Some very short reviews of assorted cities in Yorkshire

The Hepworth, Wakefield. Image: Poliphilo/Wikimedia Commons.

When you’re only visiting a city for a few hours, you can’t realistically hope to understand every nuance of social or economic history, or understand what it’s like to live there. There’s only so much you can learn.

One of the things you can learn, however, is what it’s like to visit the place for a few hours. So, since I spent several days this summer shuttling between different bits of Yorkshire, I thought I’d write some brief reviews of the cities I visited.

I’m sure these won’t get me into any trouble whatsoever.

Wakefield

On one side of the Doncaster Road you’ll find the Hepworth, a gallery whose architecture and setting are as beautiful as any work of art it contains. On the other, you’ll find a medieval bridge over the river Calder, alongside the ancient Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin.

These things, alas, lie either side of a god-awful dual carriageway, a depressing and inconvenient half a mile walk from the city centre. You know that thing about not hiding your light under a bushel? Wakefield hides its light besides the A61.

That’s my overriding impression of Wakefield: depressing streets and genuine treasures, all mingled up together at random. The Cathedral looks good, there’s some decent public realm in the “civic quarter” near town and county halls (this was once the capital of the West Riding), and there are a lot of fine buildings in the network of ancient, narrow streets behind Marygate, too.

But the main shopping centre dates from the ’80s with all that implies, Westgate station feels unloved and Kirkgate forgotten, and chunks of the city feel shabby to the point of decay. Oh, and there are too many massive bloody roads.

Loads of past glories on show, but the place needs... not even love. Money. It needs money.

Leeds

I’ve been to Leeds three times now, and I still feel oddly like I’ve never seen it. This is frustrating because most people I know who’ve ever lived there swear by the place.

So on this trip, I tried to explore a bit further than I had in the past, crossing the river to the regeneration area on the south bank of the Aire, and taking buses up to the student areas of north Leeds and back. And I did see a couple of things that grabbed me: the Corn Exchange, which I’d somehow managed to miss before, is stunning, as are some of those Victorian shopping arcades, and the area around Woodhouse Moor is gorgeous, especially when viewed from the top of a bus.

Insider the Corn Exchange. Image: SteveCadman/Wikimedia Commons.

And yet, still, I just don’t get it. There’s a load of great stuff in Leeds, but I just can’t quite get a handle on what the place is like as a whole, in a way I’ve not found with Liverpool or Manchester or even poor, unloved Birmingham.

So what am I missing? Is it just that I can’t shift the impression left by that horrendous bit in front of the main station? Am I just broken in some way? Tell me.

Huddersfield

How can I not love a place where the first thing you see on arriving as a statue of Harold Wilson, and where the station looks like this?

Huddersfield station, with Harold Wilson. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

Huddersfield boasts a frankly incredible amount of fine 19th architecture: the town hall, the George Hotel, St Peter’s Church, and always the sight of the Victoria Tower on Castle Hill looking down on the town. It’s one of those places where there are so many fine buildings, the authorities genuinely don’t seem sure what to do with them all.

On the other side of the balance sheet is the bus station, and the buildings where the council offices are housed, and the fact this fine centre is fenced in by one of the worst ring-roads I’ve ever seen. But nowhere’s perfect. This is one of the few places from which commuting to both Leeds and Manchester is equally plausible so, in the event we ever solve this whole north-south divide thing, I’d expect Huddersfield to boom.

York

Chocolate box. Beautiful, obviously – the Minster! The walls! The museum gardens! – but with a lingering sense that the place is now more for those who visit than those who live there.

The Shambles. Image: Peter K. Burian/Wikimedia Commons.

What the city really reminds me of is Oxford and Cambridge. It’s a beautiful medieval city, with insanely high property prices, overly tight green belt and a ring road, where you can’t turn your head without bashing it into someone taking a picture of a building that they think they know from Harry Potter. The university has even divided itself into colleges and sent its products out to conquer the British media. No one has yet tried to coin the phrase “Yoxbridge”, but it can only be a matter of time.

The Railway Museum is a reminder that there was another York – a gritter, industrial one – but these days it’s all tourists and students and London ex-pats smug they can afford the house prices.

Halifax

Why has nobody ever told me to visit Halifax? Why is it not competing with York for that lucrative tourist market?

The Piece Hall. Image: Tim Green/Wikimedia Commons.

It should be: it’s glorious. The 18th century Piece Hall looks like something that got lost on its way to Renaissance Italy. The covered Victorian Borough Market is less unexpected, but just as beautiful. And the whole place lies on the side of a valley, overlooked by beautiful Pennine Hills. It’s stunning, and no one had ever mentioned it to me.


So why isn’t Halifax a destination? I fear that geography may play a part: its Pennine location means Halifax isn’t on the main north-south routes, and even the main east-west railway lines skip it, running instead via Huddersfield (today) or Bradford (should they ever build HS3). But it’s gorgeous, and the municipal authorities should start trying to sell it as a Christmas destination pronto, and you, personally, should go, right now.

Go on then.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.