IT was once embarrassing, but the river front in Leeds is trying to become the city’s centre of gravity says Roger Ratcliffe. Pictures by Bruce Rollinson.
Yet the film’s moody night scenes, shot in wet cobblestoned streets along the Hudson River of New Jersey, were so dimly lit they could easily have been filmed anywhere on the Aire. And even some of the daytime locations showing soot-blackened buildings must have looked pretty familiar to Yorkshire folk.
But now waterfronts are seen through different eyes, and the word itself has taken on a whole new vibe.
It has changed from conjuring up a monochrome picture of the grimiest and most unsavoury part of town, to being spring-loaded with chic romanticism. These days, the waterfront is the liveliest quarter of any city that is lucky enough to have one.
I have no doubt that the association with Brando has helped. Hollywood’s most iconic actor has become the epitome of retro cool in the plaid workshirt he wore for most of the film. But there are other factors at work here, too, probably even more so as far as Leeds is concerned. Because the Aire used to be one of the most polluted rivers in Europe.
My own first experience of it was on a late-June evening in that famously scorching summer of 1976 when I walked south from City Square and over Victoria Bridge on my way to the Grove Folk Club in Holbeck. I was aware that something pretty unpleasant lay ahead from the moment my nostrils caught a whiff of the hot breeze wafting beneath the railway station underpass, but even that didn’t quite prepare me for my introduction to the Leeds waterfront. As I crossed the river the smell became almost overpowering, and its cause was pretty easy to work out. This was the crudely treated sewage of over a million people.
I remember drawing my T-shirt up over my mouth and nose. I don’t recall the smell ever being as bad as that night, perhaps because I got into the habit of avoiding the river altogether. More likely, it was due to the fact that the quality of our air and water was finally rising up the political agenda. The polluters cleaned up their act, basically, though it must be said it was at the behest of EEC directives.
Cleansing this particular river was always bound to be a slow process. Even in the early 19th century, the Aire had become ecologically sterile. Never mind the fact that it was an open sewer, there were also hundreds of mills still pumping in the ammonia used for scouring wool, not to mention other factories adding their cocktail of other chemicals. Famously, it was said that on some days the river resembled a rainbow because of the different colours discharged by dye-works.
By the 1970s, Leeds Civic Trust had taken the initiative and led a campaign for reclaiming the waterfront. They argued that the river which had given birth to Leeds in medieval times and which for centuries had been its focal point, should cease to be an embarrassment to the city. Let’s once again put Leeds-upon-Aire, became the slogan.
Back in 1989, when I wrote and published Leeds Fax, which became a popular guidebook for the city, the renaissance of the Aire was still very much in its infancy. I remember visiting the old Clarence Dock and finding crumbling lock gates and sunken barges, one of them tied up with a rope which had once been as thick as a docker’s arm but had rotted away to become a single thread, as though spun by a spider.
At that time the earliest sign of change along the Aire was the development of a shopping arcade aptly named The Dark Arches in the gloomy labyrinth of tunnels beneath Leeds City Station, and an area – christened Granary Lock – around the junction of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal and the Aire and Calder Navigation. One day this would be Leeds’ answer to London’s Covent Garden or Camden Lock, I wrote.
This turned out to be somewhat optimistic, because apart from the odd weekend of special events I don’t recall the idea catching the public’s imagination.
Going back there today I find that it is almost unrecognisable from the scene I remember all those years ago. The Dark Arches shops are now car parking for hotels and apartment blocks, and my nose tells me that the water is now much cleaner. The Environment Agency’s inspectors get a more scientific answer by regularly sticking electronic meters into the river.
The biggest difference, however, is the huge amount of residential property that sprouted up along both banks in the boom period of the Noughties. Large empty spaces, newly landscaped and gravelled, now mark where the boom stopped dead.
What I find particularly significant is how the Aire is gradually drawing more and more people away from the city centre. This has been done partly by creating better river access, although there is still no continuous walkway from Granary Wharf to Clarence Dock – the mile or so of river that encompasses the Leeds waterfront. But mainly, it has been achieved by introducing funky bars, eateries and shops at places like Granary Wharf, Brewery Wharf and Clarence Dock. Other cities with revitalised waterfront areas – I’m thinking of places like Liverpool and Bristol – have done the same with huge success. In theory shopping developments should be faring as well as the bar and cafe culture, given the addition of a picturesque background, yet the new retail area at Clarence Dock has yet to work.
It’s been described as “a ghost town”, and I’m left with the thought that the Crown Point Bridge, which shoppers in Leeds city centre must cross to reach Clarence Dock, is really a bridge too far.
In other ways too, the Leeds waterfront has failed to deliver its full potential. For much of the time, narrowboats and cruisers are conspicuous by their absence. There are not the safe children’s play parks that I remember were once being talked about. And the sight of salmon leaping upstream to their spawning grounds of a few centuries ago has been promised, but not yet delivered.
But let’s be grateful for what we have. Leeds waterfront is reborn, and it’s interesting to note that those New Jersey wharfs used as the location for Brando’s On The Waterfont have gone exactly the same way, with blocks of “condos” occupied by young upwardly mobiles, as well as bars and cafes.
Back on the Aire, the symmetry will finally be complete when you can walk into a bar and order a Brando cocktail.
*The free Leeds Waterfront and Dragon Boat Spectacle weekend is June 25 and 26. www.leedswaterfrontfestival.com