Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Unity is Strength

You don’t hear much about Wakefield. The Rugby team, Trinity, haven’t won much since the early sixties. Their old Belle Vue ground formed the backdrop to that cracking film This Sporting Life probably the best sports film ever made.

Wakefield has at last got something to cheer about. It is undergoing a cultural renaissance. It began with the opening of the contemporary art gallery, the Hepworth, the name is taken from one of the city’s most famous daughters, Barbara Hepworth, that giant of post-war sculpture. That may come as a surprise unless you know that Wakefield is home to the iconic Yorkshire sculpture park.

Opening in 1977 its 500 acres of open air galleries includes works by both Hepworth and that other great Yorkshire sculptor Henry Moore. The renaissance continued with the opening of Wakefield One the new council emporium which included a new library opened by Jarvis Cocker in 2012 and a new Museum opened by David Attenborough in 2013.

Personally I preferred the old museum building and I don’t like the way the council talks about the citizens of this great Yorkshire City as customers but hey a new library at a time of austerity cannot be a bad thing.

Another well known Wakefield venue is the category A prison which is the home of some of Britain’s most dangerous criminals. Being a prison officer does not mean however that you are conservative. Wakefield’s officers have a very radical past as they where responsible for founding the Wakefield Industrial Co-operative Society back in 1867.

The society grew quickly and by the turn of the twentieth century was ready to expand its central premises. Following a design competition Abraham Heart of Wakefield won with his vision of Unity an intriguing mixture of gothic and Flemish architecture. The extension took three years to build and included a magnificent hall.

I am sure that an architectural critic would tell us that this building is a jumble of styles full of ornate craftsmanship, glorious stained glass and chock full of co-operative symbolism. This building should not work but somehow it does.

Sadly in recent times a place for everything from silent movies, to wrestling, symphony orchestras to ballroom dancing was in a terrible state of repair. The venue for so much of Wakefield life looked like it would go the same way as the Wakefield Co-op Society.

That is why I am so pleased that the icing on the cake of this cultural rebirth is that of Unity Hall. Forty years after the Wakefield Co-op disappeared the building was taken over by the local authority but only partially used then in 1994 the council sold the building then for a few years it was used as a place for music students to learn their trade.

It was still a music venue during the late 1970s and early 1980s; it attracted some of the biggest acts in the glam, punk, post-punk and heavy metal era. The Specials, Boomtown Rats, Human League, The Skids, The Only Ones, Iron Maiden, Penetration, Eurythmics and Def Leppard had all strutted their stuff at Unity Hall.
In this era its claim to fame is as the first place The Pretenders ever played. Unity Hall, 1978 supporting Wakefield power-pop band Strangeways, is one for the rock history books.
Fans who had loved these gigs and the place and seeing the state it was in began to try to save it. What turned these aspirations into a serious project was Chris Hall. He was a consultant on property developments but realised that there needed to be a new way of developing cultural businesses through co-operatives.
He started working on Unity Works, the name for the redevelopment project in 2010 and created the co-op that could deliver what everyone wanted the following year, becoming the Development Director and Chair.
Since 2011 when a Community Benefit Co-op was established, with membership/shares at £200 each working in partnership with the City Council they put together a £4.4million scheme to completely reclaim the hall.
It has worked and they have done a magnificent job. The venue is amazing with a 600-seater major hall and 150-seater minor hall. The renovation has uncovered many original features such as floor mosaics, the incredible roof in the main concert room and even an original lift sign.
As well as a terrific concert venue, it has office space, an art gallery, independent retail space and conference facilities. The work is not quite complete. Phase two will see a bar and café, expected to open in December.
This month the Year Zero festival saw the Damnned return to the stage of Unity for the first time since 1981.  This old venue is better than ever and very much alive and kicking. And here is one for all our diaries, Remembering the Miners Strike, a day-long national event supported by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and the NUM ay Unity Works on 7 March 2015.
This building now looks great a combination of the best of the old and the new and it has made one old co-operator very happy that an iconic co-op building has been co-operatively saved and put into co-operative use!