TL:DR I don’t know what the answer is, but there’s something soulless about the town centre with its performing arts venues all locked down due to the CoronaVirus.
I’m particularly gutted for the school and college students who had to go through this year – especially those taking public exams and having nowhere to celebrate them. For both GCSEs and A-Levels in the mid-late 1990s like many I went to a pub. First time around I got more drunk than I’ve ever done, sicked up everywhere, and promised I’d never do it again. I was more sober post-A-levels because amongst other things we all knew we’d all be going our separate ways for ever. And I also knew at the time I wasn’t ready for that.
Fast forward to 2020 and Cambridge is a very different place for so many reasons. Even more so comparing this year to last year. Popping into town to run a few errands, browse history books and try to figure out what to do next on Lost Cambridge in the face of so many contradictory emotions, instincts, advice and even laws, the posters stating the continued closure of the Cambridge Arts Theatre was a grim reminder of the shut down of the arts. This was the first theatre I went to as a child when my late grandparents took me to see Paddington the Musical in the mid-1980s.
The rails of various churches and chapels were stripped of their laminated posters of events, shows, talks, concerts, workshops and recitals. Tourist numbers are noticeably down. It’s hard to tell what a ‘normal’ level of local shoppers would be, but by the looks of things this wasn’t nearly enough to replace the tourism trade. And things are grim for retailers, in particular the independent ones who I always seem to overhear in bookshops!
As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, I don’t think the acquisition of more stuff is going to make up for the downturn. I’m torn on one side trying to be as cautious as I reasonably can in the face of the pandemic spending most of my time at home, while at the same time being desperate for interesting conversation and life experiences. Hard to do without putting others at risk in the current circumstances. It was in the grand scheme of things a lovely sunny day – a change from the heavy rain of the past few days that followed the intense heatwave. And what’s happening in Siberia and Greenland is horrific. As if to rub salt in the environmental wound, a cargo ship has hit the rocks on the island of Mauritius, which is where part of my family is from.
The Cambridge Corn Exchange has started cancelling some of its events scheduled for the later autumn. Again I can’t see how large packed events can go ahead in the current climate. Other than one of the park’n’ride car parks, it’s hard to see where in Cambridge we could host a large outdoor gig that was pioneered at Gosforth Park recently.
It’s strange to put the question like this but when we think of Cambridge’s town centre and its people, take away the students and the tourists and you’ve got what was a regional economic centre. But in the face of a pandemic where more people are working from home, few are choosing (quite understandably) to come into town, and more (myself included) are finding not just a better selection but some of the things we need that we cannot otherwise find in the shops in town…what and who is Cambridge’s town centre for? This is also a question every other town and city in its own context is probably asking itself in the face of so many retailers closing for good. While the historic towns with grand buildings will continue to be a draw for visitors, there’s a real risk that other towns will see the ‘doughnut effect’ where town centres get hollowed out while developers press to push for more building on the edge of towns due to the greater profits from planning gain to be made there, plus less work needed for land remediation.
I don’t know what the solutions will be, but I hope there are people working on it and I hope they have substantial resources behind them in their work. Because life without art, drama, music, and our stories isn’t life at all. It’s just existence.