Can Brighton really save its West Pier?

Oh dear. Brighton West Pier, 2003. Image: Getty.

It was Voltaire who cracked the excellent joke that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. In a similar, but less amusing, vein the West Pier Trust in Brighton seems keen to focus on anything but a viable plan to restore the forlorn pile of metal in the English Channel. 

When it opened in 1866, the pier, featuring an innovative grid of iron girders supporting a wooden platform, was regarded as the masterpiece of Victorian civil engineer Eugenius Birch, and as jewel in the seaside resort’s crown. By the time the pier closed for good, a little over a hundred years later, it had lost its lustre. 

The trust bought the derelict structure from the council for £100 in 1983. Large sections fell off in 2002, and the following year, a mysterious fires devastated what was left. Dramatic footage of the burning pier collapsing into the sea was featured in Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s performance at the Brits this year.

Four years ago, when Marks Barfield, the architectural firm behind the London Eye, was loaned £46m from public funds to build the i360, a tower, restaurant and event space on Brighton seafront, it agreed to pay the trust, which owns the land around it, an annual rent calculated on a sliding scale from £100,000 to £250,000, based on visitor numbers. The money was supposed to be used to restore the pier and smarten up the surrounding area.

But Rachel Clark, who has been the trust's chief executive since 1993, says that the priority these days is the restoration of a Victorian kiosk on the promenade. She said the trust plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign to reinstate an 1866 octagonal kiosk recovered from the pier in 1996.

“Our current project is the restoration of a salvaged pier kiosk which has been in storage for many years,” she says. “It will allow people to enjoy an exquisite key element of the West Pier very close to its original site.” 

That said, the trust has only just started the design stage of this project, the outcome of which will be a detailed breakdown of its costs. “Until now we have used a roughly estimated £750,000 figure. For a convincing fundraising campaign we cannot use an approximate figure, it needs to be costed as precisely as possible. Crowdfunding will be one of several fundraising avenues we will be exploring.”


Meanwhile, City Partnerships, a Brighton-based development consortium, has put forward a £50m proposal to rescue the crumbling pier including funding for the restoration of the kiosk. 

John Reagan, a director at City Partnerships, is best known in the city for his role as chairman of Brighton & Hove Seaside Community Homes. “Our plan will deliver a new pier for the community in Brighton and Hove,” he says. “It will not be in competition with the nearby Brighton Palace Pier, but will be in the spirit of the original West Pier and its creator Eugenius Birch. It will be free to access for all.”

But in an email, Rachel Clark told lawyers acting on behalf of City Partnerships that the West Pier Trust board “does not consider that the restoration of the kiosk and the building of a new West Pier are linked projects”.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that this is a polite way of telling the entrepreneurs to take a long walk off a non-existent pier.  When I met with Reagan he went to some lengths to impress on me his belief that the Trust has blocked numerous schemes over the years . Clark, for her part  is  adamant that none of the ideas put forward has been practical.

“The trust is still a small organisation and we are taking one step at a time,” she says. “We have never given up on the pier and in 2015 we ran a public consultation to see if people wanted a new West Pier. The majority of respondents were very supportive of the idea, as long as it resulted in a low density, minimally commercial pier.”

She concludes: “Once the kiosk is restored we will invite interested parties to submit suitable proposals for this ambitious project.”

If, that is, there is anything left in the sea to rescue.

 
 
 
 

On boarded-up storefronts, muralists offer words of hope

The murals on closed storefronts aim "to end ugly wall syndrome." (Courtesy of Beautify)

In Los Angeles, Melrose Avenue has a new mural that reads: “Cancel plans, not humanity.”

It’s an artwork by Corie Mattie, a street artist who kindly reminds us of our togetherness under quarantine. She and many other artists are putting murals up across the US as part of the Back to the Streets campaign, which aims to add some color to the streets – specifically on boarded up storefronts and abandoned streets that feel deserted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to bring some beauty to the streets while everything is boarded up – “to end ugly wall syndrome,” says project founder Evan Meyer. “It’s to get people to care about their communities, be part of the process.” 


Many of the murals are painted on plywood panels that cover the entryways to independent businesses that have shut down during the pandemic. The project aims to prevent a sense of decay, especially as some businesses start to open back up while their neighbours remain closed.

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places quickly, when places are abandoned and don’t feel like they have love or life,” says Meyer, who is also the CEO of Beautify, a company that connects artists with places to make murals. Among the murals made during the pandemic, one at a department store says “Togetherness,” while another says: “You can’t quarantine love.”

“We’re seeing messages like hope, positivity and community,” Meyer says. “More than ever, it’s a time for community.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

With artist-led projects in L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and others, the goal is to get 1,000 murals up across America. Murals are also being painted in small towns in Iowa, like Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and an earlier mural in New York City’s Rockaway Beach was created in 2014 with the same goal of bringing some life to neglected buildings that needed renovation after Hurricane Sandy

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places with broken windows, tagging and crime,” says Meyer. “A lot can happen if a place feels like it’s unwatched.” 

Los Angeles councilmember David Ryu endorsed the initiative in a recent blog post, saying it has helped boost morale on the streets of L.A. “When we brighten blighted walls, we improve neighborhoods,” he wrote. “It’s critical to have more business owners enlist their walls here to bring some much needed love and recognition to their establishment and their neighborhood.” 

The effort stems from a sister project called Beautify Earth, which has helped address a litter problem in Santa Monica’s commercial district. In addition to a cleanup force, the project has painted more than 100 murals on walls, dumpsters, utility boxes and garbage cans across the city.

On the Beautify website, artists can find business improvement districts, real estate developers, landlords and business owners who want to see something on their empty walls. Each artist who gets a commissioned wall through the Beautify website is paid 78% of the stipend, and Beautify takes a 22% administration fee. 

Meyer says he often explains to business owners that art can help their business.

“A lot of people have white empty wall space on their liquor stores, condos, park walls, even residential spaces,” says Meyer, adding that many are afraid to put something on their walls. “It’s not a liability, it’s an asset. Art protects walls, it is a graffiti abatement strategy.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

Beautify isn’t alone in its field. Among the other cities that have similar mural projects, ArtPlace America has supported over 200 art murals across the US. Wynwood Walls, a public art project in Miami spearheaded by local developer Tony Goldman, has helped create a popular public art hotspot with murals by artists Shepard Fairey and Ron English. 

Chicago’s city government, too, has publicly funded over 500 murals through its Percent-for-Art program, which pays artists to paint walls on municipal buildings. A grassroots street art project in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, has artists painting murals in violent and marginalised neighbourhoods. Similar crime prevention ventures have been initiated in Topeka, Kansas, in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Toronto, Canada, which has placed over 140 murals across the city over the past decade. 


Artist Ruben Rojas has painted murals saying "You Can't Quarantine Love" in several spots across Santa Monica, California. (Courtesy of Beautify)

One artist working with Beautify’s project is Ruben Rojas, who is overwhelmed by the response to his mural, “You Can’t Quarantine Love,” which has been painted in several spots across Santa Monica and beyond.

“Every day, I see the shares, photos of my murals, amazing captions and direct messages from folks that are truly heartwarming,” Rojas says. “I’ve seen this particular mural go around the world with ‘thank you’ messages from Johannesburg, Germany, and Italy. It really is humbling.”

Meyer says that kind of social media engagement shows how a mural can turn a plain old wall into a landmark. 

“Murals get seen,” he says. “People take photos and share them on social media. Nobody takes photos of your ugly white wall. Murals are the story of the local community.”

Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.