What do you do with a gritty city lagging in economic growth and with a decades-old music heritage as its main claim to fame?

No, not that one.

We’re talking about Liverpool, England.

If we were in charge of putting together a delegation to visit cities with important lessons for Memphis, that’s a place we’d want to go. And not just because we’re Beatles fans.

Culture Capital

It’s this year’s European Capital of Culture, and for the past five years, it’s been getting ready for the celebration. Smartly, Liverpool is defining culture in the broadest possible terms to embrace traditional arts and high culture, but also sports, street music and the character of its people.

The European Capital of Culture program began 23 years ago when Athens was designated as the first city and there have been three dozen since then. Conceived by the European Union as a way to increase the bonds of community between its countries, it has become the catalyst to major investments in public space, public facilities and public engagement.

That’s where Liverpool comes in. For decades, the waterfront city has been denigrated and derided, often used as the punch line for way too many jokes. Dingy, deteriorating and far out of the mainstream, most observers assumed that its fate was sealed.

No Laughing Now

But there was always something different about Liverpool. Its people – who call themselves Scousers after a popular local stew – like their city because it wasn’t homogenized like so many other cities. They like their city precisely because it was out of touch with the times and seemed to have its own quirky personality and rhythm. They even like their city’s generally grim weather.

That civic attitude is just as much of a fundamental part of the culture being honored as the museums and the Victorian mansions. Maybe even more so.
When Liverpool was selected as the Capital of Culture for 2008 – its 800th anniversary – some commentators laughed it off. But it’s hard to laugh at Liverpool now.

Music To Our Ears

It’s shed any hints of civic lethargy and embarked on an agenda that’s honoring its heritage while building some impressive new assets for the future and billions of dollars of new development – a former airport terminal is now a new Marriott and a former match factory now is now upscale office space. There’s even a fancy new cruise ship terminal that’s a long way from the city’s “ferry across the Mersey” days. Of course, anytime your city can trot out the remaining two Beatles to punctuate the importance of a celebration, it sure doesn’t hurt.

Long disregarded as a tourist attraction, Liverpool is suddenly pulling in visitors by the droves, and with no Disneyfication of the glory days of the Beatles in sight. Most of the places immortalized in Beatles’ song have no neon to mark them or hawkers selling souvenirs. They are merely there, some the worse for the wear after the almost four decades that have passed since the Fab Four sang about Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields.

And yet, the strange, tough cauldron that was Liverpool did more than breed one mammoth rock group. There were also Cilla Black, Billy J. Kramer, Badfinger, Elvis Costello, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Merseybeats, Searchers, Billy Fury, Echo and the Bunnymen. They just were overshadowed by the four-man group that changed the course of music.

The Music Plays On

But, in the intervening years from the British Invasion until today, Liverpool has regularly reminded England that it’s a hub for indie rock, and the best news is that the local music scene still thrives.

All in all, it’s an impressive reminder about how a city can build its revitalization and future on heritage and culture. Liverpool is hoping this year to see results like those recorded in Cork, Ireland, the 2005 European City of Culture, which saw dramatic investments in redevelopment, the facelift of commercial districts and an increase in tourism.

To be chosen as the City of Culture, cities must first submit applications to their own governments and the winner is decided by a 13-member panel. The selected city gets 1.5 million Euros and can apply for other grants. That’s one thing we’ve always loved about European countries – they are serious about funding think tanks, policy papers, research and urban design.

Events Calendar

So far, Glasgow seems to have set the standard for these celebrations. It had 3,539 events with performers and artists from two dozen countries, 656 theatrical productions, 3,122 musical performances (including Frank Sinatra and Luciana Pavarotti), 1,091 exhibitions and 157 sporting events. It even hosted the Bolshoi Ballet for its first UK visit in a theater built for it.

Liverpool’s schedule of events may not be that ambitious, but its list of concerts, plays, poetry readings, dance, art exhibits, sports competitions and 50 festivals, offering a menu of events every week. As it continues its activities, Liverpool’s City Council set six objectives:

• To create and present the best local, national and international art and events in all genres

• To build community enthusiasm, creativity and participation

• To maintain, enhance and grow the cultural infrastructure of the city

• To increase the levels of visitors and inward investment of the city

• To reposition Liverpool as a world-class city by 2008

• To provide efficient and effective management of the Liverpool Culture company (the organization set up to organize and deliver the program)

Cultural Cachet

All in all, it’s not too bad for a former tired, unsophisticated river town. It’s also a source of inspiration for Memphis as we consider ways for our culture to become a competitive advantage for the future.

Memphis: American Capital of Culture has a wonderful ring to it. There is an organization that awards that designation in the Americas, but so far, it’s never selected a city in the U.S. or Canada. It’s also never managed to have quite the cachet of the European program after which it’s modeled, but it’s worth exploring.

Regardless, we know one international company in Memphis that invented international commerce that would be the perfect sponsor for such a designation, or for the creation of a more vibrant program to be a catalyst for progress, for showcasing our city and for building on our distinctive character and culture.