Tom McKenzie – Spark
It is said to be just over 700 years since York was the capital of England. Since then, it has produced innumerable assets of national importance. Religious significance, the rail industry, horse racing, and maybe most importantly, chocolate, have contributed along the way to create a rich tapestry of industry, social movement and culture. In more recent times, a haven for the respective stags and hens of the north and a firm fixture for ‘Yorkshire family day out’ has played a part in the construction of a somewhat fragile ecology of day trippers and small ‘c’ conservative locals. It’s beautiful, undeniably. The streets wind gently towards a glorious gothic focal point, seen for miles around, and the fervent chatter of coffee chains and restaurants creates a constant ambience of warm comfortability. Today, that is changing. The importance is returning.
It only takes a half glance down the quietly emptying grace of Coney Street, once at the heart of a bustling strip of retail and commerce, to evidence this. Look beyond this gently regressing giantess and you will see growth. Shoots of life and resurgence and hunger. The tea rooms prevail – long live the likes of Betty’s and W.H Browns, but these stalwarts hark back to a time when independence was relished and accepted. At present, and without doubt, the baton is slowly being levered towards a new generation.
“Three years ago on Good Friday we opened. I previously managed Pizza Express, on Lendal Bridge. I went from 150 covers a night to making Murgez in a freezing kiosk on the Shambles Market. It was dead, I might’ve done £20 in a day.”
Tarik Abdeladim is the owner of Los Moros. A North African street food operator, with a home on the redeveloped Shambles Market. In the Summer of 2017 he became York’s number one eating establishment on Trip Advisor.
“Around October 2016 we sensed a turning point. The Council made some difficult decisions and ushered out some fading traders. In doing this, and investing some money in the place, they made way for change. There was a focus on making the place feel different, and suddenly, on one Saturday, we sold out. People seemed to be taking note.”
Los Moros now boasts national press coverage, a local following, and an inspired band of staff that are truly at the coal face of making change happen. York is a city of industrious hard work, resilience, and ultimately, people. Historically, trends may take longer to infiltrate the mainstream, and the ‘hipster pound’ may take more enticement to be relinquished, but when connections are made they are binding and solid. Transience and fluidity makes way for earning your stripes and building trust.
Take Kiosk, a frankly miniscule café on the now acclaimed Fossgate. Two years ago, a husband, wife and close friend opened shop with passion and exuberance aplenty. The coffee was Copenhagen grade, and the food equally defining. In 2018, Russell Carr continues alone, without the support of the aforementioned, but the standard has not wavered. The menu has evolved, and the service and consumption is as enviable as ever. If you manage get a seat on a weekend, you should feel rightly blessed. And why not? You’re guaranteed real warmth, persona and sublime coffee. Each cup feels a creation, and each bite an offering. Customers become friends. Friends become furniture.
York’s attitude towards inclusivity is attractive. Community spirit is woven into the fabric of its cobbles and alleyways. Emma Grubb is a lover of plants. Her recent opening, Botanic, is a prime example of a modern, relevant retailer that already seems to have existed long beyond the mere months on which she has traded on Walmgate. My first awareness of the place was not through a recommendation or desire to find the most ornate succulent, but simply “Have you checked out plant girl’s shop? She’s dead nice”. The product on offer was implied, but the incentive to support was simply her character. After living in Leeds, London and Howden, she saw York as a place to lay down roots (please, pardon the pun) in a business community that was responsive, and that genuinely cared. Competition is always prevalent, but a collaborative attitude is a prerequisite here. Those who have shirked that duty are now only represented by “To-Let” signs and fading memories.
All of this is not to say that the city is without issue. The Shambles, a world heritage site but valiantly existent commercial bastion, boasting bakers, butchers, solicitors, tailors and restaurants, also lays claim to three Harry Potter memorabilia shops. They have all magically (apologies, again) appeared in the space of less than 12 months. Waste of space or thriving tourist honeypot? You decide, but fundamentally, unsustainable.
Representing a polar opposite would be the Crescent Community Venue. A working men’s club just off Blossom Street, it has been given a new direction through community ownership. Joe Coates, musical curator and manager, has created a space that is accessible, inclusive and interesting. The beers are good, the bands are great and the intentioned is irrefutable. It’s an asset to the city that has enabled a platform for a thriving local music scene, with indie label Young Thugs, and acts such as The Howl and the Hum, Bull and Hello Operator all feeling the benefit. The sentiment cross-cuts everything that is good about York.
The bygone operators that once put York firmly on the map shared in a people-first focus. Joseph Rowntree built an empire during York’s industrial revolution, and his benevolent attitude towards the people that helped him achieve that is felt today. He built theatres, hospitals and suburbs that still flourish. Now we enjoy world class restaurants, a burgeoning and ready-to-explode artistic scene, and most importantly, a profoundly supportive group of people behind that. York’s time is now.