It might not be what was meant but it’s what’s evolving. Some observations from walking around with a camera.

I walk around Liverpool a lot, as you might have noticed. It’s my great joy and my natural way of being. And most of my walks are, or at least begin, as directionless accidents. Seeing where my feet might take me on any particular day. But this one wasn’t. This was part of my current university sociology studies. A ‘Visual Methods’ morning walk round Liverpool City Centre, where I was one of several ‘members’ of a walk led by someone else.

So a rare experience to be on someone else’s walk. Led by, but not directed about what to either photograph or think. To see what a group of us might come up with. Which is how come me and my camera produced what I wasn’t quite expecting. This ‘Tale of Two City Centres.’

“The camera introduces us to unconscious optics, as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses”

Walter Benjamin, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ 1936

We began in Lime Street, brief shelter on a rainy morning. Then set off. Past the visual squalor of the wraparound screen opposite to the station, along in front of St George’s Hall, crossing London Road where part of the city centre used to be, long ago when I was a child, then across to the Central Library.

And it’s up here on the roof of the Library that the story really begins. The beginning of a realisation I don’t think I’d have had without a camera in my hands. Not about that mess of the extra secret storeys you can see added to the lovely flat-iron building up there. But more about that wall in the photograph of the cityscape immediately above this writing. Remember that wall for later.

But now it’s down to ground level. To what all of us in Liverpool call The Gyratory. A product of Liverpool’s vehicle-dominated ‘City of Change and Challenge’ 1960s that’s still with us. Though it’s for only one kind of vehicle now. This is the North End bus station.

People from the north and east of the city getting off their arriving buses in the rain, to manoeuvre past all those street obstacles, including that big base of a tower of security cameras. A mess of lines, designs and surveillance, on the way to where?

Maybe up into the endlessly redesigned and never particularly worked St John’s Market? Or through that sort of gateway down the incline there, to what? To ‘shopping that suits you’ as it says?

So to the LFC store that’s just through there on the right? For shopping that suits you. Soon to be selling the new Premier Capitalist League home, away, third, goalies, adult and child kits for the 2019/20 season. Subtly changed every year, so they’re like all the other endlessly disposable fashion wear, available everywhere, ditched regularly?

Available maybe through the north entry point there? Into the delights of Williamson Square? A classic city square?

Well no. It could be a classic city square but it isn’t right now. Right now it’s an Austerity Square. Of empty shops, a betting shop, a fountain I haven’t seen working in ages and that new building, straight ahead there, finished for years now and still never occupied by anyone. Not a soul.

None of this being to rubbish the potential of round here, as written about in the ‘Breathing Spaces’ and ‘What’s good about St John’s’ blog posts from last summer. But to reflect that, looked at objectively on a rainy Tuesday morning, this version of a city centre doesn’t look like very much at all.

Still, not to worry, another city centre entry point is only a few minutes away.

Coming into Liverpool One here feels a bit like a border crossing. We’re now inside that dominating wall we could see from the roof of the library. The one along there that’s mostly obscuring the Liver Building.

And we’re in a completely different place now from Austerity Square. A place of expensive architecture. A covered and perfectly white arcade of glossy window displays, with none of that messy street furniture from earlier to impede you on your way to the tills in all those corporate brand emporia.

The White Company and Harvey Nichols and Radley bags, all that essential stuff that no one actually needs there, leading us through to the cathedral of the essential corporates, to John Lewis.

To John Lewis which is also on our way, round either side but not through, to the other bus station, the South End bus station. So the bus station for the monied people of the leafy lanes of the south of the city? Is that what I’m saying? Is that the ‘Tale of Two City Centres?’ A north/south divide? Well no, it isn’t quite.

Because although John Lewis, the southern gateway into this version of the city centre, is next to its bus station, it’s got no doors – by design – that open onto this bus station. Instead its doors open onto and point at car parks. The way they’ve apparently decided most of their customers arrive and leave. One car park with its own covered bridge directly into their shop, and another one that’s underneath the whole of the Liverpool One shopping experience.

This Liverpool One then, being the City Centre that’s for people with cars. The other one, Austerity Square, including most of Church Street and Whitechapel, being the City Centre for the rest of us, who arrive by bus.

Or at least it looked that way, on an objective rainy Tuesday morning walk around it, with a camera.

We ended the walk, next, in the sanctuary of the Bluecoat. Too wet to sit in the garden but, as ever, a reminder that city centres are for much more than shopping. They’re also for meeting each other, for watching the world go by, for art and all sorts else.

And up until this walk I’d thought the story of Liverpool City Centre, for all its purposes, was that it had merely slipped a bit, down towards the river, since the opening of Liverpool One. And that’s certainly one interpretation, one narrative. Of one place, reorganising over time.

Or maybe we’ve got two city centres emerging now, dividing over time? One for the car people and another for the rest of us? Still as dominated by vehicles as we were in the ‘Change and Challenge’ 1960s. “A Tale of Two City Centres” perhaps?

“When two or more people discuss the meaning of photographs they try and figure out something together”

Doug Harper, ‘Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation’ 2002

What do you think?

Read more Fieldnotes from University here.

Published by Ronnie Hughes

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place: http://asenseofplace.com.

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5 Comments

  1. We can’t stop focusing on cars until we get a decent integrated public transport system to encourage people to leave them at home. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be the will or money to do this & the latest wheeze to stop buses running between the two bus stations will extend the division for those who are less mobile. (Laying over in Old Haymarket soon & no doubt we’ll lose some foliage there.)
    Also sad to see the only tiny bit of ‘green’ in your photos is behind the walls in William Brown St?
    ‘A tale of two cities without green lungs’

  2. Nice read. Thanks for that.
    Have you ever read “The Image of the City” by Kevin Lynch? I think you may find it interesting.
    I think you would also like “Townscape” by Gordon Cullen.
    Alas, some really interesting points. Bit of a different perspective. Less factual and more ‘human’.
    It’s only when you stop and think about how dead certain parts of the city centre are that you realise just how disjointed it really is.
    Look at the state of London Road for example. So close to Lime Street, St Georges, the Walker etc. In any other functioning city, this road would – or should – be bustling with life. How can a road so close to one of the North’s busiest rail stations be so desolate and run down?
    Contrast this to the south end and the Baltic Triangle. Granted, both these areas may be at the extreme ends of the city centre, but they couldn’t be any more disparate. Truly, a case of two city centres.
    Regarding the transport aspect, spot on about the car dependency. Just look at the state of Byrom Street and the Strand. They are as good as motorways ripping through the heart of the city. Whilst the demolition of the flyovers near Byrom Street comes as a long overdue relief, the road capacity around that junction is just obscene. Also further up the road towards Scotland Road where the tunnels spit out car after car. This – from a cycling/walking perspective – is as good as riding/walking along a motorway. How have we allowed this to happen? Even worse – the Council continue to allow this kind of road layout to exist?
    The Strand is another motorway-lite, that severes the Waterfront from the core of the city centre – both the Business District and Liverpool One – hence reinforcing the point that if you work or visit/shop in that area – you have a nice big motorway to take you there and copious amounts of car parking spaces to park in. Why bother taking the train when you probably won’t get a seat (at peak times)? Why bother taking the bus when it will more than likely take twice as long as driving?
    As Viggars John says, without a properly integrated public transport network, the car will always be the most attractive option for anyone who can drive and doesn’t live within close proximity to a station (take Skem as an extreme example – M58 gets locals to Aintree within about 10 mins).
    So there is much work for Steve Rotherham and his Merry Band of Men and Women to be cracking on with. Let’s just hope the chasm between these two parts of the city don’t continue to widen any further (see also: Manchester (https://ilovemanchester.com/manchester-the-north-south-divide/).

    1. Thanks for the recommendations. Your description of the roads has reminded me of some history. In the very early 70s the people of Scotland Road and Vauxhall ran a successful protest campaign to stop the building of the proposed inner ring road. Or so we all thought. But your description of the situation now has made me realise we’ve nearly got the inner ring road now. And if it were to be continued along Grove Street then down Upper Parliament it would be complete.

  3. I’d never seen the L1 wall in that way before. Bristol has its L1 equivalent in Cabot Circus and the rear wall of that is similar. It’s been called a ‘middle finger’ to the most disadvantaged parts of the city, those which lay just beyond it – St Paul’s and Old Market/Easton. It’s also a horrible place to walk, at the end of the M32 and a definite No Mans Land where car is king.

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