‘You were the last good thing about this part of town’: The Rise and Fall Of Leeds Corn Exchange

What do you do when you’re a teenager living on the outskirts of Leeds, able to get to the centre in half an hour but without much money? You find a space to hang out with your mates, where you can be in the middle of the city without having to pay for the privilege. Leeds has a lack of public spaces. City Square is strangely laid out, and Millennium Square feels oddly unloved (not to mention the private security). As a teenager the one place that fit the bill was the small plaza outside the Corn Exchange. It was ideally located at the busy intersection of Boar and Vicar Lane, close to the station, the shisha bars, and takeaways. It was also ideally designed for loitering, flanked by stone stairs that invited you to sit and watch the flow of traffic and pedestrians. No wonder, then, that the Corn Exchange became a meeting point for young people from all corners of Leeds who would get off the bus or train and head straight for its grand domed ceiling.

 

The Corn Exchange didn’t attract just any kind of young person. In the 00’s the Corn Exchange was Mecca for moshers, goths, and, later, emos. To put it simply, the Corn Exchange was home to the kind of misfits who would appear in a modern-day John Hughes film, complete with black hair dye, piercings, Korn hoodies, neon accessories, and thick rubber platform boots. The look was classically rebellious and in some ways it was also classically Leeds; the city had been the birthplace of goth in the 1980’s, home to bands like The Sisters of Mercy, Salvation, and The March Violets and independent venues like The Faversham which provided space for the scene to develop before it caught on in London. The goths who hung around outside the Corn Exchange in the 00’s might not have been aware of this history, but the presence of alternative shops like Grin and Off The Wall in the Corn Exchange, which first opened as an alternative shopping destination in 1990, was a reminder of Leeds’s goth pedigree.

 

As well as goths, the Corn Exchange was home to moshers. The term originated in the mosh-pits of the hardcore punk scene in Washington D.C. and California, but in West Yorkshire the term became a catch-all descriptor for baggy jeans, long hair, and hoodies emblazoned with metal bands – Slayer, Iron Maiden, Korn, Slipknot. Later, they were joined by emos – a term that, again, originated in the hardcore scene. ‘Emotional hardcore’ was initially defined by melodic guitars and introspective lyrics, but went through a pop blender in the 90s. By the mid 00s bands like Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and My Chemical Romance crashed into the mainstream, combining melodic guitars with pop hooks and lyrics that embodied teen angst. Emo also had a distinct look: the first youth movement to develop in tandem with social media (specifically Myspace), emo spawned heavily stylised online profiles showcasing asymmetric fringes, snakebite piercings, black dye, and eyeliner. Myspace didn’t just help disseminate a certain image; in some ways, it fulfilled the early promise of social media by bringing people together. Whilst Myspace photos showed a healthy dose of narcissism (as any youth subculture should), the site also smoothed social introductions for a generation of teenagers. When I moved schools in 2007, I already ‘knew’ several classmates from Myspace, easing the transition.

 

The moshers, goths, and emos who shared space outside the Corn Exchange belonged to specific subcultures with their own music and fashion. To outsiders, though, these distinctions often failed to register, disappearing in a sea of black clothes. Despite their differences, what united the teenagers outside the Corn Exchange was a self-consciously rebellious image and their proud outsider status. In recent years ‘weird’ has become mainstream in music and fashion. Not so in 2006. Growing up at that time it often felt like a straight choice between being a mosher or a chav. The latter term is controversial today, increasingly perceived as a classist slur used to mock the working class. I don’t disagree; at university I heard my fair share of students using the word to dismiss people they viewed as beneath them. Growing up in Pudsey in the 00’s, though, the term was used by kids from middle- and working-class background to describe a specific youth subculture; a hard-man image not dissimilar to the macho stylings of the Mods or Skins, and a specific look – trackies, long socks, gym bags on strings. Most chavs I knew were working class, but not all (a guaranteed way for middle-class kids to piss off their parents was by donning trackies and hanging round the market at night). I also remember working class kids using the term with pride. In my first week at secondary school I was cornered by an older girl called Kelly:

 

‘What are you?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Are you a mosher or what?’

‘How am I a mosher?’

‘What are you then?’

‘I’m not really anything. What are you?’

‘I’m a chav’.

 

I managed to argue that I wasn’t a mosher, but Kelly wasn’t fully convinced. She wasn’t entirely wrong to feel that I was ducking the question – I was good at blending in with whatever group I was hanging round with at the time, which resulted in occasional conflicts like the time some of my mates threatened to beat up a goth couple in Pudsey Park. It was mostly teenage posturing but I felt guilty by association, and found myself in the awkward position of apologising to the goths who had taken shelter in the bandstand. My friends asked what I was playing at; just slagging them off, I said. As time wore on teenage divisions softened; I suspect at least some of my mates from Pudsey Park would be embarrassed if I brought up the incident today.

 

Speaking to my boyfriend about the tension between chavs and moshers, we slip into nostalgia; he recalls crossing the road to avoid the ‘Guiseley Massive’ – local lads acting hard in a suburb of West Leeds. At times, though, things could be genuinely unpleasant. The summer before I left Pudsey for university I was hanging around in the park at night. Our group consisted of a few emos, a few fans of classic rock, and a few (including me) who thought we were a cut above because we went to the Brudenell and read the NME. We were confronted by a group of local hard lads looking for a fight. ‘Which one of you is hardest?’, one of them asked. ‘Me’, I said, suspecting that they wouldn’t hit a girl and hoping to diffuse the situation. It didn’t work and my friends ended up getting a kicking. I knew most of the lads involved, and they were handed a restraining order in court. It was utterly pointless violence and, I suspect, partly motivated by the fact we didn’t look like them.

 

We we got away lightly. Two years earlier in 2007 a young goth couple, Sophie Lancaster and Robert Maltby, were attacked in a park in Bacup, Lancashire. A witness called the police: ‘we need an ambulance at Bacup Park, this mosher has just been banged because he’s a mosher’. Both Sophie and Robert were left in a coma; Robert recovered, but Sophie’s life support machine was switched off thirteen days later. In the aftermath, The Observer reported an uptick in ‘violent attacks targeting punk, goth and metal kids’. In 2008 a young goth named Paul Gibbs was attacked in South Leeds. His ear was sliced off by a man who stated ‘I’m a chav and I’m going to get some moshers’. In 2013 the Greater Manchester Police began recording attacks on goths and other alternative groups. I can’t prove it, but looking back it feels like there was a particular spike in hostility towards alternative groups in the mid- to late 00’s. Whether or not there really was a spike in violence, the fear of being a target also explains the draw of the Corn Exchange; strength in numbers. It’s no coincidence that the vigil for Paul Gibbs was held there.

 

If the Corn Exchange was a physical haven, the music also provided a psychological escape. Andy Doonan was a few years older than me in school. Speaking to him today, it’s clear that the music held a powerful appeal: ‘There were groups of materialistic ‘popular’ kids in school, and I think it was partly about rejecting that social hierarchy mentality. Combining that with slightly rebellious music was a win win! A lot of the nobheads didn’t ‘get’ that sort of music which made us lean on it even more’. If emo, goth, and metal music was a statement of rebellion and non-conformity, lyrics also touched on themes of helplessness and vulnerability – with the latter reaching its peak in the psychological melodrama of emo: ‘Back in school they never taught us/ What we needed to know/ Like how to deal with despair’ (Brand New); ‘Now I’m of consenting age to be forgetting you in a cabaret/ Somewhere downtown where a burlesque queen may even ask my name’(Panic! at the Disco); ‘Son when, you grow up/ Will you be the saviour of the broken/ The beaten and the damned’ (My Chemical Romance).

 

Looking back, emo lyrics seem comically hyperbolic. They are also dubious in other ways. Rap and hip-hop are often criticised for sexism, but the (primarily) male self-pity that underpinned emo often lapsed into images of women as manipulative bitches; see ‘Lying Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off’ (Panic! at the Disco), ‘Once a whore, you’re nothing more’ (Paramore, ‘Misery Business’), ‘In every circle of friends there’s a whore’ (Cute Is What We Aim For, ‘Newport Living’). Max Cussons estimates that he’s been to Leeds’s Key Club ‘a fair few (hundred) times’, and speaks articulately about the scene’s gender politics: ‘To me, in a lot of pop-punk and emo lyrics, there’s this thing of ownership and the idea of being owed something from romantic interests, partners and even exes […] I really think a lot of this rubs off on the fans too. I so often hear people getting mad that people they’ve been involved with are doing stuff with new people. I’ll hear shit like ‘it’s a shit thing for a friend to do’, ‘I can’t believe they came in with a new guy, that’s so inconsiderate’. Honestly the kind of misogyny you get in hip-hop, that’s crystal clear the way it is, the artists aren’t hiding anything and you can take it or leave it […] I don’t find that to be as dangerous as the kind you get in pop-punk that is very sneaky and hard to detect’.

 

At their worst, emo singers were archetypal ‘nice guys’ – seemingly kind, but nasty if rejected. Emo’s misogyny can be partly excused by immaturity. Paramore’s female singer Hayley Williams has recently distanced herself from ‘Misery Business’ – although, as Max points out, the song is hardly the worst offender in the emo/pop-punk catalogue: ‘I hate that Paramore got stick for that when there’s so much more toxic content from more mature musicians. Call me paranoid, but I really think it was because Paramore are fronted by a woman and people aren’t used to a song like that, coming from a woman in that scene’.

 

Emo’s questionable depiction of women didn’t attract much attention back in the 00’s. At the time, the press were mostly concerned with the notion that emo was a dangerous death-cult intent on glamourising suicide and self-harm. In 2008 the Daily Mail and the Telegraph ran similar articles describing a ‘sinister emo cult’, linking the movement to the suicide of a thirteen year old girl, Hannah Bond. The articles describe how emo teenagers participated in initiation ceremonies involving self-harm and believed they would join the ‘black parade’ when they died – a euphemism for the afterlife invented by the band My Chemical Romance. Running through these articles is the fear that ‘normal teenagers’ with no previous history of mental health problems were effectively being groomed by a death cult. In the Daily Mail article, ‘Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of Emo’, a student describes how her classmate was transformed: ‘He used to be normal but now he harms himself, he’s dyed his hair black and he wears dark clothes and a really long black coat.’

 

The fears expressed in the articles weren’t unfounded – the young people referenced did undergo drastic personality changes that coincided with their involvement in emo. However, I think they were misdirected. The authors never question whether the abrupt personality changes they describe might have occurred regardless (it is hardly unknown for mental health problems to emerge suddenly in adolescence), or whether the teenagers’ fascination with emo could have been a symptom rather than a cause of mental health issues. It is true that emo music could glamourise suffering – emos, like the goths and the literary Romantics before them, form part of a long lineage of Angry Young Men (or women) who wear their anguish as a badge of honour. Emo lyrics could be self-indulgent, depicting minor conflicts as dramas of epic proportions. None of this, though, was unique to emo and it hardly justified the salacious claims made in the press. I’m not sure that young people would have been moved to suicide on account of emo’s lyrics unless they were already, in some way, susceptible to their bleak lyrical content. The experience of adolescence will always be defined by strong and irrational emotions, and whilst emo music provided a new vehicle for the articulation of these feelings, it certainly didn’t invent them.

 

If you’d asked me at the time I would have been nonplussed to hear that emo music was to blame for teen suicides. Being on the periphery of those groups, I saw friends who already had depression, or even just low self-esteem, gravitating towards music that spoke about those experiences and made them feel less lonely. In retrospect, there was a degree of emotional frankness in those circles that was unusual for its time, pre-dating the organised social media campaigns we see today on Mental Health Day. It’s no coincidence that the people who are most vocal about mental health on my social media networks used to be emos, moshers or goths. This effect has also been noted by Emma Garland, who describes in a 2016 article how ‘emo has consistently been a logical gravitational space for many young people wrestling with feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and depression’. Garland also identifies a gendered significance, arguing that emo provided an alternative form of masculinity for young men who didn’t fit macho stereotypes; by embracing gender-bending fashions and emotional vulnerability, emo ‘emoted to an audience of hundreds of thousands in a world where men are encouraged to not be emotional at all.’ In 2017 I learnt that one of the lads who had attacked my friends in Pudsey Park had killed himself. I don’t know all the ins and outs, but there’s a certain sadness in the fact that a young lad showing off his masculinity by beating up emos in the park might have benefited from the emotional openness that they possessed.

 

From the age of about 15 to 18, I’d sometimes wander down to the Corn Exchange in the knowledge that I’d bump into at least one person I knew. The Corn Exchange, Dry Dock, The Cockpit – they felt like part of the furniture. It never occurred to me that they wouldn’t last. In 2005 the lease for the Corn Exchange was bought by Zurich Assurance. In 2007 Zurich unveiled plans to transform the Corn Exchange into an upmarket food emporium. Independent traders were forced out by rent increases and clauses prohibiting the sale of gothic or pagan clothing. The plans coincided with a sudden police interest in the young people hanging around outside the building, who had been largely left alone up to that point but suddenly found themselves threatened with ASBOs and dispersal orders. There were petitions and protests; Michael Chan skived off school to attend. He remembers the Corn Exchange as ‘a great part of the old history of Leeds’, describing how the building was used by ‘traders back in the day’ before becoming somewhere ‘for the emo/punk/rock sort of egos to hang out’. His comments reveal a respect for the building and its history at odds with the image of the young people outside as anti-social trouble-makers. They also serve as a reminder that the Corn Exchange was always intended to be a social space where people could gather – whether emos or corn traders. The protests didn’t work. The Corn Exchange was closed for redevelopment, and re-opened in 2008 just in time for the financial crisis. Although the re-branded Corn Exchange was struggling to attract tenants and visitors, security guards kept a zealous watch over the plaza. I remember being asked to leave the now-empty steps where I was sitting and eating a sandwich. Maybe I was putting off the gourmet foodies who never did arrive.

 

The lack of tenants eventually forced Zurich’s hand. From 2010 independent businesses and cafes began to move back to the Corn Exchange, although it never fully regained its alternative atmosphere and my mother will always hold Zurich responsible for ripping up the aged wood floorboards and replacing them with generic pine (‘a tragedy’). Although independent traders slowly returned the emos, moshers, and goths never really did. Some of them moved down by the train arches; the stragglers pitched up under the bridge just off the Calls. For the most part, though, the moment had gone. The next few years saw the closure of venues (The Cockpit and The Cardigan Arms in 2014, Carpe in 2015) which had been central to the scene. Change isn’t always bad: the refurbished Cardigan Arms is nice, and Leeds still has a decent number of alternative nights and venues. It’s probably also true that the scene would have died down in time, as the teenagers outside the Corn Exchange turned into adults and new genres emerged. But what the re-development of the Corn Exchange showed was how quickly public spaces and local scenes could be shut down, and how easily people considered undesirable can be excluded from the urban environment through indirect means – shop and venue closures – and more overtly draconian measures like ASBOs and dispersal orders which Michael Chan, rightly, describes as ‘shameful’.

 

Speaking to people who used to hang around the Corn Exchange there’s sometimes a lingering sense of embarrassment. Not many people want to go back and read their Myspace bio or dig out shit poems they wrote in 2005. It’s not helpful to be too nostalgic: despite their anti-hierarchical leanings the emo, goth, and mosher scenes had their own social divisions, a point made by Tom Carabine who I remember back in school as the embodiment of emo, but who states that he ‘wasn’t cool enough for the uncool kids’. The misogynistic tendencies of emo and pop-punk have never gone away. Nonetheless, looking back at the Corn Exchange and the friendship groups that formed around it, it strikes me as positive that a generation of young people could claim part of the city as their own and find music that spoke to difficult experiences. Talking to people who were involved in the alternative scene, the overarching narrative is one of gratitude – at finding somewhere they could fit in whilst still retaining a sense of individual identity, and finding a sense of unity in the face of a society that could be unforgiving. There are still places in Leeds where young people meet and hang about, but as the city becomes increasingly gentrified I’m struck by how easy we had it, and how much more difficult it would be for that scene to find a home today.

 

Sources you might like:

The Chav/Mosher divide:

https://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/chavs-and-moshers-in-brawl-at-school-1-2138427

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2005/aug/31/localgovernment.uknews

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/07f9/a7da1356ee635211979f139ad10d9a12ff14.pdf

https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/doctors-stitch-severed-ear-to-stomach-after-park-savagery-1-2353243

Emo and gender:

https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/unraveling-the-sexism-of-emos-third-wave/

http://www.rookiemag.com/2015/07/where-the-girls-arent/

Emo and mental health:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-566481/Why-child-safe-sinister-cult-emo.html

https://noisey.vice.com/da/article/rgp7wb/how-mainstream-emo-made-us-talk-about-mental-health

The Corn Exchange and Re-Development:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/jan/04/exchangeorrefund

 

 

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