I have been following the circulation of images of empty towns and villages for some time now. In the pre-coronavirus era, they usually concerned socialist or capitalist deindustrialization. Postmodern subjects consumed them as aesthetically pleasing representations of a remote ruination. Most often, it was someone else’s world that was falling apart.
This has now changed. News and social media platforms are full of images of the empty streets of global capitals. This new emptiness is simultaneously appealing and frightening. On the one hand, the empty streets of Paris in springtime appeal to the postmodern subjects’ aesthetic appreciation of decaying, suspended, or interrupted forms of modern life. On the other hand, these empty streets suggest that it is their (or our) future that is under threat. Empty streets of today entail a potential—and, increasingly, actual—collapse of the economic and social life of tomorrow.
In Blackpool, UK, one can observe several kinds of emptiness at the same time. On March 19, 2020, Blackpool’s streets were also empty.
A woman in a public service office was cleaning the counter, her rubber gloves on. “Our life really starts after Easter,” she said. “And, of course, right now people are being careful. Some shops and cafes have closed. We don’t know what will happen this year.”
On the benches just outside the office, a few people were enjoying the sunshine at a safe distance from each other.
But the emptiness of Blackpool goes beyond seasonality and coronavirus. Like most industrial towns of the North of England, which used to supply Blackpool with vacationers, Blackpool has experienced economic decline. Increased accessibility of air travel has sent many of its former visitors to Spain or France. The Financial Times article that characterized Blackpool as “left behind” reported that the local government had sold Blackpool’s deck chairs to a company in Cheshire. The rest of the infrastructure looks outdated, its former glory faded. The piers are under out-of-season maintenance, while some hotels are trying to attract customers for £10 per night. The housing stock is also in ruins: in 2008, 38.7% of private housing was deemed "non-decent."
But instead of becoming empty, as one would expect in conditions of deindustrialization and decay, Blackpool has seen a steady stream of new residents, mostly the poor, the unemployed and the infirm. They are attracted by former hotel rooms converted into cheap – and “non-decent” – apartments.
So is Blackpool empty or full? The story of Blackpool’s decline is well known. Some argue that the city has a chance to reinvent itself as a convention centre for the new economic subject: the cosmopolitan financier (rather than the factory worker of northern England). This would, presumably, involve revamping the housing stock and squeezing out large numbers of current residents.
Blackpool is empty in the sense of being expelled from circuits of capital and care of the state, losing the young and the healthy. And it is full because the decaying housing stock attracts a decaying population. The reversal of Blackpool’s fortunes would most likely mean the replacement of both.
I went to Blackpool in March 2020 from the Peak District, where I had been self-isolating amidst expansive landscapes empty of people and full of nature, to see whether much had changed since my previous visit to Blackpool in 2016.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I was not able to distinguish between seasonal rhythms, the extraordinary suspension of life due to coronavirus, and the more lasting abandonment of people and buildings. The downtown casino was not full, but it was busy.
Inside a casino in Blackpool, UK (March 2020); video by Dace Dzenovska
Flocks of hungry seagulls gathered around me as soon as I stepped onto the empty beach. With no one else to feed them, I was their only hope. They were demanding. And a little frightening. It was not nature returning, as in the “fake news” stories of swans, dolphins and fish in Venice’s canals and drunken elephants in Chinese tea gardens. It was urban disequilibrium.
Hungry seagulls on the beach in Blackpool, UK (March 2020); video by Dace Dzenovska