation of an artwork out of buildings and has morphed into also being partially an institution. Rebuild Foundation started out as a project based around art activity in run down properties using reclaimed materials, before growing into a full-scale neighbourhood renewal project, but one that is also an ongoing artistic experiment.
The projects are not only re-purposing and re-imagining buildings and areas in a very different way to traditional urban redevelopment schemes; they’re also highlighting the continued life, activity, creativity and culture in areas often more associated in art terms with the genre of ‘ruin porn’, that seeks to portray them as empty, tragic ruins.
Art projects like the ones I visited may be partially a product of decline, but they speak as much of the potential future of these areas as their past. They may be led by complex theories and an emotional desire for continued community life, but they create outcomes that are very much concrete: housing, artspace, crafts to sell, community facilities, training opportunities.
Vital to the success of these initiatives has been a close and long term relationship to the areas in which they’re situated. Connected to this is the fact that for all the genuine community involvement in such projects, the figure of the individual artist, pursuing their vision against the odds: Tyree Guyton, Theaster Gates, Mike Kelly, remains central in a very traditional art historical sense. This raises the question of what happens to these projects when their founder moves, or indeed, passes on.
While at Rebuild, I attended one of the weekly ‘Tea, Coffee and a Chat’ meetings led by local residents and they spoke about the positive impact the foundation has had on their neighbourhood. While artefacts from such initiatives could be kept in collections or even whole districts be preserved, the people who benefit from them are perhaps their most important legacy. Can the power of this social action also be retained by these projects in the longer-term?
How the founder-artist plans for posterity will be key to this. Mike Kelly, for example, setting in stone the community use for Mobile Homestead as being part of the artwork itself has ensured the preservation of such space for ‘social sculpture’. The power in projects like this is both social and artistic, and if they can retain each aspect in the long term, they will be important parts of both future art and urban history.
This piece was published by the Art Fund in April 2017. You can download my full essay about my research here.
In the wake of Brexit and the US election, there has been renewed attention given to post-industrial areas and the issues faced by such communities. For some parts of the US and the UK, problems caused by industrial decline have been around for 40 or 50 years, long before the rise of China, the EU or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And, as anyone who spends time seriously with the subject will tell you, there are no easy answers or single solutions to such challenges.
So to art. Despite the breathless proclamations of some, art is not a panacea for the post-industrial town, but neither is it a total irrelevance. The creative industries remain a growing sector and a sensible solution to reuse many former industrial spaces that will never see mass production again.
Meanwhile, in some of the residential areas that once drew their lifeblood from such industrial zones, artists, or local communities working with artists, have been using creativity to demonstrate, even make, a future potentially different from top down regeneration or abandonment to decline. The now well-known Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool is one example of this in the UK.
Between Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory I had the opportunity to spend some time at some similar projects in the US. In 1986, in the Black Bottom area of Detroit – a city which perhaps more than any other felt the crushing pressure of industrial decline early on – art student Tyree Guyton decided to paint large bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for decades on Heidelberg Street.
The area had declined rapidly during his lifetime and he wanted to create “something beautiful” in the street. Soon Guyton began to decorate some of the abandoned houses in the street, using reclaimed materials from the neighbourhood. Thirty years later, despite being demolished by the authorities, twice, and suffering arson more than once, the Heidelberg Project is a world-renowned “total work of art”, and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.
Part of the Heidelberg Project.
It’s not so much a celebration of beauty in decay like the infamous “ruin porn” from Detroit, but a sign that there is life and people still here, creativity, culture, even growth.
Chicago coped better than Detroit with the transition to a service economy. At least, some of it. In Grand Crossing in South Chicago, more than half the residents live below the poverty line. Here, around 10 years ago, artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he had moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 property crash he also bought the neighbouring house. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events in the houses. Gates had seen the West Side Chicago neighbourhood he grew up in demolished and wanted to stop such destruction from happening again in Grand Crossing.
By 2010, Gates had established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation, and had worked with the Chicago Housing Authority to rehabilitate a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects. A few years later Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just one dollar, providing he got the money to restore it.
Dorchester Projects, Rebuild Foundation
Amongst other things, the bank, now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. More recently the organisation has set up Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists. The Rebuild Foundation places art firmly in the hierarchy of needs of a deprived community. To quote Gates: “Beauty is a basic service.”
There’s a long tradition in art of highlighting urban social problems. Projects such as these differ in using the urban fabric as a medium in itself and working on the regeneration not just of buildings, but of social, cultural and economic life in these areas. Crucial is how these projects have been led by people based in these communities, albeit interacting with international art networks. Such initiatives may have only impacted on relatively small areas – but it is possible they have done more to change life in and perceptions of them than many bigger and more expensive top-down urban redevelopment programmes.
The Stony Island Arts Bank, a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center.
Part of the power of art is its capacity to highlight where we’re going wrong, to tell us things have value that we didn’t realise and point out different ways of looking at the world. Even if projects such as these can’t be reproduced like-for-like elsewhere, they’re not just a reminder to avoid writing off such communities, but more so of their potential – if energy, attention and money are given to them – to create their own future.
This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in December 2016. Funding for this research in Detroit and Chicago was provided by The Art Fund.
An 1880 painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw, Leeds Bridge, depicts a view of the River Aire that is still recognisable today; the heavy-duty ironwork of the bridge, the substantial brick warehouses, the bend in the river towards the church in the distance. Yet today, the riverbank that was clearly a hive of dirty industry in 1880, is now bound by offices, bars, flats and hotels.
Similarly, in Liverpool, on quaysides where ships once unloaded their cargoes, there are now restaurants, galleries and arenas. In Teesside, the modern stadium of Middlesbrough Football Club sits on the site of old chemical and oil tanks. In Castleford, West Yorkshire, a huge indoor ski-slope has been built over a former colliery. Such has been the well-worn path of the last 30 years. The manufacturing and heavy industry that dominated the landscape of the North of England being replaced by service industries and leisure sites – with art and culture related projects forming a key part of this.
What a contrast from the 19th century of Atkinson Grimshaw. In the Victorian era, the booming industrial cities of Northern England built their edifices of art and culture usually as far from the factories and wharfs that paid for them as possible. In Leeds, from the Art Gallery on the Headrow to the Parkinson Building of Leeds University, a cultural sphere was built that was firmly separated from the hive of industry down the hill around the River Aire and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
But with the rapid de-industrialisation in the UK from the 1970s onwards, a reversal took place which saw sites of industry turned into sites of culture. Sites expected not to just reflect the wealth and sophistication of localities as did the art galleries, museums and concert halls of the Victorian era, but rather to be the economy through generating tourism, attracting inward investment and encouraging the ‘creative’ industries. So from the Wales Millennium Centre in the old Cardiff Docks, to The Hepworth Wakefield adjacent to abandoned textile mills, Gateshead’s Baltic in a disused flour mill and London’s Tate Modern in the former Bankside Power Station, art occupies spaces once dominated by industry.
This has not been a wholly un-problematic shift though. Debates abound about the culture, leisure and service fields not providing the same number or same quality of jobs as the industries they have replaced; who can enjoy this new urban culture and who has to serve in it? Not to mention the thorny issue of gentrification; property developers frequently promote cultural activities to create buzz, increase demand and drive up prices, which inevitably pushes those with more limited means out of some areas. The question remains though, just what do you do with large areas of old industrial land once it is no longer required for its former purpose? ‘Post-industry’ a phrase though bandied around a lot is still a relatively new phenomenon. It took a long and difficult time for society to adjust to the industrial revolution and it’s likely to take just as long to adjust to the post-industrial one.
Back to Leeds, whose industrial base did not collapse in the 1980s like other cities, but which has seen a significant contraction since the end of the 1990s. One of the key closures was the Joshua Tetley Brewery, an important industrial site in the city for nearly 200 years until production ceased in 2011. The key development on the brewery site since its closure has been the opening in 2013 of The Tetley, a new centre for contemporary art and learning based in the brewery’s former Director’s Offices.
The re-development of the old brewery forms part of a much wider regeneration plan for the ‘south bank’ of the River Aire, where many other former industrial sites are in the process of being converted into new sites for education, offices, homes, and the like. Into all of this, plans are now afoot by The Tetley to bring art outside of its building onto Brewery Green, the new open space that sits on part of the former plant. The intention is that that Brewery Green will soon be home to a new major piece of public art that will be some form of ‘play sculpture’, an artwork that can be interacted with rather than merely appreciated at a distance.
I am presently Curator of Participation at The Tetley. This is the kind of job title that itself has only emerged in the post-industrial era, as not only the location and reasons for civic art and culture have changed in our contemporary urban world, how we expect citizens to engage with it has shifted as well. Once the rarefied artworks collected by diligent industrial philanthropists were guarded heavily in their grand public galleries, lest they be damaged by the citizens they had been ‘given’ to. Out of doors, bronzes of local dignitaries were maintained in public parks amongst manicured garden beds as a symbol of civic pride. Yet ‘Keep Off the Grass’ was a key part of the culture, these creations guarded just as in galleries by a diligent band of uniformed keepers. Culture of one form or another procured in theory for citizens, but often without their consent and only to be engaged with in a prescribed ‘correct’ way.
Later, in the Modernist era, despite the pretence of change, works such as Victor Passmore’s concrete Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee newtown, County Durham, despite ostensibly being more open and democratic works of art, were in practice usually just as imposed and distant from local people, with progressive ideologies falling through the cracks of patronising and bureaucratic structures. The Pavilion quickly, inadvertently, becoming an un-loved place where teenagers got drunk and vandalised, though more recently local views towards it have apparently softened.
In our contemporary era of public art there is increasingly a wider acceptance amongst the public and commissioning bodies of broader ideas, and of people’s engagement with art and culture being as important as an art object itself. From Luke Jerram’s Park and Slide turning a Bristol high street into a waterpark, Carsten Höller’s shimmering carousel works and the sheer variety of Anthony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth project in Trafalgar Square, to art collective Assemble creating a scrap playground at Baltic Street in Glasgow and people clambering around in the startlingly blue, copper sulphate environment of Roger Hiorns Seizure at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: a less precious approach to engagement with culture has developed in tandem with its relocation. Where once public artworks were made to be appreciated from afar, engaging and ‘playing with’ art in the urban environment is, in many cases, now encouraged. Just as the gallery has shifted from the pillars and marble of the past to the cleaned-up old industrial site, so to we have shifted from distanced appreciation to valuing a more robust and open-ended interaction with art in the public realm.
This shift is summed up well by Usman Haque, designer of the fountain and light installation in Bradford’s new City Park; a great shallow pool that is invaded by families on any given sunny day and that has been a key catalyst in re-imagining the centre of Bradford: “I’m interested in how the designer of a system can best support ordinary people’s creativity, by being neither too prescriptive, and therefore unable to accommodate the unplanned, nor too unspecified, and therefore giving no firm take-off points, for people to contribute meaningfully.”
Similarly, institutions like The Tetley are not merely about the display and enjoyment of art as were the civic galleries of old, but primarily focus on its creation and production. The lines between these have become blurred in the way that mirrors wider changes in urban society. Where once industry was in the centre of the city in dirty, noisy brick-built factories, today what remains has usually been sent outwards to the distant industrial zones on the edge of town. To ultramodern, clean plants sometimes deceptively quiet. Back in the city centre meanwhile, in buildings near to the old Leeds Bridge and The Tetley, restaurants and bars sit in old warehouses, people design computer games in former foundries, skateparks thrill in old engineering plants, data centres sit in redundant chapels, new colleges occupy old printworks. Yet in tandem, the growth in the likes of craft breweries, knitting groups, urban food growing and hi-tech ‘fab labs’ have seen people re-discovering the value, and fun, of making, and small scale, local production in urban centres, often led by artists.
Culture in today’s post-industrial, post credit-crunch cities is now often not only expected to be a catalyst for economic development, but to generate actual income. Yet there has been a move away from the Grands Projets of the early 2000s, of multi-million pound statement ‘starchitecture’ that was alone meant to transform areas, economies and people’s lives. Post-industrial cultural regeneration continues apace but, much as bold statements in concrete foundered as Modernism’s ideals collapsed, so too largely has the palaces of the Neo-Liberal regeneration agenda. Meanwhile an interest in smaller scale, more open-ended and people focused projects has grown alongside the previously mentioned trend back towards craft and local making. This was exemplified by the nomination for the 2015 Turner Prize of London-based collective Assemble, for their work to support the regeneration of empty homes in Liverpool with a local community group. In many ways such actions are a return to the original origins of culture in post-industrial space. That is, instead of clearing away the past in some brave new vision, artists restoring things themselves, thinking long term and low cost and working hard to re-use the base of the old in new ways. Yet we remain in a post-regeneration era, when no one can ignore that, however well-meant such initiatives are, they do tend to help drive up the value of former industrial land, with many waiting in the shadows for economic opportunities presented by such grassroots initiatives. Will this new sense of DIY, craft, smaller scale and community focus retain its innocence or become another gentrification tool?
In it is into this context that Think. Play. Do., The Tetley’s exhibition of proposals for a play sculpture on Brewery Green, emerges. On one level it is about fun and wild open ideas; what would some artists, with limited constraints, create if asked to design a play sculpture for this site? However the project also asks, what even is a play sculpture, who would it be for and how would you ‘play’ with it? What role will it play in the regeneration of this part of Leeds and how will it relate to the context of where it is located?
The way we engage with art has changed, and so too has the way is it commissioned and produced. As well as the exhibition itself, the project is also a series of events, workshops, talks, publications, interactions and interventions that will all feed into what is an exercise in asking questions and trying things out. Think. Play. Do. is as much about us playing with ideas and concepts of art, sculpture, urban redevelopment and social and cultural change and seeing what happens as it is about selecting a ‘winning’ idea. We want a play sculpture on our post-industrial site, but we’re as much interested in how we get there as what we have at the end. This is a path that we hope ultimately results in a more engaging piece of public art that really resonates with this site’s former, current, and future use. Along the way we want to probe what direction the continued shifts in the use of the former urban industrial landscape as a site for leisure and culture may take. And of course, have a bit of fun while we’re doing it.
This piece was published to accompany the Think.Play.Do exhibition at The Tetley, Leeds in summer 2015.
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.
The idea of community, or the lack of it, has become a modern-day obsession. Something that was taken for granted for so long, and frequently resisted, many people now seem desperate to get back.
This is perhaps the inevitable legacy of the second half of the 20th century. An era dominated by the individual. An era, largely in the West at least, of rising wealth and opportunity, and of freedom as an ideological counter point to the enforced community of Communism.
For many people now though, in particular since the turbo-individualism that flourished from the 1980s onwards, it seems that we have gone too far, that we have lost something. A view perhaps most often applied in the UK to urban, former industrial communities.
Now a few years in to the 21st century, if we look at any such community and the things within its fabric that defined it, we may find much loss. Churches, local shops, Pubs and social clubs so often have closed as areas declined and ways of life changed. Local industries too, not only a source of wealth but frequently of pride and identity, have also largely succumbed. To be replaced, if at all, by the anonymous sheds of supermarkets, distribution warehouses and call centres, or perhaps the odd foreign-owned assembly plant.
Even the home, the basis of community, has not been spared. In many urban areas outside London, there are often whole streets of abandoned houses were the population has dispersed in the face of lack of work, failed urban policies and social and cultural decline.
The deterioration of such communities is often painted simply as a picture of 1980s Thatcherite policies destroying industries and, by proxy, the communities and cultures that were largely defined by them. This is indeed a huge part of it. In this period, the enforced unemployment and fracturing of traditional peer structures, based on trade unions, apprenticeships and the like, helped to break the patterns of life that had united people for centuries. However, the fact is that increasing post-war wealth and opportunity also played its part in eroding such communities.
As people became wealthier, wages doubled between the start and end of the 1950s, coupled with the support given by the welfare state, people began to need each other less. This combined with relative peace, technological advance and a young, expanding population, also helped lead to increased liberalisation in the 1960s in everything from censorship to religion to sexual morality. As the often oppressive structures that bound people’s behaviours loosened, this created more opportunity to act as an individual against control, be that from your parents, employers, the church, or the state.
In this era, with many people for the first time being able to maybe afford a house with a garden, a car, a washing machine, a foreign holiday, perhaps even sending their children to newly expanding universities, many became convinced that, if allowed more freedom and relieved from the burdens of tax and regulation, their life could be even better. This increase in individual wealth and freedom saw many people who would have previously voted Labour turning to the Conservatives at the end of the 1970s. Labour politician Tony Benn even commented in 1971, “The individual escape from class into prosperity is the cancer which is eating into Western European Social Democratic parties.”
Of course, that was all based on rising and spreading wealth and opportunity. Even though the Conservative administration devastated many communities and industries in the 1980s, across the UK in general, incomes actually rose. North Sea oil and the money generated from privatisation allowed for tax breaks and new opportunities for many who were not trapped in declining industrial towns and cities. Such places were written off by many, the government included, as having ‘failed to adapt’ and thus responsible for their own decline.
Now of course, there’s nothing left to sell, the oil is running out, and places that escaped the worst ravages of Thatcherism in the 1980s now also find themselves staring into the abyss now their industries and communities have also declined. Wealth and opportunity is shrinking and many of those who had done well in these times are now seeing their children and grandchildren denied the opportunities they had, and face a society that seems darker and harsher than they could have imagined a few years ago.
As family, work, class, cultural and religious structures that held people together declined, this lessened the ability of society to influence people to behave in way that wasn’t wholly selfish. This was further pushed by the ‘Bling’ culture which has prevailed since the Thatcher era. Initially this was the preserve of the Yuppies and entrepreneurs who prospered in the new economic liberalism of the 1980s. Eventually though, this culture trickled down to ordinary people and fame, status, money, power and the pleasure and will of the individual were elevated to all that mattered.
Thatcher removed the enemy of her ideology by destroying the unions and industrial communities, but this has come back to haunt those who believed this would see the return to a more stable and acquiescent society. Firstly such destruction created despair, which saw many industrial communities overwhelmed by Heroin addiction, and then later, almost its counterpoint, Ecstasy, and the raves that occupied the abandoned industrial spaces and represented new hedonistic communities for those deserted by the decline in old ways. Both these phenomena led to the ugly expansion of criminal gangs, now capable of making much higher profits through drugs, who now offer a seemingly easy route to money, power, status and belonging for those with few other opportunities, filling the vacuum in many communities left by the decline of previous power structures.
Today, we seem to have reached a turning point. Perhaps not a conscious one, but just like the changes brought about by rising wealth, an inevitable one. The money has run out, the opportunities for the individual have declined and many people are perhaps waking up to what has gone, and just how much we really rely on each other. Yet, in wishing for old ideas of community to return, we must also be careful not to look down those terraced streets with rose-tinted spectacles.
It is ironic that 150 years ago, so much art and literature was created at the Victorian height of the Industrial Revolution about how horrible urbanisation and industrialisation was, and how it had uprooted and destroyed rural life and created dysfunctional communities in dirty towns and cities.
From Romantic poet William Wordsworth to anti-industrial proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, and Pre-Raphaelite painters like John Everett Millais, many artists, despite frequently finding their patronage from those who had made their money in expanding industry, lusted after a rural, anti-modern idealism.
But for all its aestheticised harmony and idyll, the reality of life on the land was hard and brutal. Life expectancy was short, it doubled in the UK during the Industrial Revolution, and the idealism of the village masked the serfdom and ignorance that often defined such life. The newly developing industrial settlements eventually formed their own new culture and sense of community which, in time, became as normal as that which it replaced in the countryside.
Now we find that, as they are declining too, many people romanticise industrial communities in a similar way. But for all the Silver Jubilee street parties that were held in now empty roads, there was also often domestic violence, alcoholism, vicious bullying and repression that went on behind the net curtains. The uncomfortable fact is that feelings of community are to an extent always based on the adoption of a form of collective identity and the exclusion of that which is different.
From the Rock and Rollers of the 1950s to the Ravers of the 90s, we should not forget all the brilliant art and human potential that has been unleashed by rebels butting against oppressive ways that rigidly bound people into narrow patterns of behaviour, alienating and often destroying anyone that differed from an oppressive norm. Individualism may have damaged community, but it allowed the potential of people to be who they wanted to be, and we should not forget that. Such liberty was hard-won.
We cannot go back to the way things were. Just as the new ideas of community were formed after the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, communities in our Post-Industrial age will have new shapes defined by the circumstances of their own time. The ever-expanding rise of the online community alone means that things will never be the same again and, in time, this too may become as normal as the previous ideas of community it replaced.
Community is a two-way thing. We all to an extent feel the need to belong, yet we are all individuals. Too much community can be oppressive, too little leaves us isolated, vulnerable. When a way if life is broken, it is always painful, but it is part of the inevitable shifts of humanity, things go on, new structures are formed, and new ways of living become accepted. Rather than look back and wonder at once was or might have been, today in our ever more connected world, we should see what new communities we can form and perhaps how we can use them to look after each other that little bit more.
This piece appeared in Articlemagazine’s ‘Broken’ issue in April 2012.
The following was an interview conducted with photographer Kevin Casey about his project Closing Time, for which he photographed the many abandoned pubs across Liverpool. An abridged version of it appeared in the book of Closing Time, alongside an essay on the subject by myself which you can read here.
KT: Tell me, how did this project began and, why pubs?
KC: Basically, it started two years ago on my journeys into town. I live in Waterloo/Crosby, and I take the train to town for my job as a Gallery Assistant in Liverpool. During that journey you stop at Seaforth, Bootle, Bankhall, Sandhills, and at nearly every stop you’d see a pub that was in disarray, or about to close down. I just thought, well, with my background being photography, I decided to photograph them. There’s also a link to my family. We’ve had quite a few pubs over a twenty-five/thirty year period, so I feel like I’ve got a bit of an intrinsic link to them, so maybe that’s why my awareness has been heightened.
KT: How did you go about finding the pubs?
KC: Initially it was ones that I saw on my journeys to work, or going to the football. I also asked my friends, family members who used to run pubs, if they knew of any pubs that had closed. A lot of the time when I was photographing, on the way to the location I’d find two or three pubs I’d never even heard of on the way.
KT: When you were shooting, were you consciously trying to portray anything?
KC: It’s impossible to be impartial when you’re documenting or photographing anything, but I thought when I was taking the images that if I could get them as uniform as possible, then hopefully you can see both the comparisons and the contrasts of each building. Basically my idea was to be as impartial as possible, and to show both the harsh reality, with slight sympathy, but not overly romanticise the images.
KT: When taking these pictures, did you have a desire to preserve something, to capture it before it went?
KC: I think one of the main things photography is used for is capturing the here and now, that is photography’s strength, and I’d like people to appreciate them now. But I also think that they might have greater emphasis in ten, twenty, thirty years time, when we look back on a lot of these buildings, when I think it’s a given that the majority of them will not be standing any more, or at least will not be a pub.
KT: Tell me about your experience of shooting the images. Did it generate a lot of interest amongst passers by?
KC: Yes, there was a lot of interest, and a lot of suspicion as well. Some people are more suspicious if you’re holding a camera than they are if you’re holding a baseball bat. Most people were great though. They’d stop and chat to you and take an interest, and even suggest or point out other places I could go to. A lot of communities, like say Kensington, a few in Bootle, a few of the ones near to town and Anfield, people were quite interested and wanted to get involved and tell you places where to go, and they’d always start talking about their childhood, and the places they used to go out.
KT: What were your own feelings then, whilst shooting the project, having seen all these pubs, going to these communities?
KC: You go through different stages. I think at first you feel, it’s such a sad and alarming thing to see, even before I started to photograph, witnessing and picking up on the fact that these places are closing down. Then you go through the sort of, selfish stage of ‘That’s a good idea for a project. It’s quite unique and it might get me some attention.’ And then you feel a little bit guilty for that, because your project is the fact that these things are in decline. Something draws a lot of photographers to that, there’s a lot of appeal in things that are declining, there’s a beauty, a sort of fallen grace if you like. So you do feel a bit of guilt sometimes that, even though you’re getting a great project out of it and doing good work, you are doing that good work through the misfortune of something else. But I suppose your role as a photographer is to document what you see, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing happening in front of the camera. But I also had quite a lot of empathy towards it, because my family have been involved in pubs from a long time and I used to spend a lot of time from an early age in pubs that my cousin and my auntie and my nan used to run,. If you can get success out of a project, that’s what you want as an artist or a photographer, but I’m doing it in an honest way I’d say.
KT: Tell me what photographers have influenced you, either in general or for this particular project?
KC: I’m actually a big fan of the modern trend of ‘constructed reality’. Like your Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, and Hannah Starkey as well, because I come from a bit of a fine art background as well as the photography, it’s almost like creating something in front of the camera. But I also love the documentary people, like you’re Walker Evans, you’re Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï. Then there was people like William Eggleston whose colour work was so raw and new at the time. Landscape wise, I love the Becher school; Edward Burtynsky, Andreas Gursky, the grand landscapes, high statements. There might not be a lot going on in the image but the power and size of the image forces you to look at it. Especially in colour, that’s definitely been an influence on me deciding not to shoot in black and white, because with people like Burtynsky and Gursky I think you can see the fading and deterioration of buildings and landscapes a little bit more than you can do with the Becher’s work in monotone black and white. You can see little details of these buildings, like the brickwork that is starting to erode, or the pub sign which has got faded paint dropping off, that was one of the reasons I decided to shoot in colour. It is the influence of them, but also just to retain the detail for future reference.
KT: Was there a reason you decided to shoot them in portrait format?
KC: I was shooting the images in a portrait format because you’re in a very, very tight space with some them, and I didn’t want to include too much background. If you can pick up a bit of the surrounding background, then that obviously adds to it, but I wanted the focus to be on the pub. I thought that the portrait format is a lot more direct in the way it is cropped. I also think it gives the pub a bit more personality, almost like people in a way. They’re all very similar but they’ve also got their own characters and that, which you can relate to portraiture.
KT: You seem to have purposefully shot the buildings largely in isolation. There are no people in the shots and hardly any cars.
KC: I think it was the South African photographer David Goldblatt who purposely used to include cars and people in some of his landscapes because in ten, twenty years time you can see the difference in fashions, or style of the motor car, in shot. So with me, I’ve been battling whether to include cars or people in the scenery. I’ve chosen not to have any people. In a few of the shots there are cars, but ultimately I didn’t want to detract too much from the actual buildings.
KT: So were you trying to get the buildings to speak for themselves?
KC: Yes…and no. That doesn’t really answer your question but…I wanted them to speak for themselves in the sense that, they didn’t need any extra help from me to show either the decay, or the loss, in some cases, of great architecture. I mean some of them are run down shacks that are not very beautiful at all, and some of them are actually beautiful buildings that have been left to ruin, but still have that element of beauty. So they do speak for themselves in that case, but if I said that phrase I think it would sound a bit cheesy. If someone wanted to describe it in that way though, I’ve got no problem with that.
KT: How do you think this work fits in with other photographic representations of Merseyside?
KC: I suppose the most well-known, well the ones that spring to mind, linked to Merseyside, are Martin Parr’s The Last Resort, and any given Tom Wood book. Bus Odyssey I suppose is the one he’s known for. I can understand that people get frustrated the only thing that seems to be popular linked to Merseyside photographic wise are decline, or a working-class way of life. I think there are a lot of other things that the city offers and a lot of positive things that are happening in Liverpool at the moment, I’m more pro-Scouse than anyone, but I think it would be naive to ignore the things that are going on, and that are in decline just to put a positive spin on things. Of course, pub closures are a national thing, but my experience was Liverpool, I’m from Liverpool, I know Liverpool. I feel that, because I’ve got a connection to the area, and even to some of the pubs, I’m not just showing decline in Merseyside of the sake of it, to add to the stereotype.
KT: What do you think it is about Liverpool that seems to either suit the documentary mode, or appeal to documentary photographers? I’m thinking especially of photographers from outside the city that have come to shoot it, some of the most famous in the world; Henri Cartier-Bresson, Candida Höfer, Phillip Jones-Griffiths, Rineke Dijkstra.
KC: From what I can guess, for people coming from outside of the city, when they come to Liverpool, it’s almost like a separate state, even though it’s reflecting what’s happening in a lot of the rest of the country. I think a lot of Scousers see themselves as slightly different. Whether it’s because England is an island in itself, and on the edge of that island you have Liverpool, so close to Wales, Ireland. It’s such a melting pot of people and it’s gone through so many different changes; from slavery, trade, to the industrial revolution to the decline of industry. Right now we’re going through a period were leisure and tourism is the new industry, and there’s quite a lot of documentation of that. I think it appeals to people because it is such a powerhouse of a city, such a melting pot that’s gone through so many transitions, up and down like a rollercoaster ride. As a photographer, you’d be foolish not to want to document it.