Friday, 8 November 2013

An Open Letter to the Red-Trousered Mayor of Bristol from Istanbul

(This is an open letter I wrote several weeks ago over news that Castle Park was–again–the subject of a debate about redevelopment. Bristol papers didn't even bother replying when I sent it to them, so I'll put it up here. My reflections for Bristol & the UK at large are written in absentia from Istanbul, so they're strongly influenced by the very different attitudes to development I come across here.)

Dear George,

Good morning from Istanbul. I was one of the Lib Dem team backing Jon in the mayoral race that saw you dramatically sweep to victory. Your ascent came on the coattails of a pervading anti-politics sentiment – you offered a brighter, less political era for Bristol, donning trousers red with promise.

And although I have been abroad since, I hear and read that your mayorship is going well. As often happens, Bristol’s politics had run out of steam a bit and you seem to have set the city’s engines ablaze again. From where I sit, it looks like Bristol is back in ‘all steam ahead’ mode.

Recently I've read (often from Istanbul’s wifi-connected cafés, a development that cities like Bristol must keep up with) of some controversy regarding Castle Park. It seems that you have unveiled plans to partly develop it. Some people, predictably, are outraged.

But – shouldn’t I say redevelop it?

Because, of course, anyone who wants to understand Bristol would do well to ask their grandparents—or google—how Castle Park looked before the Second World War saw it bombed it to rubble.

Before then it was the beating heart of the city: a lively hub of shops and pubs clustered around the arrestingly beautiful Wine Street and Castle Street. The lovely streets and thriving community were torn apart by war – and when the debris was cleared and grass grew, Bristolians had the stoicism and good humour to call it a park.

I am all for rebuilding what was destroyed there. A Chinese consortium wants to reconstruct the old Crystal Palace in London – and we should thank them for having the boldness to propose it. Why didn’t the Brits? Where has our boldness gone?

Out here, Turks show off their heritage with pride. They build skyscrapers in some places and continue the architecture they have been refining for centuries in others. They have built a metro from scratch in a city hillier than ours, in the time it has taken for Bristol’s politicians to debate, re-debate and finally declare too difficult a far smaller underground system here.

(Is the country that invented underground rail fated from now on just to watch in awe as other parts of the world follow in its footsteps? Are we such an unprodigal progeny?)

So to Castle Park. Many against it worry that Bristol would be losing a park – in fact it would be regaining a city centre. We seem to have refused ourselves permission to rebuild, as our German neighbours have rebuilt Dresden’s lovely Frauenkirche, any of this old heart of Bristol. All must be new, all must be different, all must be ‘modern’.

But Britain is not just modern. It is old as well as new – famous and admired out here in Turkey for its living traditions and its individuality. Are we sure we want to declare that individuality dead, commit it to museum exhibits and eulogies, insist that everything must henceforth be rootless, postmodern and glass-clad?

And let’s not forget that our two most famous landmarks – Big Ben and Tower Bridge – are both revivalist buildings. If they were proposed today, would we turn them down for being ‘backward looking’ and ‘old fashioned’?

I often feel that old Castle Street and Wine Street would have been the missing piece of the puzzle of Bristol – a meeting point for the many different Bristols around it. It would be lovely to see that area built up again with some of the beauty of its past. It would give Bristolians a focal point again.

You are the independent-minded mayor of a vibrant, colourful old treasure of a city. Just the sort of mayor and just the sort of city, should they exist at all, that might be inclined to do things differently. 

If a treasure loses a jewel, should its maker declare themselves retired and resign themselves to wearing the thing with a sad hole where the brightest gem should be – or should they take out their tools again and get back to work?

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