Hull and Brooklyn unite to defy a sneering world

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The Independent Online

THIS IS a tale of two communities: one a suburb of New York, the other a city on the river Humber. Not much in common there, you might think. But a delegation of councillors from Brooklyn paid a fact-finding visit last week to their new business partner: Kingston upon Hull.

THIS IS a tale of two communities: one a suburb of New York, the other a city on the river Humber. Not much in common there, you might think. But a delegation of councillors from Brooklyn paid a fact-finding visit last week to their new business partner: Kingston upon Hull.

Both places are fed up with their "music hall" image and role as the butt of jokes. They are now sharing ideas on how to reinvent themselves, with Hull keen to adopt the "can do" mentality of their American counterparts. The move follows a trip by a small delegation to Brooklyn last year.

Hull's image is not enviable. Located by the Humber estuary on the east coast, it fell on hard times when the fishing on which its prosperity had been based collapsed in the Seventies and Eighties. It remains sensitive to the oft-quoted 16th-century proverb: "From Hull, Hell and Halifax, good Lord deliver us." If that wasn't enough, the phrase "To Hull and Back" was immortalised in an episode of Only Fools and Horses.

Brooklyn can sympathise. A hundred years ago it was a city in its own right, before being subsumed into the Big Apple. Brooklyn Naval Shipyard, the largest shipbuilding docks in the US, vanished after the Second World War. It gained a reputation for crime. But things are changing: areas of wealth have emerged and Brooklyn is flaunting its arts, hosting the controversial Sensation exhibition.

In Hull, too, in the year of its 700th anniversary, the locals are out to show that the city's image is unwarranted. The waterfront will soon be home to a £36m tourist and research centre that supporters claim will be as important for Hull as the Opera House was for Sydney, while Norman Foster is to build England's largest city centre development, covering 29 acres.

"The problem is that Hull didn't have a bad image, it had no image at all," said Jonathan Levy, a director of Hull City Vision, a private/public partnership created to implement regeneration and attract inward investment. "If we can sit alongside a New York borough then it says a good deal about Hull's aspirations. Both places want to change from being a music-hall joke to emphasising their cultural identities."

Howard Golden, president of Brooklyn borough, echoes such sentiments. "Brooklyn is a wonderful place," he said. "We are regarded as underdogs in everything we do because Manhattan is the financial capital of the world, but we think we are better than Manhattan. We recognise that, as a fact of life, we must continually try harder in everything we do. That is what they are trying to achieve in Hull and I feel like we in Brooklyn are part of Hull already."

A link between Hull and Brooklyn is not as elusive as might at first seem; more than two million Europeans left via Hull on their way to the New World in the 19th century and first half of the 20th. Both are also reached by striking bridges (though one leads to Manhattan, the other to Grimsby).

So it is time for Hull to accentuate the positive. It is, after all, the city that gave the world William Wilberforce, the slavery abolitionist (Hull is already twinned with Freetown, Sierra Leone), the aviator Amy Johnson, the playwright John Godber, the Hull Truck theatre company, the actress Maureen Lipman, and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who is MP for Hull East. It was home for years to the poet Philip Larkin (Andrew Marvell was once an MP) and gave us Kingston Communications, a rival to BT.

"There is so much happening here culturally and artistically," said Mr Levy, who hopes to set up arts, education and business exchanges. "Hull is ready for the early part of the next century. We've had £1.5bn invested in the city and a lot of business has relocated and proved very successful. A lot of what we have here is extremely innovative. Brooklyn is now seen as a city of culture and a safe place. It has transformed its image over the past 20 years and we want the same thing for Hull."

Hull and Brooklyn have already exchanged ideas about the regeneration of housing estates (Hull has the largest council estate in Europe at Bransholme and earlier this year offered two years' free accommodation to teachers who taught in local schools), in Hull's case with considerable success."The whole project has raised a few eyebrows," admitted Mr Levy, "but the image of Hull is outdated. People say the place is dead but that comes from visitors of 20 years ago. People don't come here with trepidation anymore. Those who visit us and move here to live are our best ambassadors." A rough guide to two 'music hall jokes'

Hull Most famous present resident: John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister.

Most famous son: William Wilberforce, anti-slavery campaigner, inspiration for Hull's twinning with Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Most famous daughter: Amy Johnson, pioneer pilot who flew solo to Australia.

Best hotel: Forte Post House, balcony rooms overlook marina.

Best restaurant: Cerutti's, fish restaurant (top-priced dish: Dover sole Capri, £18.75).

Major tourist attraction: Streetlife Museum of Transport.

Population: 268,000.

Least-known fact: Edwardian public lavatories alongside Victoria Pier were the 1966 winners of the national Golden Loo Brush Awards.


Most famous resident: Norman Mailer.

Sons and daughters: Walt Whitman (wrote much of his poetry on Coney Island, part of Brooklyn), Mel Brooks, Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow, Phil Silvers, Woody Allen, Joseph Heller.

Best hotel: Few hotels. Best bet is the Bed and Breakfast on the Park inn.

Best restaurant: The River Cafe ($70 prix fixe without drinks) beside the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tourist attractions: Brooklyn Botanic Garden: 50 acres, famously beautiful, with US's biggest collection of roses.

Least-known fact: Bee-keeper David Graves got so fed up with black bears stealing all the honey from his hives in the hills of Massachusetts that he moved them to Brooklyn rooftops.