Struggling town gets tourism boost from art restoration cock-up

Borja's 16th century town hall. Image: Ecelan, via Wikimedia Commons.

We've spent a lot of this year pondering the vexed question of how to sort out the economies of struggling towns. Is it better transport links that they need? Better skills? Tax breaks?

One possibility we've never considered is that vandalism-based-tourism might be the answer. And yet, here's Borja, a little town in Spain whose only distinguishing feature is a fresco of Jesus, which an elderly local of great goodwill but limited skill attempted to restore to greatness. The results attained a measure of notoriety in August 2012, because they looked like this:

Before and after. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

At the time, the artist in question, Cecilia Giménez, was widely mocked for her attempts at restoration. And yet, according to the New York Times:

Grief has turned to gratitude for divine intervention — the blessing of free publicity — that has made Borja, a town of just 5,000, a magnet for thousands of curious tourists eager to see her handiwork, resurrecting the local economy.

(...)

Since the makeover, the image has attracted more than 150,000 tourists from around the world — Japan, Brazil, the United States — to the gothic 16th century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy on a mountain overlooking Borja.

Visitors pay one euro, or about $1.25, to study the fresco, encased on a flaking wall behind a clear, bolted cover worthy of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa.

Let's think about those figures a moment. The portrait rose to notoreity in late August 2012, so roughly 850 days ago. That means roughly 176 people have been visiting the fresco every day. Assuming the church is open for 10 hours a day, that's about one every three and a half minutes.

And this, remember, is not in the heart of Seville or Barcelona or some such. This is a church on a hill outside a tiny town a 40 mile drive from the nearest major city. 

The fresco has been such a draw that:

...Nearby vineyards are squabbling over rights to splash the image on their wine labels... A comic opera is in the works in the United States, the story of how a woman ruined a fresco and saved a town.

(...)

In the economic crisis of the last six years, 300 jobs vanished, [the town's mayor Miguel Arilla] said, but with the tourism boom, restaurants remained stable. Local museums, he added, also benefited. The nearby Museum of Colegiata, housed in a 16th century Renaissance mansion, experienced a rise in annual visits to 70,000 from 7,000 for its religious, medieval art.

So, if you’re looking for ways of livening up the economy of your town, there's your answer: trash something. Just remember to call a press conference afterwards.

 
 
 
 

Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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