The People's Pier: The popular culture of pleasure piers and cultural regeneration through community heritage

  • Jenzen, Olu (PI)

    Project Details


    'The People's Pier' is an AHRC funded research project that investigated community piers as an emerging form of community hubs.

    It focused on two related aspects of the pier and community connectivity; first how communities of place may be strengthened in their confidence by taking collective action to safeguard a local heritage asset like the pier and second how the community pier and its popular culture heritage can be utilised to build positive relationships across different groups and empower the community.

    However, regeneration processes are complex and not always inclusive; they can be both divisive and inequitable. The project therefore also explored processes of disconnection and conflict around the pier as a community space. Community ownership enterprises are often regarded as an outcome of an existing community's collective effort and ability to rally around a common interest.

    This project takes a different view by considering how communities connect and emerge through community ownership and related processes such as collective action to 'save' and develop the pier. Such processes involve both connections and disassociation and may be understood as a community making processes in themselves. Further, the project sought to explore how the rich popular culture heritage of seaside leisure piers can be used as a resource for the benefit of the community.

    In doing so the project opened up new areas of enquiry within the Connected Communities programme. It placed popular culture at the heart of community building affirming popular culture as part of a community's cultural heritage, thus challenging traditional perspectives on heritage.

    This research was conducted in collaboration with two community partners who are at different stages of realising their goal of restoring, developing and sustainably running a community enterprise pier: The Hastings Pier Charity and The Clevedon Pier and Heritage Foundation. Together we explored how the current and future experiences of the community piers can be enriched by its popular culture heritage. The project also deliberately sought to find ways of engaging with the whole of the piers' past, by giving emphasis to their more recent, post-war cultural history, which is often overlooked.

    The research is set against a background of wider debates about culture-led regeneration. Following the demise of the British seaside holiday and the decline of other coastal industries, the local communities of Britain's seaside resorts have for decades been associated with physical disintegration, with financial decline and social deprivation. Whilst the broader scope of government investments or trends in seaside tourism contextualize this project we are primarily interested in the remarkable resilience demonstrated by local community organisations mobilizing around the most iconic of seaside landmarks the pleasure pier, as exemplified by the community piers of Clevedon and Hastings and the potentials that opens up for generating, sustaining and developing community engagement.

    Key findings

    The project has identified that tensions around the notion of heritage and popular culture are present in discourse relating to what a community pier is (or could / 'should' be).

    Such tensions include competing interests and value systems of a professional heritage management approach (such as that of the pier organisations) and the ‘fan’ approaches of more loosely organised grassroots interest groups or networks. Furthermore tensions around what aspects of the pier’s history are valued and preserved; and tensions around competing uses of the pier (including prescribed and non-legitimate uses of the space). The concept of the ‘community pier’ brings these tensions directly into play as it constitutes an emerging new way of relating to a town’s pleasure pier.

    Nevertheless we have also discovered that local residents have significant attachment not just to the pier as a landmark or structure but to its popular culture heritage. An oral history component of the project collected testimonials and memories from Clevedon residents who were teenagers in the 1950s and 60s and these confirmed the significance of the (no longer existing) dancehall at the end of the pier to youth culture at the time.

    This finding has impacted on how the pier organisation approaches the curating of the visitor centre interpretation material relating to the history of the pier, and this 'temporary' and shed like structure is included as an important part of the pier's heritage. Previously the emphasis has been on the early days of the pier's history and its 'original' Victorian look.

    At Hastings we have explored how the history of the pier can be told through music. We developed a pilot for a music led podcast that audiences can listen to wearing headphones whilst moving about on the pier. This may become a significant tool for engaging with diverse audiences for the new Hastings pier which is more like an open urban park space than a traditional pleasure pier.

    A key finding is that such immersive storytelling is compelling to audiences of different ages. This is an innovative take on the more established form of a heritage audio trail. The podcast features music from five decades of popular entertainment on the pier and is educational about different period’s youth cultures. As such it can be utilised to build positive relationships across different generations and empower the community.

    A further research theme probing the potential for open-air cinema as a means to engage local audiences to enjoy their pier as a community space, tapping into the site’s history of spatiovisual pleasures whilst also making productive use of its more youth-orientated (audio-visual) popular cultural heritage.

    We argue that the pop-up cinema is conducive to the architecture of the open plan piers and fits the more events-orientated operational model adopted by pier organisations aspiring to set new goals for the functions of traditional Victorian seaside piers in the twenty-first century.

    However, whether open-air pop-up cinema on piers is sustainable and can offer significant value in relation to the more long-term project of seaside regeneration is open to questioning. A number of factors, such as their dependency on suitable weather, the varying standard in terms of vision and sound quality, and the economic uncertainty associated with securing revenue from one-off events suggests a limited value and legacy.

    Nevertheless, innovative and quirky cinema events in unusual spaces clearly do have a place in contemporary seaside culture and, as this chapter concludes, open-air cinema is increasingly accessible to community organisations due to new technologies for projection and models of affordability.

    We posit that open-air cinema enthusiasts will continue to explore exhibition spaces in creative ways that stimulate not just new experiences of films, but new experiences of the exhibition space as impacted by cinematic ‘insurgent place making’ (Merker 2010 cited in Harris 2015: 593). With this in mind, any further redevelopments of British pleasure piers should be wary of building too many sealed structures that deny these enthusiasts the aesthetic, immersive and social pleasures of being outside. Further, pop-up cinema has proved to be conducive with the economic model of the community pier in the twenty-first century, which requires flexibility and adaptability.

    It also fits with an approach that seeks to strike a balance between commercial and cultural-led strategies, as demonstrated by Clevedon Pier and Heritage Trust’s preference for a mainstream film for their pier’s screening whilst embracing the DIY set up.

    Re-purposing a pier for film screenings in the context of the community pier model inevitably involves a consideration of a multitude of complex issues, including questions around programming, audiences’ appropriation of the space, and opportunities for collaborations with other business or community organisations.

    This complexity should not, however, dissuade the custodians of community piers from designing and delivering outdoor screenings. Such special events renew enthusiasm for these Victorian structures, tap into a latent pier-cinema relationship and fuel the UK’s developing live cinema culture.
    Short titleThe People's Pier
    Effective start/end date1/05/1530/09/16


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