“…‘declining’ cities can still be great cities.”
For the latest in my series profiling urban historians at work today, I have been lucky enough to catch up with the University of Leicester Centre for Urban History’s Aaron Andrews. Aaron explained some of the ways in which his research contests and complicates established tropes of “decline” in post-war urban Britain.
What is your background?
I come from a fairly ‘normal’ working class family in Northampton, and have become one of those ‘perpetual students’ that give postgrads a bad name. I moved to Leicester in 2009 to study for a BA in International Relations and History – unfortunately my international relations training hasn’t helped me bring about world peace yet. I then went to Bristol to study for an MA in History where my interest in contemporary British history really grew, before returning to Leicester to do my PhD.
What led you to choose your subject matter?
“…from the very beginning I’ve had to think about the ‘real world’ applications of my research…”
During my Masters, I worked as an admin assistant for a consultancy firm that was looking to branch out into local government work. I was offered funding to research ‘urban decline’ in the hope that the end product could be useful to urban regeneration projects across the country. So, from the very beginning I’ve had to think about the ‘real world’ applications of my research, which can be particularly difficult when ‘imposter syndrome’ hits.
Of course, I hope my research will also be historiographically relevant, especially with regard to questions of ‘decline’ and ‘de-industrialisation’ to which I was introduced during my time at Bristol.
Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?
Of course, the first name that comes to mind is Simon Gunn. As my supervisor, he reads and comments on almost everything I write, with this (consciously and subconsciously) informing the way I try to do history. There is a whole network of urban and social historians who have inspired me and continue to do so, and it would be difficult to name just a few. I recently read Leif Jerram’s Streetlife which, to be honest, I should have done years ago! Not only is this a brilliant history of 20th Century Europe, it is one example of a book which shows the importance of space and cities in writing the histories of much larger processes of change.
What do you hope that readers take away from your work?
“…contemporary discourses should be understood in relation to material processes.”
Well, first of all that ‘declining’ cities can still be great cities. ‘People Make Glasgow’ isn’t just a slogan, but something I definitely believe (then again an awful lot of my family live there so I have to say that!) Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, decline did happen in Britain. It wasn’t simply a political construction, but occurred in particular spaces and within a specific context. And finally, contemporary discourses should be understood in relation to material processes. The interaction between the two is an important part of my thesis. I hope that this can be seen as an attempt to take the two as equally seriously when considering the issue of decline.
How has your work evolved over the course of your project?
It has become narrower – much narrower! In fact, in the last two weeks I have decided, after much contemplation, to remove one case study from my thesis. This narrowing hasn’t affected the questions I’m asking, but will allow greater depth and should hopefully make the answers more accessible for the reader. Though, it seems this is an experience most PhD students have to go through. It can be tough, but necessary!
What led you to choose Glasgow and Liverpool as your two case studies?
When I first began my research, there was a lot of discussion over picking the right case studies, but in identifying these two, there were two key factors. Firstly, they were the archetypal declining cities, especially in the 1970s. This was evident in the way that urban policy discourses developed, in the geographies of government (and other) studies, and in contemporary media coverage. Secondly, access to the archival material was (of course) crucial. Having family in and around Glasgow made the trips to Scotland easier (and cheaper)!
But now I’m focusing on Liverpool, which is a fascinating city and one on which a lot of great research has been and is being done (not to imply too forcefully that mine is included in that!)
Have you discovered any striking differences between how the two cities developed during the period you study?
“…Glasgow’s decline has been questioned, but Liverpool’s has not…”
There are many striking differences between the two, which is inevitable. What is often striking, however, is the way Glasgow’s decline has been questioned, but Liverpool’s has not in conversations I’ve had about the two. I suspect that this has something to do with the politics of ‘urban crisis’ and they way in which processes of change are interpreted. It’s something I think about a lot, and will hopefully have a decent answer for, because many of the processes of change which affected the cities were, in many ways, ‘the same’.
How does your work relate to wider narratives about economic change, “globalisation” and the decline of traditional industries in the second half of the 20th Century?
I’ve said a lot, though maybe more in style than substance, about ‘processes of change’. ‘Globalisation’ was one of the processes which was impacting on urban Britain during the latter half of the twentieth century. We can see this with shipbuilding in Glasgow and port services in Liverpool, in which global economic change was seen to undermine ‘traditional’ and other industries. But narratives of de-industrialisation and economic decline do loom, and it is with these that I have to be especially careful at times. The ‘declinist’ label is something I’d rather avoid! But again, I think we should be looking seriously at the interplay between materiality and narratives/discourses, as well as considering the spaces in which economic changes occurred. Hopefully my work does this!
What was the relationship between the “core” urban areas of Liverpool and Glasgow and their wider urban networks? The smaller neighbouring towns, both well established and newly created, that are closely interlinked with them.
“…space was central in contemporary discourse – it was the urban core which was the problem, and policy interventions within the urban network were geared towards alleviating the problems at the centre.”
That’s a good question, and one which I could spend an awful lot of time discussing. The process of urban change saw people and jobs move from the ‘core’ areas to towns further afield. So ‘decline’ can be seen, on the face of it, as the result of successful policy making. In terms of how these urban areas worked together (or didn’t), we can see different structures developing which facilitated the development of the Merseyside and Clydeside ‘conurbations’. Into the 1970s, the idea of the ‘inner city’ was developed in Britain. With this, we can see how space was central in contemporary discourse – it was the urban core which was the problem, and policy interventions within the urban network were geared towards alleviating the problems at the centre. Nothing is ever this black and white, and there were competing spatialities of concern. Which is good, because at some point I might need a new research project!
By innoxiuss (Somewhere under the rainbow….) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
You can read more about Aaron’s work on his academia.edu page. He can be contacted via the University of Leicester’s Department of History and is on Twitter. For more urban historians profiles click here.