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Hull, 1970s. Luis Bustamante

Luis Bustamante and Carmen Bräuning Rodriguez arrived at Hull’s Paragon Station on Christmas Eve, 1974. As Bustamante recounts in Kingston upon Hull 1970s, a collection of his photographs published in 2017 by Café Royal Books, the ‘misty and cold’ northern city was in stark contrast to Buenos Aries, where their journey had begun 48 hours earlier in the mid-afternoon summer sun. Bustamante and Rodriguez had fled to the Argentinian capital from Chile in the wake of what they and many of their compatriots call ‘the first 9/11’, the US-backed coup in September 1973 that ousted the democratic socialist Salvador Allende and installed a military dictatorship under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet. Under Pinochet’s brutal rule, Chile became the testing ground for a neoliberal counter-revolution largely devised by American economists.

Luis and Carmen were among thirty Chilean refugees and their families who would eventually settle in the city thanks to the organising efforts of the Hull branches of Academics for Chile (AFC) and the Chile Solidarity Campaign (CSC). After the coup, tens of thousands of Chilean academics, students, trade unionists and leftists were tortured, murdered, or expelled from the country. Alongside the Chile Committee for Human Rights (CCHR), AFC and the CSC sought to provide support to Chilean exiles to highlight atrocities taking place in the country, and to lobby the British government. Both the CSC and AFC had been established immediately after the coup—the first copy of the CSC magazine, Chile Lucha, was published barely a month after Pinochet had taken power—and by 1977 hundreds of universities and colleges and over 30 national trade unions were associated with the campaigns. Local CSC Committees were established in every major city and many large towns and soon played a central role in maintaining pressure on Harold Wilson’s new Labour government, which took office in March 1974. Coordination between the three groups, and others, came from the Joint Working Group for Refugees from Chile (JWG). [1]

As well as continuing his studies at Hull University, Bustamante spent much of the 1970s documenting life in the city. His photos ‘came without much of a plan’. They offer a spontaneous, street-level view and vividly capture a sense of the life and temperament of the idiosyncratic, end-of-the-line city on the north bank of the vast Humber estuary. The photo that adorns the cover of Kingston upon Hull 1970s shows a small child balancing on the closed boot of a car, his head turned to gaze, open-mouthed down the lens, a tambourine tightly clutched in his left hand. Scenes of conversation are a frequent subject (a nod, perhaps, to the distinctive Hull accent that Bustamante and his fellow Chileans initially found almost impossible to understand). Two old men exchange brief words in front of the window of a butcher’s, a group of teenagers chat next to the photo booth outside Paragon Station which, my mum reliably informs me, was one of their main weekend meeting points. Bustamante’s subjects are often depicted looking straight back at the camera. Among his most memorable shots is of a queue at a bus stop in the city centre. The two grinning men at the back are counterposed by the three women staring at the photographer with varying combinations of wariness and scepticism. A fourth woman peers down the street, apparently more concerned with the whereabouts of her bus, but maybe also peering over out of the corner of her eye.

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Hull, 1970s. Luis Bustamante

Bustamante’s photos also powerfully convey a sense of how eventful the middle decades of the twentieth century were for the city. In one photo, the left half of the frame is occupied by the imposing concrete blocks of the Hull College of Technology (now Hull College) building, which had opened in 1962. The city’s statue of politician and slave trade abolitionist William Wilberforce emerges above the distinctive pitched roof of the new art studios. On the far right of the frame is a half-demolished building, its doors and windows bricked up. In the centre of the frame, a small row of houses looks out over a patch of waste ground. In the foreground, a cyclist sails past on the uneven road.

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Hull, 1970s. Luis Bustamante

Like other industrial cities in the North, Hull had rapidly and haphazardly urbanised in the Victorian era. During the interwar period, and with the Labour Party’s influence in the city’s governance growing, the Hull City Corporation embarked on a programme of urban redevelopment. Thousands of new homes were built in the north of the city on numbered parallel streets. The city centre slums were replaced with public squares, shops and civic buildings, including the vast Guildhall and Ferens Art Gallery, where many of the paintings still hang in frames inscribed PURCHASED BY THE CORPORATION. In the 1930s, J.B. Priestley wrote that the city had ‘…an air of prosperity… something of the outward character of the Scandinavian countries with which it trades has crept into Hull. It has a cleanish red brick look.’ Following extensive bombing during the spring and summer of 1941, that ‘cleanish’ look was destroyed and the need to rehouse much of the population took on new significance. A strategically important port, Hull was second only after London in the list of most-bombed British cities—more than 8000 homes were badly damaged or obliterated, along with thirty-four schools, 1100 shops, six cinemas, a theatre and twenty-five pubs. Over 1100 people were killed and 152,000, nearly half the population, were made homeless.

In 1942, the Corporation commissioned Edwin Lutyens and Patrick Abercrombie—the foremost town planners of the day—to set out Hull’s future. Their Plan for Kingston upon Hull 1945 was a grand, utopian vision of ‘a fairer and nobler City’ divided into residential zones each centred around public amenities. The plan would also have seen a radical reshaping of the city centre, including a new train station, a civic quarter with a new city hall and central library, and more public open spaces.

Abercrombie and Luytens’ vision did not come to pass—its sheer scale and complexity, not to mention the internal political struggles in the Corporation, proved too great a challenge. Yet, as many of Bustamante’s photos attest, Hull still saw one of the most ambitious post-war social housing projects, with nearly 40,000 homes eventually built to replace those lost. Residents began moving into the new Bilton Grange and Longhill Estates in the east of the city in 1953. In the opening pages of her autobiography Art Sex Music, Cosey Fanni Tutti recounts growing up in Bilton Grange which had ‘a shopping parade, a library, a park and even a cinema, the Berkeley’. When they tired of the new amenities, Cosey and her friends would head off the estate to ‘the Dump’, where weeds and wildflowers grew atop ‘the debris from the war, heaps of gravestones, bricks and glass from bombed buildings’. The North Hull Estate was expanded and in the late 60s and a new estate, Orchard Park, was added next door. The huge Bransholme estate—effectively a town in its own right—was built around the same time. Bustamante turned his camera not only on the rebuilt city centre, with its patchwork of interwar civic grandeur, half-demolished buildings, still-empty plots and post-war concrete, but on life on the new estates as well.

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Hull, 1970s. Luis Bustamante

Another of Bustamante’s favoured subjects took him to the western edge of the city. There, at a narrow point in the estuary, the Humber Bridge would soon link the north and south banks. His photos often show the half-built bridge and in the foreground, the people who gathered each weekend to watch the vast concrete and steel structure take shape above the dark waters and shifting sandbanks. Plans for a bridge over the estuary had been drawn up in the 1930s and revised in the 50s, but it was not until 1966 that that they finally got the go-ahead, when Harold Wilson directed Transport Minister Barbara Castle to raise the needed funds. Labour’s fear that it might lose the 1966 Hull North by-election, which it needed to hold to maintain a parliamentary majority of just one seat, appears to have played a significant role in the timing of the announcement. In any case, as a towering symbol of 60s social democracy, the Bridge seemed a fitting counterpart to the new tower blocks across the city and the new Royal Infirmary and College buildings.

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Hessle Foreshore, 1970s. Luis Bustamante

By the time the Bridge eventually opened in 1981, Margaret Thatcher was two years into her first term as Prime Minister and the neoliberal project trialled by force in Chile was rapidly reshaping life in Britain. Thatcher’s enthusiasm for transferring public services into private hands was matched by her disdain for the kinds of municipal power and ambition that had shaped and reshaped Hull. As Sarah Jaffe recently wrote, the neoliberal restructuring of state and economy also entailed an attempt to destroy the very notion of solidarity, largely by offering those with little wealth or power ‘…the pleasures of cruelty, the negative solidarity of seeing others made even worse off than themselves by cuts to the welfare state’.

In his foreword to Kingston upon Hull 1970s, Bustamante writes of how, while he wandered the streets of Hull, he could see the ground being cleared for this new world, a world in which: ‘…people were forced to exchange their freedoms and sense of civic identity for cheap goods and a more affluent social setting, to which they only had non-member rights.’ In one photo, Bustamante depicts himself in the reflection of a shop’s security mirror, standing next to a large bin of £2.99 men’s shirts, each in its own plastic wrapper. The photo captures a sense both of the city and of the broader political and economic forces Bustamante could see taking hold. Boyes, the shop in the image, is a Hull institution, its name often jokingly pronounced ‘Boy-ays’, as though it were an upmarket French department store. But the image also highlights the burgeoning consumerism of the 1970s, a consumerism increasingly reliant on outsourced, offshore labour in the Global South, its products arriving plastic-shrouded and by shipping container. On the far-right of the reflected image we can see signs hanging from the ceiling, printed with a phrase that is both entirely banal and hauntingly auspicious, Please Pay Here.

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Shopping in Hull, 1970s. Luis Bustamante

The 1979 election also had immediate consequences for the schemes that had resettled Chilean and other South American refugees in the UK. On the 29 October 1979, barely a month into Thatcher’s term, Home Secretary William Whitelaw abruptly ended funding for the Joint Working Group special programme for Latin American refugees, the body that had coordinated resettlement efforts. Thatcher’s government re-established diplomatic relations with Chile the following year and Pinochet’s military junta provided secret intelligence and logistical support to Britain during the Falklands-Malvinas War in 1982.

Many Chilean refugees who arrived in Hull stayed. Haroldo Herrera-Richmond, whose father was killed by Chile’s secret police and who was just five when he left, has been a Labour councillor in the city since 2015. Bustamante and Rodriguez, though, moved on in the late 70s, settling in Bristol and then south Wales. They left the city as it entered a significant and enduring period of decline. Hull’s deep-sea trawler fleet—one of the main sources of employment in the city—was already on its knees by the mid 70s, thanks to the so-called ‘Cod Wars’ with Iceland. The huge flour and oil mills that lined the banks of the River Hull closed one by one in the late 70s and early 80s and, bar a few listed survivors, were demolished. By 1981, fourteen percent of the city’s adult population was unemployed, among the highest rates in the country. On Orchard Park this figure was eighteen percent. As in other cities, the rapidly built homes on the estate were prone to condensation, damp and mould which, combined with the lack of local amenities, lead to a high turnover of residents. Orchard Park’s tower blocks were pulled down in the early 2000s, though with little to replace their one-bed flats, many residents weren’t happy to see them go.

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Hull, 1970s. Luis Bustamante

In the early 2000s, a new wave of political exiles came to the city; this time, their arrival was the result not of the solidarity of academics, trade unionists and leftists, but of New Labour’s anti-migrant triangulation. Whitehall dispersed Iraqi Kurds to Hull and other struggling regional cities, at least in part to test whether their asylum claims were legitimate (this was a period in which the ‘bogus asylum seeker’ had become rife in political discourse and the media). In July 2003, as support for the BNP and other far-right groups grew, around 300 asylum seekers, mostly Iraqi Kurds, protested in the city’s Pearson Park against the escalating abuse and violence they were suffering. It has been to Hull’s benefit that many stayed, imparting a new aspect to the area around Spring Bank in the west of the city. In October 2019, members of the Kurdish community were joined by local residents in a series of marches in support of the Kurdish autonomous region Rojava.

After decades away, and in the wake of the news that it had been chosen as the 2017 UK City of Culture, Bustamante returned to Hull in 2014. He revisited some of the locations he had photographed in the 70s; old and new images are displayed side-by-side in a 2016 book, The Persistent Memory.

The lead-up to 2017 saw the redevelopment of much of the city centre, most notably around the old fruit market where galleries, shops, bars, and restaurants now occupy the old warehouses. The cultural programme itself reached almost everyone in the city. Research published in 2018 by the Culture, Place and Policy Institute at the University of Hull found that over 90% of the city’s residents took part in at least one cultural activity during 2017. Eight out of ten participants said that being involved in City of Culture projects made them feel happier. The outreach and learning programme reached over 55,000 children and young people, of which 63% said they felt encouraged to engage in creative activities in the future.

But as Bustamante’s recent photos of the city intimate, the legacy of Hull’s year as City of Culture is inextricably linked to a decade of brutal austerity. For all the public and corporate investment since 2013, municipal funding has been decimated by central government cuts. Hull is among the hardest-hit local authorities in the UK, having lost more than £120 million from its budget since 2010. As Hull-born filmmaker Sean McAllister said in 2018, while the City of Culture award was important, it also ‘…put the pressure off austerity cuts, which have just drained the local council when trying to provide necessary things to its people.’

The contested question of this legacy has been further complicated by the pandemic’s compounding of existing inequalities. In a recent piece, Victoria Bissett and Michael Howcroft ask whether local leaders’ professed aim to make Hull a ‘world-class visitor destination’ and a ‘world-class cultural city’ is either feasible or desirable. ‘Who are those phrases designed for, and how will we know when this new status has been achieved?’ they ask. ‘How responsible are such ambitions when we know that international travel damages the environment (potentially flooding Hull off the map), and that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the collapse of urban retail and cultural tourism?’

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Hull, 1970s. Luis Bustamante

The remarkable story of the Chileans who came to Hull is a small history of neoliberalism and its destructive energies. More importantly though, it is a story of solidarity and friendship and their enduring powers. Just as I finished writing this piece, elections in Chile for regional offices and for the body that will compose a new constitution both returned resounding majorities for leftist candidates. A new constitution to replace the one dating from during Pinochet’s military rule was a central demand of the ‘Estallido Social’, the protests that began in Santiago in 2018, initially in opposition to fare raises on the metro, but which soon escalated and spread to the rest of the country as protestors railed against further privatisation and increasing inequality. Bustamante was in the Chilean capital in 2018 and again the following year to photograph the protestors in the streets.

[1] Warwick University’s Chilean Exiles in the UK provides an overview of these organising efforts and a wealth of digitised archival materials)

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Tom White works in higher education and writes about literature, culture, and politics. His in-depth study of Hull’s year as City of Culture was published by the Open Library of Humanities in 2019.

All images © Luis Bustamante, all rights reserved. Luis Bustamante’s Kingston upon Hull, 1970s photos were recently featured by the British Cultural Archive. Kingston upon Hull, 1970s and Kingston upon Hull, 1970s. On Holiday are available to purchase from Café Royal Books.