Is Bradford on the brink of a cultural renaissance?

For the best part of 10 years Bradford was dominated by a giant hole, but has a more confident city finally emerged from beneath the rubble? Sarah Freeman repo

Economically and culturally, things are looking up in Bradford.

Had someone told the those who queued for buses outside the hoardings which surrounded Bradford’s Westfield development that the city was on the brink of a cultural renaissance they might well have done more than raise an eyebrow.

Nicknamed the Wastefield, the giant hole where the shopping centre was supposed to be for a while came to symbolise all that was wrong with Bradford’s regeneration plans and the wider British economy which had been well and truly bitten by the credit crunch.

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Today things are a little different in Yorkshire’s former textile capital and not just because the Westfield, albeit on a smaller scale, is now open for business. In the next 12 months as Bradford looks to step out from the shadows of its recent past, the city will witness a succession of firsts.

Sunbridge Wells tunnels, which have reopened as bars, shops and restaurants after laying vacant and forgotten beneath a main road in Bradford city centre for decades. Picture Tony Johnson.

In May the Tour de Yorkshire will pass through, a couple of months later a new gallery dedicated to David Hockney will be unveiled and in between the Sunbridge Wells bar and retail development will be complete, St George’s Hall will reopen after a major overhaul and the Royal Collection brings its Splendours of the Subcontinent exhibition to Cartwright Hall.

“A few things came together at the same time,” says Jill Iredale, curator of fine arts at Cartwright Hall which will also house the new Hockney galleries. “David gifted some work to us which we wanted to display properly and with this year marking his 80th birthday it seemed the right time to look at creating permanent gallery space dedicated to Bradford’s famous son

“This is where Hockney’s career began. It was at Bradford College of Art where he really learnt to draw and those techniques underpin everything he did going forward. We have some wonderful drawings of trees that he did in the 1950s and it’s interesting to see how he revisited that subject a few years ago with his large scale paintings of East Yorkshire.

“Saltsmill just down the road has a wonderful collection of Hockney’s later paintings and this is Bradford’s chance to tell the early chapter of his career. Hopefully we can create an artist’s trail around Yorkshire because while Hockney may have spent much of his life living in California, he is still very much a Yorkshireman.”

Sunbridge Wells tunnels, which have reopened as bars, shops and restaurants after laying vacant and forgotten beneath a main road in Bradford city centre for decades. Picture Tony Johnson.

Hockney isn’t a big fan of official gatherings, but even if he isn’t able to attend the opening there will be plenty of others who will be raising a glass to toast not just the gallery but the renewed sense of optimism which its opening represents.

While issues of long term unemployment and deprivation aren’t easy to erase, the dark clouds which hung over the city following the race riots of 2001 are finally lifting and Urban Splash is about to begin the next phase of work on the Lister Mills development in Manningham which was the backdrop for much of the trouble.

“I’m from Bradford, so aside from being chief executive of the council I have a very personal reason for wanting this city to do well,” says Kersten England, who was appointed two years ago after heading up the York local authority. “Economically we do seem to be turning the corner. If nothing else, getting the Westfield up and running was good for the city’s morale and we also managed to find a new city centre base for the Provident Financial Group.

“That was hugely important as it is one of Bradford’s biggest employers, but I am a great believer that a thriving city also has to have a thriving cultural offering and I think this year is going to show just what this city can do.

“Bradford suffered because of an over-dependence on a couple of industries, but we are definitely on the up again. Once this city was wealthier than Leeds and with all that is happening I hope that we can cast off the image Bradford has of being the plucky underdog.”

While the Westfield might have brought a clutch of big retail names to Bradford, a more interesting development is taking shape just a stone’s throw away. Sunbridge Wells is the brainchild of Graham Hall, who has excavated a series of tunnels beneath the city’s streets to create a network of bars and independent retail opportunities.

Borrowing a line from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Hall says Sunbridge Wells is “a world of pure imagination” and an antidote to the rise of identikit high streets.

“It wasn’t a development for the faint-hearted,” says Hall, who is hoping to finish a craft ale bar in the next few weeks. “The prospect of digging out the rubble would have put most people off, but I wanted to do something that was different, something which you couldn’t get in Leeds or York or Sheffield.

“In a city like Bradford what you need is a bit of momentum and I hope that this place will provide that. We opened the first lot of bars and shops just before Christmas and the response has been incredible. When the economy crashed the city lost its way for a while, but if we are going to be successful we need to give people a reason to come to Bradford and that has to be by celebrating what makes us different from everywhere else.”

If there is one event where Hall’s philosophy is put into practice, it’s the Bradford Literature Festival. When it was launched in 2014 the two-day programme contained 25 events, which attracted just short of 1,000 visitors. Last year, 200 events were spread across 10 days and audience figures topped 32,00 visitors.

Given the rise of literary festivals, the statistics are impressive and by 2020 its organisers say they want to be attracting 100,000 visitors and be ranked in the top five literary festival in the UK.

“I guess we never worried about what anyone else was doing and right from planning that very first festival it was about what would work for Bradford,” says Syima Aslam who set up the festival with Irna Qureshi. “This year there will be events celebrating Jane Austen and King Arthur and an entire stream themed on Empire.

“It’s 70 years since Indian Partition, which created two independent dominions, India and Pakistan and 100 years since the Balfour declaration which saw the British government give its backing to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.

“This isn’t just a festival which chases the authors of the latest bestsellers, but one which really addresses the issues which affect contemporary Britain.”

Supported by PFG, Syima also hopes that it will act as a blueprint for how Bradford’s businesses and arts organisations can work together for the good of the city.

“The support of PFG has been vital and we almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to grow so quickly without it,” adds Syima. “The festival is driven by a love of literature, but also a belief that culture really does have the power to change people’s lives.”