An overlooked area of the city is beginning to excite with activity. The team behind the FABRIC DISTRICT are recognising the area’s protest past and are looking towards a positive future, with art tying these multiple threads together.
In the 90s, waistbands were low and trousers were baggy. Liverpool’s indie scene, that flourished around the Palace on the corner of Wood Street and Slater Street, got their trousers made to measure. Not at some lush, tailored, aspirational store but a seamstress above a dance shop on London Road – the best place to get it done in town.
Already, by then, the street’s faded charm echoed a more industrious past. A cinema remained, alongside furniture shops, uniform stores, dancewear, the ubiquitous TJ Hughes and a daily market. This had been the home of Owen Owens, Thelma Madine, Nathan Fabrics. A place of purpose. But London Road had settled into its gruff, careworn decline. As we sang a new tune in a corner of the city on the up, we still visited a part dipping its nose down, still part of the social history woven into its streets.
This neighbourhood stretches from Islington down to St. George’s Plateau and the Empire, as far as London Road and up to Moss Street. Its heritage has played a role in the families of both Jason Abbott – who is launching The Tapestry – and Richard Jennions. Both are part of a stakeholder group developing a new vision for what this area could be.
Jason’s family had run a printworks on Gildart Street, while Richard’s operated Try And Lilly, a manufacturer making headwear for police forces on Kempston Street. Two generations of both families had seen ideas come and go for the neighbourhood, the latest being the Islington Regeneration Development Company. But none had stuck.
“We started a WhatsApp group of people around here,” says Jason, “encouraging people to get together and meet.” One of the first locations they met was Unit 51 at Baltic Creative. “Mark Lawler showed us the vision of the Baltic Triangle, he talked through what had happened and guided us to get as many people together in the area as we could, discussing ideas of what we thought the area should be. That led to the vision that Richard and [his sister] Suzanne have done.”
That Vision Document for the Fabric District, a 22-page exploration of the people, the history and the opportunity for the place, has knitted the ideas together. “It’s opened a lot of doors politically and institutionally of people who want to see the area changing,” Jason explains. The vision is more than simply a plan. Too many regeneration schemes in Liverpool have operated on a “logo first” principle. There are enough patterns now of ground-up proposals, hearing from as many voices as possible. The Fabric District is, Richard says, designed by and for the people who live and work in the area.
“This isn’t about individual developments. It’s a kind of roadmap for people to follow. Whether people who own in the area end up selling, or people move in, it’s a roadmap for that. What we want to see come out of it are big projects with the support and backing of the council. They’ve been involved since day one and are very supportive. Whether it’s the public realm, adjustments to roads, cycle infrastructure, or longer projects we’re happy to let those run. But people in the area have a roadmap to follow what’s going on.”
Liverpool isn’t short of creative districts. Covering 35 hectares, the Fabric District is better connected than most. Lime Street is two minutes away. A bus stops every few minutes at The Monument. Islington, the six-lane thoroughfare connecting Everton, West Derby, Kensington, Scotland Road, the tunnels and Edge Lane is an uncomfortable boundary, but at least it means it’s easy to drive to.
Richard agrees. “The Fabric District is different to Baltic. Baltic is quite on its own, there are big distances to walk to town and it’s a vast area that’s only industrial. This area is not like that. It’s a sliver from the centre of town, the universities. It’s extremely connected to the city, really busy, really well connected. Yet, we’re this strange, quiet sliver. People already pass through here – but they don’t linger.”
This is true. Stand on the edge of the district and London Road bustles. Men sit smoking outside of a cafe. A woman rustles her shopping bag to make room for the wares she’s just bought from a market trader. A student adjusts her headphones as she crosses the road to walk to lectures. A man tucks his bag for life under his arm as he pops into the supermarket for bits and pieces. A woman holds up her walking stick to flag down the bus before it reaches the top of the hill.
Step off the main routes and the noise ebbs. As a woman walking around, the streets are less animated, the shutters grey and imposing. There are social challenges here (and the businesses here aren’t afraid of talking about that). There are needle exchanges and homeless shelters. Regeneration can be a frustrating business, and there are moments in this district when you can feel the pressure of plans being paused. Take the story of the two Royal Hospitals, five minutes walk away. One is crumbling, held together by need and necessity. The other is gleaming, but with progress stopped.
This Vision document taps into a faint heartbeat. It’s not a promise of dreaming spires but instead a proposal of self-determination. In terms of rebuilding and providing a sense of purpose, the Fabric District is following the well-trodden Liverpool path of using art to engage. Art is the way to thread it all together. Let’s look back up the road to Islington, that mammoth blocker between London Road and Everton.
“It cuts off Hope University, the creative campus,” says Richard. One of the ideas is a proposal for Gildart Street (A Stitch In Time Saves Nine) with art leading up to the crossing to make it more inviting. Art attracts the curious.
The man behind that proposal is Professor John Hyatt, he of the Three Johns. Having worked for 25 years in Manchester to get it “lifted up through culture” he’s moved to Liverpool. The city is, he believes, “a bit more open to wackier ideas, to creative thinking.”
The art strategy examines how the area can improve the public realm but also how art can engage with the people already living, working and playing in the Fabric District. Art can be just as exclusive as it can be inclusive.
One of the first things people will see is Time Tunnel, a festival running from 10th to 13th May. The history of the place is as an important part of its current story as its future, and over this weekend it will be tied through time with May 1968. Liverpool’s students joined with workers protesting in Paris and barricaded the streets. The city broiled with the scent of rebellion. “I wanted to teach the students to be more aware of their own history,” says John. The students and the wider population too. Liverpool is a city of radicals, after all.
One exhibition is The Gift Of John Heartfield. In 1968, 10 years after John Lennon enrolled at the Liverpool School of Art and Design, the students were revolting. John Moores’ art students invited German Jewish artist, John Heartfield, to Liverpool to speak about his 1920s and 30s anti-Nazi photomontage posters. In return, in 1976, his widow gave the Art School a gift of a complete set of his groundbreaking posters where, since, they have been hidden unseen in the library archives. This powerful political work – an exhibition originally compiled in Communist East Germany, will also feature a public talk by John J. Heartfield; John Heartfield’s grandson, will talk about his grandfather’s work and his memories of him. This will be the first time John J. Heartfield will have spoken in Britain.
There will be exhibitions of sit ins, of protests, talks, tours and a chance to reflect on the heritage alongside the future of the neighbourhood. Regeneration is as much about reminding people of what a neighbourhood was for, as well as what it could be.
Amidst all the frustration of change and renewal, it’s easy to forget there’s an excellent blueprint a mere 20-minute walk away. Ropewalks, the busy days, the colourful nights, the cultural flagship of FACT – celebrating its 15th birthday this year – with its connections spreading through the narrow straight streets to Chinatown, past Duke Street, through Great George Square, to the Baltic. Warehouses turned into creative sheds, spreading again into the breweries and new hangouts, turning right, along the other end of the river, even across the water to Birkenhead. This began in Ropewalks 20 years ago with record shops, bars, places to hangout, show art, listen to music, talk – a desire to place hands on a space and shape it.
“One of our stakeholders has a plan for Stafford Street,” says Jason. “By Abakan it could be an independent street of cafés, of bars, barbers, [a] Bold Street style place for people to come.”
When asked if they’d like their own FACT, a flagship cultural project, Richard says “definitely yes!” but they’re conscious of not running before they are walking.
“We haven’t started those conversations yet. We’re getting to a direction we have everyone comfortable with and will have a consultation on that. Opportunities for things in the area will present themselves, those conversations will start to happen on an individual level.”
Leaving The Tapestry, there is a sense of what it might be. There’s an ease in Liverpool, says Richard, because it used to be a city of a million people, the infrastructure is already there – it’s like taking an old suit out of mothballs, dusting it, cleaning it for the next generation to use, recycle, repurpose.
Creative ideas are bubbling up in pockets of the city. Threading them and tying them together will create a bold blueprint for the city, for the people living, working, playing and creating in its existing streets. It’ll also provide them with new purpose. Walking from The Fabric District to the Baltic takes 30 minutes, skirting the top of the city centre. The individual patterns are being designed; the communities need to be better tied together.
You can see the vision for the development of the Fabric District at The Tapestry’s website. Time Tunnel takes place in the Fabric District between 10th and 13th May and is free to attend. For more information head to timetunnel.johnhyatt.co.uk.