Photography: Niloo Sharifi

The bustle of Lodge Lane fills my spirit: my favourite fruit and veg shop, Manchester Superstore, with its colourful displays to cheer me; Tiber Square, a clearing among the clustered cars and people designed by young local architects, with a sign that reads ‘Loving Lodge Lane’; the words LOVE and PEACE painted onto the bricks on Coltart Road. I am walking to Yank Scally’s house, a vegan commune in L8. The prolific electronic musician and producer spends most of his time in this huge complex, made up of two three-storey houses with the wall between them knocked through. The place is home to young and old: families, hippies and crusties, two turtles, five dogs and a coop of hens who roam around freely in the back garden all day. This is Yank Scally’s production base, and a honey trap; these chipped hallways have hosted the likes of MC Nelson, Niki Kand, Remy Jude, The Blurred Sun Band and Simon Jones’ Chillout Donk Experience in private performances and jam sessions. Bill Ryder-Jones shot his last two music videos here. The house adheres to socialist values and democratic processes; there are house meetings and rotas. This is just one very new example of people in L8 making the best of the spaces available to them, and creating a community that fosters creativity.

Yank Scally grew up in L8, on Warwick Street. He describes it to me in his typically concise, vivid way: “I could see the river every day. It was touched with crime, it was everywhere – drugs, stolen cars, police chases. A lot of misdirected, working-class energy going into the wrong efforts. Mostly good people in bad situations. There was always amazing graffiti at the end of my road.” When I talk to Hazel Tilley, a founding member of the Granby 4 Streets Community Land Trust, she is also taken with the area’s street art. “Art isn’t new in the Granby area. [There’s] great graffiti by the Methodist Centre. Where you’ve got a lot of dereliction, it invites graffiti art, and if there’s a lot of it, you start to get some of great quality.” She sees graffiti as a democratic art form, often political, which cheaply beautifies forgotten places and invites all to participate. The ethos behind graffiti is an apt metaphor for what the multitudes of L8 creatives and activists are achieving; turning derelict places full of potential and talent into thriving centres of life.

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Hazel has been involved since the beginning in L8’s people-led regeneration. “Our project started 27 years ago as the Granby Residents Association, to stop the demolition of what is and always has been a very vibrant, multicultural, mixed economy area.” L8 is hugely diverse compared with the rest of the city; Liverpool on average is made up of 86.3 per cent white people, but in L8 this figure drops to 48.8 per cent. L8 was home to the oldest black population in Liverpool, a centuries-old community that has resided there since Liverpool’s port days. Today, the area’s cheap rent and proximity to the centre continues to make it a popular arrival point for first-generation immigrants. This mixture of new immigrants and families who have been here for generations is what makes the area so diverse (and so maligned by a racist majority). The cultures that thrive here each bring their own creative and commercial practices, making it a comparatively varied and hyper-creative postcode. “That diversity is what makes the area exciting, and is the reason we fought for the area. It wasn’t about keeping the houses, it was about keeping the people.”

The Granby 4 Streets CLT is now a multi-enterprise organisation, working with a host of others in the area for collective benefit. Their Winter Garden is now open to the public, a testament to a movement that started with planting seeds. Hazel was part of the initial grassroots campaign to stop the demolition of L8’s most important areas under the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders programme. Streets including a privately owned mosque were marked for demolition, people were being emptied out, lead was stripped from the remaining houses and basic maintenance to the area was reduced. “Empty houses on each side have such a detrimental effect,” she tells me. “Empty streets are appalling to walk through. [Children were] watching rubbish being dumped on the way to a school that leaked. How a council can treat the children within its care in the disrespectful way they have done for years and then pile on degradation, is beyond me.”

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The government’s inattentive treatment of L8 on this side of the millennium is a sanitised reflection of the other; L8 has been underfunded and over-policed for centuries, and it seemed the council wanted to give up on the area altogether. “They dubbed us a twilight zone, so it was up to us to take things into our own hands. Crap environments invite crap teachers, so everything becomes depressed and disinvested, and the most public thing you can do is plant a flower. And that’s what we did.” A group of women, sick of looking at debris, began sweeping and gardening the vacant streets. “We were like demons. It was like we were possessed, because suddenly [everything] was swept and there were flowers everywhere.”

“It was hard fucking work.” They wanted to save the area from what they saw as disenfranchisement rooted in racism. “I do believe Liverpool continues to be a racist city. I personally don’t believe there’s been a massive change in the police; there’s a change in the language,” Hazel says, “it’s deeply embedded in the council. Decisions are made where people become secondary.” She saw disinvestment in the area make it “one of the most impoverished areas in the UK”, driven by the uprisings of 81, when the community fought back against a racist police force that treated people of colour like criminals. The media coverage of that uprising has shaped popular perceptions ever since, and been used to justify underinvestment; before then, the area was usually referred to as L8. “Toxteth came out ’cos it’s got a ring to it – it’s got an x in it, like Brixton. And uprising, not riot,” she corrects me. “Language is important.”

 

“A relentless, fervent dedication to community through creativity is an L8 tradition”

Once governments changed, the scheme to redevelop ‘failing housing markets’ was scrapped and the threat of demolition passed, but the spirit of resistance was reignited. That initial drive to do what the council wouldn’t, and invest their time into undoing the wreckage of Thatcher’s 80s, was a catalyst. Hazel tells me that people began to frequent the planted streets. The group began to paint empty houses, inviting artists to install projects and contribute in any way they could. Then, what started as a table sale grew into the monthly Granby Market, an absolutely unreal event I would personally recommend; vintage clothes, delicious food, music, arts and crafts all gather on Granby Street on the first Saturday of each month. Since then, L8 has begun to transform, and media perceptions are shifting. Many of the area’s buildings have been painstakingly restored; a street in Granby won the Turner Prize; and the arts continue to thrive. This year’s Resilience Garden in Granby was one of the only Biennial shows to garner praise from The White Pube’s searing review.

Despite the plethora of creativity and craftsmanship that has resided in the neighbourhood since the Edwardians designed it, the art world has often ignored L8. “The first Biennial had bugger all to do with us. There was very little traffic through the place.” This started to shift after the art collective Assemble won the Turner Prize in 2015 for refurbishing a group of houses in Granby. The community-led project spawned the Granby Workshop, and greater enthusiasm from the wider institution. “Art has to be people-led,” Hazel believes. “We were only noticed because of the Turner Prize – the art was already there but people started to look at it. Art becomes personal if you can become immersed in it. People say you become immersed in Rothko, but you can fuck that for a bag of soldiers, ’cos I don’t.”

Hazel finds everyday art more exciting than the solitude of galleries. “Art is not just a picture on a wall, it is life.” When I asked Yank Scally earlier why he makes art, he looked at me like I just asked him why he eats. “I don’t know, I’ve been doing it for too long. But it feels great. It feels really good.” Hazel, a decidedly more verbose figure than the former, pins it down: “This is a fundamental right of humanity, to express themselves in the most joyous and pointed way possible.” The art institutions’ renewed interest in L8 is something to celebrate; it has brought investment and opportunity for creativity, especially where artists have followed Assemble’s model in putting people first.

 

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This was the approach adopted by Invisible Flock, Quicksand and FACT in creating AURORA, the breathtaking, immersive multimedia installation that filled the disused Toxteth Reservoir’s vast space. Catherine Baxendale of Invisible Flock tells me that “it was important to us to work against the cliché of putting an artwork somewhere without responding to the site”. I am reminded of The White Pube’s critique of Lara Favaretto’s The Stone (2016), a huge granite block with a slot for donations installed on Granby’s Rhiwlas Street. They called it “a giant, patronising money box which went on to only raise £1224 for local charity Asylum Link”. According to the Biennial website, it was meant to “testify to the temporary nature of all monuments, and the impossibility of memorialisation”. Apart from this sounding like it was written by a bot parodying cocaine chats between some art school’s jaded board members, it probably cost more money to install than it collected. I wish memorialisation was indeed impossible – I’m sure we’d all love to forget it.

AURORA, on the other hand, has been a hit locally as well as in the press. The creators ran four workshops over two months with local children, whose musical performances formed part of the final, 40-minute track, which accompanies the gleefully disorientating display of water, ice and lights. Catherine says working with the reservoir’s fiercely protective trustees was sometimes challenging, but they succeeded to please everyone eventually, and this trust-building is a key point of praise for locals. “It’s absolutely amazing,” Hazel says, “and there’s also that appreciation of the building.” Everything L8 has today was gained by people fighting for their own community; it is understandable that they should hold outsiders to the same high standards that they have been held to by circumstances. Nothing would work here without a stringent insistence on treating people and buildings preciously.

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Tom Calderbank has been a community activist for three decades, and he has been on the frontline of this battle against dilapidation. He has been involved in the regeneration of three buildings; Toxteth Town Hall, The Florrie and The Belvedere. “Toxteth Town Hall was absolutely the launch pad for the other projects,” he says, reminiscing about how he used to sign on for the dole there and think, “What a beautiful building – if only someone would sort it out.” Little did he know that he would come to be a key part of the community that made it happen. They campaigned to raise money and restore it to its original purpose when it was built in 1865, as a place for the community to turn to.

“It’s thriving now,” says Tom. Aside from its beautiful function hall and Winter Garden, the building contains a number of organisations offering services to the community. There is a Citizen’s Advice Bureau, The Whitechapel homelessness charity, a weekly family games club, a beautiful spacious garden and Sola Arts, an arts charity. I have met Adele Spiers, who runs Sola Arts, and she is a remarkable woman, economic with her time to the point of being brusque, because her schedule is split between helping innumerable people. Apart from running art groups and organising Festival 31 (a celebration of refugee and migrant art, greater every year) she offers social support and a listening ear as an art psychotherapist. The halls of Toxteth Town Hall are spilling over with people like Adele, and as a network they have created a safety net which the state has never provided.

“Community doesn’t really exist anymore to a large extent, but it does round our ways” Tom Calderbank

Tom was a trustee at the Town Hall for nearly 20 years before moving on. He also helped restore his childhood youth club on Miles Street, now affectionately known as The Belve, to a well-used community sports activity centre. “Doing that gave us the wherewithal and knowledge to go and do the big one, which was The Florrie. She’s my girl.” The Florrie is a Grade II listed building erected as the Victorian equivalent of a youth centre in 1889. I met with Tim Tierney, who works at the Florrie now, and the place is a huge, fully functioning complex of high-ceilinged rooms put to use for more than 30 hours of programming a week. He shows me their schedule, which is crammed: art, yoga and photography classes; support groups for addiction, literacy, dyslexia; fitness, drama and local singalongs. I meet today’s art teacher, Andy Crombie, a staunch leftist who sees art as an empowering force for his students, several of whom are elderly beginners. The class, like many of their services, is free. “Everybody deserves stuff, it doesn’t matter if you’re out of work,” Tim says. “Everybody should be included in a community building.”

Tim was part of the Stop The Rot campaign that raised nearly seven million pounds to save The Florrie. The building became disused in the 80s, and a fire destroyed most of the roof in 99. “You don’t realise how important places are until they’re gone,” Tim reflects. “Without it, where are people going to escape social isolation?” He describes how economic changes create loneliness; “In Kensington, before, there was everything from a greengrocer to a hoover shop. Now, all of a sudden, you go to Tesco and stand at a self-checkout and don’t talk to anyone.” Now, the Florrie provides somewhere to talk. Restoring it was a remarkable feat against stacked odds, as Tom Calderbank recalls: “The city fathers said it could never be done. I remember someone said, ‘God love you, mate. But you’re beating your head against a brick wall,’ and I said ‘Well, it’s my head, and it’s my wall.’ [That’s] the never say die attitude of Liverpool 8.”

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This relentless, fervent dedication to community through creativity is at this point an L8 tradition. The Florrie is using its growing platform to celebrate the prodigious artists and activists who have emerged from the area over the years. 17th January 2019 will be ‘Dooley Day’ at the Florrie; they will honour the remarkable life of Arthur Dooley, the artist behind the iconic Black Christ statue on what would have been his 90th birthday. But as Tom points out, the longevity of L8’s proud tradition of resistance is evidence of its necessity, and repeated institutional failures. “When Toxteth Town Hall was opened, one of the services it offered was ‘services to the destitute’, so if you had nothing, you’d come to our building and the police would donate clothes. And here we are, 150 years later, and we’re still doing the same job. It’s almost like nothing has changed for 150 years.” If we don’t shake the Tories at the next election, things are set to get more difficult. With austerity measures and privatisation continuing to disproportionately impact the poorest, and the roll-out of Universal Credit, places like the Toxteth Town Hall, the Belve, The Florrie and Granby Market become all the more precious, and their resources stretched.

Underpinning all of these people’s actions is a deeply held belief in collectivism and mutual responsibility. “People are so greedy,” Hazel observes. “Capitalism has to become kinder. There has to be an economic shift.” Her voice takes on an imperative urgency over the phone: “It’s you, the young people. You have to do something and you’ve got to do it collectively.” These organisations rely on volunteerism to flourish. Tom says The Florrie took hundreds of hands to revive. People like Tim, Hazel, Adele and Tom have worked many an unpaid hour well into their careers; as Tim puts it, “I’d like well more of me. I would like to never have to say we’re too busy.” L8 is peppered with stories of eye-watering resilience and rare success, more than can be profiled here. “I think everybody needs to be more engaged. I think everybody thinks their time is too precious,” says Tim, but concedes that “in the last year or so, people have been getting more engaged, and that’s all we need.” As he points out, organised demise is everywhere. If regeneration is to happen without gentrification, communities must unfortunately fight tirelessly for themselves.

Today, mass migration increasingly polarises global politics, and L8 is a particularly old and rich case study for this most relevant of issues. Tom tells me Jeremy Corbyn visited Granby in September and praised its present-day state as a model for other communities. “It’s an example of how multiculturalism can work. We just crack on.” In Tom’s voice, I detect the same note of pride and love common to all these activists. Ian Ellington of Catalyst, a multimedia production house based in Toxteth TV, speaks fondly of the same dynamic. Catalyst was set up in 1984 by a group of black kids from L8 who felt shut out by the white middle class art world, and they won the Echo’s Arts and Performance Award this year. Decked out with a studio that attracts artists from across the country, they have worked with artists like Blue Saint, Ste Two and Dorcas Seb for years. In October, two Catalyst singers reached Robbie Williams’ house on The X Factor. Besides all this, Ian’s team continues to engage people of colour and migrants in free activities. He describes the results of a musical workshop for migrant schoolchildren struggling with English as a second language: “It was amazing, y’know, tracks with five different languages on it!” This is testament to what Tom told me earlier: “When we had the Capital of Culture we had the tagline ‘the world in one city’, and I don’t know about that so much, but I do know that we’ve got the world in one postcode.”

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Toxteth TV is a huge complex containing more exciting stuff than I could reasonably give the attention they deserve here. There’s a fully-equipped TV studio, the VHS store and cinema VideOdyssey, filmmakers, game designers and dance studios, an artist management agency and more. Every occupant of this creative hub is to some degree engaged in community work and local artist development. Historically, L8 has been ignored or actively oppressed; as made famous by the cover of celebrated Granby councilor Margaret Simey’s book, The Disinherited Society, Liverpool job postings were not long ago stamped with “no one from L8 need apply”. Tom Calderbank decodes this: “That’s: if you’re a person of colour, you can fuck off. The racism was that overt.” Now there is an entire building full of technology in L8, making itself open to the creative vigour that has always existed in L8’s demographic.

I ask Tom whether he wishes the rest of Merseyside would contribute to the centuries-old, ever-growing fight for L8 to prosper. “It’s not about us catching a break off the rest of the city, they just need to look at our example.” Areas like the Baltic Quarter are often hailed by the press for rejuvenating creative traffic, but gentrification seems to rear its head before anything can really pop off. “Regeneration is the most abused word in the English language. Around here, it’s a dirty word; it’s something that’s done to you. But the very best is community-led regeneration. All the buildings we have talked about there, they have all been community-led projects, and there’s lessons there for us all.” In this confusing time, where the technological explosion seems to have made us hyper-connected but socially isolated, L8 is a unique place. “Community doesn’t really exist anymore to a large extent, but it does round our ways, doesn’t it?”

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