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The incredible shrinking city

It's your last chance to see a remarkable exhibition about how cities downsize as well as grow. Phil Griffin's been already

Published on January 22nd 2008.

The incredible shrinking city

This is counter intuitive. Surely cities are expanding. Bursting even. We’re all ‘street’ aren’t we? And anyway, isn’t Manchester the 21st century renaissance city, and isn’t Liverpool, reigning European Capital of Culture just bursting with growth hormone? Well, yes, there are recent signs of reversal of fortune, but it’s probably too early to tell for sure. In the second half of the last century Liverpool and Manchester shed roughly half their populations. For various reasons one out of every two Mancs and Scousers left, and were not replaced. This, if you are really serious about your city, the serious business is halting that decline.

In the second half of the last century Liverpool and Manchester shed roughly half their populations. For various reasons one out of every two Mancs and Scousers left, and were not replaced.

Philipp Oswalt, an architect based in Berlin, has, since 2001, run The Shrinking Cities Project on behalf of the German Federal Cultural Foundation. He and a team of artists, architects and urban planners have been to Ivanov (3,000 kilometres north east of Moscow), Leipzig, Detroit, Manchester and Liverpool. Between 1930 and 2002 Liverpool shed 48.5% of its population, Detroit lost 51% since 1950. Oswalt has contrived to make an exhibition out of ashes such as these. He and his team have done so triumphantly.

Shrinking Cities is on three sites: the Renew Rooms in the Tea Factory in the Rope Walks, at Site Gallery, in the Albert Dock, and CUBE (Centre for the Urban Built Environment) on Portland Street in Manchester. Three appropriate locations. It is not so much an exhibition as an extra mural urban studies course. By no means worse for that. This is art (and there is a lot of art here) with serious intent. My user-guide is this: take it a block at a time. But take it soon, the shows close next Saturday 26 January. For instance, I suggest, in this US Presidential election year, you take a look at Detroit. Motor City, Motown, Acid House, Manchester on Michigan. Birthplace of the Model T and Techno. Shrinking is hardly the word that describes the present day existence of this once top of the world template of the market economy. Even, as one of the short films here shows, the corpses in their coffins are leaving town.

There are four Detroit videos, and four photographs by Stan Douglas, including a wonderful barely credible image of the Michigan Theatre, jewel in the Downtown of 1930’s Detroit, now a nearly deserted car park. For these pieces alone the exhibition richly rewards a visit. Kelly Parker has made a film she calls Coda Motor City. It intercuts TV ads for cars with a day in the life of Marcia, one of 48% of Detroiters who don’t own one.

Marcia is African American, probably in her late fifties. She carries the surplus body weight of most poor Americans. She carries it slowly along snow-covered pavements. There is virtually no public transport system in Detroit. She carries it painfully up the stairs to her walk-up apartment. She goes to church. Most poor Americans do. The church – many churches – is America’s welfare system. Marcia is spirited. So is the guy in the film who scavenges wrecked autos. Hundreds of them. His dad did it. He says it’s in his blood.

Perhaps elements in Manchester City Council didn’t welcome the Shrinking Cities Project. Neither is it in tune with Liverpool 08. I can understand that. Here and now, it is not the song these cities are singing. For three years in the last seven, Liverpool has recorded net gains in population, Manchester slightly more. Both cities have new positivism that is vital for continuing growth. If it is anything at all Shrinking Cities is a corrective. And it is far more than that. I’ve rarely seen hard, thoroughly researched, genuinely collaborative material presented so creatively.

If you want to know more about the problems faced by Liverpool and Manchester since the empire and industry that brought them prosperity in the first half of the last century withered and disappeared, spend some time with Shrinking Cities. It may not be the song we want to hear today, but like some plaintive soundtrack by Tom Waits, it will draw you in and attach you to greater understanding. Not many exhibitions do that.

Shrinking Cities: International Research
CUBE — Centre for the Urban Built Environment, Manchester 113–115 Portland Street, Manchester
Monday–Friday, noon-5.30 p.m, Saturday noon–5.00 p.m. www.cube.org.uk

Shrinking Cities: Polarisation
Renew Rooms, The Tea Factory 82 Wood Street, Liverpool
Monday–Friday 9am–5 pm

Shrinking Cities: Interventions Site Albert Dock, Britannia Pavilion, Liverpool
Wednesday–Sunday, 10am–4pm

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Stanley StreetJanuary 21st 2008.

Er... “Kilometers”? “Annex”? Surely you mean ‘kilometres’ and ‘annexe’? We scousers aren’t thick you know!

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