There’s nothing out of the ordinary taking place on the grey and blustery Monday morning I choose to follow my feet around the centre of Bradford. But there doesn’t need to be.
Bradford's back: Why the maligned Yorkshire city has just been named the most improved in the UKMy impression is of a city that wears its identity on its sleeve, its culture and history ingrained into the fabric of its everyday. It is evident in the diverse heritage of the people that walk its streets; in the television production company filming for a new drama in City Park; and, too, in its striking architecture, including the grandiose former wool exchange, now one of the UK’s most beautiful bookshops.
It’s here that I meet Syima Aslam, the director of Bradford Literature Festival and a member of the steering committee that has been formed to support Bradford’s bid to become UK City of Culture in 2025.
“There’s a vibrancy to Bradford that you’d be hard pushed to find anywhere else. It’s a real cross cultural melting pot,” she tells me.
“This bid is absolutely the right thing for the city at this moment. We have had this really amazing journey. Bradford has always had that real do-it yourself-scene and all that is bubbling away – and in terms of a city that can offer a really amazing programme that will be attractive for all of the UK, I think Bradford is the right place.”
That journey she talks of saw Bradford develop from small market town to prosperous wool capital of the world in the mid 19th century. In more recent years, it has held the title of the curry capital of Britain and back in 2009, it was proud to become the first ever UNESCO City of Film.
“Our film heritage goes back to the dawn of cinema and some of the early pioneers of cinema technology,” David Wilson, City of Film director, explains. “It’s all linked to the textile industry and the affluent class that grew out of it, who dabbled in new technology. It was the influencers who had the money that were creating this machinery that would spin the wool – but they also had an interest in new technology and at that time, it was film. Bradford has been a film location for 100 years now.”
Prince William and Kate's royal visit to Bradford in picturesFor many decades, Bradford lived on that textile industry, a woollen manufacturing city that helped power the industrial revolution. But from the mid 20th century, the sector fell into decline.
The city’s whole nature has changed in the years since, not least in terms of development.
For a long time there was an unpopular “hole in the ground” in the city after buildings were demolished to make way for the Broadway centre, only for its construction to stall for the best part of a decade. But it finally opened in 2015 and was followed the year after by the launch of Sunbridgewells, an independent retail, restaurant and bar complex, developed in underground tunnels.
Attractions such as the National Science Museum, Alhambra Theatre and Impressions Gallery point to Bradford’s art and cultural development throughout its history, with events such as the literature festival and The Bradford Festival adding to its flourishing arts scene.
There’s a wealth of homegrown independent organisations too, from Kala Sangam to Mind the Gap – one of Europe’s leading learning disability theatre companies, as well as BCB radio, Reel Street Films and The Brick Box arts company to name but a few.
“We are at our best when we work together across the sector, when there’s different creative individuals and organisations coming together to show communities what we’ve got,” says Eleanor Barrett, director of the latter. “I think Bradford does have a creative spark and energy that we want to share with the world.”
Meanwhile City Park, with its mirror pool, has been at the heart of city centre regeneration and is now the focal point for a range of events. And plans are in the pipeline now for a £21m market scheme for Darley Street and for the former Odeon cinema to reopen as a music and entertainment venue.
Another shift has been in the city’s population mix, as Geoff Twentyman, the secretary of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society explains.
“Now residents with roots particularly in the Indian subcontinent form a substantial or even a major occupancy in some areas of the city,” he says. “Over the years they, and incomers from other countries, have continued their own cultures and religions and created a diverse mix. Sometimes there have been conflicts, but there has also been a richness created in such things as food and the displays of music, dancing and art.”
Many of those I speak to agree that one of the best things about Bradford is its rich multiculturalism, its population reflecting international communities from across the globe.
“The experiences you can get in Bradford, the conversations you can have in the city aren’t ones that you can have anywhere else,” Aslam says. “We are the face of contemporary UK and so we’re a city that’s hugely relevant from that point of view.”
Why Bradford is the perfect place to host the UK City of Culture in 2025 - Dave BaldwinThere’s a feeling amongst some locals, though, that Bradford has had an unfair share of bad press, contributing to negative stereotyping about the city.
Alex Croft, the creative director at Kala Sangam, an intercultural arts hub, hopes the City of Culture bid can change that. “The same time as when there was a decline in the industries that traditionally supported this city, there was also things like the riots and we haven’t been able to shake that national perception yet I don’t think,” he says. “The riots still sit in the public consciousness of a lot of people because it was the last time that Bradford was all over the national news.
“But one of the things that’s so exciting about 2025 is that it gives us an opportunity to put the national spotlight on Bradford as it is now on a day-to-day basis. Certainly when we engage with everyday Bradfordians, there’s a huge amount of pride in the fact that they come from this city.”
The arts, he says, have embraced multiculturalism and helped to heal social division. In fact, Bradford now has a number of projects that promote community cohesion.
There’s a sense of determination and resilience about the city and its people, talk of a Bradfordian spirit of dusting down when confronted with challenge and silently getting on with things to - in many ways – reimagine itself.
And now there’s a growing consensus that it’s time to shout about what it has to offer. There are high hopes that it will follow in the footsteps of Hull, which reaped the benefits of a City of Culture programme.
There’s also a belief, according to Eleanor Barrett, that going for the title will instill confidence and pride in the city and help to raise aspirations amongst its youth.
“I think it will attract improved investment and funding and that, in turn, will have a direct effect on different communities,” she says. “But I also think confidence is important and that we have aspirations, both individually and collectively, to think of ourselves differently as a city that’s leading.”
It is hoped City of Culture success could boost the local economy and put Bradford in the international spotlight, whilst also engaging the district’s communities and giving them a voice. And it’s not an “all or nothing gamble”, Croft says.
“I’m confident we can win it – I think we’re going to have a great bid and we’ve got a great offer. But regardless of whether we win City of Culture or not, if we get the bid process right – and I think we will – we will leave the city in a much, much stronger position.”