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Locals turn forgotten Liverpool streets into art prize favourite
Empty houses are seen on Cairns Street, part of the Granby Four Streets area in Liverpool, north west England on July 3, 2015. In Liverpool's Granby neighborhood, proud residents and a group of architects have brought back to life the area's four remaining Victorian streets, earning them a nomination for Britain's prestigious Turner Prize for contemporary art. AFP PHOTO / PAUL ELLIS.

By: Jessica Berthereau

LIVERPOOL (AFP).- In Liverpool's Granby neighbourhood, proud residents and a group of architects have brought back to life the area's four remaining Victorian streets, earning them a nomination for Britain's prestigious Turner Prize for contemporary art.

Once the vibrant heart of the city's black community, "after the (1981) riots, the area was closed down," explained Erika Rushton, Chair of Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust (CLT).

With clubs and shops closing down, tenants being evicted and homeowners fleeing the area, its traditional Victorian houses were mostly demolished, to be replaced by ugly and discordant social housing.

The last four blocks of terraced houses were saved in the 1990s thanks to a few dozen owners who refused to leave. But all successive renovation projects have failed and three quarters of the 200 remaining houses were empty for over 20 years.

"In 2010-2011 the last of those schemes collapsed," said Theresa McDermott, resident and manager of the local market with husband Joe.

"So we thought 'what about a plan that says this is not about one big solution for the area, it's about lots of little solutions'."

A handful of residents began "guerrilla gardener", planting flowers in any spare patch of land. They then painted the windows and doors of abandoned houses and launched a monthly street market.

"That made us feel better but it also changed people perceptions," said McDermott, adding it was "the main reason why the council and investors started listening to us. 

"It made us seem much more resilient as a community."

Mystery investor 
As part of the CLT, founded by residents in 2011, the council agreed to hand over ownership of ten houses. 

The CLT caught the eye of architectural firm Steinbeck Studios, whose founder Xanthe Hamilton was looking for a project on behalf of an investor.

The backer, who wishes to remain anonymous, "said 'if residents invest their time and energy, I will invest my money'," explained Rushton. 

"Instead of seeing people as an obstacle to regeneration, he saw them as an asset."

Steinbeck Studios also put the CLT in contact with Assemble, a group of young architects specialising in projects combining art, design and architecture, particularly in struggling communities.

"Instead of coming with their own plans, they listened, they put our vision into words and pictures," said Rushton. 

"For example, they saw the planting as an ultimate priority that must be retained."

"It was really good having a meeting of minds because we already had our vision quite firmly in place about not just getting the houses renovated but keeping the community and trying to get people back," added McDermott.

Everybody's story 
Thanks to the investor's interest-free £500,000 (704,000 euros, $780,800) loan, the CLT was able to raise a further £500,000 and begin renovating 10 houses, of which five are nearing completion.

Others were soon attracted by the area's dynamism, including local social housing groups. Two of the four streets are now full of scaffolding and swarming with workmen.

"It will be the best place to live in the city, I'm convinced of it," said Ann O'Byrne, deputy mayor of Liverpool.

"We've got a huge job to do now," added Ronnie Hughes, who writes a blog about Granby. 

"There are going to be 200 families when there were 50, so we're effectively grafting a new community onto the old own."

For their part, Assemble members have kept a low profile, even though they are now favourites to scoop the prestigious art prize at a ceremony on December 7. 

"They are very aware that though it's they who have been nominated for the prize, the efforts of a lot of people have made this happen," said Rushton

"It's not their story, it's everybody's story."

© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse

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