Our chocolate box city, in an illustration from York: Beautiful England
Our chocolate box city, in an illustration from York: Beautiful England

helen-graham-headshotWe know York is ‘lovely’ but loveliness holds dangers, writes Helen Graham. Is there a way to reimagine our past so we can open up our city’s future?


“Heritage” often lurks behind York’s headlines. Sometime the relevance of “heritage” is pretty obvious, as with York being voted most beautiful city or Visit York’s ambitions for a £1 billion tourist industry.

In other headlines “heritage” might be less immediately apparent. Yet it doesn’t take much to join at least a dotted line between perceptions of York’s beauty and it’s high house prices.

Or between a big tourism economy via low wage service jobs to inequality and poverty.

Yet there’s a lot about how heritage affects our lives in York that we don’t really know. How does this complex mess of people, bricks, stone and concrete, money, histories, ideas and imaginations interconnect to make York what it is?

Seen from a distance

Of course there have been lots of reports over the years which have attempted to link York’s histories and heritage to decisions about the livability of the city.

From the 1948 A Plan For The City Of York, the 1955 York: A City Of Our Dreams or the 1969 Esher Report to the 2011 York New City Beautiful: Towards An Economic Vision.

Yet they often feel like they’ve been written about York from a certain distance.

Possibly from the vantage point on the top of the Minister rather than from in the thick of Coney Street, from Micklegate on a Friday night, from a working men’s club in Holgate, from an estate agents on Bishopthorpe Road or from a terraced street or suburban semi.

So we’ve had “experts” advising us and we’ve certainly learnt some things from this.

But if the impacts of decisions about heritage, planning, tourism and economic development are played out in thousands of ways in thousands of places across the city then wouldn’t we understand better and make better decisions if all of our experiences, memories, knowledge and wisdom was actively used in decision making?

The York public inquiry

Hence our unofficial public inquiry. We’ve set ourselves a number of research questions to guide us over the coming months.

It’s unofficial because, between York’s Alternative History, York Civic Trust and the Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage at the University of Leeds, we’ve launched it ourselves linked to a UK-wide research projected called How should decisions about heritage be made?

It’s public because we think we’ll only do good research, and the city will only make good decisions about heritage, if both are done openly, transparently and through actively involving everyone who’s got something to say and share.

And it’s an inquiry because we know there’s a lot we don’t know and the only way of finding out is through talking to lots of different people.

We’ve been inspired here also by YorkMix’s Lendal Bridge Week, doing exactly what the fourth estate should do to create informed and engaged public debate around key political decisions

And we’re going to be collaborating with YorkMix to do something similar around possible future decisions about Stonebow House. Find out more here.

Story so far

We began the York: Living With History Public Inquiry about a month ago and since then we’ve run some events and already had lots of conversations about tourism, jobs, which histories are recognised in our plaques and exhibitions, about 1970s inner ring road plans and histories of York housing development.

In this spirit of a public inquiry we’d love to hear from you and, if you’ve got something to say, to get fully involved.

This could run from just having a cup of tea and a chat, to helping out with some of our events to writing your own articles for the blog or YorkMix.

We also really need photographers and people who relish talking to people to do interviews and run stalls.

Here are some things we’ve got coming up – all events which aim to get all of us actively thinking, debating and intervening in York’s ‘heritage’ as a way of generating new insights into how decisions about heritage might be made differently…

Next events

Live Inquiry Drop In
When: Wednesday, March 19, 4-6pm
Where: York Explore Central Library
Drop in to the Brierley Room in York Explore to find out where we’re up to in our research, contribute your own wisdom and ideas and help plan future public events

York: A Walk On The Wild Side
When: Saturday, April 5, 3-6pm

Where: York city centre 

A second chance to catch Walk On The Wild Side. Walk with us as we explore the histories of York rarely heard about. Of protest, of raucous parades, of gay love and of militant suffrage.

We will then head to a pub to reflect on these histories as part of the York: Living with History Inquiry. Book your free tickets here

The Stonebow Inquiry
When: Saturday, April 12, 11am-3pm
Where: Central Methodist Church, St Saviourgate
Drop-in exhibition and event. Find out more about what was here before and debate what should happen next. We’ll be sharing our work so far on the histories and uses of Stonebow House and hoping you’ll share your own memories and opinions

York Guerilla Plaques Day
When: Saturday, May 10, 10.30am-2.30pm
Where: Friends Meeting House, Friargate
The commemorative plaques on York’s buildings and walls are a bit random really. Have you got a piece of history or a story you think should be remembered by everyone but isn’t?

Then come and put alternative histories of the city in the heart of York with you own DIY heritage with our very safe and removable cardboard plaques. Just let us know you want to come via the email below

 


  • Get in touch via the Living With History website or click here to send an email
  • Helen Graham is a research fellow in tangible and intangible heritage at Leeds University
  • How Should Decisions About Heritage Be Made? is an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, part of the Connected Communities programme.