When I started working with places to help them re-imagine themselves and create their new story I was pretty sniffy about the role culture could play in this; great words, great sentiments, but it’s not really going to make a difference, it won’t really change a community or attract investment. However, when it comes to place and culture I have been on the road to Damascus.
Just before Xmas I wept tears of joy for Coventry on winning UK City of Culture status, just as I had four years previously when Hull had won that honour. Yes, there are thinkingplace connections with both cities and indeed the first winner Derry~Londonderry; Sarah our Director was Place Manager for Coventry, implementing the story approach we developed, and I ran Cityimage in Hull (my university city) for seven years, beginning the journey of changing its perception and reputation. So, there was pride, but it was way more than that; I’ve seen what being City of Culture can deliver on my various visits to Hull this year as well as in the media. On every occasion it’s left me misty eyed at the absolutely transformational effect it has had on the place and its people.
Everywhere we work with wants to connect or re-connect their community with the place but doesn’t know how to do it, so we see advertising campaigns for developments coming soon (often never), events on a whim that don’t have a prayer and much, much more. Hull in 2017 hasn’t just seen people engaging with the city and surrounding area, it’s witnessed a love affair where those born there and those new to Hull have joyfully taken the city’s past and present to their hearts. Their year of culture began with a bang and an amazing montage of Hull beamed onto the stunning city centre buildings, it tugged at the heartstrings and brought pride and passion onto the streets. It isn’t unusual for such celebrations to be accused of wallowing in nostalgia, looking back through rose tinted glasses to a time that won’t be repeated. What happened next blew that away as a giant wind turbine blade that is part of the multi-million pound economic future of Hull was gently placed in the city centre. The power wasn’t from its scale, the beautiful disconnect of seeing it amongst historic buildings, the challenge of ‘is this culture?’, but from simply bringing the Hull of tomorrow up close and personal with its people.
Whilst being City of Culture has brought investment and hundreds of thousands of visitors, prompted a long-needed change to the fabric of the city, changed perceptions of what Hull is and can be, surely the biggest success is that it has given the city its mojo back. Nowhere has this been seen more than with the volunteers, and it has been a joy to hear them wax lyrical about their place, that they don’t know anything about culture (!) but thought they’d get involved; they have embodied the cultural DNA of Hull and made it real for a new era of the city.
From my time in Hull my view was what the city needed more than anything was belief in the future, that it mattered nationally and internationally, that it had tomorrow’s story to tell as well as that of today and yesterday, and that its people would be proud to call it home. Congratulations Hull – job brilliantly done.