By David Lewis:
Cities are in a permanent process of evolution, fast or slow, and districts within a city change at different speeds, depending on investment, need, attitude. Nowhere is this more evident than in Liverpool, which is no longer the crumbling monochrome city of the early Beatles photographs, but a modern holiday and conference destination. Confidence roared through the city again from the late 1980s, building luxury hotels and celebrity-chef restaurants, revamping museums, opening new visitor attractions and developing the huge Liverpool One shopping development complex, a shopping mall in the heart of the city.
A slower, more varied pace of change can be seen in the 1840s docklands north of the city centre, which have evolved since 1945 through bomb damage, obsolescence and redundancy. This has left a bruised landscape of old warehouses and railway yards, closed pubs and overgrown vacant lots. There is silence here, and sunlight, and huge empty skies. The Mersey is never far away.
It is precisely this neglect that makes the docklands vulnerable to development. Slowly, with altered attitudes, the pace of change is quickening and the confidence is spreading northwards. New uses have been found for giant survivors; Jesse Hartley’s Stanley Dock buildings have become the Titanic Hotel, and the hulking Tobacco Warehouse next door, once the largest brick building in the world, is being converted into urban apartments.
I walk these streets now with a new sense of urgency. Blackstone Street, Cotton Street, Saltney Street, Dublin Street - I am at home here, clearing street dust to discover cobble or street railway, granite kerb, a softness of old sandstone. These ground-level Victorian ruins add colour – rusts and steel blue-greys – to the streets. Old Liverpool is a city of brick, and walls snake through the old districts; ubiquitous and invisible, shiny red or gleaming hard blue-grey; heavily sooted, organic, hand-made. On the oldest warehouses the brick folds into narrow doorways and narrow barred windows capped with sandstone or rusted iron. The bricks and mortar have flaked away after 170 years of river weather, but these structures add fluidity and definition to the city and warm colour – chalky reds, dark blues – to the streets. Each brick was hand-laid decades ago, on bright days or damp days, sooted with river fogs and steam-smuts or laid in warm sunshine as the city roared north along the river; brick by brick, wall by wall, street by street.
This hinterland is full of oddity and unexpected glories. Gateposts, fragments of walls, arches in stone or brick, monolithic survivors like ruined sandcastles left behind by the tide. Some have found new uses and stand, silent and dominant, in new fences, new boundaries. There are also ghost places, vacant lots full of buddleia and butterflies which once housed large railway yards or churches, their histories forgotten. Nothing survives of the Martyrs’ Church, St. Augustine’s on Chadwick Street; nothing survives of the giant goods stations of Waterloo, Great Howard Street, or Canada Dock, apart from stumped walls and fragments of story.
Ruins can be invisible here. Love Lane lies beyond the huge railway arches carrying commuter trains up the coast, and is connected to whole streets of redundancy, truly empty places, scenes for a car chase or a clandestine meeting, film sets for unmade films. Sprainger Street, Little Howard Street, streets of walls and graffiti, windows and doors bricked up, more buddleia and more grasses, silence, a beautiful decay. Nobody seems to be here. The air smells of rotting rubbish, vegetation and illegally-dumped engine oil. At night the few streetlights illuminate the darkness rather than dispel it, sending a weak light spilling across the cobbles to create great polygonal slabs of velvet darkness. These lost streets are dominated by the amputated, hacked remains of another railway viaduct, overgrown and crumbling, a lost route to the lost station of Liverpool Exchange. The bricklayers’ art has created great swirls of brick, smooth and close-fitting like dragon scales or armour. These arches are muscular, seeming to crouch, tense and full of unexpressed energy. They have the deep calm of gigantic Roman ruins, solid and seemingly permanent.
And yet these old walls, these folds of brick and obsolete arches, are increasingly vulnerable. A grandiose, long-term plan called Liverpool Waters is promising apartment blocks, and open squares of bars, restaurants and shops along the waterfront. Everton Football Club have confirmed a £300m move from Goodison Park to the Bramley-Moore Dock. At ground level, the Ten Streets project will deliver new work/living spaces, renovated buildings, more public space.
I believe that cities need dark streets and grey areas, places of awkward, disjointed history and ambivalence. Cities need to regenerate periodically, but they also need the old, the quiet, the derelict, a sense of faded history. Is it not possible to have rough edges to our cities, dark corners, un-developments? We should be able to discover something of our cities for ourselves; not everything should be signposted. Perhaps these old streets are where the city has most potential, perhaps these scraps of buildings and stumps of walls remind us that all things are possible within a city; perhaps without decay there can be no sense of potential, and ultimately no regeneration. Our ruins should be left to their decay.
David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside. He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter