The fall of Rome conceded with centuries of darkness, transiting into a near millenia of Catholic theocracy where intellectual progress, alternative ideas and critical thinking brutally were repressed as heresy. The grand scientific and innovative genius of the classical era was suspended in the limbo of time, not least until with the invention of the printing press came a brave Martin Luther, who protested and subsequently broken the Catholic hegemony of thought over Europe, forcing religious pluralism and thus an acceptance of alternative ideas; a chain reaction of events which in the long run drove Europe to become the intellectual, scientific, technological and developmental centre of the world for centuries.
We look back on these events in Europe and describe them as part of a wider period known as the “Renaissance” or “Re-birth”, the era which the Middle Ages faded out and a new interest in learning and progress began. The Renaissance was a pivotal point in Human history, with other grand names representing this period such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo and Christopher Columbus. Above all, the renaissance tells us a story of humanity coming out of the darkness and stepping into the light. We can compare this to many instances and scenarios in life and now today, I’d like to draw attention to another renaissance that is undergoing; a local renaissance and one very close to my heart. For after decades of darkness and decline, has the Sunderland renaissance finally begun, a city raising from the ashes to re-establish its former glory.
Sunderland is a city that holds a magnificent and proud local heritage, but it is one that has faded away to only left in the hearts of the people. Once dubbed the “Largest shipbuilding town in the world” Sunderland was the industrial powerhouse of the British maritime industry, the river wear booming with vast and plentiful shipyards. It was the life and heritage of many thousands of men to work in these shipyards, including my own grandfather for most of his life. Those who were not working in the shipyards were working in the coal mines, most notably Monkwearmouth Colliery. These men endangered their lives in the pits daily simply to provide for their families. Thus, be it shipbuilding or coal mining alike, the entire city depended upon these industries to get by in tougher times, it was the lifeblood of the area, as it was for so many other towns and villages in the North East of England… But it was not to last…
In great shame, did Sunderland and the North East of England suffer a deep decline beginning in the 1970s which has wounded its esteem right up into the present day. A certain British government sought to impose aggressive free-market policies on the country in an avert attempt to reverse years of economic turbulence, lasting right up until the 1990s. It came with an almost ritual sacrifice of the country’s industrial spine at the expense of millions of people not just in Sunderland and the North East of England, but throughout the country at whole. As much as the British economy recovered, entire cities, communities and areas of society were left behind and even devastated, left in a spiral of depression and a legacy of grave injustice.
Sunderland and its associating County Durham were part of this, chucked on the bombfire and left to rot, its heart and soul ripped out. As a concession, Sunderland was granted city status in 1992, the year I was born, but nonetheless this did not immediately halt the area spiralling into decline and becoming regretfully one of the most deprived places in England, left with above average unemployment, without opportunity and without a hope. All the shipyards and all the mines were all gone. The city’s population declined as people migrated away due to poor economic circumstances, peaking at around 299,000 in 1993 and dropping to 275,000 by 2011.
For most of the two decades following the 1990s, the city struggled to adapt to its newly found status as a city and rebuild its identity. The city’s poor image and unfavourable economic conditions proved a deterrent to widespread investment. On the other hand, its historically more established neighbour, Newcastle Upon Tyne, who had also suffered the decimation of its industries, was able to initiate an investment and development boom in the late 1990s which saw it leave Sunderland far behind in its shadow. Whilst Newcastle and Gateshead gained the iconic Millenium Bridge, the baltic and the new quayside, Sunderland could not even keep shop units open its city centre. There were of course along the way, flashes of success, such as the creation of the Nissan plant, Doxford international business park, the opening of the Stadium of Light, the bridges expansion, the new park lane bus-station and many more things, but for the most part Sunderland city centre remained seemingly unable to function and without a vision, not a scratch on any of its rivals.
Behind the scenes, Sunderland city council had long established plans for the widespread redevelopment of the city but it was met with what might literally be described as bad luck in every sense of the term. They had long planned to make a huge development on the site of the former Vaux brewery in north side of the city centre, only to find themselves barricaded in a legal battle with the supermarket chain Tescos who desired to make a hypermarket on the site. By the time this was sorted out and by the time many other developments were ready to be initiated (2009) the global financial system effectively crumbled, bringing property markets to their knees and sidelining future investments. This was the story of the 1990s to the 2010s in Sunderland, endless frustrations, barriers and blockades against every hope for the future. As much as people criticized the council for this irritating lack of progress, history shows it was out of their hands and down to plain luck, a mere bad hand of cards if you like.
However, hope was not lost. By the time the UK economy began to recover, investment opportunities began to become available again. Sunderland Council now found themselves against an open goal to finally begin rebuilding a city which had lost its purpose, this time they wouldn’t be so unlucky. Despite a government out to make savage cuts at the expense of ordinary people, the council fought for public grants to revitalize the city’s infrastructure and succeeded. Suddenly, things began to change… Sunderland’s seafront was rejuvenated, given a new appearance, makeover and breath of life, with new outlets for businesses, Sunderland’s parks were also given the same modernization. Next, an old section of Sunderland was masterfully re-created into “Keel Square“, a public square dedicated to Sunderland’s heritage and identity, a new icon for the city. This was soon followed by other modernizations, such as the one currently underway in High Street West.
As the council sought to reinvigorate Sunderland’s appearance, did the investments likewise begin to pour in. The Vaux fiasco, after 17 years has now finally been resolved with an £800 million contract for it and the rest of the city penned, with work due to begin in June 2016. Likewise, a new college campus was constructed on top of a desolate area in Holmeside, a new bridges expansion is planned, a new Hilton hotel was built next to the stadium of light, funding has been acquired to save and re-invent the old fire station, a new hotel will be built next to Keel Square, the old Joplings department store is set to be converted into a hotel, a new charity complex called “The Beacon of Light” will also be built, including many more developments not mentioned in this post. Furthermore, last but not least an iconic new bridge is now under construction across the river wear, another new symbol of wearside.
Behold, Sunderland’s fortunes have suddenly changed. From decades of little progress has come a boom in development and modernization, a boom which will propel the city’s economy to new levels never seen before. From a city of gloom and doom, to a city of hope, the Sunderland renaissance has begun, out of the darkness and into the light. A new future awaits. As much as it is not possible for Sunderland to return to the old and industrial days, can the city now find a new identity, a new purpose and a new hope without having to forget its roots.
We’re seeing the emergence of a new Sunderland, this is one we should be proud of than to moan about. The council have certainly defied their critics and defied expectations in their achievements regardless of which party you may align with. May the Sunderland renaissance continue and may Sunderland become one of Britain’s most thriving areas again. Sunderland, my hometown, which always has a place in my heart, how grateful I am to see it rise again.