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Tales of a City

Posted on 25 May 2016

How photographer Tricia Porter has kept people in the picture

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.

Young woman in skirt and stockings lounges on a single bed
The Women's Shelter, Falkner Street 1972
A group of four road sweepers pose for a photo with the city in the background
Corporation Workmen 1972
Schoolgirls gather in the doorway of a shop
Blackburne House school girls in Falkner Street 1972

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.

A group of young girls pose with a ball and their dog beneath a washing line in the yard outside their house
Girls by a washing line 1974
Three boys eating sweets - two glance up at the camera
Boys at a Youth Club entrance 1974
A large group of children sit around a table, some wearing rosettes. A man dances with a little girl while the others watch and smile
FA Cup Final celebration at the Davieses 1974

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.

Two visitors examine one of the photos in the exhibition
Kevin Davies and his sister at the Bluecoat exhibition 2015
A group of visitors pose for the camera holding the programme of Tricia's exhibition
Local people gather at the Bluecoat exhibition for a special evening event

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. 

Arthur Dooley's sculpture on the wall of the Methodist Centre: an emaciated figure leaps outwards from a crucifix with its arms spread out and upwards
Arthur Dooley's sculpture

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.

Allotments on the site of the cinema
Granby Street now - allotments on the site of the cinema
A dilapidated shop front
One of the few remaing shops in Granby Street
An old woman poses with a shopping bag in the middle of the street
Refurbished houses in Beaconsfield Street

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.)

Artist George sits on the step in front of a house covered in bright paintings
Local artist George in front of his house paintings in Ducie Street

Sign that reads: 'Please do not steal these plants. They belong to this community.'

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. 

A woman and a man pushing a buggy walk down a street lined with houses covered in scaffolding
Houses being refurbished

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. 

A man crouches over a pile of building materials to sand down a surface
Preparing a kitchen worktop at the workshop

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.

Assemble went on to win the Turner Prize.

Two female volunteers work together at a crafts table
Volunteers making door knobs
A man and a woman sit looking at a computer screen
Assemble members Lewis and Fran

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.

Shop owner Dulicia Emina stands smiling outside the door of her shop

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. 

A demolished street corner
Demolished corner shop on Cairns Street

There was a monthly street market, first held in Cairns Street, now relocated to Ducie Street.

A young girl in a headscarf stands reading a book next to a pram full of books and a sign that reads 'The Book Pram'
At the monthly street market
A group of adults and a little boy gather around a table covered in bright paintings
Workshop open day at the monthly market

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.

Bright paintings including masked faces and the words 'POSITIVE IMPACT' painted on the walls of the Methodist Youth Centre
Wall painting at the Methodist Youth Centre
Bright model pigeons perch on a railing above a newsagents
Patrick Murphy's painted pigeons

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.

Three men sit reading
Somali Men's Club - first view of the book 'What's Your Granby Story?'

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.

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. 

Gallery of Liverpool: Then and Now 

Browse through more of Tricia's photos below