Brian Ferguson: Art and culture can be drivers in Leith

IT is 20 years since I first stumbled across the port of Leith, but the memory is crystal clear.

The Shore, Leith is still one of the most attractive and cosmopolitan parts of the city. Picture: Contributed

The pubs lining the Shore were throbbing with revelry, drinkers spilling out onto the dock as the annual jazz festival basked in balmy midsummer weather.

Leith was becoming a fashionable destination at a time when the pavement cafes of the Grassmarket and the Royal Mile were a gleam in the eye, while George Street was still dominated by banks and insurance companies.

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Fast forward two decades and the Shore is still one of the most attractive and cosmopolitan parts of the city.

But you do not have to wander far to find evidence that Leith has struggled in the face of the property crash and its betrayal over the promised tram link.

The regeneration of the docklands has long since stalled, and state of the area around the Ocean Terminal shopping centre is nothing short of a national disgrace. Elsewhere, you are just as likely to come across a scrapyard or ugly gap site as a trendy bar or bistro.

Hopes of a revival for Leith’s waterfront have been repeatedly dashed – due to a mixture of public and private sector negligence, and a glaringly obvious lack of leadership.

But last week saw the potential dawn of a new era – with city council backing for a five-year strategy envisaging arts and culture at the heart of efforts to revive the area’s fortunes.

Turning some of the blueprint into reality will be easier said than done, but in principle it will allow artists and organisations to take over empty historic buildings, shop units and gap sites to build on the “significant and growing creative industries cluster”.

And the strategy predicts that arts and culture offer the most promising investment prospect for Leith for the next few years.

Some steady progress has already been made. Leith Creative, a new network of artists and organisations, has revealed there are already more than 1,100 of them the area, across at least nine distinct “cultural hubs.”

Before anyone gets too carried away, some significant landmarks must be reached, including the opening of the Customs House building on the Shore to become an arts and community centre. This will hopefully provide the impetus to persuade the city council to hand over the woefully-neglected Leith Theatre building, at the bottom of Ferry Road, to an independent trust – a decade on from its threatened sell-off.

If these two properties could be occupied by the end of the year and positive news emerges on the long-delayed Leith tram extension – widely viewed as critical to unlock major cultural and tourism projects – it would finally signal that Leith is truly going places again.