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City culture and cultural identity and its role in economic success June 7, 2013

Posted by wallofsound in Cultural critiques.

On Monday I am speaking at one of the Birmingham Made Me seminars.  This one, entitled Back to the Future – Our Heritage Brands is on 10the  June 2013 8:30 am to 2:00 pm at Millennium Point. BCU, Faculty of Technology, Engineering and the Environment Room 388

My presentation is on city culture and cultural identity and its role in economic success.  Here’s a short flavour of what it’s about:

This You Tube video is an extract from a 1965 American television spectacular which features the Motown singing group Martha Reeves & The Vandellas miming to their single ‘Nowhere To Run’ as they weave in and out of Ford’s Mustang assembly line at the Dearborn plant in Detroit. It links together the two things Detroit is most famous for to outsiders: the enormous international success of the late-1960s Motown Records, and the city’s dominance in the American car industry. This is the point at which mo(tor)town meets motor city.

It’s common when people see this video for them to ask, “did Motown pay Ford, or did Ford pay Motown to make the film?”  Actually, it was made to promote something entirely different. It’s an extract from a CBS TV 90 minute spectacular made for the US Office for Economic Opportunity, and broadcast on June 28, 1965. You’ll immediately get a sense of the whole programme from the title: It’s What’s Happening, Baby. This was an attempt by the television producers to bring together President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ initiative with the idea of youth culture.

The sense of Birmingham, England as a motor city and producer of some great popular music may not have embedded itself so strongly in people’s consciousness, but it is, of course, part of our cultural and industrial heritage.

Many other cities summon up links in people’s minds between a place and a distinctive culture.  In music there’s New Orleans and jazz; Austin, Texas or Seattle and indie rock; and Chicago and Blues. But Venice, Paris and Bilbao make equally strong claims on culture as part of their identity. On a recent visit to China, I found that culture and the city are major preoccupations in discussions about the swift processes of industrialization and urbanization currently under way in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong

We have, though, to be careful about exactly what we mean by culture. Almost exactly 100 years before It’s What’s Happening, Baby Matthew Arnold was writing his proposition that culture is the “best that has been thought and known”.  And we keep that idea today in our museums and galleries, our conservatoires and concert halls, and our libraries and archives. In more modern times Raymond Williams offered a very different definition when he wrote in 1958, that “culture is ordinary”.  By that he meant that culture is our way of life, the bonds that tie us together as a people, the sense we have of ourselves in our everyday lives. We know what that means when we talk about Birmingham as a multicultural city, or when we discuss how we can promote a productive culture in our place of work.

I think that actually we need these two senses of culture: our traditions and our achievements, as well as our current senses of ourselves. And we need to understand how they play out in the city as sights, spaces and sounds. By that I mean we see our culture in the landmarks of our architecture, in the iconic buildings and in the skyline. We also see it in the spaces we inhabit, through which we walk as part of our working life or our leisure.  It is often neglected that we also experience it in the sound of the city. That includes the music soundtrack of the city, but also the sounds of everyday. In a recent series of radio programmes, David Hendy examined the way that sound structured our world, and made some interesting observations on the soundscapes of Amsterdam against, say, Los Angeles.

You may be asking what this has to do with the economic vitality of the city.  In fact there has tended to be an opposition between people interested in our economic well-being and those interested in our cultural life. The first can often see the latter as people out of touch with the realities of life, while the second dismiss the former for their philistine tendencies. In reality both are intimately linked. I trained first as an economist, and it is a core idea of the social sciences that culture is only possible once we have taken care of the basic requirements of life: shelter, clothing and food. We make culture out of the surplus of making things. And yet our built environment, our bodily adornments, and our celebrations and rituals are the place that culture starts. Culture is often the reason we work so hard, its what enriches our lives and makes us feel like us, and it is a major reason people give for wanting to live in a particular city.

So, in simple terms, if we want a prosperous city we must also want a culturally vibrant city. And we need a city which balances our traditions and our faith in the future, that matches the best that we have achieved and what we all have in common, and one that embraces our diversity as an engine of our vitality: an openness to new ideas, a sense that change is good, and a conviction that we are a city of the world.

For me one of the best examples here is Chicago, where I have looked at these questions of culture in some detail, and where the city council has developed sophisticated plans and invested heavily to realize the ideas I have been talking about so far. As I noted, Chicago and blues are intimately linked. It’s Chicago’s heritage, developed in the everyday life of Chicago’s black population in the South Side, and then shared across the world. This identity has played a part in Chicago establishing itself as one of the main conference and event centres in the US. If you have to go and talk business, you also want to involve yourself in culture. And so the city invested in bringing its culture up to date, to increase its diversity, and to add to its greatness. In just one example, they covered up the railway, built a world-class outdoor performance venue designed by Frank Gehry [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Gehry], a garden by the internationally-renowned designer Piet Oudolf [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piet_Oudolf], and sculpture that includes Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_Gate] that together attracts hundreds of thousands of people a year. The whole thing then steals the skyline of some of the best buildings in the world as its very own. There’s no better example of how the sights, spaces and sounds come together for a cultural experience that’s become a cultural attraction.

Hong Kong is showing even greater ambition in the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District.  The ambition here is just mind-boggling: the 40 hectares site is created out of land reclaimed from the sea, above the new high speed train to Shanghai and Beijing, and the district will include 17 large and prestigious arts and cultural venues.

What should this mean for Birmingham? Well it is pleasing to see that culture has played a role in the development of the city over the last twenty years. The Birmingham Made Me event takes place in one of the products of that aspiration, the new library and railways station development is just part of a remodeling of space, and the university I work in is making its own contribution at Parkside next to Millennium Point. I would like to add three of my own observations to our thinking about our cultural future as a city.

One of the most neglected parts of our heritage is the intellectual tradition that used to characterise the city. It gave birth to both the University of Birmingham, and many of the institutions which formed the basis of my own university, along with the ideas of the municipality which in the late nineteen century made us a model for the rest of the world. I note that all these strands put an equal weight on both industry and commerce, and culture and identity. We desperately need a re-birth of this culture in a model for the twenty-first century. We will all need to play our part in doing so, but I would like to challenge my colleagues from the city’s five universities and its other institutions of learning to take some leadership in such a project.

Secondly, we need to find ways in which we could make better use of the great things we have made in the past in order to help rethink our future. I very much welcome these series of Birmingham Made Me events because they both celebrate this past and ask what is there for designing the future. At the same time we should look at ways in which we can all participate in using examples from across the world that could enrich the signs and spaces of our city centre and its suburbs.

Finally – and I would say this as Professor of Radio and Popular Music Studies, wouldn’t I – but we need to pay more attention to the sounds of our city.  How can we design our spaces so that they bring forth both tradition and future, greatness and everyday living, and help make sense of our diversity. The way we communicate and express our sense of localness and our place in the global world need media to reflect that. There are good new examples of more local media, but too often our radio is becoming part of a world in which our localness is less important than our global-ness. We need media that represent us as twenty-first century Brummies. And finally we need to re-engage with our musical past and ensure that we have a musical future. The best popular music has always arisen in cities characterised by diversity and change, innovation and adaptability. There are lots of recent examples of trying to represent our past, but there needs to be equal weight on how we best support the sounds of the future. Again, there is a major role for institutions like the Birmingham Conservatoire, as well as our entertainment districts and media quarters.

Culture may well be only possible once we have paid attention to the basics of economic life, but it is more than simply the creation of a surplus of industrial and commercial activity; it is part of a cycle of economic regeneration. If we want a vibrant economy in Birmingham and the West Midlands we need culture that will attract the brightest to stay, or even move here, and we need culture to consolidate the bonds between us, because we need culture as the engine of change and innovation.

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