Thursday, 15 January 2009

Capturing Cardiff: can Cardiff's historical arcades survive the 21st century?

Cardiff is a city of shops. That, I remember, was one of my first impressions of the Welsh capital when I moved here last October. It seemed shopping and being shopped at were primary activities that kept the local population busy. No matter what time of day, or whichever day of the week, the main pedestrianized drag of Queen Street or the various glass-fronted shopping malls that led off it would be awash with people; shoppers bearing their bags, having a pause at the nearest cafĂ©, before setting off on round two. It wasn’t till a few days later that I discovered some very special parts of the city that put its retail profile today in an historical perspective. Cardiff was not a city of shops after all. More accurately put, it was one of arcades.

In total, there are 12 arcades in the city’s centre ranging from Royal Arcade, the oldest, built 150 years ago in 1858, to the very newest, St David’s 2 (pictured below) due to open its doors later this year in September. 

For most visitors to Cardiff, myself included, it is the older, harder-to-find historic arcades that capture the imagination with their old-age charm, stylish architecture and independent shops. In fact, these arcades of the late 1800s and early 1900s are integral to the character of the city. For many they are monuments preserving the pride of an era that saw the region flourish on the profits from the mines. For others, they are part of what makes Cardiff unique: the city boasts the highest concentration of Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades in the UK. I've pinpointed the six oldest ones and the busy central indoor market on this satellite map.

View Larger Map

Unfortunately, recent events may be putting the arcades’ future in jeopardy. The impending St David's 2 development, a plan to prevent car access to St Mary’s Street (a road that many arcades open out onto) and, of course, the looming economic recession mean many shops they house are facing tougher times than ever before. Nick Turner and his family have run the Digital Camera Centre from the Morgan Arcade for 35 years. Without a thriving online business running alongside the traditional shop, he says they would not have survived so long. He doesn’t know how neighbouring businesses not exploiting the Internet can afford to keep afloat. In the coming months he says, ‘ I wouldn’t be surprised if ten percent of the shops in the arcade closed down.’

With similar sentiments is Andrew Mitchell, owner of Capital Books (captured in the picture below), a second-hand bookshop in the neighbouring Royal Arcade.

While surviving 25 years in the arcade, he has witnessed many newer shops come and go, crippled by rising rents and the drop in passing trade. Partly to blame for this, he claims, is the ongoing pedestrianization of St Mary’s Street, which has turned people away from that entrance to the arcade as well as the lack of vehicle access on the other side of the arcade due to building works on the St David’s 2 shopping centre on The Hayes. 

The saddest loss for many has been the demise of Woodies, a 112 year-old men’s clothing emporium that closed its doors last December. Its disappearance came just months after owner Ray Beacon commented on the dramatic loss of trade due to St Mary’s street plans. A second branch in Bristol closed too: immediately after the new Broadmead Shopping Centre opened in the town centre, trade for the independent business dwindled by a half.

While the St David’s 2 development may carry similar risks to Cardiff’s arcades' smaller, independent stores, most owners are holding out in the hope the centre will attract enough new trade to the city that there'll be benefits for all. Added to this are local people's sentiments about the arcades which might serve to protect them for the future. As David Hughes-Lewis, owner of
Jonathan David Jewellers in Morgan Arcade, says, ‘the arcades are the heart of Cardiff and nobody wants to see that heart ripped out’.

A place in time

In the light of the St David's 2 development, local artist Jennie Savage is embarking on "The Arcades Project: a 3D documentary." By inviting participation from shopkeepers and customers of the historical arcades and the central market she hopes to draw on local knowledge to create archives and insights into the life and times of the spaces held within the architecture of the arcades. The project is inspired by a study of Parisian arcades in the 1920s by Walter Benjamin. He considered the arcades to be 'the most important architectural form of the 19th century'. Perhaps through bearing witness to their past, through photographs, interviews and oral histories, this project might act to secure a place and a meaning for the arcades in the future.

For more about what inspired Jennie's project please click on the audio link below.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Power and the revolution

The media revolution rages on and continues to affect you, me, and the 1.4 billion other people online. The ying and yang of our new media world, according to Anthony Mayfield, are the 'search' and the 'social'. He sees the two existing in symbiosis, the one sustaining the other - a partnership that's mutually beneficial, useful and fair.

The social is easy to identify - that's us, the 1.4 billion; the search is easier to locate because it lies in far fewer hands, hands that are reaching out to grab us to steer our way through the worldwide web. It's hardly surprising that Google, the Internet's most successful navigation tool, now tracks over 1 trillion web pages, a massive, exponentially growing figure representing just a quarter of what's actually out there.

Now with 80% of the UK market share, Google defined what search engines are today and helped make the Internet work. Unlike Yahoo, who put their highest paying ads at the top of the page, Google won users over by putting our needs first. in a Google search, only the best and most useful ads can nudge their way to the top.

Increasingly, Google holds the key to the Internet's superabundance of content. The company enjoys a widely accepted monopoly on the worldwide search market. As the 'social', our acceptance of it is grounded on trust and the belief it's 'doing the right thing'. Can a brand that fits so smoothly into our daily lives and that has such an innocuous motto as "Don't do evil", be anything but a benevolent giant? Is this the ying and yang harmony of web media in play?

How then a couple of years ago did Google do the unthinkable when it decided to self-censor to create in China? Why did the world's biggest information giver come to deny the very freedom of that information? Despite Google's protestations, its presence in China appeared at odds with the company's founding mission. Google argues it will play a more powerful and useful role by participating in China than by boycotting it. By avoiding the Chinese web firewall through searches from within China, it promised a faster and easier engine for users.
Opinons divided over the issue. For some, Google's move was a pragmatic business decision. If you're big on the Internet, you'll want to be big in China. The deal allowed it greater access to China's fast-growing market and to directly compete with, the region's most popular search engine.

For others, Google was helping itself more than China; more "do no evil, unless it's with communists." In failing to square its ethical stance with its global ambitions, the company helped deny Chinese people the knowledge and understanding of democracy that might be the only way forward to improve their human rights and society. As such, aids Chinese authorities by compounding ignorance of sensitive issues within its own history. The Beijing University students in this video are perplexed when shown images of tanks on Tiananmen Square.

No mention of 1989s bloody student protests there can be found through Mayfield's ying and yang/search and social hardly exists here, the relation between the two cannot be described in black and white, rather varying shades of grey.

So has Google 'done the right thing' by China, itself, or, equally, by web media and its future? Now is the time for influential players like Google to stand up for their values and be counted. It's disappointing that Google, with its huge influence and power, risk setting the ethical bar dangerously low, by acting on market pressure rather than principle. Can ethics survive the Internet revolution? Black or white, yes or no, there was no third way for Google in China, but was it a price worth paying?