> | | | | | | > Riverside Opportunities: Development, Gentrification and Music on the Tyne

Riverside Opportunities: Development, Gentrification and Music on the Tyne

Posted on Wednesday, 18 February 2015 | No Comments

Sometimes, music is not the answer.

A once-thriving joinery in Newcastle’s industrial heartland could be knocked down to make way for hundreds of student flats.

Adderstone Group wants to replace the Balmoral Joinery in Stepney Road, Ouseburn with a three to five storey accommodation block to sleep almost 250 students.

When the plans came to light, letters were sent to 32 neighbouring properties in the Boyd Street and Stepney Road vicinity.

More than a dozen were returned, all objecting to the development.

Some were concerned that the buildings would pose a threat to the “arty, bohemian culture” of the Ouseburn area. The Chronicle, 7th November 2014

A universal truth of twenty-first century life: build somewhere up enough, and the developers will come to build you out of it. The New Labour response to years of underinvestment and neglect in a north that had had the industry beaten out of it was to fly in culture, to put down grandiose pillboxes full of contemporary art as landing beacons ahead of the flurry of chain stores and development projects that would then conquer it, a kind of flat-pack urbanism designed to respond to the collapse of the industrial economy by substituting it with service instead. In plenty of places, these grand projects - equal parts manifestation of a genuine belief in the arts and human capacity and cynical, partisan exercise in middle-class conquership designed to set house prices through the roof and clear away the riff-raff - swiftly fell to earth. Urbis in Manchester staggered on for a few years before closure, the astonishingly ugly National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield would only find use as a student union, while the tale of the Millennium Dome and its subsequent resurrection as a corporate soft play area needs no revisiting here.
The Millenialism promoted by Blair, all smooth modernism with the difficult parts airbrushed out, a revitalised north with any meaningful identity replaced by more insomnia-inducing efforts at landmark architecture with lazy, committee-approved attempts to 'do a Guggenheim' and offensively dreary flats, would perish not long after 2000. Just as Iraq would see the rose-tinted paternalism of Blair grow fangs, turn venomous, the cultural promises would swiftly find themselves subsumed in repeated stories of runaway expense, any promise (real or otherwise) replaced entirely by dead-eyed consumerism and the screaming, contemptuous void of the sharp end of capitalism. Museums and venues can close, but cheap-built luxury flats are forever.
The interesting thing for our purposes is that the Newcastle/Gateshead quayside is one of the few places where this attempted regeneration could be said to have succeeded to at least some extent. Certainly, the major Millennial projects lining the river - the Baltic and The Sage - continue to thrive, having been readily adopted by the area and attaining international recognition for their programming. Of course, these buildings also provided the same function of moving ahead of the pack to make the area 'safe' for new luxury flats and chain stores, but here the potential of these spaces has been far more fully realised than in other areas. If the cultural values of many such Millennial projects had been largely euphemistic for the real purpose driving them, i.e. we want the culture of other cities to attract the same high-end capital as other cities, these Tyneside additions thrived on their own grounds. Aside from enshrining that peculiar corporate entwinement NewcastleGateshead, they gave the region a fresh impetus and direction beyond re-selling its history or just whispering sweet, comforting cliches to itself.

In this instance, Newcastle and Gateshead could be seen as having risen above a tide of gentrification. But as much as those born here might like to congratulate themselves on their geographic and ideological separation from the rest of the country, the dreaded London most of all, I have become less and less convinced that this is the same. Newcastle is far from immune from the tidal wave of identikit culture lapping at all our urban spaces. The dive bars shut and get turned into craft beer places, the prices doubled and the surfaces scrubbed clean of any dirt, any history, any strangeness that might ferment into any kind of provocation or inspiration. Venues are shut down and left without replacements, a generation - my generation, in fact - proving itself incapable of anything more than repeating the same concept of a safe, unchallenging hipness that trades in anything remotely counter-cultural or subcultural for a bond trader's idea of a night on the tiles. The comforts of artisan burgers are not inherently a problem - some of my best friends are artisan burgers, arf arf - but when that becomes what an expression of youth or alternative culture has become limited to, the crisis we are faced with is self-evident. Rather than fighting gentrification, we have (and I include myself in this) become all too willing to lie back and enjoy a stomach rub whilst a heritage of creative expression and opportunity is vandalised all around us in the name of business. The same fonts, the same aesthetic, the same everything: the generation of the recession just giving in and trying to smudge away the bruises of the kicks.

Newcastle is, of course, no stranger to architectural self-harm. The reign of council leader T. Dan Smith (picture above) remains a subject of notoriety, his legacy a strange and divided beast. The firm socialist who was found guilty of corruption relating to his outside business interests, the man who wanted to build "a Brasilia of the North": trying to pick out the contradictions of the man and his work is a tricky business (for a good introduction, Owen Hatherley's overview for 3:AM Magazine comes recommended). What can be agreed is that while his grand visions brought some definite triumphs - the bold, clean Civic Centre that, enclosed by Newcastle University and the Church of St Thomas the Martyr, stands as a defiant humanist statement  (for such a statement in these times!) - they also introduced a vast accumulation of clutter. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the Smith saga is that while the achievements of himself and his era have been overlooked and dismissed, the mistakes they introduced have been doubled-down upon. As such, the iconic Trinity Square car park in Gateshead was demolished in 2010 and replaced with yet another shopping centre notable only for its extreme ugliness, while other buildings of the time remain the subject of extreme, knee-jerk derision. The past beyond this past is not immune either. The beautiful station approach of Newcastle's Central Station has been covered in glass and ruined - a first time visitor to the city can no longer walk directly into the heart of the city or flag a taxi or simply enjoy the beauty of Thomas Prossier's porte-cochere, but is instead with the bland, international airport style of glass panels and chain coffee shops. For a region prone to celebrating its distinctive identity, the (often unelected) powers that be have demonstrated a keenness to trample over anything distinctly regional in pursuit of bland, investor-friendly homogeny.

This - at last, you may cry - is where the music comes in. The common defence of gentrification is that it is a means of flowing money and energy into run-down areas, into clearing up decay and offering new opportunity. To which the question is: yes, but whose opportunity? The Ouseburn in Newcastle can be considered an example of regeneration gone right - driven by local business and local artists, using a cheap, previously run-down area as a base camp for venues and ideas beyond the norm and turning it into a genuine, organic cultural hub. As successful as The Sage or the Baltic have been, they are unarguably top-down impositions: the Ouseburn is a grounds-up, self-made phenomena. Yet now the Ouseburn is just the latest creative area in Britain to feel the hot breath of gentrification lashing the back of the neck. As with Brixton or Shoreditch, developers target cultural hot-spots like this for their desirability, culture used as just another bullet-point in the marketing brochure, before slowly wringing the life out of it by sending rent through the roof and throwing out the locals so some more boring, lifeless flats can be sold on at eye-watering margins.

Already, we have one block of flats set next to The Tyne, The Mailings, nearing completion, plans submitted for a major new complex of student flats, and the proposed Malmo Quay development is already attracting horrified notices from locals for its potential impact on the area. The Star & Shadow Cinema, a volunteer-led, non-profit venue with no real comparison in the city (or, in fact, in most cities) is closing at the end of February as its lease has been ended - even if, as hoped, the venue can move to a new location in Heaton, the major upheaval will leave Newcastle without one of its most used, most beloved and most individual artistic hubs. The Off Quay rehearsal rooms are under threat from the new housing developments, and the entire character of the area is set for major upheaval. If top-down redevelopment is not forthcoming, developers have become more than happy to usher themselves in regardless and wreak irrevocable damage on a community in the name of selling more expensive flats - and we have become all too readily complicit in the gentrification process by reducing our cultural expressions to growing semi-ironic facial hair, drinking overpriced beer and adopting the culinary habits of children.

Certainly, it's a funny old time for the 6Music Festival to arrive in Tyneside. Nods are given to supporting the local scene, a couple of notable local celebrities will get wheeled out, but nobody can really be fooled that this is much more than lip service. In itself, this is hardly the worst crime: the event is still bringing many major artists to the area for a weekend of music, some of which you imagine would find little reason to visit otherwise: Sleater-Kinney and Neneh Cherry certainly spring to mind here). Amongst the threatened Ouseburn venues that the BBC are commandeering for the weekend is the soon-to-be-shuttered Star and Shadow Cinema, as well as The Sage and the 02 Academy. The real function of events of this calibre - other industry-led festivals like The Great Escape offer the closest comparison - is not really to provide music to an audience or offer artists an outlet, but to provide business links, advertising space and the buzziest of all the buzzwords, content. The performances over the weekend will provide hours upon hours of cost-effective programming, alongside a vast amount of publicity for the station before, during and after the weekend. The crowds, functionally little more than a method of subsidising some of the costs of such an undertaking, are little more than an afterthought: scheduling bands for 5:30 on a Friday, when a fair proportion of their audience will have barely left work, is a fair example of the level of regard the audience is held with. It is not that the BBC believes in Tyneside, or has a desire to promote the area - like any other investor, it has alighted on it as an easy, cost-effective area from which to expand their interests. The locals are of no interest either way.

Not that any of this is exactly wrong - thousands of people, myself included, still get to enjoy a weekend of music out of the deal. But a note of realism should be injected into proceedings. Tyneside is not what the 6Music Festival is about: it is about a programming and promotional boost, about giving hundreds of London-based journalists a fun jolly before they go back to fill out pre-written copy full of all the boring, lazy northern cliches, about the enshrinement of music as a form that is sold down to people rather than coming up from them. For all the fun of the fair, it offers no answer and perhaps illuminates some of the problems that Newcastle, like so many cities, is facing. Our venues are under threat from careless developers, from buyers happy to move into an area and then see what surrounds them closed down to make way for more installations of mass-market tedium. Dull, lifeless buildings will be made: artists and residents will be priced out and moved on, inconvenient once the market picks up. These are the people who bring attention to places, whose efforts make them such desirable places to live, the ones who put their efforts and their pride in, the ones who always seem to lose out.

Rather than considering the problem though, it's far easier to lie back and enjoy the simulacrum of counter-culture sold to us in that great chasm where ideas once resided. Jasper Fulcher - in a previous life, Jasper Future of Art Brut - started to hit into the idea that we might be the problem as well in a flawed but interesting article on Drowned in Sound. It's not that we should be aspiring to dive bars as such, but that the form of identity we wish to aspire to has no room for anything awkward, anything expressive, nothing so messy as an installation or a musician or anything like that: just a 'curated' playlist drifting through the speakers while you await your pulled pork. Enjoying pub food is fine, but if that's all we really want, that's a tragic state of affairs indeed. If we actually want a future in which there are considerations beyond the financial and where the arts receive proper care and attention within society, we have to ask questions of the decisions being made around us, of the new, lifeless world being built up before our eyes, and ask if this is really what we want to buy into. The Blairist idea of investment in culture as a Trojan horse for regeneration in general has grown into the sinister phenomenon of culture being bought up and trashed before us, sold back to us in neutered forms we embrace all too merrily. If we care about music in this city - in any city, really - attending a weekend of imported stars is not the real answer. The answer, if there is one, is to understand just how much is at stake, and to stand alongside our neighbours, our artists and our innovators in the face of a false, exclusionary force that wears the sheep skin of progress.

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