During my recent interview with the Urban Planner, Mick Downs, I asked a series of questions about the geography of the area I’m studying and the validity of some of the artistic methods I am developing. My next question was What, geographically speaking, prevents the people of Stoke-on-Trent connecting with each other and their city as a whole. An example of this being the widespread resistance of Hanley being rebranded as ‘City Centre’.
His response shocked me, despite the fact that I immediately understood what he was saying.
The pattern of the towns means that those who live on the south side of the city never go to the north and vice versa, because they don’t have to. The ‘best Stoke-on-Trent has to offer’ is in Hanley so why go further? As soon as he said this it rang true with me. I grew up outside Longton and had only been to Burslem once or twice before I moved there, I had never been to Tunstall. Mick told me the same Story from his perspective, as a person growing up in Tunstall, having never visited Longton until he was much older.
If we think of the city as a living body, this blockage means that essentially the limbs of the city are not getting a proper blood flow to them. It is as if all of the blood is being channeled towards the heart (the vital organ), as a body does when it is in shock or has received trauma. Unfortunately, we all know what happens when blood stops flowing to a limb, it dies, becomes none functional and is often removed.
So, is it enough to have everyone rush to protect the heart? You could say that, continuing the analogy, if you don’t protect the heart the body will die anyway. I get the feeling that this is the standpoint of the local authorities in Stoke-on-Trent; Repair the heart and then lets look at the limbs.
Back in the real world this is taking the form of a centralised business district, new public realm development and road systems, a new bus station, a new shopping centre complex and the controversial rebrand to ‘City Centre’.
This has not been met with universal approval from the community of Stoke-on-Trent. These town names are tied up with far stronger historical and cultural meanings than geographical ones where the public are concerned, it is almost like the city’s parents have picked their favourite child to send off to university while the others are sent to the job centre. Relationships are tense.
So, what can artists do about this? Well, we may not be able to reshuffle the city geographically, or have the power and influence to reshuffle the infrastructure, but we can still tackle the blockage…
Returning back to the ‘living body’ analogy, artists can act as ‘Blood transfusions’ injecting vitality from elsewhere into the towns to reinvigorate them, keep them alive. A good example of this in practice is the London Road Festival which is happening next month in Stoke. Events like this do work to encourage people to cross the Hanley divide and venture into the north or south of the city, opening up possibilities for new experiences and better appreciation of the city as a whole.
What artists need to do this, again, is access to space. Nothing fancy or purpose built, but empty work and showing space to get the blood pumping again.by