A depressed north England port pins its future on culture.

HULL, UK — A century ago, this city in northern England was one of the biggest ports in the most powerful maritime nation on Earth. Ships sailed from its docks to New England, New Zealand, the Netherlands and beyond. Its fishing fleets dominated the North Atlantic.

But time has not been kind to the industries that dominated Hull’s golden age. The ports became mechanized. The fishing industry collapsed.

Like bankrupt Detroit in the United States, the city became a national byword in the UK for post-industrial deprivation. Unemployment here is almost 15 percent, nearly twice the national average.

In October, The Economist suggested that public money would be better spent moving people out of Hull than investing in this city of 250,000.

But in the dilapidated warehouses down by the docks, peeling shutters roll back to reveal artists’ workshops, recording studios and music venues.

Live music spills out of the pubs and bars on Prince’s Avenue, a newly revived thoroughfare that would fit right into hipster capitals like Portland, Oregon or Reykjavik, Iceland.

Revitalizing struggling cities through the arts is a challenge, academics say. But amid ever-shrinking public spending and endemic unemployment in England’s northern counties, those who refuse to see Hull fail are willing to take their chances.

In November, Hull beat 11 other cities to be named the second UK City of Culture. The city will host a yearlong program of festivals, performances, artists’ residencies and other cultural events in 2017.

 

Last year, Londonderry in Northern Ireland became the first place to wear the UK City of Culture crown. Bestowed by the national government, the quadrennial prize gives a social and economic boost to cities with promising but underdeveloped cultural offerings.

Hull’s government has pledged $5.7 million toward the event’s $24.5 million cost, with the rest paid by national government grants and private donors.

That’s no pocket change in a strapped city. Officials, however, are banking on a knock-on effect in employment and tourism. The City of Culture designation could bring 1,500 new jobs and up to $300 million in revenue over five years, according to city estimates.

Boosting the city’s services and entertainment offerings could help Hull woo multinational corporations for renewable energy projects and other large-scale investments, said Councillor Steven Bayes.

Hull has a rich and varied cultural history stretching almost as far back as its seafaring one.

Chaucer’s Shipman gave it a shout-out in “The Canterbury Tales.” The 17th-century poet and politician Andrew Marvell hailed from Hull. So did the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie’s backup band in his Ziggy Stardust days.

The poet Philip Larkin spent 30 years as the University of Hull librarian. He described his adopted city as “a little on the edge of things” geographically. It sits at the end of the train line, a hefty detour from Britain’s main north-south highways.[More]