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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, July 23, 2005
    Hunt on the city
    He presented last Monday's C4 documentary on The British Middle Class. I've just finished reading his monster book Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City. Tristram Hunt has some good ideas.

    His 'middle class' is the group of energetic, radical Victorian outcasts, who challenged the power of the landed aristocracy and, with their newfound wealth, introduced into the urban chaos of our industrialised cities a form of radical urban enlightenment.

    These men - often religious nonconformists (Unitarians like Liverpool's champion William Roscoe) were motivated by progress but inspired by the classical and renaissance past, and they constructed public buildings throughout Britain that would not have looked out of place in Venice, Florence or Athens. Liverpool, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, owe their wondrous design to the zeal of these civic-minded, social entrepeneurs.

    And they weren't mere temples of commerce, many of these buildings were public libraries, galleries, debating chambers, council rooms - places where the people of the city could meet, talk, engage with the issues of the day, develop their municipal visions. Hunt maintains that the middle classes later became victims of their own success:

    Ironically, cheap mass production fuelled aspirations and notions of status. And as middle class homes were built ever further away from the pollutions of the factory, suburban living was born and with it a switch away from a city-centred sphere of cultural activity and public duty. The middle classes had forgotten who they were and where they had come from.

    We all know the story of the twentieth-century demise of these great Victorian cities, which Hunt links directly to the loss of a civic vision in the rapidly-growing new middle classes (now fixated on leisure and consumption). But his programme, and, in far more depth, his excellent book, end on a note of promise for those who care about the cities. The re-emergence of culture as a driver of positive change for our cities can be dismissed in critical cliches, but he sees in it just a hint of the possible re-emergence of a sense of the civic which might just, if nurtured, help rebuild not just the structures of these great places, but our vision of them:

    Initially developed by nonconformists, it was an appreciation of an urban life and the historic, liberating mission of the city ... an understanding of the city's purpose as a political and cultural entity ... We need to renew our perception of Britain's urban identity and learn to love, hate, reform, rebuild, but, above all, debate the city, 'dark Satanic mills' and all.