Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dropped by the shops

Not lost it's appeal: Grainger Market.

I decided some months ago I would expand my thoughts about planning in my home city of Newcastle upon Tyne beyond 'Battlefield'. This post will form the first on a few subjects I have been mulling over for a while; years in fact...

One of the gems of Newcastle is the locally famous Grainger Market, a large Victorian covered market of stand alone premises built by the great partnership of John Dobson (architect of Tyneside Classical) and property tycoon, Richard Grainger.

Some few years back there was an ambitious plan to revitalise the Grainger Market. It would be 'thinned out' and refurbished. Many businesses were cleared away and a 'performance area' created. Many 'stalls' (actually lock up shops) were moth-balled and a display was placed inside one which set out the plan in an exhibition which included an artist's impression of what the newly revitalised premises would be like. I remember the straw hats.

In this future the shop staff were all going to wear themed clothing and straw boaters. Many of the suppliers of the market's staple products, especially meat and vegetables, but not just them, would receive notice. In their places would come boutiques – enterprises supplying more exciting products, such as 'designer' foods and gifts, craft shops and 'bespoke' goods.

The local news and media were recruited and, with evident laziness, re-cycled precisely the same phrases when discussing the scheme. Grainger Market was "old and dated" (and not in a good way) and the shopper's were all a bit thin on top and increasingly, on the ground. This last part was pure fiction. Not for the first time nor perhaps the last, a picture of shoddiness was produced in the hope of furthering a Council backed scheme.

Someone – I read it on a Green Party leaflet (I am not a member of the Greens) – once said that, from looking at what they do, one would have to conclude that Newcastle City Council hates Newcastle. There is a lot in that jibe.

Inside the Market shops were closed and cleared away, a performance area (pacĂ© London's Covent Garden) was created and stood largely empty for months; some (good I have to admit) refurbishment work was undertaken on shop frontages – but then the money ran out. The bands of tourists failed to materialise and the entertainments for yuppies sipping caffechino's didn't take off. Today the performance area is gradually being re-populated not by young people in business suits drinking diet this and that in their feeding schedule, but the same old dears like myself hobbling to have a tea and cake or beans on toast laden with cut price meat and veg.

The Grainger Market re-branding was in truth a hollow scheme*. There are no great numbers of people here  which make Covent Garden tick; in any case, when in London I avoid the place (though once I did stroll about late at night with friends when the ground was strewn with flowers and the night was full of the sound of a busy market, not yet tourist fly trap). Once again the ambitions of such schemes begins and ends in delusional ideas about what is 'good' for Newcastle which always turns out to be what do corporate investor's want? Well, not an old and dingy to some covered market which might not be a good draw for the money people. Down market was not going to work for them. So Grainger Market was history in more ways than one.

Come forward a few years and "old and worn out" Grainger Market thrives. Walking through – if you visit it is slap in the centre of town – you will see all sorts and conditions of people, including the occasional young person in business suit; people for whom the idea of shopping is not to run up debts but find bargains and talk to a human being like themselves, not a functionary of a corporate empire coached to repeat platitudes hatched in a skyscraper three and half thousand miles away.

Meanwhile, the trendy shops which were to be the future have gone. Just outside Grainger Market is a woeful sight; a street of shut up shops. The coffee isn't flowing, the designer shoes have walked and the 'lifestyle' is distinctly empty.

* It may have had an entirely different intention in any case. Rumours of a Council sell-off were circulating at the time.

Note: Images have been electronically altered to protect the privacy of subjects. All photos BtB.

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