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A Magazine for Sheffield

Chesterfield: A Tale of Two Towns

Since moving to Chesterfield - from Sheffield - for work nearly a year ago now, I’ve begun to notice things about the latter that I’d never previously paid much attention to. Of the two, Sheffield is ostensibly the more prosperous locale – more airs and graces, more links with the big boys in London - both when it comes to business and innovation (in spite of its soon-to-be axed BIS department) and in terms of its cultural and creative heft in the arts sector. Creative England has a major base here. Sheffield Theatres is arguably the best playhouse outside of London. It's got galleries, it's got Simon Armitage, it's got really good cutlery. What more could you want? But now, mooching about the city centre, the feel of Sheffield is somehow precarious. Places like Rare and Racy can be erased by a blank cheque. The magnificent ‘crap chic’ aesthetic of Castle Market is but a distant memory, its reincarnation on the Moor a lobotomised simulation of its former self. The Cultural Industries Quarter has had the property developers' corsair fixed on it since 2011, and approval has just been granted for a 103-bed student accommodation development to be built there (after demolishing the Silverpride Works building first, which, I am sure you will be relieved to hear, has been deemed to have ‘no architectural merit’). There's an ineffable sense that what's great about Sheffield could, at any time, evaporate into the mists of austerity, or fade into the long shadows cast by soulless glass edifices. Chesterfield, on the other hand, never pretended to be anything special. Its main selling point is an architectural deformity: the ‘crooked spire’ of its main church, the image of which has been incorporated into the branding of many local businesses, from craft ale breweries to insurance providers. Pawn shops, charity shops and pound shops litter the high street, and some streets are made up almost entirely of the carcases of businesses gone bust. And yet there's a steadfastness about Chesterfield. You get the impression that the Saturday markets haven’t much changed since the Market Hall was built in 1857. Its theatres are the type of venue you’d associate with your local am-dram group, a far cry from the multi-award winning West End outpost that Sheffield has to offer, but significantly, they belong to the people of Chesterfield -quite literally, since the theatres are run by the Council. As a centuries-old medieval town, with its timber-framed buildings and stalwart independent shops, you start to see beyond the shortcomings and into the close-knit community that holds it all together. Talk to the locals and you’ll find that affectionate pride normally reserved for old but well-loved possessions. “It’s a bit crap, but it’s ours.” It knows what it stands for. It’s a feeling I used to get from being in Sheffield. Don’t get me wrong. The minute I pass my driving test, and thus no longer need to live within a bus ride of work, I’ll be running back to Sheffield at the first opportunity. The place still exerts a magnetic pull, presumably the same one that holds so many ex-Sheffield Uni and SHU students captive here long after they graduate. But I can’t help but acknowledge that Sheffield is increasingly grappling with conflicts between its working class heritage, its middle class aspirations and its appetite for commercial (re)development. Are the latter two at risk of crowding out the former? Does this city truly belong to everyone who lives in it? I used to think so. I want to think so. But it’s no longer something I take for granted. )

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