Twenty years or so ago I had an unusual hobby.
Along with a then-colleague of mine, I would send letters to the Echo. Proper letters, using paper and ink (ask your dad). The object was to see if we could have every letter printed, while ensuring that each one was more preposterous than the one before.
Penshaw Monument should be double glazed, Market Square is simply crying out for a totem pole, etc.
The letters page editor of the time knew who we were and what we were up to. But he was a good sport and approved virtually all of them; many of which included the urging phrase “Come on council”.
As we used a variety of pseudonyms, we would sometimes have more than one letter in the same edition of the paper. Occasionally we would send an angry response to indignantly disagree with ourselves. It was fun.
One especially ludicrous proposal was: “The paving stones on Holmeside should light up when you stand on them - like in Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ video. Come on council...”
Of course, that is still a very stupid suggestion today. On the other hand, have you been down Holmeside recently? It could do with something. It’s a well-known street, but it isn’t doing much for the image of Sunderland these days.
I counted 33 business properties with pavement level doors opening (or not) onto Holmeside. Eight are empty. The problem is exacerbated, visually at least, by the fact that four of its five takeaways are closed during the day and therefore have their shutters down; as does the popular Illusions nightclub. Can’t be helped I suppose.
Among the businesses operating on Holmeside, other than five takeaways, are a bingo hall, an amusement arcade, a betting shop, three pubs, two nightclubs, an off-license and a pawn shop. No one is too sniffy about this. At least they’re open (there aren’t any charity shops as nearby Blandford Street has virtually cornered the market there).
It isn’t all empty shops, gambling, booze and fast food. There is good news too. Harrison and Brown is an unusual store in that it primarily sells quality furniture, but also has a pleasant little tea room.
Tully’s is a reputable, specialist, family business selling sewing machines for over 50 years. Supastitch offers an excellent sewing repair service; and a far cheaper option than simply discarding stuff. There are also a couple of well-regarded hairdressers and a good phone repair shop.
But overall, it’s difficult to see Holmeside featuring heavily in any brochure promoting Sunderland in the near future. At the the east end of the thoroughfare sits beautiful Mowbray Park with its adjoining museum and Winter Gardens sits. To the west is the swish Debenhams stairwell. But in between? Well…
An excellent recent Echo article reminisced about when Holmeside was a thriving concern, 42 years ago.
In 1977 this newspaper declared: “The block of ultra-modern shops in Sunderland’s Holmeside are both a pleasure to look at and to look around.
“Each unit has taken on its own character.”
Joseph’s toy shop is particularly fondly remembered by Sunderland folk who are old enough. But that was several recessions ago and when Amazon was where crocodiles lived. What’s happened since is sobering.
Realism prevails. The internet can’t be uninvented. Tiffany’s won’t relocate from Manhattan. Investment won’t fall from the heavens.
But let’s not do ourselves down either. Global economics have resulted in situations like Holmeside’s in every town and city.
The council has responsibility, but can’t be blamed for everything. The issue of empty properties they don’t own is not straightforward. They can’t just bulldoze the problem away even if they wanted to. Nor can anyone do much to lower business rates or rent.
So what CAN be done?
We can only deal with the possible. It’s up to existing businesses to keep their premises ship-shape (and most of them do) to do what they can for the area’s appearance.
However, the most conspicuous but easily removable eyesore on Holmeside is the “temporary” fencing on the south side of the street which has stood since 2014.
It went up after the old Independent nightclub was demolished (it relocated across the road) to accommodate work on Sunderland College’s new multi-million pound campus. The fencing now merely obscures the ultra-modern campus. Immediately behind the fencing sits a completely empty concrete space and no obvious activity. Surely even a couple of park benches would be an improvement. It would certainly look better.
But this is everybody’s city and therefore everybody’s problem. If we all declare that we aren’t going to Holmeside because we think we can shop in better places, then that is understandable. But the situation will self-perpetuate.
One empty shop is particularly symbolic. Its signage still bears the name Shop Sunderland First. The hint is obvious.
Supermarkets are unbeatable for convenience. But Sunderland citizens can do themselves a favour by shopping locally. It isn’t just shopping; it’s investing.
Holmeside is only one street, but it’s one of the more conspicuous ones and its resurgence would do no harm to others nearby, or to the city as a whole.
Should anyone wish to apply the same thinking to Sea Road, Jacky White’s Market, Newbottle Street in Houghton or Church Lane in Seaham, then all the better. Let’s be positive.
If anyone can make the paving stones light up when you stand on them; better still.