This photo essay by Tricia Porter looks back at the history of the Liverpool 8 community, which was once a byword for urban decay.
Her work, both honest and humane, charts the deprivation, but also reveals a complex, integrated world with a distinct sense of its own multi-ethnic culture. It is a reminder of the power of art to retain and restore the fullness of our shared memories, long after social change has swept the physical details away.
I lived in Liverpool 8, otherwise known as Toxteth, in the early 1970s, which – like the adjacent Granby Triangle – had become a notoriously deprived area.
During that time, I had exhibited at the Liverpool Academy Gallery photographs I’d taken of the life around me. It was immensely gratifying to revisit these photographs, and these areas, for an exhibition at the Bluecoat in Liverpool last year.
At the invitation of Create, I’ve brought together these photographs to better show the story the pictures tell. It helps us to see what a positive narrative has emerged from that area in recent years, not least through the influence of the Turner Prize winning Assemble collective.
Liverpool 8 photographs, 1972-74
The district had once been the home of wealthy merchants but many had moved to leafier and healthier suburbs long before the Second World War. Then came a rapid decline in the city’s economic fortunes. Alongside the poverty, there was planning blight - a swathe of houses was compulsorily purchased for demolition to make way for a proposed motorway – while the community was also affected by the university’s purchase of houses for student accommodation.
Liverpool 8 became fertile ground for sociologists, whose prolific documentation sometimes had a narrow and reductive focus. In the winter of 1972, my husband David wrote in the Merseyside Arts Association’s Arts Alive magazine, that the area had become ‘a source-book of symbols’ - the photographs were symbols of poverty, not pictures of poor people; the bombed houses were symbols of decay, not houses and homes. On the other hand, the sociologists produced tables of statistics in which people were reduced to age-categories and "numbers of children in family"; the reports were made up from circulated questionnaires, and somewhere in all the facts and figures the people got lost again.
So David and I decided to document the area from the starting point of the community - and the people who made it.
Some of the local population were moved next door, to a neighbouring, hastily built estate of houses, maisonettes and tower blocks next to elegant Princes Avenue, on the other side of Upper Parliament Street, one of the city’s arterial roads.
The estate had a reputation for deprivation and vandalism and was considered a no go area by many. I wasn’t comfortable with that assessment and wanted to find out what my neighbours were really like. In 1974 I was awarded a grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain to photograph this new community.
For a whole summer I was welcomed among them; I hope the pictures speak for themselves.
In 2014, fresh interest about the 1970s Liverpool photographs I had on my website led to an article in the Liverpool Echo. Bryan Biggs, Bluecoat’s artistic director, was keen to exhibit the photographs, which was possible with support from the Liverpool 8 Legacy Fund and help with frames from the National Museum of Liverpool made this possible.
The exhibition was staged during Liverpool’s Look15 international photography festival, and was one of Bluecoat’s most popular. A special evening event provided an opportunity for local people to share their memories as we discussed the images in the exhibition. There were more than 600 comments in the exhibition’s visitors' book.
The Granby Triangle
On the other side of Princes Avenue, Granby Street runs through what is known as the Granby Triangle. This was in many ways the heart of Toxteth. These wide streets of terraces were built for Victorian artisans, but over time had become the most racially and ethnically diverse area of the city.
The face of Arthur Dooley’s recently restored sculpture The Resurrection of Christ, or The Black Christ (originally sited in the 1960s on the wall of Princes Park Methodist Church on Princes Avenue) was modeled on the face of a local man whose heritage was a mix of European, Caribbean, Native American and Chinese –representing four of the five continents.
Despite the area’s deprivation, Granby Street had thriving businesses and was so lively that if you wanted to pop to the shops you had to allow, not ten minutes, but two hours because there were so many people to talk to. You could buy all you needed in that one street - everything from fresh fish to nuts and bolts.
In 1972 came rioting, and a housing development at the north end of the street that closed it off from Upper Parliament Street. Unemployment rose and the shops began to close, along with the school and the cinema. The disturbances of 1981, (the ‘Toxteth riots’) added to the sense of hopelessness.
After years of inactivity and decline, the Granby Residents Association was formed in 1993 with the aim of stopping the demolition of the remaining streets of Victorian houses in the Triangle. However, nobody wanted to invest in the area and four more streets were demolished.
By 2010 the group had disbanded and the houses were decaying. But a group of local women began to plant gardens and trees. A monthly street market during the summer was started. More recently, on Ducie Street, local artists began painting pictures on the windows and doors. Another woman sowed seeds on the derelict ground opposite, creating a wonderful ‘meadow’ of wild flowers. (The city council sprayed them with weed killer, though it apologised and replanted them.)
The Granby 4 Streets
These creative initiatives, allied to a shift in government policy, sparked the formation of a campaign group, which became the Granby 4 Streets Community Land Trust. This played a key role in attracting new investors and has worked tirelessly with the council and developers on extensive refurbishment.
The Community Land Trust is renovating ten of the houses - five for rent and five for sale, encouraging previous Granby residents to apply for the homes. A social investor, Steinbeck Studio, is a major partner. It made a substantial low-cost loan to the trust - and introduced them to Assemble, the group of eighteen young architects and designers who have worked closely with the community, creatively designing and overseeing the work on the houses. The layout of each house is dictated by the condition of the property.
Assemble used a house on Cairns Street owned by Steinbeck Studio, to set up a temporary foundry to cast fireplace surrounds using crushed old bricks and tiles, and a workshop to make other items such as pottery door knobs, tiles and light shades. This encouraged employment and training for young people in producing creative consumer goods. The workshop has since relocated to the larger abandoned newsagent shop on Granby Street.
Returning to photograph Liverpool last year, I was drawn to Granby and the work going on there. So much has changed, but there is still a real sense of community.
There was the artistic success of Assemble, and Cairns Street had been nominated for ‘Street of the Year’, by the Academy of Urbanism.
The first re-established corner shop, the beauty salon, Baby Doll’s, had opened. The owner, Delucia Emina, had plans to expand her business across the street.
Plans were underway to renovate four corner shops at the junction of Granby Street and Cairns Street as a social and retail hub for the community.
There was a monthly street market, first held in Cairns Street, now relocated to Ducie Street.
A visiting Honduran painter and muralist, Javier Espinal, had worked with the local community to paint a mural on the side of the Methodist Youth Centre, while local resident Joe Farrag had adorned the area with brightly painted pigeons from Patrick Murphy’s Liverpool Biennial installation at the Walker Art Gallery.
Writing on the Wall, a Liverpool community organisation was commissioned by the CLT to gather people’s memories of Granby Street, resulting in the publication of What’s Your Granby Story?, a collection of stories and poems of these memories.
These days, there is creative excitement in the air – the determination to make what was once an impossible dream into a life-enhancing reality. It’s pleasing to know that the arts are making a unique contribution to this revival – preserving memories of the past and helping to build a better future.
Discussion and debate
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Just across from Liverpool 8 is Granby Street, site of the Turner Prize winning project by the architectural collective Assemble.
Next from Create, they'll be telling us about the importance of taking culture out of buildings and into the street; while journalist, Radio 4 presenter and dance lover Sarah Crompton visits the remarkable DAZL community dance project in Leeds to find out how we can reconcile dance as an art with its increasing popularity, and effectiveness, in our well-being.