The Culture Vulture – Spark:York

In a new monthly column, our resident Canadian, E. Anne Dawson, explores York’s cultural side and shares her thoughts. This month she visited Spark:York. Pray silence…


There’s been a buzz of equal parts interest and disdain vibrating through the social media ether of York for nearly a year now. ‘Tearing down a relic’, some voices waiver in chagrin. ‘It’ll be an eyesore’. But on the other side of the grass-is-always-greener fence, come the celebratory hurrahs for progress. Development! New things! Flatten York to the ground and build it anew! Okay, so no one is actually going that far. Nevertheless, here I am, to say, come on people, don’t tie your panties in a knot!

Right, first off, I guess I’ve just outed myself and should give a brief introduction. I am Canadian. Yes, I say panties, not knickers. And we tie them in a knot when we’re distressed about silly things; we don’t get them in a bunch. And when I groan that my pants are dirty, it’s because I’ve spilled coffee on my, well, pants, because where do we wear underpants? UNDER OUR PANTS. Therefore, PANTS go on TOP. On the OUTSIDE. This makes sense, people. You might have invented the language, but we’ve spiffed it up with logic over in Canada.

Already digressing, am I? Sorry. (Don’t get me started on the apology war. As a Canadian, I promise I will win!) Back on track.

So I was invited to the family and friends preview night at the new Spark:York development on Piccadilly. I’ve lived here long enough to know the history of this corner. Located at the former site of Reynaud’s Garage, which has been derelict (so… not a relic) for over two decades and a boarded-up demolition site since 2015, the area had been long forgotten in the minds of locals, and certainly wasn’t attracting any tourists. Enter Spark:York, a cultural hub of local vendors. So far, so good; surely all of York would embrace it, right? And yet, there have been some unhappy rumblings among the city’s purists. Why? Because it’s made of up-cycled shipping containers. Every single restaurant, shop and even the outdoor stage, is housed in a used shipping container.

Now, I’m all for tradition and embracing history. I’ve come to learn that most of you British people think my people live in igloos and forage alongside wolves and moose for our dinner. Tea? Supper? Even you guys can’t keep it straight! Anyway, Canadians also have a highly romanticised idea of the UK, and it’s basically York. Old fortress walls. Rambling, twisty streets with timber-framed buildings that teeter and sag at impossible angles. Evidence of Vikings and Romans. And of course, a pub on every corner. So needless to say, I love this city and its history. Yet, I’ve been a staunch supporter of the Spark:York development since its inception. Before you click onto another page in disgust, hear me out. Let me remind you of some of the other great “eyesores” (or, unique ideas that engage the public and increase tourism. You say tomahto, I say tomayto. Literally.) of history.

What an Eye-full

First up, the Eiffel Tower. This iconic beauty was built for the 1889 World’s Fair, and guess what? Parisians, a people known for their tolerance art, culture and style, hated it. Held protests. Sent a petition to the Ministry of Works to have it torn down. And yet, in the 200 years since, it’s become synonymous with Paris. Although with the machine-gun-armed police force marching around its base these days, let’s say it’s lost a tiny bit of that old-world charm. Still, from a distance (and you can see that sucker from basically any point in Paris. It’s like the York Minster of Paris! Although I hear they call the Minster the Eiffel Tower of York. Snobs.) it’s bang-on iconic, innit? (Look at me embracing local lingo!)

And what about the London Eye? This is a much more recent example, but it too has become an iconic part of the landscape. I have to admit, I sided with the protests over this one. This “millennial” gift (thankfully man-buns were still a decade away from becoming the true millennial gift, one that sadly just keeps on giving) to London’s skyline seemed entirely out of character; too incongruous and garish. All carnival and no culture. And don’t even get me started on its official name, the ‘Coca-Cola London Eye.’ I’ve worked in sponsorship for non-profit arts organisations. I know how important corporate funds can be. But the idea of selling the naming rights to a building or event really gets me. Can you imagine if that was a thing in the 17th century? I guess we’re lucky The Globe isn’t called ‘The Pie-Corner Globe’ (look it up, I don’t think the sensors would appreciate a full explanation of that one). I wonder if the new sugar tax impacts the London Eye? Does it have to pay 20 per cent more Council tax? Anyway, I digress. I told you not to get me started.

Waste not

So back to Spark:York. It’s not in keeping with York’s architecture, I’ve heard. Shipping containers? Ridiculous, complain some of the old-schoolers from their online soap box. Look. We all know that York was founded nearly 2000 years ago. It’s as old as Christianity, yo. And we embrace the Roman parts (those that remain, because we built over them, because times change and culture evolves). We adore the Viking parts (those that remain because, again, progress). We fall over ourselves for the medieval parts… you know where I’m going with this, right? Society, culture, commerce, art… it all evolves. We can’t keep building new things that look like old things. Eventually, we’d become obsolete. A laughing stock, at least. York would be that guy on your street who still styles his hair in a flock of seagulls.

And here’s another thing we can’t keep doing: building brand new shiny things from brand new shiny materials that leave a massive environmental footprint. Spark:York is basically zero-waste. Yes, that’s the trendy buzz-word of the year, but it’s also the title of a movement that wants to start rebuilding the planet for future generations. The disposable society of the ’80s simply isn’t sustainable. Up-cycling shipping containers is a brilliant use of existing infrastructure. So instead of pouting about this fresh new development, consider the benefits for your grandkids.

Spark:York has developed a former demolition site into a vibrant, innovative shopping and eating destination. While the city centre seems to be turning into a mecca for London and American chains, Spark:York has uniquely local vendors and ideas. There’s a cocktail bar with swings in it. Wine on tap at another site. Vegan food, stone-fired pizza, and a pay-as-you-like café that uses intercepted food (and even has a little zero-waste shop). There’s an open-air stage, lots of public seating, and a lovely little garden space. The shipping containers and tables are decorated with urban graffiti art, giving the up-cycled containers a vibrant new lease on life. And hey, if you miss medieval York, The Red Lion Inn, complete with its timber-framed construction, is a stone’s throw away. Literally, you could throw stones at it from Spark:York’s upper level. But maybe don’t. It’s a relic. Iconic. A piece of York heritage. So you see, the old and the new can co-exist.

Right, now, pardon me, but I have to go find my pet moose and head out to the North York Moors to rustle up some tea. Cheers!


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