- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 14, 2005

NEWCASTLE, England — Northern England was once known for the gritty factories, shipyards and coal mines that drove its economy, then for their wrenching departure and the despair and unemployment that followed.

Now Newcastle, an epicenter of the old, industrial north, is at the heart of the new — confident, dynamic, thriving again.

Gone are the spitting smokestacks and sooty air. The old Baltic flour mill across the Tyne River in Gateshead has been remade as a sleek, sophisticated modern art museum. Rooms that once stored grain are filled with abstract paintings and hulking sculptures.

Nearby is the new Sage Music Centre, an undulating stainless steel building whose curves echo those of the arched 19th century bridges nearby. They’ve been joined by the elegant Millennium Bridge, known as the “Blinking Eye” for the unusual way it tilts to let ships pass beneath.

“We’ve stepped over the threshold into a completely new era,” said social historian Bill Lancaster, director of the Center for Northern Studies at Northumbria University. “The northeast is the first part of Britain to de-industrialize.”

Friends visiting from more prosperous southern England are always surprised by the city’s comeback and the beauty of the surrounding countryside, said Adrian Burdon, 42, a Methodist minister who lives in nearby County Durham.

“This isn’t the traditional image of the River Tyne,” he said, gazing out over the modern waterfront from the Baltic’s top floor. “It’s got this dark, grimy image. It doesn’t fit the new reality.”

Northern England is still far poorer than the south, where London attracts international money and talent, but its regeneration has turned the old regional stereotypes and rivalries inside out.

Now, boosters say, the area is on its way back up, finding its groove again, generating buzz and grabbing a limelight that’s gone elsewhere since the 1960s, when those four famous northerners, the Beatles, taught the world about Liverpool cool.

In class-conscious Britain, the industrial north was long considered a workaday, unsophisticated younger sibling to the high-flying south.

Northern shipyards, factories and mines powered the Industrial Revolution and provided grueling but well-paid jobs for generations of men. Economic and political power, though, always lay in the south, especially the capital.

Northerners tended to view southerners as arrogant and snobbish, obsessed with making money and always in a rush. Southerners saw those in big industrial cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle as working-class hicks, crude and uneducated, with laughable accents that instantly identified them as “coomin’ from oop north.”

While some of those preconceptions survive, they appear to be fading and the economic foundations they were based on have shifted significantly.

Many northern cities have tried to rejuvenate themselves through culture and tourism, although it’s too soon to say whether these can sustain long-term growth.

Liverpool, in the northwest, won the title of European Capital of Culture for 2008 on the strength of attractions such as its Tate Liverpool art museum and the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, a film, video and digital media center.

The city plans a yearlong festival of art, dance, fashion, literature, theater and music, and expects to turn a handsome profit.

All this marks a huge turnaround from the 1980s, when northern coal miners and hard-left Liverpool politicians were waging all-out war on Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s rollback of British socialism.

Throughout the region, services have replaced manufacturing as the economic linchpin, and many say the change has forced the once-insular north to embrace the world in a whole new way.

“People are becoming more open in their thinking,” said Mr. Burdon, the minister. “The older generation were born and bred in the street where they live and the younger ones have moved around; it’s broadened their outlook a little.”

Leeds, in Yorkshire, has become a major financial center, with thousands of jobs in fields like banking, insurance and advertising. Call centers provide lots of work, although wages are generally low and many worry the centers may follow manufacturers overseas.

Unemployment, a double-digit agony in the 1980s and early ‘90s, has fallen to 6.0 percent in the northeast and 4.5 percent in the northwest, compared to 4.7 percent nationwide, with most of the growth in the service sector.

Mr. Lancaster at Northumbria University said living standards are 1.8 times as high as in the 1980s.

“We’ve had a lot of improvements; it’s brilliant compared to what it used to be,” said Sue Telford, 48, a nurse waiting for a friend in Newcastle’s busy Elton Square shopping district.

Alex Milne, a retired industrial chemist walking home in the leafy Jesmond neighborhood of Newcastle, was less impressed, although he conceded life is getting better.

“Very slowly, very reluctantly, we come kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” he said.

The future is still not clear. Many of the new industries are volatile and transient, and some parts of the north still lag badly in education and health. Low unemployment figures are a little too rosy, skewed by former miners and factory workers on disability benefits who don’t count as unemployed, said Andrew Gillespie, geography professor at the University of Newcastle.

Still, it’s clear the north is moving on, and those who love it say it retains its charms — warmth, community and a sense of fun.

“I don’t like London at all,” said Mrs. Telford, the nurse. “It’s the eternal rat race. Everybody’s always rushing around, and they don’t have time to be friendly.”

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