Creativity, Capital and Commons in the Contemporary City: The Eastside Island, Pt. 1

This is the first (slightly edited) part of a talk I gave to the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice’s seminar series back in January, which focusses on the way in which economic forces have shaped the ecology and geography of a large wasteland on the edge of Nottingham city centre. Part two focuses on a more ‘bottom-up’ view of the wasteland, as well as looking at what the future might hold for the space, which now falls within Nottingham’s ‘Creative Quarter’. It draws heavily on local history, autonomist marxism and urban ecology; as well as the work I’m doing with Wasteland Twinning.

First as farce…

Pic: Toby Price

Pic: Toby Price

Just to the north-east of Nottingham’s railway station lies a 34 acre site known locally as ‘The Island’. Presumably named because a section of it was once squeezed in between two long-filled in arms of the Nottingham canal (the section where ‘Island Street’ is on this map), it has been home to lace factories, gas works, the Great Northern Railway’s line to Grantham, railway warehouses (one of which was designed by T.C. Hine – the architect and planner of the city’s upmarket Park Estate), workers’ cottages, pubs, a bank and a church – but is best known as home to a number of Boots factories for almost the whole of the twentieth century.

An aerial view taken from 1927, from Picture the Past. For those who know Nottingham, the road running across the top of the picture is Manvers Street and the warehouses top left are still there.

In 1923, the Prince of Wales (and future King Edward VII) visited, greeted by lines of cheering Boot’s employees.

prince of wales

Prior to the establishment of manufacturing on the site it had been used by locals to graze animals, and was traversed by the River Leen – culverted with the building of the Poplar Arm of the nottingham canal in 1793.

The canal attracted businesses – independent lace traders at first – and around 1886 Jesse Boot made the decision to shift production of pharmaceuticals there. He bought up properties as they came on the market and by 1912 owned a considerable portion of the site.

Now the space is largely derelict and is populated by masses of buddleia thicket, sporadic identikit business park buildings; and the gutted shells of those aformentioned warehouses – spectres of an altogether more productive time for British capitalism, and appealing fetishes for ruins porn fanatics – the ‘disasterbators’ whose idea of a time after capitalism is also a time after people.

Former Great Northern Railway warehouse. Pic: Toby Price

Former Great Northern Railway warehouse. Pic: Toby Price

In an economy that talks the language of flux, dynamism and growth, then, The Island remains stubbornly stagnant: the ghostly scar of an industrial past caught strangely out of time. On the surface, little has happened there in the 22 years since Boots’ closed their operations and now one of Britain’s ‘core cities’ is left with an unproductive blot just a mile from the city centre. The Island is a wasteland.

But what does it mean to say that a space is a ‘wasteland’? From whose perspective is it going to waste? Or, more accurately, ‘from what perspective is this land going to waste?’. The answer – I want to suggest – is capital’s.  A wasteland does not produce (enough) surplus value; either materially (in the form of things) or immaterially (in the form of ideas, creativity, affects). It is, therefore, land going to waste (the origins of the term ‘wasteland’ can actually be traced back to feudalism: it referred to the unproductive land of a manor).

To understand why this land is currently being ‘wasted’, it’s important to look at the changes in the forms of production in British society over the last few decades. This is a change that’s ongoing, and I think has been overstated by certain commentators (on both the left and the right), but as an ongoing tendency it’s an argument that I think has a certain amount of mileage to it – and which is born out in the geographies and cityscapes of Britain today.  Anyway, the argument is that we’ve switched from a predominantly Fordist form of production in which we produce ‘things’, to a post-Fordist form of production in which we produce knowledge. The former provided near full employment but was environmentally destructive and work was horribly monotonous, with a strict division of labour and products that were more than the sum of their parts.  As Steve Wright notes, it was an approach to work that decreed ‘you are not paid to think‘. In the latter, however, that’s precisely what you are paid to do: work becomes the production of knowledge and the circulation of affects (or indeed, what you aren’t paid to do). For Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘the activity that produces the “cultural content” of the commodity…a series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work” – in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion…since the end of the 1970s [these activities] have become the domain of what we have come to define as “mass intellectuality”’. Here, the city – in fact the entire social terrain – replaces the factory as the site of capital’s reproduction. In this light, activities such as spending time on facebook constitute work (Ian Bogost’s cow clicker makes this point wonderfully), but there are some profound effects on the geographies and ecologies of meat space too.

Jubilee Campus Extension and ‘Aspire’

Nottingham illustrates this point well. Raleigh Park and Jubilee Campus spring immediately to mind: formerly factories where things were made (bicycles and cigarettes), they’re now campuses with ‘signature architecture’. Those workers who ‘aren’t paid to think’ are in China now; and richer, ‘luckier’ people are paid to think on these spaces now (though of course many more pay to think – including a large number of rich Chinese students, who study Business on the site of the former Raleigh factory, with Raleigh bikes now made in China). MAKE – the architects of the recent Jubilee Campus extension – make much of the, ahem, ‘environmentally sustainable’ nature of their work (unlike, of course, those filthy factories), as well as talking about how the space now mixes ‘research, study, business and leisure’ (though without going quite so far as to say ‘all at the same time’). More than this, though, it’s Aspire which is the absolute symbol of this shift – a piece of ‘pure ideology’ if ever there was one, telling those rendered unproductive by the end of fordist labour that if they ‘aspire’ and work hard enough they might be allowed in to experience an altogether more pleasant form of exploitation. 

It’s my contention, then, that The Island is another manifestation of the shift in production. It’s ‘wasted’ because of the failure of post-fordism to really establish itself – particularly in light of the fluctuations of global finance: not only does it not need all the people that fordism did, leaving thousands unemployed – it doesn’t need the land either (of the remaining Boots buildings, all are now employed in classic post-fordist/biopolitical ways: there’s an art gallery and studios, and a ‘bioscience business incubator‘).

Of course, there’s also the usual sorry tale of poor local governance, bickering, nepotism, competing interests and economic downturn to contend with on The Island – all of which remind us that although this space has largely been produced by the actions of the bourgeoise, they don’t act as a single homogenous class but are themselves riddled with conflict. The upshot of this is that since Boots left the site in 1990, the history of The Island is less one of ‘first as farce and then as tragedy’ – more one as ‘first as farce, then as farce. Then as farce again’.

The first plan to redevelop was announced in 1990 and was Boot’s own.  At the time, they had a property arm, and they sought to redevelop the site at a cost of £150m. According to an Evening Post article from the time, this redevelopment was going to feature ‘a hotel, luxury apartments, a series of offices, a World Trade Centre and an industrial heritage museum. About 2,500 people will eventually work on the site…If [planning] is approved, construction will start in 1992…The redevelopment includes redigging the canal for leisure use’ and its commercial hub ‘will be the World Trade Centre’. The early 90s recession put paid to that plan, however, and the site was bought by the City Council for £2m in 1992.

Boots' proposed redevelopment. Image from the Nottingham Evening Post, November 1990

Boots’ proposed redevelopment. Image from the Nottingham Evening Post, November 1990

The council then put in a successful bid for funding from Michael Hesletine’s City Challenge scheme (I’ve not seen the bid, but I’ve been told it was ‘genuinely quite grassroots oriented’). This money, however, was soon diverted to cleaning up the site, which was heavily polluted from over a hundred years of industry. In 1994, a plan by Lincoln based developer called Simons was announced (drawing on City Challenge money).  On the 22nd March of that year, the Nottingham Evening Post wrote:

with the development comes an initial promise of 1,300 jobs.  And that may rise to 2,000 when the site is fully occupied in 1998-9…For St Ann’s welfare rights officer Wullie Kirkwood, the number of jobs created is the yardstick by which City Challenge must measure its success…”When it was first mooted, we thought we were going to get plenty of jobs, but they seemed to go on hold when private sector money wasn’t forthcoming. Now something seems to have been struct up to get it back on course”, he said…Councillor Jon Collins, chairman of the City Challenge board, believes the plans…will create the number of jobs claimed. “I think they are realistic predictions if you look at the balance of the development…”…John Taylor, leader of Nottingham City Council said he would judge the success of Island Street and City Challenge on his “so what” test. He explained: “If in five years we ask a youth in St. Ann’s or Sneinton about City Challenge and he says “so what” then we have failed”. He is confident the scheme will ensure that the answer is not a negative one.

Nottingham residents will already be familiar with the name Jon Collins. For those who aren’t it: it’ll crop up again in part 2. Suffice to say his and John Taylor’s optimism was misplaced – the development never came to fruition and at some point the land was bought by the mysterious Guernsey based Heathcote Holdings. In 2004 they announced a ‘mixed use’ redevelopment. They opened a sales office in the Hockley area of Nottingham and installed a countdown clock until work began.

It got to zero and nothing happened.

The sales office, meanwhile, was shut for a couple of years with this still emblazoned across its window:

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2 thoughts on “Creativity, Capital and Commons in the Contemporary City: The Eastside Island, Pt. 1

  1. Pingback: Creativity, Capital and Commons in the Contemporary City: The Eastside Island, Pt. 2 | the shape of utopia to come

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