Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Venice of the North Part I


The dream of a city where a vision of the future could be built over the bones of an older one inspired T. Dan Smith. It was not a contemptible idea exactly. But the vision produced a nightmare to some.

Smith's often quoted phrase that he wanted to create "a Venice of the North" replacing canals with motorways, sums up planning hubris for me. His name is perhaps synonymous with stamping down on corruption in local government, corruption that took Smith to prison; he paid for his wrong doing and ended his life a controversial figure, not without supporters; his tangible legacy to the city of his birth however, is still here, huge and impossible to ignore, or sweep away. Its most fulsome expression for me is the notorious Central Motorway constructed in the early 1970s.

When I first arrived in Newcastle in 1971 work had begun on this giant civil engineering scheme to build four lane highways, parts of which were double decked, straight through the heart of Newcastle, knocking aside Victorian buildings and tree lined parks to carry vehicles into the very centre of the city; cars were to represent gondolas; concrete and tarmac, canals. I had never seen earth works on such a scale before and struggle today to imagine where I was standing when I gazed into those craters. I recall meeting an old man at the time, tall and distinguished, stumbling along a temporary pedestrian walkway over the mud who told me he thought he knew the city once but was now lost. Whole terraces of decent houses were knocked down and streets disappeared. Graceful Victoria Square gone, replaced by a combined flyover and underpass; Exhibition Park bisected and dozens of mature trees felled, a city cut in half. Trying to superimpose what was once there over what is now, is well nigh impossible. Yet, destructive as it was, this scheme for urban motorways was never entirely finished. More routes had been planned. As late as the end of the century, more bits of the network were still being built. Connecting these together has however, happily proved to be beyond Smith's successors.

Before the end of the 70s work on the Tyne and Wear Metro had begun, joining the two halves of north and south Tyneside with a short tunnel under the city, eliminating a huge number of road journeys and opening up distant suburbs to commuting. Then, a western by-pass carried long distance traffic well away from the city centre. The destruction of Newcastle City however remains a fact; the need for it ever more distant and remote like the dream that inspired it.

Walking about with my camera on a very warm April day in 2011, re-living these thoughts, I found a tree in Exhibition Park which still bears traces of the cross and question mark left by protester's who painted signs on so many trees to confuse the motor way constructor's tree felling teams. It did not work. Protests however, there were in plenty.