GLASGOW – The city centre of Glasgow goes by many names. Historically called Trongate, or “The Town” by locals, there’s been a marked effort by local community and business leaders to rebrand the area as the Merchant City.
The name harkens back to a time when Glasgow was amongst the most prosperous cities in Europe, when the city´s tobacco lords brought an economic windfall from the trade of tobacco, sugar, rum and slaves.
But now the Merchant City means something different. In its rebranding campaign, Glasgow has tried to turn the area into the city´s premier tourist attraction, complete with cultural facilities, public space and and lots of retail stores.
At the heart of this transformation are many of the familiar themes of urban development, including gentrification, public expenditure and creative regeneration.
Selling the Merchant City to both Glaswegians and tourists has been an ongoing struggle for local businesses, as the area has never had the same reputation of prime retail space, like Argyle Street to the west, or Buchanan slightly north.
However, rather than trying to develop the area as another commercial space, the city chose a path that heavily involves the arts.
One of the documents guiding the development of the area is the Merchant City Five Year Action Plan 2007 to 2012.
The document says the overall goal of the Merchant City strategy is “to create an area of design and inspirational excellence, individuality and style – a unique urban quarter where the cultural and the artistic can mix with retail and residential to generate energy.”
Committing to public art in the Merchant City is part of the area´s broader development to make it a more welcoming public space for locals and tourists, the document says, as well as trying to establish the Merchant City as Glasgow´s cultural quarter.
One of the city´s partners in accomplishing their mission is Workshop and Artists Studio Provision Scotland Ltd. (WASPS), one of the largest providers of studio space to artists in the U.K.
Currently supporting over 700 artists across the country, WASPS has taken a particular interest in Glasgow, setting up several properties in the Merchant City area.
The Briggait is one of the buildings operated by WASPS in the city centre. Housed in what was originally built as a fish market in 1873, the building went through several phases, including a stint as a boutique shopping centre, before becoming an arts centre in late 2009.
Just a short walk north from the Briggait is another new WASPS space called South Block. Providing over 96 studios, the building is one of WASPS largest initiatives.
Aside from studio spaces, the Merchant City also has another centre for the arts close by.
Trongate 103 doesn´t provide studio space for artists, but instead serves as a cultural focal point in the city, offering workshops, readings and classes to the public.
Incorporating a cafe, several galleries, a print studio and a small theatre into a former warehouse directly in the heart of the city centre, Trongate benefits from a combination of creative diversity and accessibility. The centre and its galleries are free to enter, with only workshops and some events requiring an admission fee.
However, not all of Glasgow´s residents like the changes to the historic area.
Douglas Murray, a lifelong Glaswegian, says he remembers when the first signs of gentrification began to appear.
“Yuppified is what we called it back then,” he says, citing the increase in high-priced real estate that first began appearing in the 1990s.
Murray says expenditures, like importing Italian stones for the streets, are wasteful.
“It makes our leaders look a bit like the tobacco lords,” he says.
Neil Gray is a writer and filmmaker with a particular interest in urban development. In an article for Variant Magazine, Gray wrote a piece titled Glasgow´s Merchant City An Artist Led Property Strategy.
In it, he is critical of the city council and their partners in how they’ve chosen to reshape the area.
“The Merchant City is a strong example of the commodification of Victorian heritage,” Gray says.
In the history of the Merchant City area, Gray says the city´s development plan was created to suit a particular kind of visitor.
“Terrible amount of subsidies since the late 1960s to revitalize that area of the city, but for a completely middle class sense of values, tastes, consumption demands,” he says.
“It seems who can complain about cultural regeneration? It seems nice, artists, bohemian spaces, cafes, galleries. The wider questions about who benefits from those sorts of things, how budgets are allocated and how certain forms of development are privileged.”
Gray says he think the arts community in Glasgow must do more to question its place in it.
“I think there´s a lack of criticism,” he says. “There’s been enough discussions about cultural regeneration, so I think there could be more reflexive attitudes towards it.”
In trying to get Glaswegians to think more critically about how their city develops, Gray has organized city walks through areas to explain history, urban policy and architecture. Having already organized walks through the Merchant City and financial districts, Gray says another walk through the Merchant City is in the works.