York: a lovely historic city with excellent transport links / Is ‘history’ killing York?

One of the comments left on street party table cloth in answer to the ‘why do you like living in York?’. ‘Here to Live, Here to Stay: UKuncut and York’s Great British Street Party’, St Helen’s Square, 26th May 2012.

‘York’s such a nice place with a lot of history’
Overheard on Stonegate, June 2012

I did laugh, but there is some truth to this statement. While all parts of this globe have had a lot time slip past, some have more ‘history’ than others. That is, some places have had more knowledge about their past produced as ‘history’. And some people self-consciously produce the places they live, govern or manage as historic. York has its fair share of both. York has its greatest hits (Romans-Vikings-Railways-Chocolate). And York has its historic built environment in the form of its medieval street scape.

This all might seem quite benign. Yet a few weeks ago the York’s Housing Crisis Campaign – being facilitated by York Welfare Campaign – has been the focus of a number of press articles. In one, on the Guardian’s Northerner Blog, and written by freelance Journalist Ann Czernik, Laura Wade shared her story about living in a mould ridden flat with her daughter and the unresponsiveness of her landlord, a Housing Association. So far, so nothing to do with history you might think. Yet in the comments below the article – and this motif appeared more than once – was this:

I’ve been to York recently. This is not somewhere you should be trying to live close to the city centre to if you are on benefits. It is a rich, affluent historical tourist centre.

In short – if you’re on benefits you don’t deserve to live in York. Something York Welfare Campaign are vigorously contesting at the moment.

Of course the city’s housing boom – fueled by perceptions of it as a ‘nice’ place to live – is not a problem unique to York. It represents one facet of the complex and necessary political challenge of managing heritage as a resource on behalf of all the people who live in a city. There is a lot which could be said about that. But here I want to specifically reflect on this question of ‘history’ and York having a lot of it.

One of the issues with ‘lovely, historic cities’ is their history stops being content and becomes aesthetic – it’s about how the past-in-the-present looks, rather than about what happened. Even when it is a bit to do with what happened (Romans-Vikings-Chocolate-Railways), then this is at the level where this content can be assimilated easily into the city’s aesthetic. So in the multiple signifiers of ‘York’ the National Railway Museum road train can chug through the big hole George Hudson (or his friend George Townsend Andrews) made in the medieval walls and, if only engaged with in the now and at an aesthetic level, both can happily co-exist. Isn’t it lovely?

In our more recent discussions at York’s Alternative History open meetings this question of the aestheticization of York’s history and some of York’s challenges in being an inclusive city – with housing for people of all income brackets – have begun to coalesce. Don’t suppose we have any answers yet, but we’re going to start by taking the overheard comment I opened with very seriously. Yes, York does have a lot of history. Far too much in one way and not anywhere near enough in another.

Might us using York’s Alternative History as a space for developing more complex and nuanced histories of the city create different political possibilities for the policy use of its heritage? Can we use ‘alternative’ accounts of York’s history to deliberately and strategically make York harder to aestheticize as merely ‘lovely’? Might such histories make it easier to see the city’s diversity (see Gary Craig’s recent post), it’s ongoing poverty and exclusions, the life which goes on outwith the city walls? All of which is something that we need your help with in our ongoing search for histories of protest and activism.

Yet before I close, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should bring my own personal history in… I live in what was once was a railway workers terrace in Holgate, a street chosen especially to be very convenient for my commute. Yeap, ’tis true – history kills in more way than one.

More photos – including comments to ‘Why do you like living in York?’ – from ‘Here to Live, Here to Stay: Ukuncut and York’s Great British Street Party’, 26th May 2012

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One thought on “York: a lovely historic city with excellent transport links / Is ‘history’ killing York?

  1. I’d certainly agree that, increasingly, “it’s about how the past-in-the-present looks”. As we’re now so dependent on the income from tourism, certain periods of/aspects of our history are endlessly promoted, while others are forgotten/excluded.

    “Can we use ‘alternative’ accounts of York’s history to deliberately and strategically make York harder to aestheticize as merely ‘lovely’?”
    I hope so. I’ve been trying to represent alternative views, of the ‘real York’ residents like me knew and know, through my website (yorkstories.co.uk). With a focus on its ordinary and grubby corners. It is of course mainly my own perspective, and isn’t overtly political. I’m really glad that York’s Alternative History is giving space to the many histories of this city, particularly the more recent.

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