Friday, 1 June 2012

If You Build it People Will Come (perhaps)...

Bottles of bubbly were reportedly on ice. An expectant group of Bradford councillors, including the leader, Conservative councillor Margaret Eaton, and top officers, were gathered in an office in City Hall, confident of having some really good news to celebrate.

It was October 30, 2002, and the UK cities bidding to be the 2008 European Capital of Culture were about to learn their fate. A sustained marketing and PR campaign had been going on in Bradford for months. Bradford's cultural icons had been wheeled out likesupermarket trolleys for a good polish. The wonders of Bradford's industrial heritage and its modern multicultural diversity were 'the icing on the cake'.

Bradford was still coming to terms with the consequences of the 2001 Muslim riot. The authorities rightly thought that unless something drastic was done, the mud sticking to the city's reputation would put paid to any hope of future revival. It was an understandable approach, though its expression in the form of the Capital of Culture bid was, I thought, seriously misconceived.

The wider world was aware from the 1989 Satanic Verses book-burning episode, the long-running Honeyford Affair as well as the 1995 and 2001 riots, that Bradford had problems. Trying to hide them behind UNESCO's World Heritage status award to Saltaire (a Victorian model village three miles to the north of Bradford in the constituency of Shipley) was at least unwise. I was told that two of the Capital of Culture judges visiting Salts Mill were overheard to say: 'Nice place, pity about the location'. Meaning Bradford.

Though not a Bradfordian, over 37 years I have grown deeply attached to the old place. Real empathy comes out of a mixture of love and hate; feeling is empirical, not theoretical. I have lived, worked and suffered here. I have spent my money here, invested here. Any other talk is just the prattle of marketing - "brilliant", "vibrant", "visionary", "wonderful", and more "brilliant". Call me Mr Stupid, but I believe honest promotion of a place should include the flavour of lived experience, and that means the good, the bad and the ugly.

Why not promote Bradford as a place with an edge? I said. We can't hide the fact that this is the hometown of the Yorkshire Ripper and the Black Panther, not to mention the 1985 Bradford City Fire Disaster. Admit the bad and the ugly and then say in spite of that we have the good. There is beauty too. Dangerous it may be, sardonic and infuriatingly complacent it can be, but by God you won't nod off in Bradford. The damn place gets under your skin. And on a clear sunny evening, the skylines are breath-taking. I have sometimes walked home from work in tears, the sun beaming out of a cinemascopic South Dakota sky, reflecting off portals of pale yellow sandstone. The song of the place still sings to me after all these years, even after two riots, a football stadium inferno I was lucky to walk away from, and the odd threat from the odd political fanatic.

Pal: forget it. People like me, whose feelings were complex but at least authentic, were shunted out of the way for the prattlers. "Brilliant", "vibrant", "diverse". No hard feelings; but nevertheless short-sighted, I thought. The scene was set. Expectations had been worked on and pumped up. Then, on October 30, the news arrived. Bradford wasn't even short-listed.

"Are you disappointed?" Margaret Eaton (now Baroness Eaton of Cottingley) said to someone in a suit, as the news was reported on local television. The bubbly remained on ice. The disconsolate group of VIPs went across the road to the pub to inflate their spirits temporarily with a little alcoholic depressant. They needed it. This wasn't the first time Bradford's corporate expectations had come a cropper due to highly-paid people who should have known better, jumping the gun, counting their chickens.

In the 1950s, chunks of historic Yorkshire sandstone Bradford were bulldozed to make way for the brave new world of high rise office blocks faced in Portland Stone and multi-lane motorways bisecting the city centre. You can see this going on in the film Billy Liar, which was shot on location in and around Bradford. Somewhere under Prince's Way, opposite the former Odeon cinema (now wrapped in plastic sheeting, as though visited by Christo), lies the Students' Club. This was a cellar bar where the likes of George Melly and Humphrey Lyttleton used to play in the 1950s. It was visited by artists studying at Bradford College of Art, including David Hockney, Norman Stevens and others. Murals on the wall were said to be by DH himself  - 'Boris' as one of his brothers is said to have called him.

In the 1990s, planners demolished old Rawson Market in the belief that a proposed £40m leisure development in central Bradford would provide the wherewithal for a replacement. The developer walked away and for about five years, Bradford had a hole in the ground where Rawson market used to be. The lovely Java Cafe, the best cafe-bar in town opposite the Alhambra theatre, was refused a short-term lease in 1998. The building was demolished to make way for a proposed peace museum. For several years there was a hole in the ground. Eventually it was levelled and fenced off. Half the central police station was knocked down before planners realised the cells underneath the building were still in use by the adjacent magistrates court. The exposed end wall, opposite the derelict Odeon, was eventually cladded tastefully with plastic-looking glass.

Given all this (there is more), the ludicrous impasse over the Westfield site (see the blog below) comes as no surprise. Not long after a smiling Councillor Eaton formally handed over the bulldozed site in November 2005, Westfield put in a subterranean car park and foundations for the pillars that would support the super-duper shopping mall. That done, they left. Everybody waited for them to return with bricks and mortar. To date they haven't. And so Bradford has yet another hole to add to its municipal collection.

There are those who maintain that a concrete and glass retail complex is the way to revive Bradford's fortunes. I am not one of them. Nor is my friend Richard North. "More people are shopping online. Instead of a shopping mall, create an experience from which commercial opportunities arise," he says, which is the exact reverse of putting up a £200m-£300m monstrosity in the hope that it will prove to be a shopping experience. "Build on Bradford's heritage," Richard says. "Make the place a visitors' centre by creating cafes, places of entertainment and commerce." Part of the site, converted into a temporary park in 2010, is where the Occupy Westfield people have pitched one of their tents. The ten-acre site is a natural hub, between two railway stations, Bradford Cathedral and City Hall. It would be an ideal place to relocate the J B Priestley Archive, currently buried two floors down under the University of Bradford, and the Mechanic Institutes Library. And why not create an archive to commemorate the Independent Labour Party, founded in Bradford in 1894, as well as museum commemorating other luminaries and reformers who made a difference - Humbert Wolfe, Margaret McMillan, Delius, David Hockney, Jim Laker (born in Frizinghall), Richard Dunn, who tried to beat Mohammed Ali, Len Shackleton, World Snooker champion genial Joe Johnson?

Regeneration through culture has been done before in Bradford, spectacularly so by the late Jonathan Silver at Salts Mill. Between 1987 and 1997, the year of his premature death, he created the world's biggest single collection of David Hockney images alongside high-tec industries, a Diner, art galleries, offices, a bookshop and a performance space. He converted a run-down textile mill at the bottom of a hill in a village three miles outside Bradford into a place now visited by thousands annually. I watched him do this and wrote the book Salt & Silver: A Story of Hope, a double biography of Titus Salt, the industrialist who built the mill in 1853, and Silver, the former men's wear shop owner, who restored and revived the building's magnificence.

Silver, who loathed bureaucracy, never had a blueprint or masterplan. He started off with 53 David Hockney pictures which he put round the walls of a former spinning shed of 10,000 square feet. Admission to see them was, and remains, free. Like the farmer in the movie Field of Dreams, who builds a baseball pitch in the middle of one of his cornfields, Silver had a dream. His consisted of combining culture and commerce and making the result exciting and profitable. True regeneration, he showed, only takes place when an entrepreneur or a group of people seize the initiative and become empowered. In contrast, development occurs irrespective of human factors: developers put up speculative buildings whether or not they have tenants for them. Silver got the culture which in turn attracted high-tec entrepreneurs from Pace and Filtronic Components plc.

Interestingly, Jonathan Silver was never invited to City Hall to explain to planners and politicians how he did it. Not once. Those who advised them to take serious note of what was happening in Saltaire were ignored. After all, hadn't the corporation wanted to demolish Salts Mill before Silver bought it - to make way for a motorway?

In light of all this no one should be surprised that the council  subjected an historic part of Bradford - Forster Square - to the wrecker's ball in the earnest hope of attracting a big developer as a dance partner.


AngieW_ said...

Hello, I couldn't agree with your comments more. I live within travelling distance myself and have taken groups of students on educational days to The Media Museum in the past - it's quite heartbreaking to see the City Centre as it is. Regeneration in Bradford and indeed the wider area is essential, I feel. As a region we are listed as some of the most deprived areas in th UK (at last reading Wakefield came 34th out of 345 Local Authority areas)- our Unemployment rates and especially YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT - are above national average. We need Industry to invest - manufacturing is no-where near the pre-Thatcher era (thanks Mrs T.!) and I feel that this is key to the development of our region.

Anonymous said...

Think the time has long come for a public enquiry and investigation in to all this mess, with those responsible being held to account..

Bronte Country said...

An excellent article. I particularly agree with the comments about marketing hyperbole, and how being honest about the place ("the good, the bad and the ugly") is a much better way to get this once fine city back on its feet again..

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Jim!

Spot on

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