Decline and fall of a once-great city

Mark Abley March 22 1982

Decline and fall of a once-great city

Mark Abley March 22 1982

Decline and fall of a once-great city


Mark Abley

There used to be a story told as to which was Britain’s second greatest city. “Some say it’s Glasgow,” the man from Liverpool announced, “some think it’s Birmingham, and some would even say it’s Manchester. But here in Liverpool we have no doubts at all: London is the second greatest city in the land.” They haven’t told that kind of joke for a while because since the Second World War Liverpool has been marked by a steady decline. Since last September, the unemployment rate among the economically active population of this city of 510,000 has exceeded 25 per cent, according to unofficial estimates. At a time when there were 13 vacancies for “general laborers,” 15,541 people registered in that category were out of work. Today, more people are unemployed in the sprawling Merseyside metropolis than in the whole of Greater London with a population five times as big. “It’s not so much a case of the British recession as of a dying city,” says Fred Ridley, professor of political theory at the University of Liverpool.

“It might even be said that the rot set in with the end of the slave trade. But certainly the Liverpool economy has been in steady decline since the 1950s.”

In the light of such massive unemployment, the city’s Latin motto, usually

translated as GOD HAS GIVEN US THIS LEISURE, takes on a new and sinister appropriateness.

“Liverpool is the pool of life,” wrote Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in 1927. And even today the pool isn’t altogether stagnant. This is the home of England’s best regional art gallery, of its oldest repertory theatre, of Europe’s champion soccer team—and of The Beatles. To walk through much of Liverpool today is to walk through another time, for the proliferation of secondhand cloth-

ing stores, used furniture depots, cheap cafés and dime stores is eerily reminiscent of the depression ’30s. Such images coexist uneasily with the bright, busy department stores of the new city centre. But to walk around the inner-city district of Toxteth is to step even further back in history. There are probably no better words to describe it than those of Charles Dickens: “... a dreadful spot ... hemmed in by filthy houses, with a few dull lights in their windows, and on whose walls a thick humidity broke out like a disease.” Dickens was describing 19th-century London, but it could just as easily have been the ravaged streets of 20th-century Liverpool.

Behind a row of boarded-up terrace houses, two young boys play on a burning garbage dump that stretches halfway down the block. The degradation has gone so far that even well-meaning attempts at improvement can seem misguided. On nearby Princes Boulevard, the innercity partnership scheme between central and local government has paid for a tree-planting project. But when Environment Minister Michael Heseltine arrived to open it, he was jeered and mocked by local resi-

dents. “What the ’ell do we want with trees in the road when we’ve got mushrooms in the toilet and rats in the kitchen?” shouted one black youth. Said one of Heseltine’s aides: “If I lived in a place like this, I’d be chucking bricks too.”

Twenty years ago, the answer would have been simple: demolish the houses and move the people elsewhere, but past experience of enforced modernity in high-rise blocks has proved disastrous. Today it is thought best to renovate old buildings, to preserve a sense of community, and, in Toxteth, less than nine months after a month of explosive rioting, looting and vandalism, life has reverted to a semblance of normality. Women with shopping bags take shortcuts unconcernedly through the rubble. A school in the heart of the blighted area promises, of all things, a demonstration of morris dancing. Towering over an empty park, an old quarry and various specimens of urban renewal, the pseudo-Gothic Anglican Cathedral—where Paul McCartney auditioned as a choirboy and was rejectedlooks down at the source of Liverpool’s greatness and decline: the docks.

In the 18th century, Liverpool merchants built one of the world’s first modern docks here on the River Mersey, and a flourishing trade in slaves, cotton and emigrants soon made the city a magnet for business. But it faces west, and today Britain, as part of the European Common Market, conducts much of its trade in the other direction. With the disappearance of passenger ships and the growth of containerized cargo, jobs for dockers have dwindled steadily. Although Liverpool remains Britain’s largest cargo port for overseas commerce, the statistics are gloomy: in 1970, 10,873 dockers were employed by the Mersey Docks and Harbor Company; the projected figure for 1982 is a

mere 3,650. The company lost more than $17 million in 1979, eventually prompting the British government to establish the Merseyside Development Corporation, with the task of regenerating the derelict shallow-water wharves of south Liverpool. Few tangible results have yet emerged, although it is hoped that a national garden festival will be held in 1984 on the silted-up herculean dock. But whatever schemes for revival are finally set in motion, it seems clear that miles of waterfront will be used for activities that have nothing to do with shipping.

Liverpudlians resent suggestions that bad labor relations are responsible for the city’s disrepair. “The strike record appears high because Liverpool has a high proportion of industries such as docks and car-making that are strikeprone nationally,” explains the university’s Ridley. “In those industries we have no worse a record, and often a better one, than other cities.” Ridley prefers to compare Liverpool’s plight with that of old industrial cities in such countries as Belgium and West Germany: “It’s the same problem. Whether it’s

because of dirty air, established unions, old skills or whatever, new industries don’t like to go to old areas.” But Liverpool also has special troubles of its own. Having grown fat as a port, it failed to diversify sufficiently into manufacturing, making the city especially vulnerable during a general recession. Moreover, many skilled and professional workers have chosen to raise their families outside Liverpool. The result is an aging, unskilled population.

The difficulties, in short, are enormous. Joan Rothwell is a guiding force behind the Rice Lane Community Association, one of the many local projects that make outsiders pause before they declare Liverpool finished. Starting with no funds, no expertise and no experience, this band of hopeful residents has succeeded in converting an old police station into a community centre that now caters to the needs of pensioners, teenagers, the unemployed and other groups. Nor is the Rice Lane association content to stop there. It is currently working on landscaping an overgrown cemetery and establishing a model farm for urban children who may never have seen a sheep. “There are two tasks: one is hard physical work; the other is the mobilizing of people because, sadly, it’s easy to become apathetic,” says Lewis Leslie, a local teacher. “When we planted a thousand daffodil bulbs on an old railway site, one lady said to me, T don’t know what you bother doing that for—I’ve got quite used to the eyesore.’ But most people are very happy to contribute once they know how to put things right.”

One of the main difficulties facing such groups as the Rice Lane association is the tangled forest of administration that has to be cleared before almost any project can go ahead. To assist local organizations in obtaining funds and expert advice without falling victim to

bureaucracy, one of Britain’s oldest community housing associations, Merseyside Improved Houses (MIH), has set up a special advisory service with the aim of helping people help themselves. The results of three years of work have been highly encouraging: the creation of several dozen workshops, recycling centres, gardens, sports halls, day-care centres, and so on. In some districts of Liverpool more than 20 per cent of the land is waste ground, but MIH officer Walter Menzies refuses to be daunted: “We do sometimes feel like a drop in an infinite bucket. You could argue, ‘What’s the point of it all?’ and our answer is simply that you have to start somewhere. Your allegiance and loyalty are to make sure that a particular project works.”

If enough projects work, and if enough businesses are drawn to Liverpool by the generous tax incentives and government grants available to industry, the city will certainly revive. It may be a long, slow process. Many people look hopefully to small firms that have a strong local commitment, but it would take an awesome number of small firms to create 100,000 or more jobs. Pessimists, such as Fred Ridley, argue that a revival will happen only when the British government realizes that the huge cost of regenerating Liverpool is less than the cost of letting the city die. The potential for further riots unquestionably exists—though the next time around they may begin in suburban high-rise housing projects rather than in Toxteth. But the seriousness with which the government treated last summer’s upheavals suggests something more than a sudden tenderness for Merseyside. It suggests a profound fear that Liverpool, which led Britain into the industrial revolution, may also be leading Great Britain into a postindustrial era of violence and squalor. The fear haunting London is that far from being a relic of the past, Liverpool may represent the future. What saddens many citizens is that it took a few weeks of destruction to wake the government up.

“The best view of Liverpool is the view you get when you’re leaving it,” says comedian Ken Dodd. And it’s true that tens of thousands of people have been taking his tongue-in-cheek advice: the 1981 census revealed that the city’s population had fallen by nearly 100,000 in the past 10 years. But it’s also true that those remaining seem a long way from despair. “Merseysiders are survivors,” says Cathy Pridgeon, the robust, energetic head of the Merseyside Youth Association. “This period will recede into folklore just as the ’30s did. And, you know, people won’t remember the pain: pain has a way of receding. They’ll remember the laughs.”