2018 was the year to visit Newcastle, by all accounts with Rough Guides naming it the best place in the world to visit, mainly as a result of the city hosting a number of events and installations linked to the Great Exhibition of the North (GEN). The GEN, which took place at the same time as the Sociological Review’s Undisciplining conference, was, according to the promotional blurb:
a three-month celebration of the North of England’s pioneering spirit and the impact of our inventors, artists and designers. It’s a chance to show how our innovative spirit has shaped the world and is building the economy of tomorrow.
The GEN was funded by the Conservative government, using ‘Northern Powerhouse’ funding, and was allegedly the brainchild of former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Around £5million of govt funding was supplemented by investment from charities and private sector bodies. The weapons manufacturer BAE Systems were one of the original supporters, but withdrew following protests from several of the acts and artists due to be involved with the GEN. Not everyone was impressed by the government’s plans and John Tomaney, an academic living in Gateshead wrote that:
GEN is the latest in a line of projects that are nationally conceived and overseen, hindered by limited resources, burdened by overblown claims about likely impacts and with questionable objectives.
The GEN website lists some of the things to see and do in Newcastle, but the country’s biggest foodbank (located just a mile or so outside the city centre) wasn’t mentioned. Nor was Shields Road in Byker, voted the least attractive shopping area in Britain only the year before, because of the large number of empty shops and the number of ‘undesirable’ stores, including bookmakers, pawnbrokers, and money lenders. The centre of Newcastle undoubtedly has lots to offer visitors seeking a cultural city-break. There are restaurants and cafes catering to all tastes, a ‘vibrant’ nightlife, galleries, theatres and museums, and a wide range of shops and shopping areas. But the ‘cultural offer’ of the city centre, and the way it is presented by travel guides and government funded art exhibitions, masks the poverty that exists within the city. Newcastle was one of the cities visited by Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur, when he came to the UK to examine the extreme poverty in the UK at the current time. He did visit the foodbank.
The ‘city-break walk’ that I organised as part of the Sociological Review’s Undisciplining conference was an opportunity to explore some of this inequality, and the disconnect between the promotion of the city to visitors and the reality for many residents. We walked from the ‘regenerated’ Quayside, once home to ships and ship builders, up to Grey’s Monument. Grey’s Monument was dressed as a maypole as part of GEN, to mark the contribution Charles Grey made to a ‘fairer society’ when he was Prime Minister from 1830-1834. The statue of Grey on top of the monument looks down upon shops such as Hugo Boss and Moulton Brown, and eateries such as a Jamie’s Italian. Recent additions to the ‘vibrant’ nightlife around the monument are a charity stall serving food to homeless people on evenings and increasing numbers of people sleeping rough in shop doorways. One can only wonder what efforts will be made to commemorate the current government’s efforts to build a ‘fairer society’.
We also visited Old Eldon Square, once the gathering spot in the city centre for young rockers, goths, and emo’s and now done up nicely and with the young people ‘moved on’ (displaced) so that people eating in Nandos, Starbucks and Wagamama now have a ‘purified space’ to look out upon. The Bigg Market was one of our final stops. It was once known as the heart of Newcastle’s night life, where stag dos and hen parties headed, but now looks unloved and unkempt, a casualty of the city’s desire to portray itself as an ‘arty city’ rather than a ‘party city’.
Newcastle is the city that I grew up in, and it is where I choose to live and bring my children up. I like living in the city, but I also recognise that it is nowhere near as wonderful as it is made out to be by the various agencies and boards attempting to bring visitors to the area. As Bourdieu observed, going to see things close up and in person does not necessarily lead to a better understanding, or seeing the full picture, and Martin Nicolaus (1968) suggested that ‘it all depends on where you look form, where you stand.’ Many people living here face significant problems on a daily basis and a new restaurant or gallery opening up in the city means little to them. It is a sign of the times that begging is not allowed in much of the area we walked, due to a Public Space Protection Order being enacted by the city council. The funding that the government provided for the GEN is miniscule in comparison to amount stripped out of local services and disadvantaged households in areas like Newcastle, because of austerity measures and ‘welfare reforms’. The things that can’t be seen in the city centre are of far greater significance to the lives of many people that live in Newcastle than those that can.
*The walk has been amended slightly and will be used next year with students at Northumbria University, many of them from Newcastle and the surrounding areas, to discuss and highlight issues of health inequalities and social justice.
Stephen Crossley is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University. He completed his PhD on the UK government’s Troubled Families Programme at the University of Durham in 2017. He is the author of ‘In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty’, published by Pluto Press in 2017. His second book, ‘Troublemakers: the construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problem’ was published by Policy Press in April 2018. He tweets, but mainly retweets others, at @akindoftrouble.