According to Director of Culture at Liverpool City Council Claire McColgan, Liverpool “has a very big personality;” to Kevin McManus, Curator at British Music Experience (BME) and Head of Creative & Digital Investment at Liverpool Vision, Liverpool is a “maverick, edgy city.” Best known for being birthplace of the Merseybeat and home to one of the world’s most popular football clubs, Liverpool is all of those things, but it’s also a moody city. As I stand on the polished Albert Dock watching tourists snap photos, cruise liners arrive to stormy skies that were just minutes ago luminous.
Liverpool is hardly a stranger to people from foreign lands on its shores. Due to its strategic location in the North West of England on the intersection of the River Mersey and the Irish Sea, Liverpool was one of the British Empire’s most important outposts in the early nineteenth century, making it the second city of the Empire. “By the early 20th century, Liverpool’s merchant fleet was more modern and larger in tonnage than that of London, its streets held more foreign consulates and embassies…and its cargo handling exceeded New York – and every port on mainland Europe,” note the authors of “A City Profile of Liverpool.”
The authors go on to show how the wealth accrued from Liverpool’s lucrative trading manifest itself directly on the cityscape, making the city home to everything from the first commercial enclosed wet dock and the world’s first inter-city railway (which ran to Manchester) in 1830 to “…a plethora of grand architectural landscapes and the early development of the characteristic urban infrastructure of the modern city…but also public parks, mass housing, planning and sanitation.” Today, the city houses more architecturally protected buildings than any other city in the UK, after London.
After the Great Depression, Liverpool continued to thrive until World War II, when it received some of the heaviest bombing of any city in the UK (and the heaviest outside of London). It was during the war that the members of the most famous and possibly the most influential band the world has ever seen were born in Liverpool – The Beatles. The popularity of bands like The Beatles made the city an icon for the British Invasion of the Sixties, when British rock and pop bands overtook the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the RopeWalks – the name given to the regenerated quarter where ropes were made for ships in the city’s heyday – sits one of Liverpool’s most prominent culture organizations, The Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT). Executive Director Jo Wright, a Londoner who moved to Liverpool in 1999, drawn in by the city’s music scene, explains that Liverpool’s long-standing legacy of music continues to shape how the world views the city and how the city perceives itself. “Of all the genres, art forms, creative industries, Liverpool is most closely associated internationally and to large extent domestically, with music. Not just because of The Beatles – although I think The Beatles were at the pinnacle of the scene that emerged in the late 50s in Liverpool, and they were clearly the highest profile, most sustainable legacy of that,” he says. “I think it’s also reflective of an underlying radical mindset – an outward-looking mindset – and this partly came from the geography and history of Liverpool as a port city that faced out to the New World in a way that other port cities may have faced Europe,” he adds.
The 1970s saw the closure of the city’s once-lucrative docks, and by the 1980s, Liverpool had fallen into decline. Unemployment rose to an all-time high, reaching almost 40% in certain neighborhoods. The city, long home to a sizeable Irish population which migrated during the Great Irish Famine of the mid-nineteenth century – one of the reasons for Liverpudlians’ distinctive scouse, or Liverpool English – was branded an outsider to the rest of England. This, coupled with its decline and its “radical mindset” meant that the city, once a magnet for talent and technology, became a repellent to them.
During the 1970s and 1980s, this perception deepened, and left-wingers in Liverpool even proposed breaking away from the UK due to their resentment of the Thatcher government’s policies. It was around this time that Liverpool earned the reputation of being “Smack City“ for its drug kingpins and heroin epidemic, further cementing its outcast status in the UK.
But it wasn’t just Liverpool’s image that suffered – the city itself, once a thriving, mercantile maritime metropolis, bore the brunt of rising poverty and unemployment, gang culture, organized crime, and widespread heroin use. The city’s population dropped from over a million in the urban area in 1900 to 430,000 in 2001 – more than halving at a time when urban populations around the world were booming. According to McManus – the only interviewee who was born and raised in Liverpool, “people didn’t visit Liverpool because there was nothing here.” Although the city had a thriving underground party scene, on the surface, it was dismal. “The waterfront was horrible, Lime Street Station was horrible, the city center was pretty much horrible. It was just in a slump,” he adds.
“The World In One City”
In spite of regeneration efforts continuing into the 1990s, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Liverpool began to recover from decades of neglect, culminating in the city being awarded European capital of culture in 2008. In 2004, the Liverpool Riverfront was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2008, the year that the city was awarded capital of culture, 15 million tourists visited – a rise of 30% from previous years, representing an £800 million boost in the region’s revenues.
Liverpool’s slogan for the pitch, “the world in one city,” encapsulates how the city perceived itself both then and now. The city designed its regeneration project for the bid around creative industries, culture and tourism – all of which continue to figure prominently in the city’s economy and regeneration projects. McManus, who was heavily involved in the city’s bid for capital of culture, notes that “2008 changed the national perception a lot,” effectively “proving” that the city “could actually do something.” McManus is quick to point out that, in spite of the regeneration – which still has a long way to go – the city has retained its unique character. “There’s still a slightly maverick, quirky element [to Liverpool], and I think you can tell…I think there is enough quirkiness in Liverpool to know it’s a unique place, and I think that’s what makes Liverpool interesting… it’s still a bit edgy, and you don’t want to tame it totally.”
Critically, the award resulted in positive coverage of a city that had long been featured negatively in news reports. According to Dr. Beatriz Garcia, director of the research program Impacts 08 – a program that analysed the social, economic and cultural impact of the 2008 title: “We found that general opinion of Liverpool was informed by very dated images of the city, which ranged from positive but fixed associations with the Beatles in the 1960s to more negative views of social deprivation in the 1980s.”
In her office at the Grade II listed Cunard Building on the Pier Head, Claire McColgan explains that: “The phrase in the UK was that Liverpool was the basket case of the local authorities, and the leadership at the time wanted to use the title of capital of culture to bring some kind of commonality and a way forward, not just for the cultural sector, but for the whole city, and that’s what was fantastic about it.” She adds that: “The capital of culture title was a real stepping stone, but it was a stepping stone – it wasn’t the end of everything, it wasn’t the pinnacle of our success, we’ve grown and we’ve developed [since then].”
She notes that winning the bid “embedded” culture in the city’s success story, and that, while the massive regeneration happening around Liverpool is key to growth, without original cultural content, Liverpool runs the risk of looking like any other UK city. As a city that has always “looked away from London,” she says, it is important that Liverpool retain its cultural and artistic edge, but also to manage regeneration in a way that ensures its identity is not lost in the process.
“Compared to other cities, Liverpool has got a really big personality that people recognize and they understand. It’s not a city that can be anywhere, but that’s really key to us that we don’t turn into another city. Cities have got to retain their individuality, especially over the next 10-20 years.” McColgan, who is one of the masterminds behind the city’s Sgt. Pepper at 50 – a three-week-long anniversary celebration that marked 50 years since the release of The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in May of this year, explains that the celebration is an opportunity for the city to embrace its musical history and find ways to reinvent it.
While Capital of Culture was a key turning point for the city, the city received substantial support from the European Union in the 1990s and 2000s, acquiring Objective One structural fund status between 1994 to 2006, which resulted in the allocation of £1.3 billion of European and national public sector money to economic development. It was this physical regeneration that paved the way for the capital of culture bid, which began in 2003. As McManus notes, the project played an important role in giving the team behind the bid the confidence to show both the UK and the world that Liverpool could bounce back. Today, Liverpool’s visitor economy is worth £4.3 billion and accounts for over 51,000 jobs. The digital and creative sectors account for 3,500 businesses, reaping in £878 million and employing 18,906 people.
According to locals, however, it was not just the award that turned Liverpool around, but the years leading up to it that saw collaboration between countless arts and culture organizations – not to mention the City Council – in an effort to put Liverpool back on the cultural map of the world.
The Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium (LARC), a consortium of seven arts organizations in Liverpool that includes institutions like the Tate Liverpool and FACT, was established with the aim of playing a role in the regeneration of Merseyside. A consortium of 32 smaller culture organizations, Creative Organizations of Liverpool (COoL), works closely with the City Council and developing, curating and producing art events, contributing a total of around £8 million to the city’s regional economy annually.
FACT, which is housed in a building built by European Regional Development Fund in partnership with a cinema chain in 2003, is a culture organization that prides itself for its use of new media and technologies in its work. The Irish-born Roger McKinley, Head of Innovation at FACT, whose role involves collaborating with universities, research institutions and international companies in the areas of education and health and wellbeing, describes Liverpool as a city that has technology and innovation in its DNA. “We feel that we are in a position to contribute to the health and wellbeing of the society at large in Liverpool,” he says, elaborating that it is through engaging members of the community to co-design workshops and programs with artists that FACT enables its participants.
“Co-design is the only really proactive methodology that we want to use,” he says. He goes on: We’ve got five of the poorest boroughs in the UK here in Liverpool, so an ongoing part of our social economy work has been around health and wellbeing…it’s really about empowering people by giving them the tools to tell their own story.”
FACT’s activities include an on-site and touring exhibitions’ program, a participatory program around those exhibitions, community outreach and learning programs around education and health, as well as a research and innovations’ program. Their programs include working with the BBC on a program called Liverpool Girl Geeks which aims to address gender imbalances in tech, working with the Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust hospital’s mental health patients, as well as co-designing programs with military veterans in the community and military veterans in the criminal justice system, senior citizens, children at Alder Hey Hospital and youth.
On the other side of the city on the windy Northern Docks, a nondescript former factory space houses The Invisible Wind Factory – an artists’-collective-turned-community-interest-company that is home to a group of artists whose work is testament to the city’s legacy as a hub for underground music. Liam Naughton, who is effectively managing director of Invisible Factory – in spite of the team’s dynamic roles, explains that the company, which collaborates with larger, more institutional organizations like FACT, effectively brings together makers and producers. Naughton leads the way through the factory space, which is reconfigured for different shows, and then up to a maze of workshops and working spaces, and then back down a set of stairs through a wood-making workshop where the team makes sets for their own shows as well as commissioned work for third parties. We pass another workshop where a team fabricates lights, lamps and special effects, and he casually points to a spaceship with robotic wings that is used for shows. The dereliction of the as-yet undeveloped area – which is populated primarily by garages – is at odds with the maze of artistry that the team has transformed the factory into.
Standing by a window, he explains that, while the area has been undeveloped for years, it is in fact a “sleeping giant.” “This land is owned by the Peel Developments. There will be a big commercial port for cruise ships, there will be a commercial port for export and import, and then Everton football club will be moving there,” he gestures, noting a factory that manufactures wind turbines nearby – a funny coincidence for the Invisible Wind Factory. “This is all a super-undeveloped area to the point of becoming derelict really. [When we] arrived here three years ago [and rented out the space] to make things, there was nothing here. This area will develop – it’s becoming quite political and things are changing.”
Just south of the Albert Dock in the lively regenerated district of the Baltic Triangle, we meet with Rebecca Ayres, Chief Operating Officer of Sound City – an annual music festival and industry conference based in Liverpool founded in 2008 by David Pichilingi and Kevin McManus. One of Sound City’s aims is to create a music infrastructure in the city in an effort to encourage musicians and music producers to stay in or move to Liverpool. Housed in a former warehouse space, Sound City hosts it annual two-day outdoor music festival in late May on the as-yet-undeveloped Northern Docks, right across from the Invisible Wind Factory.
“When we set it up it was mostly about showcasing new talent from the city region but we were lucky because Liverpool has such a huge profile internationally, we quickly had a lot of people coming to Sound City from overseas,” she adds. In addition to the festival, Sound City runs an annual music business conference for music professionals, record labels, producers, live music producers, festival organizers, and booking agents, which attracts an average of 2,000 people annually. The company also has year-round activities in the UK, New York and Seoul and organizes training programs for young Liverpudlians who want to learn music entrepreneurship.
The Baltic Triangle, which is also home to Liverpool Biennial, Merseyside Arts Foundation and elevator coworking space, in addition to numerous boutique consulting and architecture firms, production houses, and tech companies – not to mention countless shabby-chic bars, pubs, cafes, and restaurants – is a rare model of sustainable regeneration. Hailed as a success story, the Baltic Triangle was set up by Kevin McManus as a community interest company, and has encouraged new developers to invest in an area of the city that just 13 years ago looked much like the Northern Docks do today.
Possibly inspired by the success of the Baltic Triangle, Ten Streets – an initiative to create a “creative district” over 125 acres that will stretch along the docks from the north of the city center to the city’s landmark Tobacco warehouse at Stanley Dock – is a comprehensive regeneration plan that includes an entrepreneurship hub, a revolving theater (the first of its kind in the UK), and a walkable and cyclable neighborhood. Looming on the edge of all these new developments is the threat that local communities will be pushed out – something that companies like The Invisible Wind Factory are trying to combat by taking their place at the table in local councils.
“Everyone talks about gentrification like we’re London, but we’re not London. We’re trying to make a city that people want to live in, and the city has further to go. Doing what they’ve done with the Baltic is not gentrifcying, it’s making it a city that people wnt to live in,” says McColgan, and for her, culture is one of the ways that the city can achieve that. By creating inclusive culture programs that are open to the public and, rather than being centralized in the city center, tour through the city’s various districts – particularly its poorer ones – McColgan believes that Liverpool can continue to give residents ownership of their city.
Although McColgan is vehement in her support of the city’s regeneration projects, even she admits that striking the balance between preserving local heritage and supporting communities and generating income for the city is key to ensuring that no one gets left out. In spite of that, she is adamant that the Liverpool of today is a place that can only look forward. “My friends who are my age left Liverpool because there was nothing for them here when they when to university in the 80s, but my daughter is 15 and she doesn’t ever want to leave the city. So that’s the change in the city. [You had] a load of talent leaving in the late 80s, but now you’ve got the chance to retain some fantastic talent from the younger generation because they see a city that is full of things that they want to be part of,” she concludes.
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