Birkenhead was built around a shipyard, Cammell Laird. When I was nine years old it closed down. Our school was taken to the yard as the last submarine built there was launched. As we waved our little flags, we had little understanding that we were effectively waving away the local economy and our own future. That year, 1993, male unemployment in some parts of Birkenhead was 52%. Our town just a microcosm for the wider region around Liverpool, which faced huge challenges of economic decline and all the negative social impacts that cascade out from that.
What is the point of a shipbuilding town, or any kind of place, when the economic or strategic situation that brought it into being no longer exists? What happens to the culture of a place and its people when it is left to rot? Urban areas have always been the cradle of art and culture. These are also amongst the few things left when urban civilizations throughout history have collapsed. If culture is all somewhere still has, can a place survive on it?
‘The logic that created the city also destroyed it.’ — Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre
As long as there have been cities, they have attracted artists. In fact, the professional artist, distinct from a member of a community who makes art only as part of what they do, is dependent on a wider superstructure to support them. To be a professional artist, someone, somewhere else, has to be growing the food, generating the energy, erecting the buildings and removing the rubbish.
With the rise of industrialisation from the 18th century onwards, nouveau riche cities that grew rapidly powerful on the back on industrial wealth were earnest to stress their cultural credentials by funding artists and major cultural buildings. Such buildings often adopted Neoclassical styles inspired by the ruins of the ancient urban civilisations of Rome and Greece. These new cities viewing themselves as the heirs to such power and culture. Aping Rome, Liverpool even wrote SPQL in its grand civic hall’s metalwork, such was the imperial confidence. These buildings were often built far from the factories, docks and warehouses that paid for them, industrial cities and towns wanting to avoid notice of the grime and ‘unsightliness’ of the very things that made them rich. Indeed, while some artists of the industrial period celebrated the rapid changes taking place, most initially sought refuge from it. Seeking out in their art an alternative to the dark satanic mills and the poverty of the over-populated city. These artists favoured the romantic ruin, the rural idyll, the ‘lost beauty’ of pre-industrial times, like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement which ironically found favour with rich industrialists in Britain’s urban North. This would not be the last time that an artistic protest against social and economic change ended up being consumed by those who were at the heart of such change.
In the later 19th and early 20th century, the movement against the urban blight and poverty begat by industrialization grew. Figures such as William Morris and John Ruskin were influential in inspiring the likes of the Garden City movement. This, along with the development of public transportation and technological changes, led to an increasing movement away from industry and human habitation in the inner-city.
After WWII, a range of factors formed a pincer movement against the industrial city. Businesses wanted new, large single-storey industrial buildings, with ease of vehicle access and parking, close to new motorway networks. No longer brick multi-storeys near railway and river. Residents began to leave too. Where suburban rail lines led in the first part of the 20th century, the rise of the car accelerated the trend. Once only the wealthy could have their ‘house in the country’ and still get to a place of work, now this was open to many more people. Rising incomes, easier access to mortgages and record house building saw a trickle become a flood. Some people were forced to move though. Many architects and artists were desperate to make the world anew after the horrors of the two World Wars and the Great Depression. They saw the only possibility of getting away from such corruption and destruction in urban areas was pretty much starting from again from scratch: creating new urban areas along more ‘rational’ lines after mass demolition. With such Modernist planning ideas reaching their zenith in the mid-1960s, the development of New Towns and vast overspill estates far away from the centre saw a large inner-city exodus. With housing in inner urban areas often being replaced with high rises, further breaking up older urban patterns, their structures and communities.
By the late 1960s, all these shifts had created vicious circles which sucked away people, activity, wealth and power from central cities. Expensive infrastructure and services that had developed over decades became ever harder to maintain with the declining tax base that came with people and organisations moving away. This was starkly illustrated in the population changes of post war cities. From Detroit’s population height of 1.8 million in 1950 it is now down to just 700,000. Liverpool’s population meanwhile shrank from its 1939 peak of 857,000 to 439,000 today. In 1939 the population of inner London was 4.4 million, by 1988 it was 2.5 million. In 1980 New York City’s population had dropped a million from a decade before and the city narrowly avoided bankruptcy in the 1970s.
The solutions proposed to arrest this decline were again heavily reliant on Modernist planning ideas. The future of these inner cities, it was said, was for large, office-based businesses, while the remaining urban population were condensed into housing blocks. So huge new office complexes were built. Examples include the Renaissance Centre which today dominates Detroit’s waterfront, and the similarly grandiose but never built ‘Aquarius City’ office complex in Liverpool, which would have seen the now Grade I listed Albert Dock complex razed for it. However, as the western economy declined into the 70s, the funding and demand for such schemes dried up, leading to pockmarked and devastated urban areas and remaining populations with few employment opportunities.
Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, critiqued what had by then become orthodox planning, noting: ‘This is the most amazing event in the whole sorry tale: that finally people who sincerely wanted to strengthen great cities should adopt recipes frankly devised for undermining their economies and killing them.’ Jacobs was incredibly influential in getting wider society and those in power to take a different look at the qualities of the older, inner-city. However, her passion and those she inspired, for such areas and their communities, would later have malign consequences around gentrification and development that Jacobs and her followers did not foresee. Or perhaps wilfully ignored, because of the role they played in them.
There was a point in the 1970s when London, Liverpool, Detroit, and New York all seemed to be on a roughly similar path, but from the 1980s there was a strong divergence between cities who re-forged a new base of existence, along finance and creative capital, even if it didn’t offer a new future for all these cities’ existing residents, and those cities who found it harder to adapt to the growing Neoliberal, ‘post-Fordist’ world.
“Through its complex orchestration of time and space, no less than through the social division of labor, life in the city takes on the character of a symphony: specialized human aptitudes, specialized instruments, give rise to sonorous results” — Lewis Mumford
Art and culture in industrial cities was traditionally bankrolled by either the city’s authorities or its wealthy industrialists, who were frequently one in the same, This was usually limited to ‘high culture’, with ‘grassroots culture’, consumed by those working in the factories, warehouses and dockyards owned by these industrialists, often existing on its own terms. This culture was paid for by its mass popular base rather than by a small number of wealthy individuals. Thus, the industrial city had two aspects of artistic production supported separately by its small number of very wealthy individuals and by its large, mostly poor mass.
Often there was artistic and social tension between these forms of artistic patronage. Just as the United Auto Workers were gaining strength in 1930s Detroit, Edsel Ford was sponsoring Communist-sympathising Diego Rivera to paint his Detroit Industry Murals. At the other end of the spectrum, occasional autoplant worker Berry Gordy later used his experience on a production line to influence the creation of Motown Records’ system of ‘hit’ production. In Liverpool meanwhile, dominated by its vast port, the arrival and departure of many different sailors brought musical influences from around the world, especially the US, helping to influence the sound of Merseybeat and The Beatles.
It was this flux between large, diverse mass populations and a relatively small number of extremely wealthy individuals that helped produce the vibrant cultures of industrial cities. But the gulf between these two parts of society fuelled increasing tensions between them, which were played out through the 20th century. The 1960s would see the start of a decisive break in culture, cities and industry. Merseybeat and Motown were at this time reaching their peak, their global influence far outreaching the impact of all the ‘high culture’ that industrialists had bankrolled in their respective cities the whole century previous. These Black and working-class, marginalised cultures, rooted in the cities they were created in, ended up far surpassing in importance the elite’s version of art in their host cities, so often based in replicating the past of other places and cultures. Yet even as this was happening, Liverpool and Detroit were already on the path to their economic decline. The increasing power, wealth and leisure time of the mass working class which helped fuel these scenes was also reaching its peak before it began to fall.
By the late 60s culture and artists were frequently seen as having a dangerous power by those in charge of increasingly challenged and struggling city authorities as the power of the patrician elite began to decline. The actions in Paris in 1968 were the most famous, but London too was rocked by art school occupations and anti-Vietnam and anti-nuclear protests. In Detroit the devastating 1967 riots were a key turning point in the city’s fortunes. In 1970s Liverpool, the city already by then desperate to develop its economy, gave little opposition to The Cavern Club being demolished by British Rail for a new underground line. Both Liverpool and Detroit becoming globally known for their vibrant music, which replaced their previous reputation as centres of industry, transitioned quickly to them being seen as bywords for economic decline and urban decay.
All this went in tandem with the continued thrust by civic leaders in the virtues of Modernist planning, but with diminishing returns and increasing opposition. In these cities, like many others, hard drugs like heroin and later crack cocaine began to flood into deprived and desperate communities with an attendant rise in street gangs and crime. This in turn saw even more people and businesses leave and more urban decline. The city, many declared, was dead.
Yet, it was in this very atmosphere that some inner city cultures began to flourish. In New York, unwanted tenements and industrial buildings began to be utilised as new spaces by creative people making new forms of art, exemplified by Andy Warhol’s Factory. Clubs like CBGBs developed in run-down parts of the city, with Television, Talking Heads and Patti Smith emerging as New York sailed towards bankruptcy. Detroit had the MC5 and Iggy Pop. Eric’s nightclub in Liverpool helped birth bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The Teardrop Explodes. Hip-Hop and the culture surrounding it grew, generating interest globally even as New York’s leadership despaired about the ever more elaborate graffiti covering its run-down Metro system. The very fact that parts of the centre of New York were so empty made it a magnet for people who were not accepted or couldn’t afford to live elsewhere.
In Detroit and Chicago meanwhile, the empty factories and warehouses made redundant by industrial changes became home to flourishing dance music cultures, House from Chicago and Techno in Detroit. This in turn found favour in the UK, with clubs emerging in the abandoned industrial spaces of Liverpool, Manchester and London and rave culture finding popularity amongst their disenfranchised and unemployed youth.
In the late 20th century the inner-city was a place of tension, decay and poverty, but it was also the cradle of change. Far from being dead, the spaces left by the receding economic tide became home to some of the most cutting-edge aspects of global art and culture. Yet, in many of these cases, those in charge of these cities did their best, not only to not sponsor, support or even cash in on this, but to shut it down. The pop culture flourishing that saw the birth of Motown and Merseybeat, while initially being seen as harmless and positive, began to upset the status quo and subsequent radical cultural outputs were treated with concern and often hostility. Being targeted more often than not with enforcement action by local authorities and police. But as the hope for Modernist style mass renewal began to fade and crumble, a different perspective slowly began to grow. As the old dense urban landscapes were being swept away. Because of the very fact they were disappearing and were associated with radical, even dangerous, culture, such landscapes soon began to attract a new generation, the children especially of those who’d for one reason or another, left such places for the suburbs.
What would start to save these cities, it began to seem, was their radical cultures. Something which could have only reached its peak as the contradictions inherent in these places began to cause their decline.
I find myself back in Stanley Dock, the huge, crumbling warehouse on the edge of the city. When I was a kid my dad used to take me to the rough and ready market held in it so he could buy ‘second hand’ tools. What brings me here over a decade later is a party for the Liverpool Biennial art festival. There’s free booze, good music, dancing. Having grown up wanting to be part of the creative world, but worried I might never be able to, it feels good. I end up chatting to an arts person who isn’t from Merseyside. They say: “It’s great that Liverpool has all these abandoned buildings you can do stuff like this in.” This sentence sticks a little in my craw. On the one hand, who doesn’t love a party in an old warehouse? But then, to not realise while abandoned buildings are fun and adventurous for some, for many more who walk past them every day, they’re not exotic or interesting or an opportunity. They’re tragic. Palpable symbols of decline, of lack of opportunity, of deep-rooted decay. But hey, it is a party, I go back to dancing.
“The Birth of Gentrification” by Lees, Slater and Wyly, describes succinctly the change in how such urban places were perceived by a new generation from the 1960s onwards: “In both the United States and in Britain, post-war urban renewal meant the bulldozing of old neighbourhoods to be replaced by modern housing and highways. As the destruction spread, so did the rebellion against it. In the beginning the protesters were mainly historians and architecture buffs, but slowly these were joined by young, middle-class families who bought and lovingly reconditioned beat-up, turn-of-the-century houses in ‘bad’ neighbourhoods.”
One of the roles of artists from the industrial revolution through to the post-industrial one has been that of highlighting the value of things which wider society has discarded. Those in the Romantic movement in the 19th century wanted to highlight the beauty that they saw was being lost in the fields and hamlets and small workshops, the long-established ways of life being swept away by industrialization. While the artists moving into New York’s emptying loft buildings and London’s decaying docklands in the later 20th century also wanted to reflect and argue for the worth of such places and cultures that had been written off as economically unviable and of the past.
As documented by Sharon Zukin in Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, art and artists played a particular role in the development of gentrification in decayed urban areas. The ‘character’ and relative ‘wildness’ of such places was a draw, with them seen to be outside of mainstream culture, just as the countryside was for artists 100 years before. In these locations, artists could live cheaply and relatively free, with plenty of space for venues, studios, galleries and parties. Yet creative communities formed in this way also tend to be short lived, relying on a rapid turnover of young people moving in. Within a few years most leave these ‘authentic’ localities, as they begin to settle down into family units in more ‘conventional’ places. That is of course, if such areas don’t reach a tipping point and those moving in shift the nature of the neighbourhoods they inhabit to suit their changed needs. Such changes attract more people who wish to buy into such developing locations. This drives up property prices, which in turn attracts further intense private investment and price rises. Once an area starts to gentrify, it is almost impossible to stop – a single building or even a block may be kept in old use due to protections or campaigns of one form or another, but usually everything around them still changes.
This pattern has now become so familiar to be almost banal. It’s important however to note the date of the publication of Zukin’s Loft Living, 1982, and how long it took for her points to become mainstream. This is related to the speed of gentrification. Slow, at first, almost unknowable in the 1960s, moving through to today where districts can go from ‘off the radar’ to impossibly expensive at a speed where the process is clearly visible to all.
However, importantly, this phenomenon predominantly only has significant impact on economically successful areas with a large enough creative and media bases; the post-industrial cities which became leading centres of service industries such as London, Berlin, LA, San Francisco and New York. Places like this have become so hyper-successful and keep growing at such intense rates, that not only have their former industrial communities and artists been pushed out from the centre of the city, but much of their professional middle classes too.
‘London may soon be faced with an ‘embarrass de richesses’ in her central area and this may prove to be a problem too.’ — Ruth Glass, who coined the term gentrification, writing in 1964
‘The problem in the South Side of Chicago is the same as it is in Liverpool, or wherever, it is: what do working people do now the industry has gone?’ — Theaster Gates
In cities which didn’t catch this bandwagon though, like Detroit and Liverpool, communities don’t really face being pushed out by Modernist development as in the past, or gentrification now, rather many are instead pushed to leave by the lack of opportunities and declining local infrastructure and services, or risk getting trapped in negative cycles of deprivation. Such cities lose more talent than they gain. Job opportunities can be few and those available often low quality and not well paid. Fewer companies being headquartered in them means such places have less agency and a lower tax base, being dependent on the whims of central governments re-distributing national taxes or big companies choosing to invest there. Educational attainment is usually lower, meaning there’s a lower skills base and fewer new companies and organisations are founded. Gaining media attention for anything other than a negative story is hard as most media is usually based far away and mainly interested in things which re-enforce the existing views of its audiences.
Yet, as gentrification is a major issue in the cities that are amongst the biggest centres of arts, the media and urban academic discourse, it presented as something that is a key threat to all urban areas. When instead, it is a symptom of a wider issue where a smaller number of global megacities become ever larger and more powerful and ever more exclusionary for people without wealth and other former industrial cities and their populations increasingly struggle.
Art and culture in these latter cities, while often vibrant, are always threatened by their weaknesses. There may be plenty of ‘cheap and wild’ places for artists and culture to happen, but markets and support are limited, attention hard to find. Artists which do emerge often are attracted to better opportunities elsewhere and while individual success happens, wider cultural scenes tend to be fragile, transitory and dependent on student/graduate populations moving in and then often, back out again. As well as come-and-go subsidy from elsewhere. Cultural institutions, if they still exist, are often impoverished and risk averse, reducing opportunities for new work and new artists.
Despite the arguments by people like Richard Florida in his The Rise of the Creative Class, cities attracting artists are not in themselves a solution to their economic problems. Artists moving in can help an area be revitalised, as repeatedly seen, but that cannot form the whole economy of anything other than a small, specialized settlement – for example Japan’s ‘art island’, Naoshima. The megacities such as London, Berlin and New York which have huge creative and cultural sectors, still always find them playing second fiddle to the bigger still corporate and public administration sectors.
A taxi driver in Detroit asked me, ‘Do you want to see the abandoned Packard plant, lots do?’ I thought for a while and replied, ‘No thanks, you know we also have a lot of abandoned factories where I’m from too.’ My time was short and I wanted to see some of the community arts and renewal projects, decaying warehouses I could get in Birkenhead. The familiarity in visiting Detroit from the Northern England was stark. However, Detroit was in a worse condition, though of course it was nothing like the stereotypes of the media .There were plenty of beautiful, fully occupied buildings, lots going on, There was also the real positivity people had that you were visiting and interested in the contemporary life of the city and what had been restored, not just what was decaying.
I visited the Motown Museum and it was joyous, seeing the original recording studio, the enthusiasm of the local tour guide. Afterwards, I understood better why people got so excited visiting Penny Lane in Liverpool. When we consume culture, there’s a fascination that can grow about the origins of that culture which propels us to engage with it. Of course though, engaging with a real city is always different. And living somewhere that had a vibrant past culture is not the same as living somewhere that has a vibrant contemporary culture. The tour guide reminded us that Motown Records left Detroit for LA in the 1970s, and I was reminded of Warp Records leaving Sheffield for London in 2000.
We tend to love cities for their culture, be that food, music, architecture, literature, sport, film. That view of a city though is of course a projection, often many projections laid over each other to create a powerful, chimeric image. It must be tempered by the actuality of a city: its messy, complicated reality; that most cities are ever changing. And if they’re not, they’re often dying.
Art and culture can help drive social change. It can even form part of an economy, but you cannot run a major urban settlement on cultural production alone. Trying to do that leaves cities, their populations and the culture they create vulnerable. Since its industries left for more modern places and it became a wholly a tourist city, the population of Venice has declined significantly. The fact is, far less interesting things, dull even, are also needed to help the residents of declined cities: hi tech manufacturing, decent government jobs, a diverse economic base. Yet, as anyone who works in economic development in a depressed city will tell you, getting such ‘good jobs’ and the social benefits that come from them is damn hard, especially when you’re battling against the seemingly ever-growing power of the global megacities. Meanwhile, the fallout from the still relatively new phenomenon of post-industrial cities continues to grow, causing profound political shifts, as exemplified by the rise of Trump and Brexit, both significantly backed by those living in places smashed by industrial decline. Though it must be noted both also drew support from other demographics too.
The cultural tragedy is for Liverpool and Detroit is, in becoming less sustainable, in seeing a lot of their young talent leave for other quarters, even if a handful of arts graduates moving in find their ‘edginess’ more interesting than where they grew up, is that the vibrant, transformational, radical art that grew out of such bustling diverse working class cultures, like Motown and Merseybeat, is far less likely to be repeated. An economic underpinning giving their working-classes power, time and money is needed to create these conditions. These beautiful cities and others like it deserve better, but they cannot do it on their own and years of laissez-faire rule by successive central governments has allowed them to fall so far it will be hard to pull it back.
I’d been working in Hull a couple of years and not been into a bigger city for a while. Arriving in London for a day’s training, the effect was alarming. I’d lived in London in the past, but after so long in a city struggling, with its retail centre in decline, to suddenly be dropped back into the intense stream of the capital running full tilt – every shop occupied, every park filled, every piece of shining new public transport packed and constant, was jarring. It dawned on me how, if this is all you saw every day, how hard it would be to understand or even comprehend the challenges of a struggling city. What it’s like to live in a place where every decent job created is cancelled out by a job lost. The grinding down of any belief in anything ever getting better if you have to fight for every single thing to even be kept afloat. How easy it would be to think your urban problems – house prices, gentrification, too many tourists, a transport system that’s too busy – were the only urban problems.
London and New York are becoming gilded cages. Art and culture helped rebrand and reshape them, but this was just the surface section of the much larger iceberg of dematerialised capitalism honing into view. The culture that renewed them is now being driven out. Of course, they are not short of culture to consume: every possible permutation of art can be experienced and bought. Places like this will always attract artists because there will always be a market, but will they again be the epicentres, the crucibles of art and culture that cuts across classes and national identity, culture that helps change the world? Or rather, just rich places that can deck themselves out in the best they can buy? Much as the city fathers of the industrial age did in aping the styles of Rome and Greece to cover the fact they were built fast on hot money largely derived from exploitation. While there’ll probably always be shows on Broadway and in the West End, even after Covid, as the poor and even the moderately well off are forced out of London and New York by hyper-development, how many of them will be written by people who can afford to live there?
At the other end are the under-invested cities. Detroit and Liverpool, Glasgow and New Orleans, Baltimore and Hull. Places which despite everything against them, still have vibrant cultures. Yet they face a crisis not just economic, but existential. These cities will always produce talent, have creativity within them, but with the jobs, markets and media elsewhere, how often will people have to leave to make it? How much will any cultural success provide a future for their wider urban populations? To quote the film Billy Elliot: ‘What about us? We can’t all be fucking dancers.’
Post-industrial cities didn’t really start to emerge till the 1970s and the finance driven megacities are an even newer phenomenon. So, just at it seemed cities were doomed in the 1970s, there could yet be decisive turns for places on either side of this dichotomy. The huge impact of Covid-19 has thrown things up in the air in a way not seen since the Oil Shock and we can only speculate as to what will follow. I hope for change and want to see underinvested towns and cities get a break so can thrive not just survive. As well as the overgrowth of the megacities reined in so they can breathe. At the moment both are being slowly strangled by the deep imbalance between them.
Our cities are screaming to live, but they can’t do it on their own. With the right investment and support, and public control, perhaps we can see again a more balanced urban life, which supports thriving cultures. Only then will the new equivalent of Motown or Merseybeat be able to rise from them again to change the world.
Kenn Taylor is a writer and creative producer from the North of England. His work has appeared in a range of outlets from The Guardian and CityMetric to Elsewhere Journal and Liverpool University Press. www.kenn-taylor.com