Lifestyle & Belief

Can art save a dying city?


The Young James Jones Trio busk in Hull after the city was announced as the 2017 UK City of Culture on Nov. 21, 2013. The City of Culture accolade is handed out every four years and hopes to give a cultural and financial boost.


Christopher Furlong

HULL, UK — A century ago, this city in northern England was one of the biggest ports in the most powerful maritime nation on Earth. Ships sailed from its docks to New England, New Zealand, the Netherlands and beyond. Its fishing fleets dominated the North Atlantic.

But time has not been kind to the industries that dominated Hull’s golden age. The ports became mechanized. The fishing industry collapsed.

Like bankrupt Detroit in the United States, the city became a national byword in the UK for post-industrial deprivation. Unemployment here is almost 15 percent, nearly twice the national average.

In October, The Economist suggested that public money would be better spent moving people out of Hull than investing in this city of 250,000.

But in the dilapidated warehouses down by the docks, peeling shutters roll back to reveal artists’ workshops, recording studios and music venues.

Live music spills out of the pubs and bars on Prince’s Avenue, a newly revived thoroughfare that would fit right into hipster capitals like Portland, Oregon or Reykjavik, Iceland.

Revitalizing struggling cities through the arts is a challenge, academics say. But amid ever-shrinking public spending and endemic unemployment in England’s northern counties, those who refuse to see Hull fail are willing to take their chances.

In November, Hull beat 11 other cities to be named the second UK City of Culture. The city will host a yearlong program of festivals, performances, artists’ residencies and other cultural events in 2017.

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Last year, Londonderry in Northern Ireland became the first place to wear the UK City of Culture crown. Bestowed by the national government, the quadrennial prize gives a social and economic boost to cities with promising but underdeveloped cultural offerings.

Hull’s government has pledged $5.7 million toward the event’s $24.5 million cost, with the rest paid by national government grants and private donors.

That’s no pocket change in a strapped city. Officials, however, are banking on a knock-on effect in employment and tourism. The City of Culture designation could bring 1,500 new jobs and up to $300 million in revenue over five years, according to city estimates. 

Boosting the city’s services and entertainment offerings could help Hull woo multinational corporations for renewable energy projects and other large-scale investments, said Councillor Steven Bayes.

Hull has a rich and varied cultural history stretching almost as far back as its seafaring one.

Chaucer’s Shipman gave it a shout-out in "The Canterbury Tales." The 17th-century poet and politician Andrew Marvell hailed from Hull. So did the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie’s backup band in his Ziggy Stardust days.

The poet Philip Larkin spent 30 years as the University of Hull librarian. He described his adopted city as “a little on the edge of things” geographically. It sits at the end of the train line, a hefty detour from Britain’s main north-south highways.

This out-of-the-way-ness, locals say, has bred a tight-knit creative scene.  

“The arts scene here is just really underrated,” said musician Lewand Akrawi, 17, moments before taking the stage at the Sesh, a weekly local music night at the Linnet and Lark pub on Prince’s Avenue. “It’s full of really creative people, it’s diverse, it’s young. There’s so much going on here, it’s unreal.”

Artist and lecturer Mark Wigan moved to Hull in 2009. The next year he opened the Museum of Club Culture in the Fruit Market district, where the city is inexpensively leasing former produce warehouses to artists and creative ventures.

Hull’s vibe these days reminds him of New York City’s East Village in the 1980s or London’s Shoreditch neighborhood in the 1990s, Wigan said — both gritty spots that became artistic incubators.

“It’s all happened quite organically,” Wigan said. “With the City of Culture [award], there’s a real kind of optimism around the place, even though we’ve got all these statistics of high unemployment.”

Locals say Hull’s relative isolation has also nurtured a sense of resilience and independence that has kept chins up through decades of disasters.

Like other north England cities, it has struggled, at times desperately, in the post-industrial age.

Hull suffered German bombs in World War II and the collapse of the UK fishing industry in the 1970s. It weathered mass unemployment in the 1980s and devastating floods in 2007.

It’s not the first place where officials have looked to art to turn a city around. Liverpool — another economically depressed north England port city — saw enormous economic gains when it was named a European Capital of Culture in 2008.

Nearly 10 million extra tourists visited Liverpool that year — providing a $1.2 billion boost in revenue.

But governments shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that Liverpool’s results can be replicated anywhere, said Dave O’Brien, a Liverpool native and lecturer at City University London.

Liverpool already had globally recognized cultural exports (you’ve probably heard of the Beatles), and its major capital renovations were finished before the 2008 financial collapse.

“Only the most optimistic of politicians would think you have one of these [City of Culture] years and you get instant economic improvement,” O’Brien said. “These things take a long time to build.”

Hull has no shortage of talent and energy. What it doesn’t have are jobs. Can the City of Culture year change that in a lasting way?

On a boarded-up street in west Hull, a rundown part of the city, a group of four young men, all unemployed, scoffed at the notion that culture would save their city.

“We don’t want f[*]cking art,” said Tony Moore, 22. “We can’t get jobs. The government’s f[*]cking us over, mate, well and truly. It’s not about arts and culture.”