How York has gone from dull to dazzling in 20 years

Clifford's Tower lit up during Illuminating York 2013. Photograph © Allan Harris on flickr
Clifford’s Tower lit up during Illuminating York 2013. Photograph © Allan Harris on flickr

Miles On Monday

The weekly thoughts of York writer Miles Salter

There was a time, 20 years ago, when York was fairly dull. In March 1994 I was a few months from completing my degree at York St John University, before shuffling off to Hull where I lived for the following eight years.

In ’94, York was a far less interesting town than it is now. Fibbers had been open a year or two. The Barbican was here. But many other aspects of York’s culture didn’t exist, including the Food And Drink Festival, City Screen’s Coney Street base, Aesthetica Short Film Festival, Illuminating York and much more.

In the two decades since, York has become a far more vibrant, exciting and engaging place. We are now being seen on the national stage in a way we weren’t years ago.

Within the last couple of weeks, comedian Russell Brand has been here and the Lib Dems have had their conference in the city.

In the summer the Tour De France will kick off in York. The city is becoming – at last – more ambitious, and is realising its potential as a city of real international significance.

Kersten England, City of York council’s boss, has picked up gongs from the Financial Times, who recently recognised York’s potential as one of Europe’s premier cities.

What’s exciting is that York is becoming a more dynamic cultural city.

The plethora of writers, artists, musicians, journalists, storytellers and more that live in the city (some of whom stay after attending the town’s two universities) are now residing in a town that is more culturally relevant than ever.

Packing a punch

We may not – yet – be able to compete with Edinburgh, Manchester or London, but we are starting to punch above our weight.

In late January this year, Visit York unveiled ambitious plans to make York’s tourism industry worth a billion pounds by 2024.

It’s an ambitious plan. But by using York’s pulling power for tourists, its history, its fantastic venues and easily navigable town centre, they might just pull it off.

The growth in cultural tourism in York has already been tremendous – from a value of £55 million in 1987 to £443 million in 2013.

In a city where traditional employment has struggled, cultural tourism is becoming more and more important, a fact not missed by Visit York’s visionary chairperson, Jane Gibson.

Gibson, who previously worked on an arts festival in the north of england, understands the leverage that the arts can bring.

I want to live in a culturally engaged city, and the arts are key to making a place dynamic and interesting

York is also becoming more switched on as a media city. The University of York’s film and TV centre is developing partnerships with the BBC and other broadcasters. Stuart Goulden at One and Other has, in recent months, been working on a bid for York to be UNESCO City of Media Arts.

This week, I’ll be at the launch of York Literature Festival 2014 where a sold out audience will assemble to hear writer and broadcaster Germaine Greer.

With nearly 3,000 tickets sold or allocated at the time of writing, 2014 is our most successful year it date. I feel strongly about the festival because I want to live in a culturally engaged city, and the arts are key to making a place dynamic and interesting.

There’s a lot of work to do in developing the festival, but in 2014 York feels like a far more engaging place than it was 20 years ago. This is fantastic news for the city.

York’s leaders must all stay focused on this in the years ahead, grabbing the opportunities that our town presents with both hands. Because, let’s face it – the opportunities are too good to be missed.