When a city falls into economic despair how does it rise again? And what can make it a destination for travel and culture?
In 2017, Hull will host Britain’s UK City of Culture. When Liverpool hosted Europe’s City of Culture in 2008, it was a success and Britain decided it needed to keep running a spin-off to the continent’s yearlong event. Four years ago, the first UK City of Culture was held in Derry, the divisive city in Northern Ireland. Next year, it’s “Everyone Back to Ours,” as the slogan declares throughout the new host city, in anticipation of an event that residents and officials hope will dig out Hull.
When my wife and I told people that we were traveling through England and we mentioned a stop in Hull, most Brits asked the same question with a bit of skepticism in their brows and that sour-milk look in their mouths: “Why are you going to Hull?”
During World War II, German bombers destroyed much of the city, dumping their remaining explosives on Hull before returning to the continent. Outside of London, it was the most damaged British city. Then in the three decades that followed the end of the war, Hull fishermen and the Icelandic coast guard engaged in the Cod Wars. Essentially, it was a fight over fishing areas and while not a typical war–there was only one death–the British fishermen lost, which decimated Hull’s economy, destroying an industry and causing major unemployment in the city.
Regardless, Hull has always possessed an attractive independent spirit. Its citizens, who opposed the king in the 1600s, are believed to be responsible for stirring up the First English Civil War, and since then, the city’s famous locals have embodied that same type of free thinking. Hull’s heroes include William Wilberforce, a member of parliament who dedicated his life to abolishing slavery in Britain well before there ever was an Abraham Lincoln, and Amy Johnson, who was the first woman to fly from the United Kingdom to Australia. But for the last seventy years, that spirit has been stifled and Hull has been unable to pull itself up by its bootstraps.
Recently, however, two things have brought hope back to the city. First, Siemens Wind Power began a wind farm project in Hull, bringing jobs to the community. Then, Hull was selected to host the City of Culture. Locals are excited, even if the rest of Britain seems dubious.
I visited Hull the summer before the festival and, at the time, there was little to see. Much of the best areas of the city were closed for improvements, like the Fruit Market, a sector with cool galleries and a live music scene, I’m told. In fact, construction projects were so abundant that a comedian I went to see, in a playful panic and with wonderful accuracy, lambasted the crowd. “Where are they taking your cement?” he shouted, as if Hull residents were meekly allowing their one natural resources to be carted off.
Though the Fruit Market was closed and the pedestrian traffic on every other street was being redirected by or barricaded off due to construction, a visitor still gets the sense that Hull is a quirky city. Perhaps that is the essential trait for a city hosting a yearlong festival. Walking around Hull took me past all sorts of strange finds, from the smallest window in the world–a little sliver of glass in stone that’s only noticeable because of the plaque–to Dinsdale’s Joke Shop that hasn’t changed its product line in decades. You can still purchase faded fake poop and desiccated whoopee cushions. While most tourism authorities attempt to send visitors around on tourist trails connected to delicious or interesting things like drinks or history, respectively–Hull does that too–the city promotes some odd cultural walks, as well. The fish trail, for instance, takes visitors past motifs and reliefs of architecturally inserted fish. There is a species of fish for each letter of the alphabet chiseled into sidewalks or walls in the city. As a new installation to honor Amy Johnson, who piloted a Gypsy Moth, Hull has set up a moth trail, as well, sending locals and visitors out in search of gypsy moths posted to the sides of buildings.
Besides the nailed-in moths, Johnson also received a two-month-long festival in her honor, which seemed to have more advertising around it than events. While the one exhibit that was open during my visit featured some curious art, it didn’t seem appropriate to call the one tent filled with a few statues a festival. I wondered, was the Amy Johnson Festival a lackluster preview of what is to come next year or just Hull keeping its aces up its sleeve?
Prior to my July visit, in another art-project/festival-preview/media-stunt, photographer Spencer Tunick gathered more than 3,000 people in the city just before dawn. Everyone got naked in the streets and was painted in different shades of blue. Weeks later, it still seemed to be the talk of the town.
Perhaps the bizarre and audacious ideas of Tunick and the one-exhibit-at-a-time Amy Johnson Festival is the only way to sustain a yearlong event. Drips of culture with dashes of the extreme.
But even if I thought little of the Amy Johnson Festival, the comedy show that I attended was great, letting me know that the city could at least attract talent from London laugh at their odd Hull.
It’s hard to be great for a year. It’s hard to know what secrets the city has planned. But this eccentric little city that sits on a marina is charming in its own right, and has been given the spotlight to prove itself. At the worst, a year’s worth of culture injected into Hull will help Brits conjure up a less depressive image. At best, it could very well be a future destination.