Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Next Barcelona

Gray skies and gritty reputation aside, Liverpool is trying to remake itself as a hip European destination.

Liverpool, England

Liverpool has long been known as an industrial city with blighted neighborhoods and violent crime. Rowdy fans descend for soccer games, spilling out of pubs after hours. Its biggest claim to fame: the birthplace of the Beatles.

Now, the 800-year-old port is trying to become Europe's next hip destination. This year, the city has been designated Europe's Capital of Culture, and it just launched its first fashion week. There's a digital-art gallery where there was once an old tea warehouse, designer-driven hotels and restaurants are opening and, in the fall, the city will host the MTV Europe Music Awards.

Liverpool sits along the River Mersey, once crammed with container and passenger ships and now home to a cluster of waterfront museums and galleries like the Tate Liverpool, as well as the hum of construction projects. In the city center, there are bustling piazzas with fountains or bronze statues and wide walkways lined with stores like the Gap and H&M. There are narrow streets lined with brick and stone buildings, some that date to the 1700s, that have dramatic archways and blackened chimneys jutting from sloped roofs.

On a recent Friday night in the city center, the vibe is almost South Beach-like, even though the temperature hovers around 40 degrees. Outside Kingdom Liverpool, a new nightclub that sells $13 Grey Goose martinis and VIP membership, young women in miniskirts, stiletto heels and blousy silk tops totter around without coats or sweaters.

Key to the city's rebirth is the exploitation of this year's Capital of Culture billing, an annual European Union title rotated around member countries. Culture and tourism planners in Liverpool plan to spend more than $40 million on more than 350 cultural events this year, including partial funding of one of the United Kingdom's largest exhibitions of work by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Liverpool's total spending on these events surpasses what cities such as Glasgow, Scotland, and Lille, France, spent during their reigns as the culture capital, says Beatriz Garcia, director of Impacts 08, an academic-research program funded by the Liverpool City Council.

Organizers admit the largely ceremonial culture title isn't always a catalyst for a successful makeover. It's lately been given to obscure spots like Sibiu in Romania and Patras in Greece, cities that need an economic or tourism boost. Unlike Olympics funding, there aren't necessarily major sponsors or a huge financial grant. And it isn't a solo honor. This year, Liverpool shares the title with Stavanger, Norway.

The Liverpool region's drab reputation is another challenge. More than 60% of travelers from the south of England say they're turned off by visiting northern cities like Liverpool because they're "cold, bleak and unsophisticated," according to a recent survey from hotel chain Travelodge. Many people who do visit, like Linda Atkinson, come for one reason: "We're just here for the football," Ms. Atkinson says on her recent first trip from Hartlepool, a town several hours north.

Some in Liverpool look to other cities that have overcome grey skies and violent reputations. In 1990, during Glasgow's stint as the EU's culture capital, the Royal Concert Hall opened and overall theater attendance jumped more than 40%. Today, the city is filled with artsy bars, hip hotels and critically lauded restaurants.

Some people are already noticing a change in Liverpool. Mike Dewey, who manages the new Beatles-themed Hard Days Night Hotel, moved to the city seven years ago from Cambridge. "Coming from the south, you expect your car to be pinched and your house to be broken into," he says. Instead, Mr. Dewey says, he's found a friendly place with a downtown skyline filling with new buildings since he first arrived. "It's a vibrant city."

Many of Liverpool's major cultural institutions and galleries are being overhauled. The Bluecoat, an art gallery, performance space and working artists' studio, has just undergone a $25 million expansion that will culminate in a performance by Yoko Ono during upcoming reopening festivities. Housed in the city center's oldest building, a large school for poor children built in the early 18th century, the Bluecoat has doubled its gallery space and has a restaurant with a locally sourced dinner menu. In January, Liverpool got its first large concert venue, when the 10,000-seat Echo Arena opened along the waterfront.

Liverpool is small enough that almost everywhere can be reached within less than a 25-minute walk. One drawback, however, is that most of the city's museums are stretched along the waterfront, while the rest of the major attractions are in the center of the city. They're close but separated by a busy, high-speed roadway. Tourism officials say a new shopping and entertainment area, which will have 36 buildings by 25 architects when complete, is part of a solution to merge the two areas.
Where to Stay: Liverpool has several new upscale hotels, including Malmaison in an industrial-style building along the waterfront. Room rates start around $200 a night. For Beatles fans, there's the new Hard Days Night Hotel in the city center. It's Beatles-themed, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney suites, and a swanky lobby lounge. Room rates start around $335.
What to Do: There are more than 350 cultural events this year to coincide with the Capital of Culture designation, including music performances, seminars by artists and a biennial celebrating contemporary art that starts in September (liverpool08.com). At the Tate Liverpool are major works from the 20th century, including Mondrian's "Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red" and Picasso's "Weeping Woman" (tate.org.uk/liverpool). Nearby is the new International Slavery Museum, which explores the history of slavery and slave trade around the world (liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism). For edgy, technology-based artwork, try FACT, a digital art-themed gallery that also has a movie theater showing first-run and indie films (fact.co.uk).
Where to Eat: For fine dining, Panoramic is one of the newest options, on the 34th floor of a skyscraper, with views of the River Mersey and the city (panoramicliverpool.com). The London Carriage Works is in a 19th-century factory and includes an extensive wine list and a menu with organic and locally sourced ingredients (hopestreethotel.co.uk).

Five years ago, the Foundation for Creative Art and Technology, or FACT, moved to a building on the site of a dilapidated old tea warehouse in the Ropewalks, a gentrifying neighborhood that has nightclubs and loft apartments in spaces once used for storing ship-building materials. The gallery highlights the works of well-known artists like Pipilotti Rist, whose video-installation pieces have been shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "It's an edgy city that's got character, and artists are attracted to that edginess," says Laura Sillars, the head of programming at FACT.

For tourists, there's also a new $38 million cruise terminal and a $2 billion shopping complex, opening in May. At 42 acres, it will include two hotels, more than 600 apartments and a park. High-end restaurants are rapidly opening, including Panoramic, which serves foie gras and braised lamb rump on the 34th floor of a new skyscraper, making it one of the highest restaurants in Britain.

Pinning a city's regeneration on the arts isn't a sure-fire strategy. Artists can be independent agents who don't always conform to tourism ambitions. "Managing culture is difficult," says Bryan Gray, the chairman of the Northwest Regional Development Agency, an economic development group for the area, and the chairman of Liverpool's Capital of Culture organizing group. For several years though, the government has been trying to broadly revive the Liverpool area's struggling economy, which hit a low point in the 1980s as major industries like sugar manufacturing and coal mining shuttered and crime and violence grew.

Encouraged by European Union funding and local initiatives, commercial development has been on the rise in the region. Growth industries include car manufacturing, biotech and digital technology (Sony has a videogame-development studio in Liverpool). The city is adding 30% more hotel rooms over the next 18 months.

Hotels like U.K.-based Malmaison have already opened. The 130-room property, with an exposed-steel-beam and brick interior, sits along the waterfront and features gothic-style chandeliers in the lobby and a restaurant with a chef's table in the kitchen. With sister properties in Glasgow and Belfast, Northern Ireland, the hotel looks for cities "where regeneration is maybe a little off-piste at the moment but we know it's going to be a hot spot," says Robert Cook, Malmaison's chief executive. "We like to get in early."

Beatles fans also have the new Hard Days Night Hotel, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney suites. Beatles lore is so intertwined with the city's identity that there's a constant stream of camera-toting fans on "Magical Mystery" buses stopping at John Lennon's childhood home and Penny Lane.

"My whole life, I've been listening to the Beatles," says Gustavo Gonzalez, a 22-year-old visitor from Mexico City, looking over at a bronze statue of John Lennon near the famous Cavern Club, where the band got its start. "I think tomorrow I'll probably take the Magical Mystery Tour."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Lost Hope: Once Glittering, Yangon Is Now a Ramshackle City of Fear

Despair and Neglect in Myanmar's Old Capital;
Locals See Spies on Every Corner
YANGON, Myanmar -- Fifty years ago, this city was one of the bright spots of Asia, a glittering, proud capital of a newly independent nation rich with natural resources.
A World War II era bus on the streets of Yangon.

But what I saw during a recent visit was a city in shambles -- a melancholy outpost of crumbling colonial architecture, economic neglect and deepening paranoia. These problems predate Cyclone Nargis, which shook the city and villages to the south in early May, and no doubt will continue long after the disaster recedes from glare.

Once-grand ministries and British-era mansions sit abandoned or neglected, with collapsing roofs, peeling paint and smashed windows. Unemployed youths loiter about, smoking cheap cigarettes. Hawkers scratch out a living on the street selling tobacco, knickknacks and wan produce. Jury-rigged vehicles prowl the streets; one I saw was little more than an engine and fan belt attached to a wooden platform on wheels.

Soldiers are everywhere. They walk aimlessly, looking for something to do, or gather in foyers, or ride by in military vehicles. On more than one occasion, local residents warned that some people in plainclothes were "military intelligence." In the absence of more reliable information, it was impossible to know if the locals were correct, or delusional.
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Women walked to a market in a middle class township of Yangon on May 29.

Wandering on foot in the center of town, I stopped at one of the more impressive colonial structures, a four-story red-brick office with stone lions reclining along the roofline. It looked to be abandoned. Most of the windows were cracked and open to the hot, humid air.

"There's no maintenance at all," said a man in street clothes who was acting as a guard for the building, a former High Court. Although some staff still use it, he said, others moved away after 2005 when Myanmar relocated its capital to Naypyitaw, a remote town about 180 miles to the north.

I was warned by my tour guide that the man might be "military intelligence."

Later, I walked past another British landmark with ornate latticework. The tour guide said it was once a railway office. Now, the latticework is falling off and vines grow from cracks in the facade.

"What do they use the building for now?" I asked.

"Storage," my guide said.

"What do they store there?"


I pulled out a video camera to take a shot. But I was told not to film the building, because it is a government office, and therefore "sensitive."

Most of the cars on the road date to the 1980s or early 1990s, and many appear to have been painted by hand. Locals say the government blocks most imports of private vehicles, so people are forced to keep dilapidated cars on the potholed roads long after their prime. According to a recent story in the Myanmar Times, the hottest cars in Yangon right now are the 1986/87 Nissan "Sunny Super Saloon" and the 1988 Toyota Corolla SE Limited.

I hired a newer, mid-1990s Hyundai, with fading black upholstery and power windows that didn't work. "You can keep a car in good condition for 30 years," said my driver cheerfully. With so few vehicles to go around, he said, used cars actually gain value over time in Myanmar, instead of depreciating as they do in most other countries. Owning a car "is the best investment there is," he said.

Cyclone Nargis has added to the woebegone air of Yangon. Although the city was spared some of the worst destruction that occurred in areas closer to the coast, felled trees nevertheless litter the place. Diplomats joked that at least now it's possible to see the city's historic buildings more clearly, since so many trees were uprooted or destroyed.

Crews of soldiers were busy clearing the debris, but many seemed more interested in hanging out than working. One group of a dozen or so uniformed young men sat glumly along the trunk of a giant dead tree, smoking cigarettes while one soldier gave another a haircut.

Hard-Hit Economy

The cyclone made a marginal economy even weaker. At the Scott Market, a warren of tin-roofed storefronts popular with tourists, vendor after vendor said business was lousy, and had slowed even more since the storm. One young woman proffering bright blue, red and green longyis, or Myanmar-style sarongs, said she hadn't sold anything all day.

Only about 200,000 of Myanmar's 48 million people have working mobile phones. Residents say the government controls the issuance of SIM cards and prices them beyond most budgets. Although there are 100 or so Internet cafes in Yangon -- typically located in dark, narrow storefronts -- they rely on agonizingly slow connections and require generators to offset constant power outages.

International aid workers continue to operate in Yangon, though not as many as would normally be present in the aftermath of a natural disaster because the government has refused to grant many visas. Most of the aid workers hang out at the Traders Hotel, a bunkerlike building more than 20 stories high where many nongovernmental organizations from the West also now maintain offices.

During the day, the foreigners gather in the lobby; at night, they retire to the bar, which looks a bit like an airport lounge, with too much light, a dart board, and a menu that includes fish and chips, nachos and chicken burgers.

Aid workers said they were saddened by the low standard of living, the restrictions imposed by the government, and their own lack of access to cyclone areas. Several were convinced the hotel's rooms, and the main lobby area, were bugged by the ever-present "military intelligence."

At times, the notion of an all-powerful military with spies on every corner seemed almost laughable. One afternoon I drove past the Shwedagon Pagoda, a majestic golden stupa that is one of the most famous sites in Myanmar. On my left, two soldiers in uniform sputtered by in a ramshackle red Toyota sedan that looked like it had been built in the early 1980s. As they passed, I noticed two teddy bears in the rear windshield.

Whether spies are everywhere or not, it doesn't matter; local residents believe they are being watched, and that is all that counts. The government continues to arrest citizens who are openly critical of the regime, and it sends messages to residents through state media. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper, for example, had an article warning that "unscrupulous elements" were spreading misinformation about the government's response to Cyclone Nargis.

Censorship boards decide what's shown in movie theaters, locals say. Two films were advertised along Yangon's main thoroughfare: "Aliens vs. Predator 2 -- Requiem" and "Fight Club," an Indian import bearing the same name as a Brad Pitt film.

Sanctions from the West have taken their toll, too. Among other things, they prevent U.S. banks from doing business in Myanmar. As a result, it's very difficult to use a U.S. credit card. The city functions primarily on cash; residents must carry fat wads of local currency, known as kyat. Or, they can use U.S. dollars -- but not just any greenbacks. All bills must be new and free of marks, tears or other blemishes; otherwise, they won't be accepted.

While browsing at a streetside bookseller one day, I picked out a laminated hardback titled "The New Burma," published by the Economic and Social Board of the Government of the Union of Burma in 1954. Written after Burma gained independence from Britain, but before the military came into power, it outlined bold goals for economic development, including a futuristic new engineering college and huge investments in electrical power, ports, railways and health care. A cartoon showed tractors replacing elephants for hauling lumber.

The book proudly suggested that Yangon -- or Rangoon as it then was known -- would someday have as many telephones per person as Tokyo. No one would compare Yangon to Tokyo now.