The Great Baltic Experiment

Photography: Brian Roberts / brianrobertsimages.com

There are two paving slabs, at either ends of Jamaica Street, that always draw a wry smile and a pang of Bregret whenever I see them. This isn’t because I’m a pavement fanatic or get off on concrete or anything – it’s because of what’s chiselled onto them. “This project has been part-funded by the European Union,” they claim, with a slight air of mocking. These concrete certificates are also silent markers of the Baltic Triangle, the dream that became a noisy reality for Liverpool City Council.

Baltic Creative CIC was established in 2009 with £5.2million of funding from The North West Regional Development Agency and the North West European Regional Development Fund, to oversee the regeneration of the warehouse-rich land just south of the city centre that was once vital to Liverpool’s sprawling docking industry. The Baltic Triangle project was intended to become a dedicated business hub for the rising creative quarter, with then chair of Baltic Creative, David Clark, saying at its outset that the area presents “a unique opportunity to develop a natural network of creative businesses in one location, building on the strong creative activity already underway in the area.” Even a cursory look around the area today will tell you that the project has been successful in attracting those businesses; between Elevator and Baltic Creative’s own range of studios, dozens of design agencies, game developers and musicians now call the Baltic home.

The Baltic Triangle has also provided the perfect setting for a range of bars and clubs, bringing a whole new level of activity to the area. Constellations, Camp and Furnace, The Gin Garden, Black Lodge, Coffee & Fandisha, 24 Kitchen Street and Hangar 34 are all part of the reason why Rough Guides described the area as “über-arty” in their recent ‘50 Things To Do Before You Die’ article. And if you add the ever-expanding Cains Village in to the mix, things look livelier still: more office spaces, a cycle café, neon-flecked crazy golf and the smart pop-up restaurant Xiringuito are adding to the buzz factor on the site of the old Higson’s brewery. There’s even been an idea mooted for a street art museum, housing a couple of Banksys. All of this currently co-exists quite happily alongside a range of other non-creative businesses, and with European Union funding at its root. You may even see David Coulthard driving his rogue taxi around the area’s streets too.

 

But, is it all quite as rosy as it seems? The recent furore around two major residential developments (one on the Blundell Street car park and one at the old Bogans Carpets site on New Bird Street) would suggest that the Baltic is experiencing some growing pains, ones that could threaten the future of the very places making the area such an attractive cultural hub. Blocks of flats not only bring people, they also bring a noise problem: do residents and big music events at Camp and Furnace and Hangar 34 sit well together? And will 24 Kitchen Street, Constellations and the Gin Garden have to shut their outside areas at 11pm like all the bars in the Ropewalks? It’s the age-old gentrification question, of course – but is it fair for small, creative businesses to be doing the donkey work in changing the cultural value of somewhere like the Baltic Triangle, only to be swept away when the big money comes calling?

The Night Time Industries Association, formed of independent bar, nightclub and restaurant owners, estimates that night-time industries account for 8% of the UK’s employment, and generate £66 billion in revenue for the UK per annum (6% of the UK total). Yet, the number of clubs in the country is vastly plummeting; in her Who Killed The Night? documentary, Annie Mac claimed that “in 2005, there were 3,144 clubs in the UK. Now there are 1,733.” Regardless of what percentage of those closures were as a result of gentrification, it’s still a worrying trend. Storied Manchester nightclub Sankeys was one of the latest to join the list when it was forced to permanently shut the doors on its Beehive Mill premises in January. How galling, then, is it to see Beehive Mill listed a “prime residential opportunity” on the website of the company that leases the property (Savills). You want more? In their sales brochure, Savills describe the building as having “played a key role in Manchester’s musical history. Tomorrow offers another opportunity for re-invention.” And despite the positivity in the statement issued by the Sankeys team at the news, one line was telling: “We have done well to fend off the developers for so long.” The sense of inevitability must be crushing.

The worrying thing is that this is a conversation we have too regularly, and we can’t just stand by and let it run its course. We need to be better at valuing culture, like they do in Berlin with Berghain; we need to be better at communicating, with developers and local councils (an approach that Constellations have been particularly good at), and appreciating the concerns that they bring to the table; we need to learn that compromise is a better route forward than belligerent shouting; we need to be the agents of change that bring about this progress; and, above all, we must keep being noisy about it.

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