Bradford: How a city is reinventing itself

The city recently won the title of City of Culture 2025, and is on the way to rebrand itself to join global ranks of buzzing geographies of culture

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By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sat 2 Jul 2022, 10:41 PM

Cities have personalities. They resonate even if you never visit them. The mere mention of London, Paris, Dubai, Karachi, Agra, Bali, New York or other cities suggests certain images, an emotional quotient that is forged in the crucibles of history, culture, nature, economy as well as in the work of prominent local individuals. The symbolism or stereotype of cities is constantly reinforced through textbooks and the media. For generations growing up in post-colonial south Asia, the mention of London, England or Britain evokes a range of memories and images, even if many have never been there. The images are so powerful that some cities even evoke awe: before moving to New Delhi or London, I was in some awe of the capitals. The emotional aspect of cities is so entrenched that it is one of the key areas of research in the fascinating field of Human Geography.

The city as a unit of analysis has long engaged the minds of economists and cultural historians, but it was only in 1985 that the European Union came up with the idea of a European Capital of Culture, to bring people closer by highlighting the richness and diversity of European cultures and raising awareness of their common history and values. The idea was to designate a city as the European Capital of Culture for one year, when a series of events would be held. The designation has since been given to several cities every year (including two in Britain: Glasgow in 1990 and Liverpool in 2008). The year creates several opportunities and helps foster urban regeneration, besides raising the city’s profile. The idea was adopted in Britain in 2009, and the first UK City of Culture (Derry-Londonderry) was announced for the year 2013. In the UK, the designation is given once in four years: it was Hull in 2017 and Coventry in 2021 — and Bradford is the next one in 2025.

Bradford is one British city that could do with such attention. It has long been linked with negative stereotypes; besides, it rarely figured in lists of the best places to live. Since the city did not get a good press in recent years and decades, particularly during the 2001 race riots, the City of Culture 2025 status means a lot. Ghazal Abbasi, journalist-researcher, wrote in The Guardian that “I used to balk at telling people I was from Bradford – now it’s a UK city of culture”. Forget the negative media portrayals, she writes, “from the Brontës to chai shops, this city is teeming with culture old and new…The title will at last allow it to flaunt its already flourishing commitment to nurturing creativity and talent – and I will never again have to pretend I come from somewhere else…From the bustling chai shops that are open until the early hours of the morning to the Waterstones nestled in the drool-worthy Gothic Wool Exchange building, Bradford is flavoured with culture old and new. As the UK city of Culture 2025, it has the unique opportunity to turn the dial and begin to counter decades of negative stereotypes that have proliferated through traditional media and now social media”. There is also the stereotype of Yorkshire people seen as friendly but ‘bloody-minded’, stubborn and argumentative, perhaps best reflected in the personality of the enigmatic batsman, Geoff Boycott.

Many know Bradford for its famous creatives, including David Hockney and the Brontë sisters, but few realise how close the city is to the picturesque countryside, located on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. The Bradford Metropolitan District covers an area of 141 square miles, across Airedale, Wharfedale and the Worth Valley as well as Bradford city and the towns of Keighley, Bingley, Ilkley, Haworth, Saltaire and Shipley. The city saw off stiff competition from three others in the shortlist for the status: County Durham, Southampton and Wrexham County Borough (the longlist had 20 bids). A large number of individuals and local agencies are involved in preparing each bid, but judges say they were impressed by the ambition of Bradford’s bid which, at its centre, celebrates the place where people live, the power of diversity and aims to create new opportunities for everyone. The bid encouraged strong local engagement with artists and residents, focused on creating a sense of local pride, and highlighted its young population, historic buildings and breathtaking natural landscapes, its history of independence, of ‘doing things differently’, of progressive social reform and cultural heritage.

The winner of the contest was approved by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries on May 31 based on independent advice from a panel of experts led by TV writer-producer Phil Redmond, who says: “The selection is never about whether one bid is better than another, it is more that one bid has the potential to make a bigger and deliverable impact. For 2021 we asked Coventry to raise the bar previously set by Derry-Londonderry 2013 and then raised by Hull 2017. Challenged by the pandemic, Coventry have certainly done that and I am looking forward to seeing how far the cultural bar can be raised in BD25”. Coventry’s status as the UK City of Culture 2021 was hit by the pandemic, but a large number of events were held, engaging an audience of over one million through more than 700 ticketed, un-ticketed and online events. During the year, 1,515 City Hosts were trained, who contributed almost 36,000 volunteering hours, while the status also helped attract hundreds of millions of pounds in inward investment. Coventry in the Midlands also has a large population of Asian origin.

Driven by the tagline ‘This Is Our Time’, a Bradford 2025 document says: “This is a district built by entrepreneurs, shaped by an international community and a history of world-famous artists, performers, writers and musicians. Fiercely proud of its creativity, boldness and independence of spirit, Bradford’s story is ready to be told and its storytellers come from all parts of the globe. This is Bradford’s moment to showcase to the world what modern British culture looks like. This is where the magic happens. This is where the passionate young voices of the future will be heard”.

Bradford’s cultural heritage includes a distinct Asian component: it has the largest percentage of British Pakistanis in a UK city: over 20 per cent, while ethnic minorities overall make up 36 per cent of the population (the city is linked with Mirpur, Pakistan, in a twinning arrangement that seeks to promote cultural and commercial ties). The UK’s sixth largest city, Bradford is also the youngest city in Europe (29 per cent of its population is under 20 years and nearly a quarter under 16 years). Bollywood is big here, as is the diverse and delicious cuisine from across the Indian sub-continent, earning the city the title of Britain’s Curry Capital six years in a row (2011-2016). Tourism leaflets celebrate that status and beckon visitors with the promise that “Everyone has a different idea of a perfect curry, but we can guarantee somewhere in Bradford, you will find yours!” Beats, bols, dhols and bands belting out Bollywood and other Asian music is a feature of the city’s culture, which also draws Bollywood actors, who are increasingly celebrated by Asians and non-Asians alike. Several Bollywood and Hollywood films have been filmed in Bradford, besides television serials and programmes on BBC and other channels.

Says prominent visual artist Shanaz Gulzar, chair of Bradford 2025: “This is a huge opportunity to celebrate our extraordinary cultural heritage and for our young, ethnically diverse population – who have been so involved in shaping our bid – to become leaders and change-makers and begin a new chapter in our story. Bradford has been overlooked and underestimated for so long – it’s now our time to shine”. Plans have been drawn up to deliver more than 1,000 new performances and events including 365 artist commissions, a series of major arts festivals as well as exciting national and international collaborations. The idea is to draw on and highlight the city’s diversity – for example, as many as 160 languages are spoken by the children at the local schools.

Bradford has long been overshadowed by neighbors Leeds and Manchester, but it has a great deal going for it. Its cultural history is rich: JB Priestley, the author of the evergreen play An Inspector Calls, was a son of the city. Much of its industrial heritage, dating from the 19th century when it was a global centre for the manufacture of wool and cotton, has been converted into cultural spaces. A major hub is the Kala Sangam arts centre, which specialises in south Asian art, while the annual Bradford literature festival attended by over 70,000 people is now one of the prominent events in Britain’s literary calendar. Bradford is also home to outstanding large-scale venues including the National Science and Media Museum; the exceptional Alhambra Theatre overlooking City Park, the Grade II listed St George’s Hall, which recently underwent a £9.5 (Dh42.31) million restoration; the Bradford Industrial Museum; Impressions Art Gallery and the unique Peace Museum, the only accredited museum of its kind anywhere in the UK.

Salts Mill, once a textile mill, now houses an art gallery, shopping centre and restaurants. It is home to the largest permanent collection of David Hockney paintings in the world. Born in Bradford in 1937, the painter, draughtsman, printmaker, stage designer and photographer was an important contributor to the pop art movement of the 1960s and is considered one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century. Hockney’s work can be seen in Saltaire, a Unesco world heritage site, which attracts millions of visitors. Besides, Bradford recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of being named the first Unesco City of Film and has a cultural heritage that includes international artists, writers and musicians including Hockney, Frederick Delius, Priestley, Andrea Dunbar, AA Dhand, and Zayn Malik, amongst others.

Saima Mir, writer, and award-winning journalist, lists several reasons why Bradford deserves to be chosen the UK City of Culture. The city’s “beauty is balm for the soul”, she writes, and adds: “Bradford…was my home for more than 30 years. I was raised there, went to the university there, and landed my first journalism job at the local paper. It is also the place where I first came up with my debut novel, The Khan. Misunderstood and much maligned by those who don’t know it, Bradford is a great city, and the love I feel for it runs deep…Haworth, the home of the Brontë family, is one of many villages in the Bradford district. It is a literary mecca, with people from all over the world coming to visit the parsonage where the writers lived, walk its historic cobbled main street and gaze at the vintage charm of the village. It makes you feel you’ve stepped back in time”.

For all the celebration about cities bagging the status of UK City of Culture, recent academic research suggests that the lasting impact could be more in the realm of peace among local conflicting communities, rather than assessing the impact purely through the economic prism. For example, Derry-Londonderry, the first UK City of Culture, is situated within the long-drawn Northern Ireland conflict: the joint nomenclature of the city itself reflects the tensions between the two sides. Researchers adopt a more circumspect approach towards aspects of the anticipated transformative powers of culture, and in particular the tendency to fetishise the economics of culture. Questioning whether the city’s status was ‘life and place changing’ or a ‘12-month party’, a recent study reveals different interpretations of success: that there is more potential in viewing culture as a peace resource for overcoming divisions in a socially and culturally segregated city, rather than its ability to tackle entrenched economic problems.

Prasun Sonwalkar is a journalist based 
in London

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