I’ve never been any good at ‘doorstepping’ people for interviews, so I reach out to some friends who have connections to Liverpool, and ask them if they know anyone interesting to speak to about the vague nebulous ideas I’ve so far settled on. My friend Sam Meech came back with a big list of people, and I start setting up informal meetings in coffee shops, pubs and restaurants. I’ve outlines a handful of these conversations below:
The first person I managed to get hold of was the every dependable Joan, pillar of the Liverpool creative community, part of the team at Fact in Liverpool and member of the board of directors for Liverpool’s Gay Pride. We talked a lot about her history in Liverpool, her time living Toxteth and being part of the creative community, as well as the connection the city has to Ireland, and the resultant sectarianism. A really fascinating area of conversation was the trials and tribulations of running large public events, and how Pride in Liverpool has managed to stay as a grass roots community event, framed around a march rather than become the overtly corporate event that so many Pride’s around the world have become. Interestingly for me, we also discussed the changing face of LGBT activism in recent years, and the increasing need to support LGBT asylum seekers. I’m assuming as a result of the cheap rental property available, Liverpool is one of several places that large numbers of asylum seekers are sent to once they have claimed asylum in other parts of the country. There are a considerable number of people claiming asylum on the grounds of sexuality based on the discrimination they suffer in the country of their birth. These people need a specific set of challenges which all seem obvious once you’re aware of them, but I hadn’t really considered before.
Firstly there’s the obvious language problems of dealing with the bureaucracy of the British welfare state, then there’s the need to provide detailed documentation to support their asylum claim. In the case of people claiming asylum on the grounds of sexuality, this amounts to evidence to prove they’re really LGBT. The problem here is that the obvious evidence would be things like photographs of them with their same sex partner – but – living in a country where having a same-sex partner could get you killed, a lot of these people have spent their lives going to great length to make sure that no such photographic evidence that they aren’t straight and cis gendered exists. The third challenge they face is specific to the way that the British system houses those claiming asylum. Typically asylum seekers are placed in multiple occupancy temporary accommodation with other people of the same nationality. This I’m guessing is to try and give people some support via shared language, community and the like. The problem for LGBT is that they’ve just fled a society with deeply held homophobic views, and come to a comparatively safer country, just to be housed with a group of people from the home country, many of whom will share the same level of homophobia as their fellow countrymen back home. So people end up travelling thousands of miles to find safety as an LGBT person, then end up getting housed in what is at best, an often deeply hostile environment.
The second person I met up with was Sean, the Arts Development Officer at Liverpool City Council. His job’s connection to the arts meant he was pretty happy to talk to a visiting artist. In way of some context – Liverpool is well known for having a pretty radical left-wing history in terms of local government, most notably when the Trotskyist group Militant Tendency controlled the City Council for most of the 80’s, leading to a decade of running battles against Thatchers government. The days of Militant being in charge are long gone, but the council is still one of the more socialist leaning the country, so it seemed like they’d be interesting to speak to about the issues surrounding the ongoing efforts at regeneration in the city.
Most of the time when you speak to people in government, they tend to lean towards standard p.r. language and talk in the same sound-bites that they’ve used in every other interview for the last few years. There’s always going to be some of that speaking to people involved with local/ national government, but the people for Liverpool city council seemed far more interested in having a genuine conversation about the complication of trying to create a viable future for regional cities in the UK. One thing that really stuck out was the idea of necessary compromise, and of the lack of options. It’s really easy, from the outside to see the faults of regeneration schemes, to see blocks of low quality flats going up that are only suitable for the fabled ‘young professional couples’, the lack of green space, the dubious town planning decisions. The thing you get from the council is that they’re not oblivious to this, they just don’t have much choice. Given the point Liverpool was at in the 80’s in terms of decline and deprivation, especially of the city centre, it’s fairly agreed on in the city that something had to be done. Conversations with the council really made me understand how beholden the city is to inward investment, and how little choice they have in the matter. They don’t have the resources to do a lot of these projects themselves, and the comparative lack of economic activity in the city means they have to take what’s on offer. As there often isn’t exactly a cue of developers waiting to sign on the dotted line, they take whatever offer of investment is available, and most typically that is for genetic new build flats that offer the most immediate chance of financial return.
That tension between what the council know the city would actually benefit from, and the investment they can realistically get feels at the heart of the issues facing a lot of cities in the UK (and I’m sure globally as well). It speaks to the fundamental question of whether it’s better to do something far less than ideal, or do nothing at all? In the case of cities such as Liverpool, the option to do nothing don’t seem tannable, but what is the result of settling for second (or third, or fourth) best? Does this actually contribute to the economic regeneration of the city, or just put a momentarily shiny plaster over the wound? These questions feel specifically pertinent in the context of the level of deprivation Liverpool has faced in it’s recent past, and the real risk that these developments will cost Liverpool it’s much valued ‘UNESCO World Heritage Status’.
– toxteth community radio – tape archive – interesting thing that there were essentially pirate radio stations that were allowed to carry on as community radio
Patrick is a labour councillor in Liverpool and also heads up the Social Enterprise Network, an organisation that aims to help foster entrepreneurship in the city. The decline in Liverpool, somewhat perversely brings with it a certain amount of opportunities, most noticeably of those is space. The depopulation of Liverpool means there are very obviously a huge number of empty buildings, both residential property, commercial/ industrial units and plots of land. In an era where people are being priced out of cities like London, and there’s spiralling rents in Manchester, this availability of space in Liverpool feels like a rarity, and brings with it a real sense of possibilities. It’s something that’s brought up over and over again in conversations with people in the creative community in Liverpool, and it’s increasingly a major draw that brings people to the city. Additionally, because numerous neighbourhoods in Liverpool rank pretty highly on the social deprivation scale; there are funding streams available from people like the EU social fund which help grass roots, and community based organisations and projects.
As you might imagine given his role, his perspective was pretty optimistic, seeing as he does a city full of potential rather than a city full of problems. It’s conversations like this that proved really useful in terms of complicating the narrative of the city. It’s really easy to get stuck in a story or decline; of jobs leaving, of 80 years of depopulation. But, like I imagine would be the case in similar cities around the world, there’s a huge amount of resilience here, or people choosing to stay and trying to contribute in a positive way to the future of the city. It’s also important, I think, to consider that Liverpool hit ‘rock bottom’ under Thatcher in the 80’s. Coming to the city from the outside, it’s easy to get hung up on the streets that are empty, on the run down houses that would be worth a small fortune in West London, and on the empty plots of land that are still waiting development, but the reality is that things are markedly better than they were 30 years ago. That upward trajectory brings with it a sense of optimism than somewhat naively I’m not sure I was expecting. That combined with the civic pride that exists in every northern city, but manifests in a really profound way in Liverpool means people have a real sense of hope looking into the future.
I got to meet the woman who found the amateur cinema club films that I stumbled across in the North West Film Archive. Now a (semi) retired professor, she’d had a pretty fascinating life and even without her other insights into the city, just here biography would have made her a person that was well worth meeting! She moved to Liverpool pretty much on a whim from Bristol based on the punk scene of the city, she trained to be a nurse, then ended up doing pioneering work around artistic practice and community health. From that her career took a detour into the art and she ended up as professor of Media at Liverpool University, including leading the amazing ‘City In Film’ projects, which included mapping the city in terms of it’s representation in film.
Away from her professional achievements, her experiences in Liverpool and the perspective it offered felt like it really summed up the complications of the city. She talked at length about what the city looked and felt like in the 80’s, and just how bad the low point it hit was. When I asked people to describe that period for me, the thing people repeatedly reached for was the sense that it felt like the city had never recovered from the second world war. There was the sense that it reflected the common experiences a lot of cites in the UK had immediately after the war – the bomb damage, the poverty, the generally run down condition of the country after a gruelling period of war, except the reconstruction that had come to the rest of the country felt like it had missed Liverpool. However, for all this she talked about the vibrancy of the city and it’s creative scene that had drawn her from Bristol. She also discussed the conditions in the now empty or demolished houses in Toxteth that visited as a nurse. Where as most discussion is about the destruction of Georgian / Victorian housing stock that people have a lot of affection for, and idea of this being a senseless loss, and a result of government/ council mismanagement, Julia recalled the terrible conditions people lived in. As a health worker she had a profound sense of how unhealthy those houses were to live in, and of how badly a lot of those properties were. This, in a useful way really complicated the simple narrative of great quality houses being demolished, to either be replaced by boring new-builds or to be left as empty plots or land.