First Impressions: arriving and reading the City

by Bridgette Wessels

Considering the City: Place, Identity and Culture

This photo-essay conveys my first impression of Sheffield and, to a degree, makes visible the ways in which a newcomer begins to interpret the city. The context of my arrival is that Sheffield is to become a place where I will live and work. My interpretation of Sheffield derives from understanding cities as both an operational concept within contemporary urbanist discourse and as sites of urban practice (de Certeau, 1984).

The photo-essay discusses the ways in which a stranger to Sheffield initially interprets the City, and in particular the role and character of its city centre in this process. The question to address is how is the identity and culture of a place mediated and represented to a newcomer? The essay outlines the theoretical and methodological framework through which the photo-essay is produced. The essay then describes my walk through the City and I use images to visualise my descriptions of my walk. The images and descriptions generate a series of themes that combine to give some indication as to how the meaning of Sheffield is represented. The conclusion sketches the ways in which, for a newcomer, the formation of Sheffield’s identity, culture and place is mediated through its city-centre spatialisation, which expresses its many constituent narratives through its material culture.

Understanding the City: theoretical issues

As stated above, my interpretation of ‘the city’ is situated between understanding the city as an operational concept within urbanist discourse and as a site of urban practices (de Certeau, 1984). In deepening this understanding the city is understood as ‘place’, which is defined as:

…a fusion of space and experience, a space filled with meaning, a source of identity. It is also a specific context for our actions, a configuration of objects and events filled in space, a milieu, as the French say. It is outside and inside us, objective and subjective, universal and particular. We live our lives in place and have a sense of being part of place, but we also view place as separate, something external (Entrekin, 1991: 34).

A further dimension in understanding place is that many social actors face the predicament of ‘dwelling in transit’ (Clifford, 1988). This is so for the many types of contemporary travellers, mobile workers, and professionals on site visits, and – as more historically embedded – also migrants. It is also the case for the ‘locals’, whose biographies are intimately entwined with the socio-cultural and political economy of place, who see their traditions dissolving and their common cultural expectations melting into air. There is therefore a sense of a global space of cultural connection and dissolution, where local authenticities meet and merge in transient urban and suburban settings (Clifford, 1988).

The ethos of contemporary experiences of transience interacts with what can be called a geo-politics of cities and regions in an emerging global economy. Within a predominantly neo-liberal discourse ‘cities and regions’, each with a distinctive historical trajectory, are re-positioning themselves within some sort of a post-industrial order. A problematic of a city’s identity emerges in strategies for economic and social regeneration in this new global environment. Cities are using identity in various ways to re-position themselves in the global market, which often involves forms of re-invention or re-construction (Westwood and Williams 1997). The construction of identity and the re-narration of a city raise the question of how the story of that identity can be represented. This in turn raises the issue of whose story is to be narrated, by whom and from which perspective, as well a consideration of how different audiences read images of the city, with varying degrees of knowledge of its history and mythology, to construct interpretations of the city.

These contemporary processes of fragmentation and re-representation are interacting in complex ways with the dynamics of emerging social and cultural forms. New forms of mediation are subtle in their demands in shaping representations in the exchange of meaning. If the process of mediation requires both technical means and symbolic content then in what ways can the materials the city has at hand be used to convey meaning of place? In negotiating place, spatialisation acts as a mediator; it provides mental and social cognitive maps, as well as a cultural geography. Spatialisation, therefore, when realised through the materialisation of place generates resources for situated action. A tentative suggestion is that the quest for material forms that represent a city globally, which also has meaning for both natives and newcomers, emerges from contested local history, cultural practices and urban planning.

Situating experiencing Sheffield as a newcomer

There is a plethora of studies that consider cities, their regeneration and their positioning within processes of globalisation (Westwood and Williams 1997, Taylor, Evans and Fraser 1996, Chatterton and Hollands 2001, Hayden 1995, Graham and Marvin, 2001, Some commentators address the processes of de-traditionalisation in places within a global market such as Saxenian (1989) who focuses on Cambridge and Urry (1986, 1990) who focuses on Lancaster. There is however little written from the perspective of a newcomer arriving in a City as s/he struggles to find his/her way round the place and tries to grasp the meaning of place. This is an omission in the literature given the increased geographical mobility characteristic of late modern experience in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s.

Mobility is not however the only experience of late modernity, as there are many social actors who are ‘stuck in dirty old towns’ (Taylor, Evans and Fraser 1996, Beattie 1998). Very often the process of regeneration undermines a sense of local historical understanding of place for those who remain, and simultaneously masks the contemporary meaning of place for newcomers (Hayden, 1995). This essay focuses on the contemporary experience of being mobile and having to settle ‘somewhere new’ (c.f.Urry 2000), which in so doing addresses many of the contemporary debates about understanding, characterising and representing place (Westwood and Williams 1997, Duncan and Ley 1993, Hayden 1995, Urry 1995, Werlen 1993, Featherstone and Lash 1999).

My approach in this essay is broadly interpretive (Geertz, 1973) in that my early experience of the city involves trying to ‘grasp’ and understand its intersubjectivity through its displays of public meaning. I found that this approach works well in relation to both the experience of the laypersons’ arrival and as piece of ethnographic research. This is because it allows for the expression of the intense and isolated subjective phenomenology of arrival as well as the early active interpretation of the material presence of the city, and the immediate and ensuing negotiation of place. In some senses this experience makes visible the work done by actors to achieve Simmel’s notion of the blasé attitude (Simmel 1950) in that it intensifies the effort needed to manage new experience and maintain reserve in a strange city. To situate this piece of contextual research I consider ‘place and identity’ and ‘culture and representation’ in relation to aspects of theorising cities, seeing the urban landscape as public history, and the narration and (re-) imagining of cities.

The processes of globalisation (Bauman 1998, Robertson 1992, Lash and Urry 1993) and the fragmentation of everyday life (Chaney 2003) raise particular issues in understanding culture. Featherstone and Lash (eds.) (1999), for example, argue that culture can no longer be thought of as possessing coherence and order that enables the formation of stable identities. In this context, Featherstone and Lash argue that the ‘possibilities of inhabiting a shared cultural world in which cultural meanings function in a common sense taken-for-granted manner recedes’ (Featherstone and Lash 1999: 1). This raises a key theme that links the focus of this essay with theorising the city, which is the notion of the city as a site of public spaces that embody the identity of a particular place and our relationship with that place. Theorists such as Sennett (1999) argue strongly for the opening-up of cities through public spaces to allow for sociability based upon tolerance and self-distance, which he argues forms the basis for an active public. It is in this context that the contextual and material uses of space in the city-centre become potential sites for identifying the characteristics of place. These spaces are however changing in relation to changing perceptions of ‘the city’.

It is difficult to define or characterise what a city is and current academic debate revolves around a perceived sense that the urban world is in flux, and that there is a diversity of cityscapes that form many different types of city and urban experience. Thus urban forms materialise in phenomena such as the Garden City, large Metropolitan Centres, and more recently in the development of the Information City Technopole. The ways in which cities have been understood and theorised have developed from the early Chicago School accounts of the ordered and organic city through to what Lash and Urry (1993) see as exaggerated post-modern accounts that address the city as practice (Lefebvre, 1991). Although ‘the city’ has been understood differently in various historical moments, cities can nonetheless be said to form emerging and distinctive patterns of action and materiality that are chaotic and complex but nonetheless are sites for social actors to engage and re-engage in struggles over resource and representation of meaning. This sensitising conceptualisation addresses the diversity of city-life. This includes, for example, Los Angeles as the punitive and privatised-segregated city; the newer information technopoles of San Francisco and Seattle; and the multiplicity of traditionally non-Western urban forms found in places such as Cairo, Mumbai, and Mexico City. In the UK examples of diversity include cities within the Garden City movement of which Welwyn Garden City is an example, the ‘historic’ cities of Medieval York and Georgian Bath and the industrial cities of the North of England such as Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.

The examples cited above indicate that cities are constantly changing, changes that are often related to changing socio-economic trends and political agendas at both the local and the global level. Some of that change is instigated through programmes of regeneration that aim to (re-) develop cities in ways that benefit and include all local people. Commentators such as Hayden (1995) show us very clearly the difficulty of genuinely involving local people in processes that are largely ‘engineered from above’. Although the rhetoric of regeneration often suggests including local people and representing popular local experience, the need to look outward to attract inward investment can push towards a selective construction of a City’s past in order to produce a representation that may enhance its future. The selection of various aspects of place in the construction of a city-story with the aim (perhaps) to attract inward investment may exclude aspects of the city that are meaningful for some of its residents especially the now unwanted ‘proper little mesters’1 and ‘buffer girls’2 of an industrial past. However, by not recognising the everyday life of (in our case) ‘Sheffielders’ may push some of them to seek forms of resistance in the twilight worlds of the marginal and the excluded.

In the recent past this has often produced the ‘dual city’ phenomenon that divides the excluded from the included, seen for example in Leeds in the 1980s and 1990s. These divisions are played out in the multi-dimensionality of contemporary processes of forms of exclusion. The definition, representation and use of space together form a key dimension of the experience of the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion (Wessels and Miedema, 2003). The use of space and the resources that are needed to construct distinctive places, which are meaningful, relevant and inclusive for the diversity of local people and newcomers alike involves an understanding of social needs within the dynamics of the materiality of place. In this sense people understand and interpret place from their own experience and knowledge and relate to place in the ways in which it enables them to act and participate in the social life of places.

My interpretation of an emerging history of Sheffield

Sheffield as a place is partly defined through its definition of being a ‘city’, and it shares certain characteristics of a city with other cities nationally and globally. To be more specific, Sheffield is inscribed within a particular type of city, which can be understood as a North of England Industrial City that has gone through processes of de-industrialisation. Other cities within this remit include Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds. These cities are similar in that their respective histories are ones of early industrialisation and capitalist manufacture in 18th and 19th century England, and they have experienced similar fates of de-industrialisation. Nonetheless, each city embodies some specificity of place and local feeling (Taylor, Evans and Fraser, 1996). In this section I will describe the ways in which I started to gain an understanding of the specificity of Sheffield, which exemplifies the point made by Donald (1997) that places become known through the ways they are inscribed and narrated in myth, literature, film and common-sense knowledge. In my case my understanding of Sheffield as a layperson was formed through my North Yorkshire grandmother’s renditions of Sheffield, through my conversations with Professor Ian Taylor when working with him on an academic project and by the popular film The Full Monty, which was released in 1997.

My grandmother’s tales made two key impressions on me, one the quality of Sheffield steel proudly displayed in her cutlery as the ‘best in the world’ and two that the ‘West Riding’3 was where the ‘dirty’ industrial work was done. Ian Taylor spoke of his home city’s identity as (at particular historical moments) involving notions of ‘Red Sheffield’, its industrial past, its pervasive Methodism, and its ‘protest masculinity’ (1996, 1997). He questions Sheffield’s position vis-à-vis Manchester in relation to its slower pace of regeneration in the book Tale of Two Cities (1996). In this book he shows how the history of a place, the lived experience of everyday life and its culture constitute ‘structures of meaning’ (Williams, 1965, 1977) that give context to the shaping and re-shaping of place. The popular film The Full Monty represents many of these issues through its story of a group of men who are unemployed. It traces the social consequences of the de-industrialisation of Sheffield in the 1980s and 1990s in relation to masculine identity. Although, the context of the film was Sheffield, the film was extremely popular and reached many audiences, and for example members of an audience in a packed house in a cinema in Richmond, South London stood up and clapped at the end of a showing. This demonstrates the identification of audiences with a more general crisis in masculinity as well as an imaginative connection with another city. Sheffield is yet another place in which the politics of gender is played out in relation to socio-economic trends, which is given shape through cultural activity. In the case of our example-film this is seen in the phenomenon of male strippers rehearsing in a disused factory and performing in an old working men’s club in Sheffield, part of England’s old industrial heartland.

The tangibility of social practices, of popular myth and material culture produces an arena in which change to a cityscape is negotiated. The power of local authorities and business interest is a significant factor in setting the agenda for change. Yet there is a pervasive sensitivity amongst this policy elite that a city needs to provide spaces for a participatory public culture to encourage an active public (c.f. Sennett, 1999). Both the elite and the city-folk, albeit in different ways, see this as a challenge in making contemporary changes to cities.

Methodology for understanding cities from the perspective of ‘first impressions’

The theoretical approach provides the framework for methodology and research design. There are three main dimensions that underpin the research design and research practice:

> My identity and interpretive framework

> The use of the camera

> Writing a diary, chatting, and walking the city

Biography of the researcher

The underlying stance taken to this piece of work is constituted through the three interrelated aspects of my biography, my working life, and my ways of looking. In relation to the experience of living in a city, I grew up in Amsterdam and went to school in The Hague in the Netherlands. Since moving to England I have lived in six cities.4 This experience has sensitised me to the subtle characteristics of cities and their respective specificities, which convey a ‘personality of place’ (Ley and Samuels, 1978) and give meaning to ‘living in a place’ (Madanipour, 1998). My work as a researcher is situated at the interface of understanding everyday life in cities and the policy arena, and I have participated in research in several cities in Europe.5 The act of looking in this case, therefore, involves the training of a social scientist and the experience of a city dweller. My ways of looking are also informed by my interest in documentaries as the creative interpretation of actuality, which is situated between ‘good private poetry and good public poetry’ (Madge and Harrison 1939: 3). This way of looking can be seen as a poetic interpretation of C. Wright Mills’ (1959) definition of the sociological imagination, namely the interface of private troubles and public issues. My position, for this piece of work, is constituted through the position of the ethnographer who makes the strange familiar, the documentarist who makes the familiar strange and a traveller or tourist who gazes or glances at various sites. These interact with my need to make Sheffield my home.

The use of the camera

In our ways of looking the camera becomes an extension of us, it is situated within structures of meaning, institutional frameworks and the position of the photographer. The act and product of photographic work can affirm, critique or render ambiguous social and cultural order. Pragmatically there is a tension between that of mechanical realism and the role of creativity in representing actuality. The work is complex; there are layers of stress, emphasis, pace, drama, and suspense. As with a television documentary, a balance needs to be struck between ‘the demands of the argument – to inform, to persuade and the demands of the story – to entertain and to seduce: between the demands of fact and, through symbols and images, the appeals of fantasy’ (Silverstone, 1985: 147).

To produce a photo-essay it is essential to have a ‘crew’ with sensitivity, who are able to develop relationships with places and people, and a camera person ‘who has a feel for pictures and allows things to happen in frame’ (Silverstone, 1985: 50). The editing focuses more directly on the specifics of shot, image sequence, interview, the elements and fragments of the rhetoric from which the final photo-essay is constructed (Silverstone, 1985: 65). The use of digital photography adds another dimension to this process, as the digitalized image allows for the creative manipulation of that image to invoke and convey an impressionistic perception of place rather than a mechanical reproduction of place within the dominant photographic perspective of realism. The editing process is similar to the analytical aspect of social research; the images are the data from which the researcher works to produce findings that contribute to knowledge. In the case of the photo-essay convertible images are produced, which ‘allow the reality of the unfamiliar, the new, the different, the beautiful or the ugly to be communicated effectively cross-culturally’ (Silverstone, 1985: 64). The process, motivated by a series of conscious and unconscious considerations results in image and text being used together to convey information and involve emotion to create understanding (Stott, 1976).6

Writing a diary, chatting, and walking the city

I have found that the practice of writing a diary is a habit since the completion of my first ethnographic study in 2000. I find it helpful to write a diary when I arrive somewhere new as it helps me to make sense of my arrival and entry into new social relations and cultural formations. Naipaul (1984) elegantly describes this process as ‘the enigma of arrival’, showing how a stranger gradually understands local culture, culture which is at the same time changing. He finds that through writing about the scene, the themes are remembered. The formation of narrative is his aim, in which his travelling method becomes transparent so that the reader sees how the material was gathered.

I began my Sheffield diary at the time of my arrival and I jotted down observations, conversations and my thoughts as I began to explore the City.7 In the course of finding my way around, I found that, spontaneously, I chatted with others in cafes, at work, and in shops, galleries, the cinema, on buses and so on. Through these, sometimes, fleeting conversations I began to pick up Sheffield’s place-myths, which served to give me a sense of the personality of the place. The third aspect of the pre-photo shoot work consists of my walks in the City. I have found that one of the best ways to explore cities is to spend time walking the city; one notices its architecture, spots its public art, and gets the feel of its social shape – the finely coded areas of different urban practices that imbues place with character. In many senses my walks emerged from an initial finding my way from the station to my place of work and to my temporary lodgings. This initial route started to evolve and my walks developed into my own mapping of the city (Brody 1981). This mapping was shaped through my own interests such as film, art and the theatre as well as interests that emerged from Sheffield itself, such as the use of public art in street settings and the history of steel-making. It is in this way that the stroller moves beyond graphic representations of a geographical outline of a walk through a city to that of what de Certeau calls ‘pedestrian speech acts’ (1984).

De Certeau argues that the ‘act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to statements uttered’ (1984: 97). It has a triple ‘enunciative’ function: it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian, it is the spatial acting-out of the place, and it implies relations among differentiated positions, that is among pragmatic ‘contracts’ in the form of movements. These walks through the city with my diary notes and conversations help to form my first impressions of the City, which I have represented in the photo-essay. In all I spent two days taking photographs, which were taken on 25th and 26th of January 2003, and hence are the product of my first nine months of living in Sheffield. They are impressionist, and only convey a newcomer’s arrival in the City, and her rather humble and naïve attempt to read the City.

Arriving and First Impression – my walk through

I travelled to Sheffield on the train from a city that was actively regenerating itself as a ‘party city’, namely Newcastle, and I had passed through the historic city of Durham as well as York and Doncaster. As I arrived my opening view was of a mass of modernist buildings forming a panorama of layers of steel and cladding. As I stepped out of the train on to the platform, I was once more reminded that stations are places of arrivals and departures, and that many individual biographies are embedded within a variety of collective intersubjectivities woven from place and from mobility. Sheffield station immediately raised a query for me, which was that my platform and the empty platform opposite me evoked a country station rather than a station of the 5th largest city in England (slide 1). Yet, when I glanced across the top of the platform roof I saw a wall of dilapidated flats, flats in the style of 1960s architecture with a late-industrial ethos. These flats had once been hailed as outstanding examples of modern architecture and were now listed-buildings (slide 2).

This visualisation, on arrival, sensitised me immediately to an impressionist sense of contradictions within the city. It also expressed to me that Sheffield does not, or cannot, hide its version of the ‘ghetto’, and I later found out in my conversations that local people call it ‘Alcatraz’ or the ‘wall of death.’ I considered whether keeping an aesthetic visible that was now broadly considered as ‘ugly’ was in some sense inclusive in that by it being seen, the existence of something ‘ugly’ was somehow acknowledged. I wondered, was this juxtaposition of the new and the old, the beautiful and the ugly, this changing sense of aesthetic going to be seen throughout the city centre and if so what did this mean for the experience of place?

Slide 1

Slide 2

As I assimilated these visual impressions, I became cocooned, as many late-modern travellers, in those familiar anonymous metal-clad tubes that channel travellers to various destinations, and yet here it is seemed to be on a rather small scale (slide 3).

As I looked through the glass of the bridge I saw sites of 1970s and 1980s popular culture – a rather sad Roxy Disco and an Odeon Cinema (slide 4). As I walked away from the station, I looked back at the station, and thought that it was a small unpretentious station that doesn’t herald anyone’s arrival to a big city and that it has a backdrop of a wall of flats that, for me, shouts out deprivation (slide 5).

Slide 3

Slide 4

Slide 5

As I looked forward, I was immediately presented with a sign to the ‘Cultural Quarter’ – tones of European cities but visually very different as the low nestled buildings had a look of old workshops rather than grand galleries of high culture. Furthermore, the Showroom Cinema with some steel domes of the former Centre for Popular Music opposite it, seemed curiously situated at the intersection of two roads, and hence strangely cut off so that I didn’t go in that direction (slide 6). Instead, I walked towards the huge modernist buildings of Sheffield Hallam University (a former polytechnic) and I caught sight of what looked liked sculpture representing steel – it is called ‘Elements: fire and steel’ – my first reference to Sheffield’s industrial history (slide 7).

Slide 6

Slide 7

As I made my way up the hill I found a small site of late modern architecture – the Millennium Gallery , which hosts visiting exhibitions from Tate and the V&A, as well as having permanent galleries dedicated to steel making and to Ruskin. Its newness is striking, especially when contrasting it with the Graves Gallery (slide 8). The Graves Gallery for me represented and continues to represent a form of municipal socialism, the ideology, perhaps now somewhat faded but nonetheless I’ve found that the libraries and galleries are still well used by children, families and older people. My impression was, and is one that still remains, is that forms of culture are seen as part of the everyday life of many people in the city. This ethos I feel can be seen in buildings that are not imposing, in the street sculptures that hint at the centrality of public art in Sheffield, and in that people use the galleries and libraries (slide 8, also see slides 11, 20 and 21).

I walked past the galleries to arrive at what I thought might be the centre, yet if it was the city-centre I could not find a defining sign. Instead I found the Town Hall and streets just radiating off in different directions, leading, I wondered to differentially coded areas of the city? I found the usual UK high street shops often with global brands such as a Virgin store. I noticed the distinctive street paving, and later found out that the design and construction is Italian. Popular myth tells of how contested this paving was, first because the City employed Italian men to lay it when they could have employed ‘our Sheffield lads’ and secondly the women of Sheffield kept breaking their stiletto heels on it, which made it very unpopular! (slide 9)

Slide 8

Slide 9

I decided to walk down one of the streets and found the Cathedral, which seemed small and not imposing. The Cathedral is made up of the old and the new. The bombing of the Second World War had damaged the Cathedral and the new aspects of the building are part of its reconstruction. I noticed that tramlines seem to cut across the Cathedral Square – once again a contradictory juxtaposition between aesthetic and symbolic boundaries – juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane and the old and the new (slide 10). This observation seemed to reinforce my impression that although Sheffield must have subtle forms of inclusion and exclusion (see below – the ‘Gaudy Arch’, slide 13), it nonetheless seems to tolerate multiple aesthetics that mix together in an unplanned way. This curious mix seems to form an open enough space for people to use the city spaces and forge meaningful relationships with it. Examples of this engagement can be in the form of engaging with steel sculptures (see slide 21), perusing the new Winter Gardens (see slide 20), or shopping for bargains at the markets by the ‘Gaudy Arch’ (see slide 13).

Slide 10

Slide 13

My feeling of juxtapositions and of contradictions gives the city a soft malleable feel. This feel is pervasive in its street sculptures, the two stone buffalo, for instance, alongside steel railings blend into the contour of the street, and they like the other street sculptures are light and discrete have a steel dimension to them (slide 11). On the other hand, an imposing mural to the working man is very different to other public art in Sheffield. It celebrates Sheffield’s industrial past but in its defiance it mourns the loss of its industrial order and the face is etched with the masculinity of that order (slide 12). What I have termed the ‘Gaudy’ Arch (slide 13) is an example of another aesthetic in Sheffield. It is ‘gaudy’, ‘cheap’ and no doubt in the 1960s and 1970s was the height of street architecture, but now seems somewhat tired and dated. It seems to lead to a desolate emptied-out space, a space for cheap shopping in the market. The old working class space now seems a space for the ‘marginal’ and ‘dispossessed’, namely for those without large disposable incomes.

Slide 11

Slide 12

This section of my walk seems to reinforce the juxtaposition of aesthetics and the mixing of styles of representation in Sheffield. Furthermore, this mixing was visible and this visibility made the city’s contradictions overt and perhaps accepted or at least tolerated.

My first impression of this curious and democratic mixing of style and aesthetics was one in which no single narrative seemed dominant. Nonetheless, I also saw hints of boundaries. I found boundaries in many guises, yet there is a common theme amongst them, which is that they also link aspects of the city too. Examples include the boundary between centre and periphery seen in materiality of the city centre and the out of town shopping mall Meadowhall, which are linked by the tram. The juxtaposition of the refurbished Student Games flats with more dilapidated flats of ‘Alcatraz’ or the ‘wall of death’, which seem linked by numerous pathways. All these places are linked through forms of transport, such as trams, bridges and walkways (slide 14).

Slide 14

As I carry on with my walk, I spot a panorama of steel-buildings, through a gap between old buildings (slide 15). I later found out that the buildings are called Ponds Forge, which form an extensive sports centre. Ponds Forge was developed in the 1980s as part of an attempt to reinvent Sheffield as a City of Sport, and Sheffield hosted the Student Games at the Centre. However, although the games were successful, the development went over budget and the local mythology is that ‘the Games bankrupted the City, and it is only just recovering’. As I move on I find a rather quaint cobbled street of small boutiques, a mini version of the Lanes in Brighton or Shambles in York. This street is known as Chapel Walk and has a feel and aesthetic of a nostalgic picture postcard (slide 16).

Slide 15

Slide 16

After browsing through the shops in Chapel Walk, I stumbled across the clear crisp lines of the Theatre area: the Crucible with the ‘Playhouse’ look of the 1960s and the older more traditional Lyceum. Again I note a different aesthetic, but one which also is a juxtaposition of styles of theatre going. The roles of the theatre in social life are materialised in the design of the Crucible and the Lyceum. The inclusive and more radical approach to theatre of the 1960s and 1970s conveyed through the Crucible and a more high culture appropriation of theatre by the aspiring middle classes embodied in the grander design of the Lyceum (slide 17). To add to this eclectic mix of styles around the square a new building had just been opened, which is ‘The Winter Gardens’ (slides 17, 20 and 23).

Slide 17

The ‘Winter Gardens’ stand at one end of the square and its glass and wood construction is distinctive and adds another architectural style to the Crucible Theatre and the Lyceum Theatre. Once again I experience an eclectic mix of aesthetics and style that exist in juxtaposition to each other, which at the same time compliment each other. I did wonder if, at this point of my walk, I had come to terms with these juxtapositions as they had come to define the city for me. Although, it is difficult to judge this aesthetic eclecticism as beautiful, it nonetheless has a democratic and inclusive feel to it. I wondered if it was one that may allow for a sociability that is characterised by differential use of the city by a range of actors and groups. The meanings of those various forms of engagement may produce participation that is tolerant thus fostering Sennett’s (1999) wish for spaces for active publics. These thoughts are of course tentative, but they form part of first impressions of the city, and foster for me a distinctive feature of Sheffield.

Another one of the main features of my walk was the amount of regeneration work going on in the City. So as I was ending my walk, I noted more construction work going on against the backdrop of the Town Hall (slide 19). The Town Hall has a Gothic look to it, and it evokes a softer civic pride than some other Northern cities such as Leeds and Newcastle. It was rather like the small plaque that I had just passed that commemorated Thomas Boulsover the founder of Sheffield Plate; it too has a sense of modesty and like much of Sheffield is not imposing (slide 18).

Slide 18

Slide 19

Skirting the construction work I entered the ‘Winter Gardens’ (slide 20), which is an elegant building and its wood and glass construction gives it an open feel. At the time of my walk it had just been opened and people were gently perusing and exploring the space and the various tropical plants it houses. From the ‘Winter Gardens’ I walked into the Millennium Galleries and then felt that I had ‘found Sheffield’ in a sculpture called ‘Barking up the Right Tree.’ It is a sculpture made of Sheffield cutlery, and I found ‘Sheffielders’ discussing it and identifying and recounting tales of particular types of knives, forks and spoons (slide 21). This piece of material culture situated in the new Millennium Gallery surrounded by people discussing it and recounting tales of Sheffield and its steel making brought together the many aspects I had experienced in my walk. These aspects are the juxtapositions of aesthetics, the accessibility and inclusiveness of many aspects of Sheffield’s culture, and people engaging with the spaces in the city.

Slide 20

Slide 21

Another key impression was affirmed for me as I walked to the back of the Winter Gardens and saw excavations of the current reconstruction work against a backdrop of elegant buildings. This reinforced my overarching perception of a cityscape undergoing ‘change’, which was suggesting a malleable city that is being reshaped rather then reconstructed or re-invented (slide 22). I walked outside the ‘Winter Gardens’, which was surrounded by boarding and I felt that this represented a vision of a future as yet unclear. Nonetheless it was one that may hold some promise of an active public as the inset picture shows how the use of wood and glass to create an elegant space was being viewed with curiosity by city dwellers (slide 23). Walking on to the Town Hall I found the seat of local government and urban city planning which also interacted with the practices of urban life as city dwellers sat and walked through the co-located Peace Gardens. My walk seemed to have shown me that ‘change’ in this City over many years has always been contested, temporal and emergent (slide 24) between local government, industry and city-folk.

Slide 22

Slide 23

Slide 24


Several themes emerge from the photo-essay. The overriding context of the work is a documentation of a city in change. The contemporary drive for cities to re-invent themselves and to reposition themselves in the global economy impels them to balance market competiveness with social inclusion and cohesion. Each city’s history – economic, industrial, and cultural is interacting with the dynamics of the re-construction of cities. This photo-essay addresses those processes as they are materialising in one specific city, and as a newcomer sees them. The key aspects are 1/ the changing cityscape, 2/ the use of public art, sculptures and monuments, 3/ various types of architecture, 4/ different materials and representations, 5/ coded spaces and boundaries and, 6/ specific sites of urban practice. These aspects are part of the broader themes that emerged from my walk. The themes are 1/ the juxtaposition of aesthetics and styles and, 2/ this eclectic mix of styles fosters a democratic feel and use of various spaces of the city. 3/ Culture is embedded and made accessible within the City and 4/ the City tolerates the beautiful and the ugly and in so doing does not seem to hide its varied and contested history. Perhaps some of the legacy of ‘Red Sheffield’ understood as a municipal socialism reinterpreted as ‘inclusion’ remains as Sheffield moves towards reshaping itself for the 21st Century global economy.

These themes are present in various ways as one arrives, reads and walks through the city. The City’s spatialisation represents the constituent narratives of the City in material form. The photo-essay represents these themes as they materialise in the City. The overarching impression is one of change to material contours of the City through some de-construction and reconstruction of buildings and public spaces amidst the already eclectic cityscape. Perhaps this eclectic characteristic combined with a variety of formal and informal cultural spaces lends itself towards regeneration that may plan for, but also inadvertently allows for, change that is inclusive and diverse without losing sight of being equitable too. Perhaps it is the dynamic interaction of this rather messy process of regeneration by planners and the city-folks’ use of space that organically produces public spaces for sociability.


The City and its culture is represented in an array of different materials and forms – traces of Sheffield’s history are found in official monuments and sculptures, and by walking through one sees recent history inscribed in its buildings – the old, the tatty, and the new. By chatting with folk one learns of its place-myths and cultural-practices that informed those myths. Boundaries are fluid, demarcations are transgressed; centre and periphery is separated but linked. Change is inscribed in its material culture, which evokes the diversity of its collective history. There does not seem to be one dominant narrative rather the spatialisation of the City is allowing several narratives to emerge from its collective history. The meaning of Sheffield as Steel City is alluded to, but no one interpretation of the experience of that history is privileged, suggesting perhaps the reshaping of the constituent identities of the City rather than a re-invention.


Technical support and digital imagery provided by Aeon Design. All photographs are by Bridgette Wessels.


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  1. ‘Little Mesters’ is a term used to refer to local men employed in Sheffield’s dual economy of cutlery and steel (Taylor, Evans and Fraser, 1996: 32).
  2. ‘Buffer Girls’ were employed to polish the finished products of the cutlery trade (Taylor, Evans and Fraser, 1996: 32)
  3. The County of Yorkshire used to be split into the North, East and West Ridings. The West Riding is now part of South Yorkshire.
  4. London, Newcastle, Brighton and Hove, York, Durham and Sheffield
  5. Cities such as Frankfurt, Vienna, Stockholm, Groningen, Barcelona, Leeds, Durham, Bologna, Leipzig, London
  6. For more details on documentary photography see
  7. This is now 3 years ago from the publication of this chapter and the diary was started nine months before the photo-shoot.