Engaging with Hull - UK City of Culture 2017. Learning fROM Liverpool

This last summer I have had the privilege of study leave. I spent a couple of weeks of it in Liverpool, meeting many different people and finding out what difference that city had experienced in and since 2008 when Liverpool was the European Capital of Culture. It became obvious that it has had a major impact, and this gives me hope for Hull in 2017. I especially wanted to find out how churches had engaged and used their Capital of Culture to bless their communities and share something of the love of God, and the richness of the creative gifts that he gives to us.

I went with four questions:

(i)            What did you do in 2008 as part of Liverpool’s year of culture?

(ii)          Did 2008 Capital of Culture impact the outer estates or was it mainly confined to the city-centre?

(iii)         What, with hindsight, do you wish you had done in 2008?

(iv)         What legacy has been left?

I have produced a more detailed report if you are interested in reading more deeply, which is available as a download from our website.CLICK HERE I offer it as an encouragement to us as churches in Hull and region to think creatively about how we might engage with Hull UK City of Culture 2017. In doing so, I recognise that many churches are already active in this area. But perhaps there is scope for building on that in 2017? I see 2017 not as an end in itself, but an opportunity to do something positive around it which will have a legacy well beyond 2017.

There are some similarities between Hull and Liverpool, most notable in their maritime heritage. Although Liverpool is a younger port than Hull, its expansion especially in the 19th century, was meteoric. It grew rich, firstly on the slave trade, and then as the key port of the British Empire and transatlantic trade. However, as that trade diminished, the docks in Liverpool fell largely into disuse and dereliction.

Years of industrial unrest followed, plus mass unemployment. The notorious Toxteth riots of the early 1980’s signalled a nadir for the city and put it on the front pages of the newspapers for all the wrong reasons. But the regeneration of Albert Dock and the 1984 Garden Festival helped to kickstart regeneration even before the city was awarded European Capital of Culture 2008.

2008 has left a rich legacy to Liverpool. In only a couple of weeks, it was obvious that here was a place which was vibrant and emerging. Some of that is due to inward investment, most evident in the many construction projects all over the city (almost one in every street in the city centre it seems!), but also in the huge engagement with culture of all kinds. Often this seems to go hand in hand with eating out! Perhaps there is a lesson there: food and culture!

Talking to a variety of people, both church leaders and ‘gossiping’ to folk who I happened to meet on the bus, train, in museums, cafes etc, it seems that a lot of what happened in 2008 was based in the city centre. That said, the City Council did recognise that, in order to enable people on limited incomes to access the programmes, they needed to organise concessionary fares for public transport. I did not find out exactly how the mechanics of that worked, but I would certainly encourage our Council and 2017 team to look into that, as I am sure that they are doing. However, the churches were able to bring cultural activities out of the centre and into local communities; this was a really positive feature of their contribution. They were also able to engage many people in ‘culture’ who are often pushed to the margins or overlooked.

Looking at Liverpool seven years on from 2008, what was most exciting to me was to see the number of people who are out and about in the city. I walked around on quite a number of weekday evenings and there will still many people around, with eateries doing brisk trade. That is a striking contrast to the centre of Hull, where 7.00pm on a Wednesday evening sees the place practically empty! People told me that this is definitely a legacy of 2008. It is now part of the culture for people to turn out, rather than scurry back to their homes. As well as the regular cultural activities, there seemed to be a festival of some kind every week. One of the highlights in the Liverpool calendar are the ‘Light Nights’ when, across the city, many different buildings and venues join in with the theme of light, interpreting it in their various creative ways. Liverpool certainly has an ‘Open Culture’.

Then there were the ‘Superlambananas’ across the city! But I think I prefer our toads!

All this may seem a bit daunting for us in Hull, but I found it encouraging. Liverpool’s vibrancy has not always been there, but has grown over the years. Speaking to local people, they remember how it was and, consequently, give thanks that, over time and with vision and planning, the city has come alive and found its confidence. I met a man who had been a Curate in one of the churches forty years ago. He had just returned to the city to visit friends. He was staggered by the transformation and described Liverpool as a ‘city of resurrection’. This gives me great hope for Hull!