What does heritage mean to you? The Futurist? Something you get angry about on Twitter? Something you visit once a year in the Museum of Liverpool?
Fact is, heritage isn’t history. Heritage is every uncool shop and cafe, every nondescript little pub. Everything deemed irrelevant by our current, self-appointed custodians of cool, quietly building their brands. And this shit’s got real. So we better pay attention.
We’ve long since passed peak beard, but what’s happening next – ‘hipsters’ morphing into contemporary yuppies (yuckies, if you will) and fashioning the city in their image – is terrifying. Don’t think it’s happening? Take another look.
It’s time to take back the city from these counter-culture conformists who hate gentrification in theory; but who, in practice, Instagram their artisinal doughnuts and spirulina smoothies. People who are really, really socially conscious, but who frequent barber shops where it was illegal to menstruate. Because it’s a scientific fact that periods can curdle beard wax at ten paces. People who eschew empty-headed materialism but who can’t go a day without reading a think piece on cufflinks.
Take exhibit A, from a Liverpool gentlemen’s publication. Published for people in Liverpool. That’s us, I guess.
“Our average customer is cash rich but time poor. He doesn’t enjoy shopping, but wants to look good. We solve that problem for them: we help them create their own style using traditional, strong brands without them having to walk the high-street. With every order a customer makes, the data gets crunched by intelligent software.”
I’m guessing – and it’s a wild punt here, so bear with me – that Looks Luggage on Bold Street, which closed after 30 years last week, didn’t have intelligent software. I’m guessing they helped people create their own style by handing them a suitcase and saying ‘do you like it’? Those same brave people who somehow found the time to walk the high street, risking a close-shave with the the evil incarnate of chain stores, dangerously un-cropped trousers and gin without a single foraged botanical.
But Looks has gone. And, I’m guessing too, the modern urban flaneur has sauntered past, rubbed his beard and thought: “Hmmm. This might be the perfect spot for my Nicaraguan barbeque cantina with Cuban cigar smoke-infused toilet rolls, and a festival of Bourbons specially aged in Charlton Heston’s rifle barrels.”
We need to develop new strategies for protecting places with intangible cultural significance, stuff that, right here, right now, because of passing whims, we don’t see. But we’ll be poorer for its passing. Our city’s silent heritage that doesn’t qualify for formal historic designation. To save before they’re shuttered. Not all of them, of course.
In San Francisco and other cities, they call it the legacy movement. “Every day we hear about new restaurants appearing,” Mike Buhler, from SF Heritage’s lobby group says. “But there’s this small minority of mainstays in San Francisco that are beloved and really define the city’s culture and character.” Our ‘alternative landmarks’, if you like.
I’m guessing Looks wasn’t even, officially, an independent Liverpool shop. Because it sold stuff that we, you know, need. And what happens when we say goodbye to all the shops selling stuff that we need? The dandy modern gentleman’s work will be done. And we’ll all be living like hairy kings. Feasting on risograph prints of 1970’s coupés, Nordic trenchcoats that cost as much a Welsh Street and watches (sorry, timepieces) hand-assembled by steampunk wizards in a bothy on the Isle of Man, with precious jewels anchored in place with tweezers and artisanal, single-origin phlegm.
A world where The Importance of Being Earnest is a blog post about the correct pose to strike when you’re taking your fixed gear bike for a spin to the apothecary for some digestif bitters.
Don’t get us wrong. We love the urbane contemporary hipster gent schtick. When we grow up it’s probably a phase we’ll go through too. Just like the phase we went through trying on our mum’s lovely Lanvin strapless peplum dress and Avon lip gloss. But let’s not kid ourselves – this is playacting. And this city ain’t a sandpit.
The commodification of individuality has never been a Liverpool thing. In the past, we used to kick-start, not copy. Believe in truths deeper, even, than a Harris tweed pocket square. So we should kick back wherever this nonsense threatens to break out of social media and into the real world, where people work.
Because this is a conceit that’s blindsided us into not seeing the bits inbetween. The other side of Bold Street. The heritage businesses that have doggedly kept on. They need someone to champion their causes, because if we don’t, they go. True, they’ll never elicit the instant headrush of retweets and ‘likes’ – that cynical proxy for real engagement our our current city heroes are content with.
But the Tutill-Nicol stationers (deceased), the St John’s Coffeehouse (deceased) the Freshways (deceased), and the TJ’s (hanging on). The deeply unreconstituted St John’s, the Rapid Hardware and the Greatie – they’re more us than anything else we got. But they’ve become our dirty secret. The mad relative in the attic we don’t show to our new friends.
We’re not bashing new businesses, the jobs they bring and the hard work they plough into it (heck, we write about them enough.) More the unchecked subset of hangers on, seemingly in love with their own narrow narrative. And of the subtle way they’re maneuvering their worldview – their version of events – into the centre of the city’s agenda.
It’s been written before of how gentrification ruined Paris – “their Organic grocers… quietly displacing the pharmacies and scores of seedy bars that have for decades have defined the neighborhood” We know how that goes. Spike Lee’s raged against the more sinister side – its clear subtext of white middle-class gentrification. A so-called liberal world view that, when examined closely, is anything but. Spearheaded by marketing agencies with ball pits, lifestyle publications or, god help us all, professional mixologists with a ‘passion’ Because everyone needs a passion these days. It’s not acceptable to just, y’know, quite like something.
I have a confession. Sometimes I don’t look to see where my coffee beans are sourced. Sometimes I drink Nescafe. Admittedly it’s only when my ceramic coffee grinder is being re-tooled in Leipzig. Sometimes, I actually use a rucksack for carrying stuff home from Lidl, not just as an knowing accessory to my urbane ensemble. Sometimes I want a city that dials down the cynicism and is just comfortable at being what itself. Not an ersatz appropriation of some idealised Monocle-ville. A city where shops are built, not curated.
In the online magazine Slate, Luke O’Neil, says the US has witnessed something similar: “I’ve even noticed what I call the meta-hipster – a person who sidesteps the traditional requirements and just wants to skip ahead to the status. Like putting on glasses and getting a tattoo somehow makes you a hipster,” he says.
I think it’s time to call their bluff. Because, hiding in plain site is a city we used to know. But it is fast disappearing, as what was once a genuine counter-culture that stood against something, now will stand for anything if there’s a lucrative contract or a sponsored tweet in it. And where the urbane, the able and the connected build a new city, where the one percent reproduces itself.
Lately a darker side to this new breed of Young Urban Creatives has started to reveal itself around the globe. Oh yeah – they’ll speak the socially-liberal talk alright. But they walk the economically conservative walk.
And despite how tight their jeans, how thick their beard or how mindful their meditation, the fact remains, they’re still conservative.
Let’s look at what we should protect before it’s too late. Assets of community value – for every community, not just those fluent in social media. And let’s do it before we can’t find our way home, eh?