“… amid the Ridley Scott images of world cities, the writing about skyscraper fortresses, the Baudrillard visions of hyperspace…most people actually still live in places like Harlesden or West Brom.”
(Doreen Massey, 1994:21).
My first visit to West Bromwich took place some time in 2004, when I went to watch a performance in the town’s library. I remember the library well. It had the same scratchy carpet, stuffy, central-heated atmosphere and municipal smell (a mixture of disinfectant, aging paper and human bodies) as every other local authority library I had visited. But unlike the 1960′s modernist buildings that housed most public libraries I’ve known, this was an ostentatious Victorian edifice. In particular, I remember the green-tiled entrance hall, smooth like the inside of a shell.
If the library was distinctive, the town centre was not. It consisted of a 1960’s style semi-indoor shopping centre, housing the type of ubiquitous, ‘downmarket’ shops which often find themselves pushed towards the margins when towns are regenerated or ‘smartened up’: Poundlands, Greggs and all sorts of charity shops and pawnbrokers. I remember thinking that I could be in Preston or Burnley or Gateshead. Yet, it was the generic town centre, rather than the memorable municipal library that sparked my interest in West Bromwich and suggested it as the focus for my research. For me, it is West Brom’s ‘everyday-ness’ that makes it interesting. In a world of tourism and place-marketing, West Bromwich is most certainly not ‘a destination’. It is a historic place, yet its history hasn’t been repackaged as ‘heritage’; despite the opening of the Public in 2008 it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a ‘cultural hub’; and it is definitely not a retail Mecca. In fact, there is almost no reason to visit the town.
At the same time, West Bromwich is a visibly globalized place. If the effects of global capital can be understood as a spectrum, with the burnished skyline of Canary Wharf at one end, and a sprawling Mumbai slum at the other, then West Bromwich is somewhere in the middle. Polish food shops, Sikh health centers and multi-lingual Police warning signs tell of migration and the volatile nature of capital, (which never stays in one place for long), whilst hoardings conceal urban clearances, soon to be occupied with the latest local premises of a multi-national corporation, one which, incidentally, began with a shipment of tea – that most English and ordinary of drinks.
West Bromwich is a place where encounters with the rest of the world are both frequent and mundane. No melting ice caps, trading-floor dramas or sweatshop deaths here, simply the monotonous practices of everyday life that happen in the type of place where most people still live. And it is this familiar sense of boredom, I think, that makes West Bromwich fascinating.
My practice is concerned with the concept of place as a social process, and examines specific places through the experiences, practices and attitudes of the people connected to them. I am particularly interested in marginalised places or those that are undergoing change, and the extent to which the existing practices and emotional connections within them can influence their future.
My previous projects have included mapping the activities that take place in a disused railway tunnel in Lancashire, and working with a group of aspiring writers to generate narratives about a Housing Market Renewal area of Merseyside. Since 2005, I have co-curated the In Certain Places public art programme in Preston, Lancashire, and I am currently studying a practice-based PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, which explores the relationship between socially engaged art and ‘placemaking’.
What I’m doing:
My original proposal was to explore the idea of ‘placemaking’ in relation to West Bromwich. Placemaking is a term which, over the last ten years, has become ubiquitous within public art, urban design and regeneration discourses. It is widely understood as a way to confer meaning, or ‘animate’ public spaces, often through the installation of public artworks . However, I am interested in how placemaking can be understood as an ongoing, everyday practice made up of activities that consciously or otherwise allow individuals and communities to affirm or interrogate their relationship to a place.
Since beginning the action research project, I have become interested in the current redevelopment of West Bromwich town centre by the Tesco Corporation. The development, which will include a cinema, leisure centre, new police station and college, will have a profound impact on the town and its residents. Many people have welcomed the scheme as it is hoped that it will regenerate what it seen as a run-down and depressed town centre, however others are concerned that the new development will turn the existing highstreet into a ghost town and erase West Bromwich’s ‘sense of place’.
In response, I am currently developing a project that will attempt to bring these attitudes and discussions together and create a new, collective narrative for the town. In particular, I want to connect people who might be understood as official “placemakers”, such as local authority planners, urban designers, developers etc., with those who have an intimate understanding of the place, but not necessarily a direct influence in its future.
I want to explore some or all of these questions through the project (I may discard some or generate more as the project develops):
- How can West Bromwich’s ‘sense of place’ be described and which things/ people contribute to this?
- What will West Bromwich town centre look /feel like in 10/30/100 years time and how does this affect attitudes towards it?
- What did West Bromwich town centre look/feel like 10/30/100 years ago and how does this contribute to its sense of place today?
- How do people move through West Bromwich town centre – where are the ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ areas?
- What kinds of stories are told about West Bromwich and who tells them?
- Where and by whom is knowledge about West Bromwich stored and where do different types of knowledge meet (if at all)?
- Where is the power in West Bromwich, and how is it expressed?