The Fall and Rise of Margate

Seb Reilly is a writer and fiction author from Thanet, my own home town, and I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of his work; he deserves to be more widely published, and that’s thankfully starting to happen. Take a look at his website – http://www.sebreilly.com – and see what he has to say.

Margate has got a lot of press recently due to the regeneration of the town, the reopening and subsequent troubles of Dreamland, and the influx of arty-types moving from London. The phrase ‘Shoreditch-on-Sea’ is often used, as are the words ‘hipster’ and ‘gentrification.’

Having grown up in Margate and seen it decline from a seaside town still managing to pull in holidaymakers to a dead wasteland on life-support, it is highly refreshing to see it moving in the opposite direction. Shortly after the turn of the millennium I moved away for a few years and enjoyed the city life, but I missed the sea. When I returned, Margate had fallen to its lowest point. The high street was desolate, properties were boarded up, and there was no positive news about the town at all. Cliftonville, a district within Margate, contained some of the poorest streets in Kent, and there seemed to be no hope.

Since then, investment in arts and culture has slowly built momentum, and now the once empty shopping districts are thriving. No longer full of traditional high street retailers and chain stores, Margate is now fuelled by independent businesses and shops, along with galleries and art spaces.

The growth in culture has brought a wave of creatives from London. They have relocated to Margate to find the sea, cheap properties, and a booming artisan environment. This has created some tension between the newcomers and the locals, but that is not necessarily anyone’s fault.

The reason friction exists is because elements of both groups appear to think that Londoners are bringing art to the indigenous philistine population, as if missionaries of culture, but this is simply not true. Art has been part of Margate forever, and will continue to be. JMW Turner famously painted the skies over the harbour, and the Turner Contemporary gallery is situated on the edge of the harbour arm in his honour. Lovelys Gallery has been in the centre of Margate for 125 years, exhibiting work by local artists. Londoners are not bringing culture, they are drawn to it, and bringing their own flavour.

Having spent my entire life working in some form of creative industry, and dabbling in others, I am well aware of the community of artists and creatives that has populated Margate even through the dark times when everyone else had left. Those people are still in the town, and the newcomers are joining them, not replacing them. There is always enough room for more creativity; there should be no competition in art.

Unfortunately, some of the local inhabitants see the incoming Londoners as having some form of Messiah complex where they bring the good word of creativity to the savages. These people ask why the ‘cool collective’ – a term I despise – are only doing things to benefit each other and their own middle-class bubble of yoga cafés, vinyl stores, and galleries, whilst preaching community and inclusion. In fact, the owners of those businesses are working alongside the longstanding local firms to rejuvenate the town; collaborating on projects that benefit the entire area, applying for funding as a group and working together voluntarily to improve the town as a whole. They are not turning up and trying to change things, they are getting involved in the change that is already happening and adding more weight to it.

The response from some of the artisan hipster crew is to question why art should benefit the community when it is just self-expression. However, paintings are not designed to hang in a cupboard, but on a wall to be viewed. Books are not written to be kept in a drawer, but to be read. Music is meant to be heard and film is supposed to be watched. Art is, by its very nature, a community product, and by definition is exhibited. Whether someone is refitting an empty shop window to be more aesthetically pleasing and encourage shoppers to visit the local high street rather than the out-of-town shopping centre, or they are locked away in a workshop sculpting with clay, the result is the same: something for others to enjoy.

I find it disconcerting that certain members of the two camps insist on taking sides. Collaboration enhances creativity, it doesn’t quash it, and the more diverse the input, the more eclectic and exciting the output. My hope is that those within Margate – and other towns like it – who raise objections to all this beauty and positivity realise that the driving force behind the regeneration and creativity has been there all along, there just were not enough voices singing to the same tune, and instead of arguing they join in.

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