Anthony Cockerill investigates how York has responded to the economic effects of Covid-19 and discovers community spirit, passionate, independent businesses and a city poised to leverage its assets.
It was a bright, breezy Tuesday afternoon in April. As I ordered my takeaway coffee at the doorway of The Drawing Board café on New Street, I heard the clatter of wood on concrete. The man who was serving me sighed.
‘Has my sign blown over again?’ he said.
Like the rest of the coffee chains, Café Nero, just down the street, had been closed and shuttered, but next to its doorway, I’d clocked a sandwich board as I’d walked past moments ago. That’s why I was stood outside The Drawing Board café: it was open for business and serving barista coffee and toasted sourdough sandwiches.
I turned my head, looked back toward Davygate and saw the rogue sandwich board, sprawled flat out on the ground. The man wore the wearied expression of someone who had spent much of his day shuttling up and down the street, picking his sandwich board back up.
‘I’ll scoot down and sort it for you while you’re making my coffee,’ I said.
I’d never seen the streets so quiet. There was the odd sole wanderer or dog walker. A man and a woman ambled around the pavement. Usually, it would be a case of fighting through the throng of tourists. Keeping their distance, a cluster of people sat on or stood near a bench in front of what had been Debenhams, smoking and chatting. I picked up the board, attempted to position it away from the prevailing wind, and headed back to collect my drink from one of the few places actually open.
Most cafés, restaurants, bars and shops had signs in the door: a printed apology, acknowledgement and hope that trade would return in a polythene pocket, sellotaped to the inside of the glass. Near the railway station, the geese had taken advantage of the peace and quiet. One or two were even sitting on the road. Despite its maze of courtyards and snickleways, when York is empty like it was that day, it’s easy to feel agoraphobic. I’d never seen the city centre looking so sorry for itself.
As lockdown measures are eased across the UK, economic recovery could be slow and uncertain. Consumers are likely to remain cautious about spending, and as the costs of government subsidies spiral, economic recovery could stall if support measures are slashed too soon. In York, where around eight million visitors spend £765 million each year, there’s a prevailing anxiety about recovery.
Thankfully, York has a lot going for it. Unemployment is typically low. It’s got a well-educated workforce and an economy largely built on services. It’s a rail hub with direct connections to every major urban economy in England and Scotland. The rail sector itself is strong. The financial services sector is flourishing: Aviva is a strong presence across the city and the development of the Hungate Quarter has attracted insurance brokers Hiscox to commission an iconic building from Make, the architectural practice founded by Ken Shuttleworth. The city’s digital infrastructure is robust. York was designated as a UNESCO City of Media Arts in 2014 and an exciting digital creative media sector is emerging.
There are longstanding challenges too. The dominance of the tourism and retail sectors means that the average weekly wage in 2018 put York among the UK’s ten cities with the lowest weekly workplace earnings in the country, even though property prices are significantly above national average. In November 2019, research by AskTraders revealed York was the seventh declining high street in the UK. As traditional high street retailers battle with the rise of e-commerce and out of town shopping centres, several high profile retailers have left the city.
Despite these challenges, York has some serious assets to leverage as it emerges from lockdown: its role as a destination for visitors and the impressive array of independent businesses across the city, many of whom have responded with inspiring acumen and adaptability.
York Museums Trust relies on visitor admissions for most of its income. Eighty percent of the trust’s staff have been furloughed to help the trust ensure its survival. In the meantime, a small team has been working to create engaging ways for people to enjoy the objects and stories of the Trust through its websites, social media and other digital partners.
‘These include virtual tours of Kirkgate, the recreated Victorian street at York Castle Museum and online exhibitions with the Google Cultural Institute, placing historic artworks on a modern map of the city with Historypin and ration recipes from the Castle Museum archives,’ said York Museums Trust’s Lee Clark.
‘We have also used social media extensively, with weekly events such as Lie To Us – where we asked visitors to make up what an unusual object may be — and #throwbackthursdays — where we look at nostalgic items from the Castle and popular exhibitions from the past at York Art Gallery.’
The most popular idea has been #curatorbattle, which the Trust has been running on Fridays on the YMT streams since the lock-down started. ‘Every week,’ explained Lee, ‘museums and visitors are invited to put forward objects from a set theme, such as ‘dullest’, ‘prettiest’ and ‘best egg’, essentially creating an online ‘exhibition’ of objects from museums big and small, in one Twitter thread. #creepiestobject took the battle to a new level, with museums all around the world taking part and garnering news coverage on CNN, The Washington Post and BBC One’s Have I Got News For You. So far, the Tweet has been seen by more than 2.5 million people with 1.5 million engagements. The Yorkshire Museum’s Twitter has more than doubled its followers since the start of the battles.’
On the 1st June, I cycled through the city. There had been several weeks of sunshine and good weather. Construction seemed to have rumbled back into life since Boris Johnson’s appeal for people to get back to work if they could.
A few families had let their small children enjoy a taste of the outdoors. On Stonegate, a shop owner had taken the opportunity to paint the exterior of his shop front, and why not? It would never normally be this quiet. The big names remained shuttered, but where there were signs of life, it was from the city’s independent businesses.
York has long been a great city for independents. Indie York, the independent business association, estimates that more than 65% of city centre businesses are independently owned. The independent sector will no doubt be at the heart of the city’s recovery, as local traders who care passionately for the city and its people find ways to innovate and connect with their customers.
I cycled down towards Tower Street, where Greg and Ails McGee run their art gallery, According To McGee. Greg has found that customers are searching for solace in familiar images.
‘The gallery has been closed for ten weeks, but the online shop has been running better than ever,’ said Greg. ‘We have put seascapes at the front of our brand. Whether it’s the stormy nature of our times or the promise of a new start on the horizon, they have chimed very well with new collectors and seasoned clients. We’ve put clever, edgy playfulness on the back burner and have prioritised painting: cityscapes, landmarks and seascapes. And for all kinds of reasons, it has connected very, very well with our clients.’
I speculated about whether people might be seeking consolation in familiar images.
‘Paintings have been a quiet cornerstone of our gallery for years,’ said Greg. ‘Now they’re at the forefront of our commerce.’
I asked Ails about her hopes and plans for the future.
‘All happenings with crowds have been shelved, but According to McGee as a gallery with well curated paintings is ready for when lockdown lifts. I foresee a less sophisticated, less politically tribal approach to exhibitions, and more simple celebrations of nature and how it is harnessed in intuitive, aspirational paintings. The time for provocative art will come again, but only when lockdown — and the difficulties it has brought — are a memory.’
Across Skeldergate Bridge from Tower Street is Bishopthorpe Road, which has been York’s poster child for independent businesses for several years now. The street occupies an enviable position. It’s got some advantages: it’s close to the city centre and close to the river. Houses sell for an average of £337,500, compared to the city average of £282,033. The redevelopment of the old Terry’s chocolate factory close to York Racecourse into luxury flats has focused buyer interest along Bishopthorpe Road, which was voted Britain’s Best High Street back in 2015.
Whatever advantages the street might have, the success of Bishopthorpe Road can largely be attributed to the mobilisation of goodwill. The Bishy Road Traders’ Association was way ahead of the game back in 2010, when Johnny Hayes, who founded the cookshop shop Frankie and Johnny’s and Andy Shrimpton, of Cycle Heaven. Both realised the key to success was getting traders who were passionate about what they do to work together. The Association went on to organise street parties and community events. For residents and customers, there is a palpable sense of community.
Over in Acomb, house prices are below average for the city and there’s a surplus of premises along Front Street. Despite this, Acomb had begun to show plenty of signs of regeneration before the pandemic. Acomb Alive, an association of local businesses and traders eager to boost trade, was formed in 2012, and has organised successful fairs and festivals, as well as transforming the area at Christmas time. Acomb’s market, on the fourth Saturday of each month, has also provided a great focal point for local traders.
The tearoom Tea on The Green had already begun to reap the benefits of a mutual relationship with its next-door neighbour, Crooked Brewing’s popular bar, The Crooked Tap. Prior to lockdown, customers in the bar could order tapas right from the café’s kitchen next door, to be eaten with their favourite craft beer. Or if they preferred, they could take their beer with them and enjoy table service at Tea on The Green. During lockdown, both businesses have adapted their offer. The Crooked Tap has traded as The Crooked Bottle Shop, dispensing draft beer into growlers, flagons or empty milk containers. Utilising shelves from the shuttered Hop and Glory on Front Street, they’ve expanded their range of bottles and cans. Tea on The Green has continued to trade in its evening iteration as Tapas on The Green, but customers can collect their food and take it home.
Sarah and Darren O’Mahony purchased The Greengrocer of Acomb in 2018. They’ve transformed the business into something really special with locally sourced fruit and vegetables, a deli counter and a green focus that includes paper bags rather than plastic ones. Customers, unsurprisingly, have remained loyal throughout lockdown.
‘We were inundated with delivery requests,’ said Sarah. ‘We thought the shop would be quieter in lockdown and deliveries would be up, but it was both. We have gained customers who previously shopped at supermarkets, which is good for the high street, and they also say they feel safe shopping with us as they know we limit the numbers of customers to two.’
Sarah also hit on the idea of serving Sunday lunch for customers to take away. She and Darren have put various strategies in place to keep their customers safe, including enforcing distancing, installing extra hand sanitisers and stopping self-service for deli goods.
Victoria Stirk of Feeling Fine Fitness specialises in Pilates, Exercise for Older Adults, Pure Stretch and Pre and Post-Natal Exercise. As a self-employed fitness instructor, the closure of gyms and community centres was potentially devastating.
‘I have a website,’ Victoria told me, ‘so the first thing I started doing was filming Pilates stretch and legs, bums and tums videos to share online. There’s no obligation to pay, but it’s linked to Paypal, so clients can pay whatever they feel is appropriate. Now we’re able to exercise in small outside groups I have been doing this when the weather allows, which is lovely for me and my clients, as it feels like a little bit of normal life.’
I asked Victoria how she feels people have adapted to this new way of working.
‘Lockdown has shown me that we can adapt as a fitness community. I hope that people will remember this new sense of community and that we can still be there for each other. My fear is that this will happen again, but I feel hopeful that if it does, we are prepared and have the tools to continue.’
York Festival of Ideas began in June 2011 as a partnership between the University of York, York Theatre Royal, York Museums Trust, the National Centre for Early Music and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. ‘Its objective, then and now,’ says the festival’s website, ‘is to enhance York’s reputation as a city of ideas and innovation through offering the highest calibre of public events to local, regional and visitor audiences.’
Despite the festival not proceeding with its usual range of live events, the move to ‘virtual festival’ has been a success. On Tuesday 2nd June, the day after my cycle ride through the city, the festival hosted the event Roadmap to Recovery: York in a post-Covid world. Greg Dyke chaired an online symposium to discuss the recovery from the economic and social impact of Covid-19 and to explore the opportunities to drive new, inclusive economic growth. The big takeaway was the need to diversify the city’s economy in the wake of the problems faced by the high street.
When asked by Greg Dyke about opportunities for growth, the Chief Economist at global property advisors Colliers International, Walter Boettcher, pointed to a move toward innovative, mixed use schemes. ‘You’re thinking about replacing pure physical retail with more mixed use schemes, especially things that include convenience shopping; some sort of leisure facilities too that might integrate in.’
Stimulating the housing market, he argued, would be a key shot in the arm of the economy. ‘You cut Stamp Duty and you get the market rolling. Above all, residential provision is going to be driving a lot of this. A lot becomes possible when there’s a green agenda and sustainability.’
City of York Council, concerned that the reliance on heritage tourism could perhaps work against a perception of the city as a forward-thinking hub of contemporary culture, has attempted to square the circle. They began last year to shape a new strategic narrative to attract investment, visitors, rebalance the economy and to enhance the wider perception of York. Produced by a consortium of partners, the report concluded that York’s assets as a forward-thinking, innovative hub need further promotion: biosciences, creative industries, financial services, business. The York Central site, a set-piece of the city’s economic strategy, is still a long way away. The regeneration of a 45 hectare brownfield site will create up to 112,000m2 of office, leisure and retail uses. The scheme ‘ticks a lot of boxes,’ said Walter Boettcher. ‘It’s still at the stage where it offers great scope for innovation. Thinking about what the mixed uses should be so it takes on board an office component, a residential component, a tourist component. And the location is absolutely superb.’
On Saturday 4th July, cafés, restaurants and pubs can open their doors once again, although with movable screens, table service and contact tracing forms, the user experience might feel a little different from before. But it’s good news for those independent businesses who are just starting out on their journey. In Acomb, Ruby’s Coffee House is about to launch on Front Street. The former HSBC bank on York Road has been converted into apartments but on the ground floor, developments in recent weeks include some striking Greco-Roman embellishments (a marble table on the forecourt, a bust, several large planters) which has piqued local interest in the possibility that a good local restaurant is about to join the ranks of Acomb’s successful independents.
Tourism gives the city a genuine competitive advantage. The independent retail and hospitality offer of the city is strong. But the burgeoning of York’s independent businesses and the diversification of its spaces into mixed use developments is key, and it’s possible that the predicament of Covid-19 might just provide a chance for innovation. ‘When we talk about the opportunities of a crisis, when you’ve got leadership and a collective vision, then you’ve got someplace to go,’ said Walter Boettcher.
Juliana Delaney, CEO of UK visitor attraction management company Continuum, concurs. As part of the Roadmap to Recovery event, she made a convincing case for the city to avoid simply returning to things as they were. Rather, she argued, we should ‘build back better.’
The ingenuity of York’s independent business owners suggests that her optimism is far from misplaced.