Everyone likes to knock their hometown. The grass is always greener, as they say. But Chatham’s degeneration, particularly over the last decade, has left me feeling like my criticisms aren’t completely unfounded.
I came into the world in Chatham, in the middle of what is now a housing estate. I studied at Fort Pitt. My Granddad docked there when he was in the Navy. Like all of its (former) residents, Chatham has been the setting for some of my favourite memories. Even so, I simply couldn’t divorce myself from the place quick enough. (I won’t pretend that had nothing to do with wanting to recapture my freedom after uni though)
As much as we love to put our towns down, there’s also a small part of us that’s quite defensive of them. I’d love to see the town get better and to be proud of where I come from. It would be great if Chatham could be associated with it’s history rather than unfortunate stereotypes, news headlines and a high street of transient discount shops.
Chatham Placemaking Project: These are our streets.
Last year, Medway council were awarded £4m to help regenerate Chatham. We’ll see the effect of this between the railway station and Waterfront. Spaces along this route are the focus as they’re often the first impression visitors have of the town, as well as the most visible.
In addition to the facelift, the council have appointed public arts consultancy Francis Knight to manage the ‘Chatham Placemaking Project’. Christopher Tipping was commissioned as lead artist. He works primarily in the public realm and will be developing both temporary and permanent art programmes throughout the project.
The Locals – Chatham Storyline
“I’m really keen on local vernacular” he says “one of the concerns I have about the built environment is that if you parachute yourself into lots of towns you wouldn’t necessarily know where you were. Because the spaces don’t speak to you in the same way anymore, they don’t give you any clues into the history or the industry that ran the town.”
I couldn’t agree more about the lack of character in our contemporary towns. So often if you look up in your local high street, above the shop branding, you’ll see fascinating architecture. But it’s all masked now behind uniform buildings with glass fronts and plastic signs – which, heaven forbid, might be written in Papyrus.
Contextual research is a big part of Christopher’s process so this called for getting local residents involved and hearing their stories. My personal favourite of those collected is below. I happen to find the Pentagon building a real eye-sore but thinking of it as a giant fish finger does help to quell my hatred slightly.
The process isn’t too dissimilar to branding a company I suppose. You research, speak to those in the know and uncover the town’s USP’s and decide what to showcase. Getting residents involved in this way also increases civic pride, making them feel like they can take ownership of the project and that their voices are being heard. Cosmetic changes alone aren’t enough to change morale within a town. Any disruption while the improvements take place is also more likely to be met with co-operation from residents and local businesses alike.
Tipping isn’t the only artist involved. Xtina Lamb has brought her skill in printmaking to the table. I love that Xtina has taken the iconic pointing arm of the Thomas Fletcher Waghorn statue (you can spot him in the earlier video) and exploited it as a graphic device. The pointing finger has been used for years in design with great effect. Modelling it after the infamous statue is a nice nod. Although, us residents only know him as ‘the statue with the traffic cone on his head’. I had to Google his name, and even though I know it now, I will continue to refer to him in that way. Hopefully my childish behaviour won’t set the aims of the project back too far.
Again, residents have got involved with this creative side. Diving into the screen printing, making badges, sharing memories and sharing ideas. I like where Xtina has got her inspiration from for the artwork. Going back to my comment on architecture in the high street, the piece below was modelled after just that. This art deco pattern is hiding in plain sight above the bank, something I had never noticed before. You can read about the history of the building here.
All sorts of creative work has been going on, too much to cover in a single blog post. You can find out a bit more by following the links below. There are some very talented artists working on these temporary art programmes.
Changing the perception of a town, for both locals and visitors is certainly not an easy task. I daresay the project won’t be the end of it. But with a bit of luck it will be a catalyst for future improvements. I’ll be interested to see how the area changes and what new projects come to light over the next few months.