Neighbourhoods aren’t about branding, but people. The Fabric District understands that
‘We’ve always been a place for family businesses, creators and makers, and that’s the way we want it to stay’
By David Lloyd
If I could have my time again I’d have done things differently. I wouldn’t have invested in Microsoft or Bitcoin. I wouldn’t have cornered the market in face masks and PPE in 2019. No. Sometime in the late 1990s I’d have set up a placemaking consultancy.
Fast forward a quarter of a century and there's now an army of in-demand urban engagement consultancies, future neighbourhood laboratories and cultural placemaking strategists convinced they have the special sauce you need to transform a nowhere into a somewhere.
Much as aspiring scriptwriters can now complete how-to-plot courses that break down the majesty and mystery of cinema into ten easy steps, they offer a placemaking-by-numbers panacea designed to tap into the area’s DNA. All pocket parks, pop up craft fairs and cafes spilling out onto traffic-calmed streets. Beehives, living walls and rooftop farms. You know the drill.
Re-baptise the ailing area with a snappy name. Commission a new font for the marketing bumf. Print some sleek brochures. Placemaking as manifesting. A branding exercise in aspiration. No more, no less.
All of which would be fair enough if every newly hip neighbourhood was a Shoreditch-in-waiting. But imagine a city full of box parks and, well, you get the idea…the creative destruction of genuine inner-city eco-systems awaits.
Real neighbourhoods are far too complicated, contrary and chaotic to distil into a how-to guide. Yet, still, most of these consultancies are doing very well selling quick wins and one-size-fits-all solutions. Far better, I’d wager, than any of the places they’ve been parachuted in to save.
Funny that, isn’t it?
The fact is, every place was once a destination. A real, working, successful place. Until we built another shiny new place, just over the road. And then we just fell out of love with the old place. Because the new place had a branded tote bag and single estate matcha.
We’re no different to other cities: a jumble of pieces and parts — some on the up, some in the doldrums. Even Dubai, I hear, is now considered ‘a bit Magaluf’ by influencers.
Sorry if that entire sentence chills you as much as it did me.
One such place, the Fabric District recently launched its new prospectus. So far, so quietly alarming. If you’re going to make your mark, you’re going to need a manifesto, a prospectus, or at least a style guide, right?
But, just maybe, this is a district that really knows its place. The name is the clue. There’s history, and industry behind it. But more of that later…
Occupying an almost-triangular (but not in a Baltic way) wedge of the city from the Wellington Monument up to Moss Street, and edged by Islington to the left and London Road to the right (if you’re gazing up from Commutation Row), the Fabric District is, for many, the place most likely to be the next place.
While its prospectus talks a tough game — of the area’s close proximity to the sleek new buildings of the Spine and the School of Tropical Medicine, and the tantalising green shoots already giving the place a discernible thrum of activity again — it’s not blind to its shortcomings. London Road is a long way from its heyday. It’s hard to find any new build in the past 30 years or so that wouldn’t look better as rubble. But look past the 1960s breezeblock and cladding and buddleia-cloaked Victorian showrooms and that’s where the area’s real strength lies.
The Fabric District didn’t exist when, 12 years ago, Liverpool trumpeted the arrival of their SIF: the Strategic Investment Framework. A road map for the next 15 years, it talked passionately about the need for ‘distinctive neighbourhoods’, of ‘infestation by small businesses’, Community Interest Companies. A sense of place. Then it watched developers in the Baltic act out a dance of defiance, seemingly desperate to become almost the exact antithesis of its initial promise.
The Fabric District didn’t get a mention in the SIF, but Islington, London Road and Pembroke Place clinging, tenaciously, onto the frayed edges of the city map, did.
And with good reason.
Quietly and successfully, the area was still making stuff, employing people, and getting on with the business of being a real working (and distinctive) neighbourhood. Even if, for decades previously, its communities were ripped apart, and sent scurrying to the four corners of the city region.
The Strategic Investment Framework talked about bringing a blossoming cafe culture to Islington, promising “a continuous walking and cycling route from Pembroke Place into the heart of the city, and a vibrant mix of hotels, neighbourhood shops and accommodation.”
“The northern quarter of Islington is an area of great opportunity, with tightly defined narrow streets, blocks of underused industrial properties. It is strategically well placed to make the most of new opportunities,” the plan promised. “The area is in need of a new identity, purpose and direction.”
Then nothing happened. Until, in 2018, this maddening cluster of dead end streets and sudden squares first tried on its new suit for size. For the community of this corner of Islington, the Fabric District uniform fit just perfectly, as Chris Clayton from the area’s CIC says:
“By giving this place a name it was a chance for the community to say, look at us. We’ve been neglected for years. We have a history, and an identity already.”
It was that most unlikely of placemaking moves — not the imposition of a new identity that had been brainstormed in an aggressively air-conditioned office, but a nod to what had long existed.
“Everyone was on board,” Chris says. “The name was a nod to the area’s light industrial heritage, and a really important statement of intent, saying ‘this is where stuff gets done.’”
For the uninitiated, the Fabric District was always a kind of non-place. One street too far in the wrong direction. But the uninitiated were wrong. Because this area was, and still is, one of the city’s most diverse, inventive and surprising spots. Pretty it ain’t. But what it lacks in elegant Georgian brickwork or stately Portland Stone office blocks, it more than makes up for in small-scale success stories. Something far more compelling than gorgeous aesthetics.
Imagine a hinterland of drapers and milliners, furniture builders and printers, at the turn of the 20th century the Fabric District was a thriving city-born community, made richer and more industrious by migrants from Russia, Poland and Germany, coalescing into a vibrant Jewish Quarter to the north.
Galkoff’s butchers supplied meat to the Titanic (its gleamingly-tiled fascia now filleted and vacuum-sealed in the museum of Liverpool). Great city legends such as Owen Owens and TJ Hughes were founded here.
“We’re not Albert Dock, or Water Street,” Chris says. “We’ve always been a place for family businesses, creators and makers, and that’s the way we want it to stay.”
While our city centre and waterfront flourished on mercantile trade and the big money of Tate and Lyle, Mersey Docks and Harbour Board and the financial institutions, Manchester grew thanks to the industrious toil of thousands of smaller scale enterprises.
“We never really had that,” Chris says. “But when the big businesses left, we really suffered because of it.”
It’s this spirit of industriousness that the Fabric District is trying to distil, and nurture. But to enhance, too: to make the area a neighbourhood of grocers, bars, workshops and apartments too. In other words, bring it back to what it once was. Healthy, thriving and complete. A place that works.
Walk down Kempston Street and your stroll will take you past recording studios and milliners, MMA gyms and vegan restaurants. Escape rooms and architects. It’s unlikely you’ll find a diet so varied and heartening anywhere else in the city as you’ll find in 100 Fabric District metres.
Parr Street Studios’ new home — it’s now Kempston Street Studios — is as cocoon-like and as in-demand as its legendary Ropewalks HQ. This week, Miles Kane and various members of Blossoms are bobbing about doing overdubs. Next door, Try & Lilly’s fifty-strong workforce are fashioning busbies and uniform caps for customers from the Royal Canadian Navy to Bahrain military bands. Just as they have done for the past 150 years.
With the new branding in place, the area shifted gears: gently, yet decisively. New businesses started to arrive. A new sense of optimism too. One of the first of this new wave of settlers was the basement whisky bar of Hopscotch.
For co-owner Matt Workman, the Fabric District was the obvious choice:
“We knew straight away that this would be perfect,” he says. “The people who said it was too far out clearly hadn’t walked the seven minutes from Lime Street!”
For Matt, and partner Becky, it was a walk in the right direction. “It’s a mental barrier, not a physical one. You can turn left at Lime Street if you want the kind of bars they have on every street in town, but for us, it’s about being a destination: somewhere different that people would seek out.”
The Fabric District’s uncompromising aesthetic matched this stripped back and homely bar as perfectly as a dram of Laphroig and a bowl of haggis. With the new prospectus comes renewed hope for Hopscotch and the scores of small businesses calling the Fabric District home.
“There’s a lot going on here,” says Matt, “and people are really trying to make it happen. Four years ago this was a very different proposition. Is it perfect? No. We need better street lighting, and more pedestrianisation.” “And,” says partner Becky, “there needs to be an easier way for people to try out new business ideas in the area’s empty units.”
New business ideas are what Jason Abbott, owner of creative hub Tapestry, is all about. Within, he introduces me to Sonny McCartney, who heads up two of the district’s largest spaces; the film and photography studios and events spaces of Scale: “When I was growing up, the only way you could experience a day in a studio like this was to get the train down to London,” he says.
“Finally, Liverpool Council has classified us as a priority area for investment,” Chris says as we walk, talking of the area's promotion into a ‘spatial regeneration framework’, guiding new development opportunities: “We’re working with Council to make it a legally binding planning document,” Chris says. “It’s essential we protect what makes this place special, which is its commercial heart. But we want a healthy mix of housing, not just student flats. We want greenery, better public realm and a London Road that works as well for pedestrians and cyclists as it does for buses.”
There’s a definite buzz on Kempston Street. It’s not hard to be convinced they’re on to something. But, as ever in this city, this is not a new story. We’ve been here before.
We’ve had exciting, essential, industrious live-work places in the past. We know what they look like. They look like Scotland Road. Lime Street. Great Homer Street and, yes, even Pembroke Place. But, eventually, they became the wrong sort of places. Places allegedly too far gone to make them ‘economically viable’ to save. Places that wouldn’t attract BrewDog, Lidl and Costa Coffee. Places that apparently needed nipping and tucking out of all recognition.
So we reinvented them as investable propositions. As zones and districts and villages. As Sensor Cities, Great Homer Street 2.0 and the distended belly of Central Village.
But what does it take, really, to choose ten streets and transform them into Ten Streets? Is it just adding capital letters? Or injecting capital? When the branding agency cashes in and moves on, what then?
For Chris, and the industrious Fabric City settlers, now isn’t the time for empty rhetoric. Now is the time for decisive action. Money helps. But how it’s spent is still up for debate.
“We don’t need the city to build an Innovation Park, or a Science Park and pray that, just because that’s what they’re called, that’s who they’ll attract. It doesn’t work like that,” says Adrian McEwen, another long standing tenant, who set up the tech-maker space of DoES in Hanover Street and moved here when city rents skyrocketed.
“We’re already doing what we’re doing just fine,” he says with a note of caution. “We don’t want to become another Baltic. We just want a better environment to work in, and maybe a decent coffee shop.”
“And that’s what this prospectus will help us get,” Chris reassures, swiftly. “We’ve seen the mistakes other places have made. We don’t want to repeat them. This has to remain a community-driven regeneration.”
Slogans do not make places. Branding guidelines and prospectuses — even really really well intentioned ones — don’t either. Local businesses make places. Local people spending their time and money there make the places work and give them purpose. Connectivity makes people want to visit them, and affordable homes encourage people to set down roots in them.
Last time I was here was to visit TJ’s at the top end of the Fabric District, just before it closed for good after 111 years. I met Margaret, shopping with her sister: “We came here to reminisce about the old days,” she told me, tearing up. “We used to get our Christmas dresses from Colliers over the road, and have lunch in TJs if we were really lucky.”
The pavements of London Road, Margaret told me, were alive with families out for the day. “Families that were from all around here,” she said, waving her hands in the direction of the long-vanished Bull Ring, Gerard Gardens and the Piggeries.
“It’s all gone now. When they bulldozed them all it’s no wonder the area went the way it did,” she said. “It’s so sad. But we still love coming here. It brings it all flooding back.”
It’s doubtful, when they were writing their prospectus, the Fabric District CIC thought too much about what this place would look like in 111 years time. But the fact remains: we should tread carefully around these parts.
There are very few places in this city as charged with history and as free from the artifice and cynicism that the rebranding wrecking ball brings. And they’re getting scarcer with each passing year. Get the Fabric District right, find a way to secure its future without mutating the very strengths that brought it into being, and we might just rekindle what we always loved about this place in the first place.