Heritage and Future in Liverpool

The Six Sided Clock in Liverpool's northern docks

By Kenn Taylor

The potential removal of Liverpool’s World Heritage Site status by UNESCO has put into sharp relief the challenges the city faces.

This threat stems from the Liverpool Waters project for the old northern docks; a mixed used development involving historic restoration and new builds on a large scale. UNESCO is unhappy with the sightlines and heights of some of the proposed buildings.

That this issue has been hard to resolve is symptomatic of the city’s difficulties. It has a beautiful architectural legacy, but has a small tax base, is heavily dependent on shrinking external grants, has high levels of poverty and a fragile economy with low demand for property. Liverpool needs money to restore and maintain its old buildings. With little public money available now, this has left the city heavily reliant on developers who want a return. If the city doesn’t work with them, it faces these structures continuing to rot, especially as in case of Liverpool Waters they cover a vast acreage and are largely in ruins, since being abandoned by the old dock company in the 70s.

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Few critics acknowledge this difficult context, with much of the national commentary on this issue marred by thinly veiled contempt. The kind of patronising the city has sadly become used to over the years, from people keen to twist the knife but with few actual solutions to offer.

As someone who can well remember decaying streets even in the city centre as recently as ten years ago, it’s clear that Liverpool is getting better at looking after its historic buildings despite the challenges it faces. From the semi-abandoned 1930s Royal Court Theatre being turned into a thriving venue and the brilliant restoration and extension of the Central Library, to Calderstones mansion being renovated into a centre for reading and plans well underway to convert the Art Deco Littlewoods Pools HQ into a film studio, I could go on. Indeed, Liverpool was given ‘Heritage Role Model’ status by Europe. Even controversial Liverpool Waters got a prize at the Historic Bridge and Infrastructure Awards.

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Of course, the picture is not all rosy. The city has also seen a raft of poor quality development schemes thrown up by speculators. With Liverpool especially vulnerable due to the issues outlined above along with planning law and planning departments becoming so weakened in recent years.

Liverpool is too big and has too much poverty to rely on its heritage entirely like Bath or Saltaire and, to give its young people real opportunities, it needs significant economic development. Yet its heritage is a big asset that people are passionate about. Must the city go in one direction or the other? Sadly we seem to be heading that way with UNESCO issuing final warnings and the Council losing the will to keep the status. Dresden faced a similar situation a few years ago. Like Liverpool, the city suffered economic decline and de-population, but it was buoyed by a new VW factory. A new bridge was built to relive congestion, provoking the ire of UNESCO and Dresden lost its World Heritage Status. Interestingly, tourism increased in Dresden the year after the status was removed. UNESCO meanwhile has demonstrated inconsistency on this issue. London built a pile of glass towers adjacent to its World Heritage Site at Tower Bridge, at which UNSECO “expressed concern” but did little else.

A compromise can and should be found in Liverpool. Money needs to be found from somewhere to restore buildings in the northern docks and find uses for them that help the local economy and population. The most likely thing that could tip the balance would be a large injection of public funds and UNESCO et al should be pushing for this rather than bashing the city. With a range of local bodies, not just the Council, having more money to restore and develop things, Liverpool would be less trapped between speculators or decay.

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Some powerful redevelopment projects have been undertaken in Liverpool with Community Interest Companies and Community Land Trusts, however they have been hampered by lack of funds and control of only small areas of property. With the right financial support, these could be expanded, or other interesting models explored. In Havana, another World Heritage city with little money for preservation, the state-sponsored Habaguanex has done good work developing crumbling buildings into hotels and the like, but using the surplus it generates to invest in local housing and social projects in-between them. A counterpoint to World Heritage Sites becoming gentrified dead zones, as they have elsewhere.

Liverpool is capable of looking after its built heritage, sometimes innovatively so. But saving and refurbishing huge swathes of decaying structures costs serious money. Unless the national or international public purse opens, the city will face having to continue to go cap in hand to developers or leave things rotting. Then, all the lobby group statements, broadsheet articles and UNESCO motions in the world won’t save that heritage.

This piece was published by New Statesman CityMetric in August 2017.

Residential Dreams

By Kenn Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Creative Alternative?

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

By Kenn Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hackney, London

By Kenn Taylor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copperas Hill Sorting Office during Liverpool Biennial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homebaked Anfield

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Bread and Houses

The Anfield Home Tour

Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial

 

By Kenn Taylor

It’s rather surreal to be taken on a tour of a city you live in, but then this is quite a different tour. We start conventionally enough, by the Edwardian splendor of the Cunard building at the heart of Liverpool‘s regenerated waterfront, but soon we will be heading to the other side of the city – and the other side of Britain.

After we pile into the minibus, our tour guide Carl “with a C not a K, that’s just weird” Ainsworth announces that we’re heading for a district in the north of the city, Anfield. The word for many means solely the home ground of Liverpool FC, but Anfield is also one of the city’s oldest residential districts.

Welcome to the Anfield Home Tour, part of the Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s largest visual arts festival. The arts in Liverpool have always had something of a social conscience, and the Biennial is no exception; we are not heading to Anfield to look at football stadia or recently restored Stanley Park, but to learn some things about housing, community and regeneration.

Our first stop is Everton Park, where Carl tells us a story that sums up the British urban landscape in microcosm. From the top of the hill above the Mersey, there are amazing views across central Liverpool as far as the mountains of Wales on a good day. It was this view which led rich merchants to build fine houses here in the 18th century, some of which remain. With the expansion of nearby docks and industry, however, speculators built hundreds of densely packed terraced houses in the area, described by Carl as a “tidal wave”.

The merchants then moved further out, and a tight-knit working class community was formed on streets so steep that is some cases they had railings to help people climb them. Then, from the 1930s onwards, there were successive ‘slum clearance’ programmes, culminating in mass demolition in the 1960s. Many people were moved to overspill estates and new towns on the edge of the city. Others meanwhile lived out Le Corbusier’s vision of ‘a machine for living in’ at huge new high-rise blocks of flats. Some enjoyed scaling these new heights, and those old ‘tight-knit’ streets also often meant horrible conditions, but the dream soon turned sour. Carl reveals that some of these ‘new visions’ in housing were demolished fewer than ten years after being built.

In the 1980s, from the rubble of tower blocks came Everton Park , a green space on wasteland; but one with little thought given to its integration into the local area. Carl says: “Many former residents of the area come here to have picnics right where their houses used to be. You’d think from all that history, the powers that be would have learned.”

We find that they did not. Anfield was one of many areas in the UK subject to the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI). Despite the housing boom from the 1990s onwards, there were areas of the UK that stagnated, mostly in the north of England. The then government took up a report from Birmingham University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Studies. They decided what was needed was demolition, en masse, and new built homes, en masse. The process became the HMRI.

We arrive in Anfield to an area of new homes built by Keepmoat Construction. There’s been criticism from some that such houses in HMRI areas aren’t as ‘nice and neat’ as the terraces they replaced. However, as Carl points out, they do have gardens, off-street parking and modern levels of insulation and damp proofing, things denied to many though not all of the old houses. The tragedy of these homes, one often lost broadsheet debates about aesthetics, is that many people who owned the demolished homes did not get a good enough price for them under compulsory purchase orders to buy one of the new ones. They often had to take out second mortgages in old age to be able to buy somewhere to live. New homes in a community are all very well, but not if the community has to get into debt to buy them when they owned their old homes outright. With the cancellation of HMRI by the present government, we are told it was even touch and go if these new homes would be built or just wasteland left in their place.

As Carl points out, the biggest problem with HMRI was in its title: market renewal, not community or neighborhood renewal. This was of course, pre-crunch, when the market appeared to have the answer to everything; it just needed to be helped on its way. Speaking of markets, in my favourite part of the tour Carl passes two bricks around the bus, one from the new building site and one from the demolished homes. The new brick we are told is worth 30p, the old brick £1. Apparently bricks from the demolished homes are being exported to building sites around the UK, even abroad. Carl tells us: “There’s about 20,000 bricks in an average terrace, whole streets demolished, you do the math.”

As we drive down Granton Road, one of the ‘tinned up’ streets awaiting demolition, Carl plays a recording by Jayne Lawless, a former resident, recalling how just a few years ago, every house in the street was occupied. She speaks of the “controlled decline” under HMRI, which saw people pushed to leave, one by one, until the last residents left in despair. She says: “They said we were deprived, don’t remember being deprived.”

However, Anfield isn’t all dereliction, although newspapers have been full of emotive photos of empty homes. That is one reality, but just round the corner is another. Skerries Road is a traditional terraced street renovated to looking almost new by residents who refused to move. It shows how a different approach can succeed.

Then another local resident, Bob, gets on the bus as we drive past the house where he lived for 50 years. Now it sits empty, with abandoned properties all around. Yet this wasn’t a HMRI street. When former council houses were sold under ‘right to buy’, many ended up owned by landlords who rented to whoever they could get. Bob says this saw an increase of “unruly families” moving in, and with them anti-social behavior, crime and then often abandonment. Bob is a regular on Liverpool’s pub singing scene and gives us a rendition of ‘This Old House’ by Rosemary Clooney, before we move on.

We finish the tour at the former Mitchell’s Bakery, a local business for over 100 years which closed in 2010 and has now become a community hub, the centre of a two-year plan worked up between artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, on a Liverpool Biennial commission, and a myriad of other participants and project partners.

When they began, they had no idea where the idea would lead. The answer is a long-term plan to re-open the bakery as a cooperative, offering local people jobs and training and a Community Land Trust (CLT). If the city council lifts the current clearance order on the building, the CLT hopes to buy it and refurbish the bakery’s former living accommodation. Architect Marianne Heaslip and a group of local young people have drawn up the plans. In the long run the CLT would like to take on more buildings in the area and renovate them for not for profit re-occupation. The bakery has now been refurbished internally and with community members undergoing training, they hope to start trading soon.

Then, a surprise: over tea and cakes, it is revealed that Carl is actually actor Graham Hicks, but that all the stories we have heard are true. Britt Jurgensen, who directed the tour and co-wrote its script with Graham and local novelist Debbie Morgan, adds that many in the community were reluctant to get involved with this project. They had been let down so much by outsiders in the past. But this external spark brought people together who were frustrated by waiting for others to make decisions for them and has acted as a new impetus for residents to become stakeholders in their neighbourhood.

“This is our future,” says Britt, a theatre professional who lives locally and is a member of the CLT and the bakery cooperative. Progress will be slow but from the ground up, not a grand vision imposed from outside. The catalyst may have been the Liverpool Biennial, but local people are now taking things far beyond the ideas of any curators or artists. She says: “I hope we will be able to sustain ourselves as a group and know when to pass responsibilities on to new people. I hope we will be courageous enough to admit when we make mistakes and adapt our plans when it is appropriate. And I hope we will continue to enjoy ourselves whilst we do all that.”

As we munch cake, there is much discussion within our tour group, many of whom have never met before, about the injustice, the problems, and the potential solutions for Anfield and elsewhere. Overall, the feeling is one of energy, of something good coming out of a mess and of things finally, slowly, heading in the right direction.

In the hierarchy of needs in austere times in deprived areas, art may come pretty low, but if art can help regain food and shelter, pride and spirit, then it has a purpose both practical and ephemeral. This was a story that could have been complex, technical, dull and aggressively ideological; instead it has been brilliantly reduced to its actual simplicity: what has been done to a community, and what needs to be done to repair the damage.

The Liverpool Biennial has often struggled to define itself apart from all the other art festivals in the world. Given Liverpool’s weather, it isn’t necessarily going to attract the crowds that head to Venice, Lisbon or Miami. With more projects like this though, it can express itself as something unique in the world.

The Anfield Home Tour is a fine art work. It may also be a fine bit of sociology, entertainment, architecture, history, politics, and cake, but it is an art work. And it is one that should be compulsory consumption for every government minister, every housing association director, every town planner, student of architecture and social affairs correspondent. Its message is simple, and one we should all have learned long ago: The people who know what is best for communities are communities themselves and they are the only people who can truly regenerate an area.

The success of the Eldonian Village, a self-organised community that began in Liverpool in an area of urban blight in the 1980s, just a mile or so from Anfield, is testament to what can be achieved if the support and will is there. Anfield clearly has the will. It remains to be seen though, if those powers that be, whatever coloured rosette they happen to wear, will give them the power and the financial resources to build on this creative start.

This piece appeared on The Guardian in October 2012.

www.2up2down.org.uk

Images Copyright Mark Loudon, Jerry Hardman-Jones and Britt Jurgensen.

Stormy Waters

By Kenn Taylor

Liverpool is still one of the most deprived cities in the UK, but it does have an economy that is slowly improving. Only last week, it jumped to fifth place in the table of cities most-visited from overseas. The 1,000 new jobs at the Jaguar Land Rover plant in Halewood are another welcome boost. Yet the fact that some 35,000 people applied for those vacancies shows how it still has a long way to go.

This is why ambitious projects like Liverpool Waters, the controversial plan for new offices, homes and other facilities around decaying northern dockland, are important. The biggest planning application ever submitted in Britain, seems on a fantastically inhuman scale which naturally makes people uneasy, including The Observer‘s London-based Rowan Moore; but sometimes, especially when you’re at the bottom, you have to think big.

When Liverpool’s early leaders built the world’s first enclosed wet dock, which opened in 1715, they mortgaged their entire modestly sized town to build it. It was a big risk that paid off; so was Liverpool’s pioneering of the world’s first intercity railway, to Manchester, in the face of many who said that it would never work. Such risk-taking helped to build Liverpool, but it is something we seem to have lost over the last forty years.

There has also been a knee-jerk reaction against Liverpool Waters as a scheme of that instinctively mistrusted group, property developers, in this case Peel Holdings. This can be justified, as more often than not such organisations focus on profit above all else. Yet if property development for profit had never happened here, the historic docks that we now admire would have never been built.

The Grade 1-listed Albert Dock was not built to look nice. It was built to make money as a fireproof shed, that in 1846 was starkly modern and was criticised at the time by local historian J.A. Picton for its brutal mediocrity.

Neither would have the famous ‘Three Graces’ on the city’s Pier Head. Built on redundant dockland, the Graces were the Canary Wharf or Liverpool Waters of their day; early examples of corporate headquarters built in the latest trendy styles to aggrandise the businesses that constructed them. They were not universally popular with the critics at the time either. The Royal Liver Building was dismissed by Charles Reilly, professor of architecture at Liverpool University, thus:

“A mass of grey granite to the cornice, it rose to the sky in two quite unnecessary towers, which can symbolise nothing but the power of advertisement.”

Today’s aggressive heritage lobby and aesthete critics are fond of proclaiming Liverpool’s past innovations and achievements, with the hindsight which Reilly could not have. But they are as blinkered as he could be to the city’s need to continue to innovate and develop. The threatened loss of the UNESCO World Heritage status which covers part of the site, if the development goes ahead, would be a huge blow. However, the pluses and minuses of having the status are hard to quantify. Dresden in Germany also lost its World Heritage Site status when it built an important modern bridge, yet remains a tourist magnet.

Meanwhile such critics seem content to oppose Liverpool Waters without offering any realistic alternative plan for this huge area, not even a notional one. That would condemn the historic structures in the northern docks to continue to rot for want of money or a reason for being. Nearly all these old buildings would be restored as part of Liverpool Waters, alongside the new developments.

I believe that the Waters should be compared to Liverpool 1, the new shopping and leisure area developed by the Grosvenor Estate and opened four years ago. It too was heavily criticised during construction, but vox pop on its streets today and you would find few who would want to go back to the 1970s Moat House hotel, the wasteland car parks, concrete Paradise Street Bus station and the Argos Superstore that used to stand there.

Liverpool 1 created thousands of jobs and helped the city to leap from 14th to 5th in the UK’s retail rankings, while not, as many predicted, destroying the traditional shopping areas of Church Street and Bold Street. It has also attracted dozens of new shops to Liverpool at a time when town centres nationally are collapsing, the development creating the demand. I didn’t like Liverpool 1 while it was in gestation, but now I find it hard to argue now against its success in transforming Liverpool’s town centre for the better.

The northern docks, though, are an even bigger challenge. Yes Liverpool could do something smaller with them. Something mediocre like the call centres and car showrooms that line the former southern docks up to Otterspool, or the city could really think big, something equivalent to the scale of ambition Liverpool once had.

For all the genuine fears of ‘more Yuppy flats’ the Peel plan does have an economic basis. Their schemes for regenerating the Wirral docks with ‘Wirral Waters’ will be based on a new International Trade Centre in Birkenhead, the first of its kind in Europe, which has already attracted firm Chinese investment. The plans for Liverpool Waters meanwhile, are linked with the new ‘post-panamax’ shipping terminal that will be able to handle the world’s largest ships. These ‘concrete’ bits of economic development, unglamorous as they are, are going in before any of the proposed shiny towers.

Peel also has an enviable track record. They built the Trafford Centre, which employs 10,000 people and, contrary to what people said at the time, didn’t destroy Manchester city centre. They have also turned Liverpool Airport from a joke to the 10th biggest in the country and, their biggest coup of all, got the BBC to move north to MediaCity:UK in Salford, which has created thousands of those ‘good jobs’ in the north, with the prospects of thousands more to follow. There has been some criticism that many of these people have transferred from London, but that doesn’t account for the fact the BBC were hardly going to lay off their existing staff en-masse and ignores the prospects for future generations in the north once the BBC has settled in.

People are understandably also sceptical of the timescale proposed for the plans for Liverpool and Wirral Waters, 30 years. Yet when the re-development of the defunct Salford Docks began in 1983, if you had said then that, 30 years later, MediaCity:UK would be there, you’d be laughed out the room. Now though, we can all tune into BBC Breakfast News live from the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal.

I’m not Peel’s PR. They have some questionable business arrangements, tend to rely heavily on outside investment and often build dull architecture; but again I turn to the critics and ask: what else do you suggest? No one else has any workable plans for the northern docks. So do we go for it? Or do we forgo the risk, let Liverpool’s economy struggle along and allow a historic part of our city to rot indefinitely while wistfully hoping for something else?

Even as a supporter of the Liverpool Waters plans, I admit that I will believe it all when I see it. But I never would have believed the developments that have already happened in contemporary Liverpool were possible a few years ago. The city and the Government should take a leaf out of our history and go for it. Critics should meanwhile put pen to paper to show us they think could go in its place.

This is an extended version of a piece that appeared in The Guardian in May 2012.

The Memory of a Hope

The boom and bust of Council housing and the Modernist ideal

By Kenn Taylor

“Ideology collapses and vanishes, utopianism atrophies, but something great is left behind: the memory of a hope”. Henri Lefebvre.

As a child, on every walk to and from my Primary School, I would pass a large plaque that fascinated me:

 The Woodchurch Estate

On completion will contain the houses and other buildings necessary to the fully developed life of a community of some 10,000 persons. The land was formerly part of the Royden Estate and was purchased by the Birkenhead Corporation in 1926. Building operations were inaugurated in 1946.

That plaque, on the first house built on the estate, I have no doubt helped spark what would become my fascination for history, a desire to know just why things were the way they were. Its hope, for a new community started a year after the end of World War II, also resonated with me.

Older, and my curiosity having pushed me towards an understanding of Modernism and social housing, I came to realise how standing on the edge of the valley where I grew up, between Arrowe Park and Bidston Hill in Birkenhead, it was possible to look upon the rise and fall of Modernist social housing.

The Woodchurch estate began construction immediately after WWII, a shortage of wood meaning metal windows and concrete ceilings where the norm. Despite this, they were pretty decent houses, built in a self-consciously cottagey style. The shops even had windows with ‘bullseye’ glass panels that suggested a vintage far earlier than the 1950s. They represented the optimism of decent, sound homes for everyone after the horrors of two world wars and the shocks of revolution, totalitarian dictatorships and the Great Depression. The same world shifting factors that, combined with technological advance, helped lead many artists and intellectuals to wish to break away from the past and create what we now understand as Modernism.

Estates like Woodchurch has their roots in the model industrial villages such as Port Sunlight, down the road from Birkenhead, developed by William Hesketh Lever for his soap factory workers, and the ‘Garden City’ movement that inspired Letchworth and Welwyn the south of England. Places that gave ordinary people far better living conditions than were the norm in Britain after the Industrial Revolution. In the post-war era, such estates were constructed en-masse to replace the vast amount of housing stock destroyed by the Blitz and cope with the rapidly rising population. The plan was to finally take working people out of the city centre slums that dogged Britain’s urban areas.

Banked by plenty of grass, with shops, schools, a park and a leisure centre, Woodchurch was a pretty decent place to grow up. The dramatic Modernism of my childhood church, St Michael and All Angels, a still-today stunning pyramid of aluminium, concrete and pine, seemed to represent the high point of the estate and the new ideals of the era; of light and space and new materials that would lead to a better society.

But if you look across to where the Woodchurch developed as time wore on into the 1950s and 60s, you can see where the dream began to fade as the idea of the ‘new village’ was lost and replaced with something much more stark. Instead of the earlier cottage-type houses, they now built maisonettes and tower blocks. Influenced by the visionary designs proposed by Le Corbusier and others, these structures were seen as the physical embodiment of the new society being fashioned after the war. Their new materials and designs were also easier and cheaper to construct than the earlier houses, making them popular with local authorities with tight budgets and growing populations. The neighbouring, later estate, Ford, now renamed Beechwood, was built at the zenith of such ideas.

Largely denied the facilities of Woodchurch, Ford/Beechwood’s green spaces were fewer and there were even more concrete towers and flats. The houses themselves were both structurally and aesthetically poorer. Modernist certainly, but built quickly and cheaply and with none of the heart or soul that went into St Michael’s Church. The estate was also more isolated its crime and social problems inevitably much worse. A 1984 World in Action documentary ‘On the Scrapheap’ highlighted its decaying fabric only a few years after construction. The Modernist dream of a better world through design had collapsed.

Thus in this largely unremarkable corner of North West England it is possible to look at the gradation between the start of the boom and then the end of the dream of post-war Council estates. What we must remember though, is that Modernism’s failure was not the root of its intentions; that of a better world for all, but that it ran away with itself. The human concern that had led to the development of such estates was lost in a zeal for new ideas, grand plans and overarching solutions. With supposed utopias developed by elites dropped straight from drawing boards onto fields often miles from everything their residents knew, and needed.

It wasn’t just the fault of architects and planners as some would have it, or even those often equally well-meaning local authorities who adopted their ideas, but that in the sheer mass scale of post-war rebuilding, the spirit of their intentions was lost. With the desperate speed in construction and limited budgets, the facilities, transport links and industry that had been vital to the success of the ‘factory villages’ and  ‘garden cities’ that such estates had been influenced by were lacking, often resulting in just banks of isolated, poorly-built housing. And, with the post-war boom waning and government policy turning away from social housing as a right for all, these issues were further compounded by lack of support and economic malaise.

Modernist social housing was the product of a hope for a better world. That hope was lost amongst the absolute self-belief in the righteousness of these new ideas and indifference to the needs and wants of people. The notion that just in building new housing to new designs in new locations, it was possible to remake society was both arrogant and naïve. Communities, human beings, are far more complex than that, and in their desire to “Make it new!” as Modernist poet Ezra Pound demanded, they forgot who they were meant to be building that world for. Both Woodchurch and Beechwood have now seen most of their later tower blocks and flats removed, but that first house, with its hopeful plaque, remains.

What we should take from this is that good intentions can be easily be lost in the fervour of a new idea. If any plans become too big, too inhuman, they risk forgetting why they began in the first place. We may like to revel in new ideas, new designs, new perspectives, but they should never be taken as gospel, for one day they too will be rejected. There is no endpoint.

Whilst acknowledging their failures, we must remember were such Council estates came from, the idea that ordinary people deserve a decent place to live. There may be no utopia possible, but there is always hope for a better world, even in the darkest of times, and it is perhaps in this that we find the real beauty when we look back on Modernism and social housing.

This piece appeared in Issue 17 of The Shrieking Violet in February 2012.


On the Waterfront

In July 2011 a new museum will open on Liverpool’s waterfront. Inside it will tell how a tiny, insignificant fishing village rose to become the pre-eminent port in the world, a centre of industrial innovation, global trade and culture, and then on, to a pariah city, struck by deep poverty and malaise. It will also tell, not least by the nature of its striking new building, of a contemporary city in transition.

Nearby there are also new office complexes, retail and leisure playgrounds, an arena and, soon, a new exhibition hall. The city it seems has come full circle, with transformed docklands that were, only twenty years ago, abandoned, silted up, useless, the most prominent symbol of our decline.

Not that far away though, there is a different story. Half an hour’s walk from the new museum in any direction, you hit areas like Vauxhall, Kensington, and Toxteth, changed little by the regeneration of central Liverpool. These are districts, battered by the loss of industry and then by the subsequent break down of their community and way of life, where closed-down shops and pubs, and tinned-up streets of terraced houses, are a common sight.

It is easy to highlight this stark difference, and many writers have. The same comparison could be made in varying degrees in Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow, Hull, Portsmouth, Salford and others. Regenerated waterfronts have been the symbolic centre of change for many cities over the last ten years, even if that hasn’t always led to opportunities for those living nearby. Yet, having protested about the gap between waterside regeneration and the continuing decay of our inner-urban communities, so many writers then stop. Satisfied in their telling of a ‘truth’, but rarely offering any real workable alternatives for these economically weak and battered cities beyond mocking their pretensions of having changed. Because what many refuse to face is that there is no easy answer to this, no simple solution to relieve this contrast.

For someone living with regenerated docks a stones throw one direction and boarded-up terraces in the other, I see both sides of the story. There is a truth in the continued deprivation in such places, but there is also a truth that such developments are also a positive change, creating at least some jobs and growth in cities were, more often than not, nothing was built for years and decline often seemed terminal.

The waterfront was the basis of Liverpool becoming a city, for years it became an embarrassment as it fell out of use, but now, it is has been made relevant again. A place where things happen and people want to visit. Historic buildings have been saved and brought back into use, new ones built. These developments will not on their own solve the myriad of problems of a city that suffers from poverty and deprivation, but they are better than continued rot and abandonment, which serves local people not at all, even if some aesthete critics would rather see poetic decay than imperfect growth.

The brutal fact is the old industries and jobs are not coming back, at least not in the same way, and neither is the culture and way of life that went with them. And lest we forget, working on the waterfront in the old days was, for all the community spirit, often hard and unforgiving. Those who look back with nostalgia at that world are guilty of the same sentimentality as the writers of the past who claimed the industrial revolution had ‘corrupted’ the working class and romanticised about a ‘better’ rural world, ignoring the harshness of a life on the land. The industrialisation of Britain once destroyed a way of life just as surely as its de-industrialisation has now done in our time, but it also created a new, different one, in some ways better, in some ways worse.

Our regenerated waterfronts represent the new reality that we are now entering. Cities ultimately must have a form of sustenance or they will not survive. Places like Liverpool have to go for whatever growth and jobs we can get and our biggest asset, undoubtedly, is the waterfront. The only alternatives are to be reliant on subsidy, which, as we are now seeing, is very easy to be taken away, or surrendering to terminal decline as our young people leave for better chances elsewhere.

The key question is what next? The decline of the industrial waterfront set the rot in the communities that surrounded it. Now the post-industrial waterfront is re-growing, what, if anything, can be done for its neighborhoods to benefit? Despite the many problems such areas face, there are some examples of growth and, more importantly, of ground-up, community-led regeneration. By Liverpool’s old northern docks, on the site of an old sugar refinery is the Eldonian Village. An integrated sustainable development owned and organised by the community, one that has won the UK’s first United Nations World Habitat Award. Meanwhile, in Toxteth, near the old southern docks, an abandoned Victorian youth centre, ‘The Florrie’, has been taken over by local people and is being restored into a new multi-function community facility to open next year.

With such self-organisation and self-determination under way, can these communities take a stake in these new economies? Will they, like the canny leaders of the Shetland Islands when the oil companies came to town in the 1970s, make sure that local people benefit from their geography, or will they instead be pushed out by economic growth, like in London, where the wealth of Canary Wharf built on the old east end docks does little help to the poor in Tower Hamlets. If such waterfront developments are to benefit the many not the few, communities will have to take matters into their own hands to make them, the profiteers in power are unlikely to acquiesce of their own accord.

On the Mersey, the waterfront continues to re-grow. The huge Liverpool Waters and Wirral Waters schemes, by the company behind Salford’s MediaCity, promise vast new centres for living and working on the sites of old docks. There is new industrial development too, with plans for large new port terminals and distribution centres to serve the emerging economies and several renewable energy facilities, including possibly the UK’s first tidal energy barrage. I am a sceptic to all of this, but then I disbelieved the current crop of developments and yet here they are. Such attempts at growth by our old industrial cities may still ultimately be futile in the face of a world which is shifting rapidly, but for maybe the first time in thirty or forty years, Liverpool seems like it may just have a future, and its fate, and that of other cities like it, once again hangs on the waterfront.

This piece appeared in Article magazine’s ‘Ports’ issue in June 2011.