One of the lovely things about being back in my adoptive hometown of Leeds is finding new places amongst the familiar. The pace of change in a city like this is rapid (and occasionally rapacious), and a couple of years away means whole swathes of waterfront are no longer a building site but a fully-formed, bright and shiny piece of regeneration, a poster child for the city’s renaissance and the newest, hippest place to eat tapas, drink cocktails and people-watch.
Granary Wharf is indeed very lovely. So far, it seems to be doing better than most at shaking off the inevitable feeling of artifice that comes with extensive regeneration and the endless canyons of plate-glass that tend to accompany it, perhaps because the wharf itself, the actual dock, has been left mostly untouched. The stonework is uneven, worn, and rather lovely in the evening sunlight. It stlil looks more like an architect’s drawing than anyone’s home, mind.
You can eat, drink and admire the view in the shadow of Bridgewater Place, better known to taxi drivers, locals and Whovians as The Dalek. I happen to rather like the Dalek. You can see it as you come into the city, rising into the sky like the funnel of a lost ocean liner with its colour-changing lights and saying “Look at me!” It makes for a skyline to be reckoned with.
As I wandered though, I worried. The legacy of Clarence Dock looms large over each new stretch of waterfront regeneration. Another ghost town in waiting? The slums of the future? I think of the city centre as pizza dough in mid-air (bear with me here, people!); you can only tug it so far in every direction before you either run out of dough or tear a hole in the middle. Clarence Dock is too far out, and the city centre can’t stretch that far without cheap, fast transport links that don’t currently exist. Trinity Leeds, on the other hand, will tear a hole somewhere else, because the city just can’t support that much square footage of retail space. Something has to give.
I’m not convinced by the housing either; yet more flats that aspire to be called apartments and will inevitably mean that the older, less attractive, less well-marketed blocks elsewhere will struggle for tenants. The services aren’t there; sure, I’d love to live there now, but at the first sign of a partner/child, I’d be off. I wonder how many people making the kind of money you need to live there actually want to live so close to the station you can hear the announcements, right on top of a tapas bar.
I’ve long thought that we’ve raised a generation to believe that everyone lives in New York. It’s worse than that; we’ve raised a generation that believes everyone lives on sets in the Hollywood hills that look a bit like New York but have six times the square footage and no fourth wall. Thanks a bunch, Friends.
Places are shaped by technology, and America looks the way it does because of the railroad and the car, New York because of the invention of steel-reinforced concrete. I can’t help but think that Leeds (and indeed Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff) are being shaped by TV and the internet, by the unbridled, self-aggrandising confidence of Generation Y and their desire to live like they are extras on How I Met Your Mother.
I took this photograph in the spring of 2007 in Leeds.
At the time, the place seemed like a relic, a break in the space-time continuum just one shop-front wide. Junk mail was piling up inside the door. Combs sat in jars of Barbicide, doing whatever it is that things do when they can’t fester because they’re suspended in disinfectant. The sign was like something from another age, hand painted and full of promises about what treasures lay within.
I was back in Leeds a few weeks ago. The place is boarded up, destined to be gutted, renovated and turned into something else as yet unspecified.
That’s the least of it. A restaurant unit I ate in (with the same person both times, now I think of it) as both a Hard Rock Cafe and a Felicini pizza place is empty once again. There are 900 new bedrooms on campus, built on stray bits of lawn, garden and car park they found along the northern edge. New cafes spring up, old ones disappear. A whole chunk of the city centre retail district has been flattened, and for a while Holy Trinity is blessedly free of its usual three-sided cage of shopping centre. Not for long. It’ll be back, bigger than ever we’re assured. And, I expect, virtually unrecognisable from the cache of memories I cherish from my three years living there.
As Snoopy once remarked of the demise of the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm at the expense of a multi-storey car park, “You stupid people! You’re parking on my memories!”