Hastings disassembled

Posted by Ken Edwards on Thursday, November 4, 2010 Under: Hastings
Researching post-industrial imagery for some writing I'm doing, I have been fascinated over the past week by Andrew Moore's photographs of Detroit Disassembled (published with an essay by the poet Philip Levine). There are awesome images of abandoned car factories, theatres, ballrooms and the ruin that was once Michigan Central Station.

You can also view some of these and other images accompanying an excellent recent piece in David Byrne's blog

This sort of thing has sometimes been disparaged as "ruin porn" - an activity that of course goes back a couple of centuries to the Romantics. But rather than simply looking on these works and despairing (an indulgence that can be quite enjoyable, I suppose), I prefer to see the glimmerings of a new kind of life in the ruins left behind by Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. Mostly offstage to Moore's photos, as we know, alongside crime, addiction and poverty, parts of Detroit are also experimenting in post-industrial economies: organic urban farms, low-tech businesses, artists' co-operatives springing up where offices and factories had once been, drawn in by the space and cheap rents.

Wanting to be reminded of these possibilities for a future independent of rampant capitalism, greed and addiction to the motor car, I searched for the BBC documentary Requiem for Detroit and found it on YouTube. I watched about half of it, just as far as an appearance by Martha Reeves, who once memorably enjoined us "Don't forget the Motor City", and is now a city councillor, repeating the same message in a hugely different context! I put it on pause, and when I returned a day or two later found it was no longer available: blocked on copyright grounds by BBC Worldwide. Fair enough, the BBC owns the copyright, but it doesn't seem to have made it commercially available either, so it's gone for now.

OK, Hastings is no Motown, but we have our ruins too, on a smaller scale. Emulating David Byrne, I cycled along the seafront yesterday morning, in bright sunshine and a pleasant and not too taxing south-westerly breeze. I passed the sad remains of Hastings pier, which predictably burned down on 5 October after two years of neglect following its enforced closure by Hastings Borough Council on safety grounds. Here is a picture of it taken by my sister on the weekend of my birthday party in September, just over three weeks before the fire:

And here is a picture of it in its present state:


Many people in the town viewed the destruction of the pier, a glorious relic of what had once been a fashionable 19th century seaside resort – and in the 60s providing a venue in its ballroom for gigs by Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and the Who – as yet another kick in the teeth for Hastings. What the future holds for it is uncertain. The owners can't be traced, and the council, urged to compulsorily purchase it, is contemplating a structural survey to see if the framework can be saved. If it can't, it may be pulled down, or, more likely and more dismally, left to rot for years. If it can - well, what then?

Hastings has been trying valiantly for years to shake off its image as England's high-unemployment blackspot on the south coast, with its attendant drug, drink and crime problems. The destruction of the pier is emblematic of other fears: for example, in the wake of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's proposed curbs on housing benefit, that thousands of poor families will be displaced from inner London and its high rents and migrate to this low-rent town, which is already struggling to cope with the social problems it has.

There have been encouraging signs. Building on the Jerwood Foundation's proposed art gallery, on the former Stade coach park next to the iconic fishermen's huts (the "net shops"), is now well under way. The gallery, which will make available to the public for the first time probably the second most important collection (next to the Tate) of modern British art, is set to open early next year. 

Such a development offers hope to a faded seaside town. Already, we have seen the success of the refurbishment and re-opening of the art deco De La Warr Pavilion in neighbouring Bexhill as a major art and music venue. The proposed Jerwood Gallery builds on this and on Hastings' artistic heritage. The Old Town is full of vibrant activity: studios, galleries, an active music scene. Next door, St Leonards is being re-invented as Hackney On Sea.

It has been controversial. Some local opinion has been vociferously against it, I think misguidedly. There are those who want Hastings to remain as it is forever: a cheap holiday resort where people can come to get drunk for a day. Where the Victorian pier with its Victorian attractions is there forever. There are those who don't understand the Jerwood proposal or feel that modern art is not for the likes of them, or fear the fishing industry will be threatened (I believe it will be enhanced), or can't see the employment and business opportunities a major art gallery will bring.

On balance, I think the Jerwood proposal has to be a good thing, but there are also more legitimate fears, and here we come to the intractable paradox of regeneration. The artistic vibrancy of parts of Hastings and St Leonards stem exactly from the effects of economic deprivation: low rents, low property values attract young, creative but indigent artists and musicians. They are able to live side by side with people who have been earning a modest living for generations (eg the fishermen of the Stade). Once the aura of cool is established, however, and well-meaning "cleaning up" policies ensue, once money wants to move in, the end may not be too long in coming. There is every possibility that the money will eventually destroy what made the environment valuable in the first place. And that poor people will be priced out again.

It's happened, on a larger scale, in Greenwich Village; it may be happening in Berlin. Even after a world-wide financial crisis and recession, there is scant evidence that naked capitalism has been trammelled in any serious way. In this context, dreams of a post-industrial, post-capitalist, sustainable future look utopian. What was there is replaced by a plastic simulation of it. The money will always move in, and the whole sorry boom and bust cycle will begin yet again.

But, whether in Detroit or Hastings, you have to act as though there is a possibility of otherness, at least for a while. How can you say no to regeneration? What else can you do? As Beckett concludes The Unnamable: "I can't go on. I'll go on."

In : Hastings 

Tags: detroit "hastings pier" "jerwood gallery" 
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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at http://www.kenedwardsonline.co.uk