New Arts Complex Helps Turn Gritty Newcastle from Coal Center to Creative Hub
Friday, November 19, 2004
By Tom Hundley
"Carrying coals to Newcastle" means wasting effort on something unnecessary. Newcastle, the historic capital of the Durham and Northumberland coal fields, had all the coal it needed.
But the expression will have to be retired. Last month, the Port of Tyne, Newcastle's harbor, began receiving large-scale coal imports from Russia to fuel a nearby aluminum smelter.
Twenty years after former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared war on the powerful mineworkers union, the coal industry in Britain is clinically dead. And Newcastle, once the industry's gritty hub, has been forced not only to import coal but also to reinvent itself.
The visual transformation has been stunning. Newcastle and its sister city, Gateshead, across the river are famous for their collection of bridges on the River Tyne, graceful marvels of steel and stone that reflected the engineering leaps of the Industrial Age. But until recently their riverbanks were a blighted postindustrial no-go zone.
Today the derelict wharves and warehouses have been transformed into restaurants, art galleries and loft apartments. Ornate Victorian office buildings long ago abandoned by shipping companies have been resuscitated and are occupied by the city's lawyers and stockbrokers. The district, known as the Quayside, thrums with activity day and night.
The Quayside's most impressive projects are the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, the Sage Music Centre and a pedestrian bridge over the Tyne that tilts upward to let ships pass. The two buildings are on the Gateshead side of the river.
The Baltic, a converted flour mill, is a huge gallery similar in concept to the Tate Modern in London. The Sage, designed by Norman Foster and scheduled to open next month, is a bulbous glass-and-steel concert hall that will be the home of the Northern Sinfonia chamber orchestra.
Foster's pickle-shaped London office tower, nicknamed the "Gherkin," has become one of that city's most admired new buildings, and residents hope that the Sage's distinctive design along with the Millennium Bridge will do what Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum has done for the once-neglected Basque port city of Bilbao, Spain.
Newcastle's efforts have not gone unnoticed. Time magazine listed Newcastle as one of Europe's "secret capitals," while Newsweek named it as one of "the world's eight most creative cities."
"What you're seeing is the miracle of the National Lottery," said Paul Collard, creative director of the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, a civic marketing group. More than $180 million of the money for the Baltic and Sage projects came from the National Lottery.
According to Collard, the national fondness for gambling generated an "unbelievable" amount of cash for investment in arts and culture projects, "and we had the good luck to be absolutely first in the queue."
With the success of the Quayside restoration, Newcastle and Gateshead have latched onto the idea of culture-led urban regeneration with a vengeance. Officials say a cultural renaissance has helped reverse the city's decline, but they freely admit they still have a long way to go.
"We used culture to get some momentum going, to get some confidence back," said Paul Rubenstein, in charge of culture for the Newcastle City Council. "But in terms of competitiveness, our economy is still far behind Manchester and Leeds, never mind London."
The collapse of the British coal industry nearly took Newcastle with it. At the peak in the early 1950s, 23 million tons of coal were exported from the city's port and nearly 150,000 miners worked in the region's 182 collieries.
By 1984, the year of the industry's fatal confrontation with the Thatcher government, there were about 20 mines employing 26,500 people. Today there is one mine; it employs 360 miners.
Other Tyneside industries also have declined. Twenty years ago, 50 percent of men in Newcastle and Gateshead were employed in mining, shipbuilding or steelmaking. These days the figure is 3 percent.
Hopes for the future lie with knowledge-based industry, said Alan Clarke, chief executive of One NorthEast, a regional development agency. The region's key resource now is collection of top-notch universities.
"What we have to avoid from the past is the overreliance on one industry," he said.
That wisdom comes too late for scores of small mining villages that depended solely on the local pit, and which today are economic wastelands suffocated by chronic unemployment.
The sole means of support for many of these villages is the monthly disability check to ex-miners, said Dave Hopper, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers northeast region.
Easington, once a thriving pit village, has seen all of its banks close. In Kelloe, the largest employer is the social club for ex-miners. Another village in the area is aptly named Pity Me.
"The environment in Newcastle is much better," said Hopper Bill Macnaught, in charge of cultural development for the Gateshead council. "It's a beautiful Quayside, and it's very expensive to eat and drink and socialize there, but not many of our members can afford it."
Macnaught acknowledges that arts and culture never will replace the old industrial jobs, but he notes that national academic achievement scores of the city's 16-year-olds, once the worst in the county, are suddenly among the best.
"We don't want to overclaim, but we think there might be a connection," he said.
"There is something about the arts that unlocks creativity. If you really believe that we are moving from the old industrial economy to a knowledge economy, this is important."
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