“you live here” — york open dataBack
“Postcards,” I thought to myself, “Still lovely. Still evocative. I could email some photos, but look at these.
“The Minster from the east. The Shambles. The Minster from the west. Clifford’s Tower. The Minster from the north. All still lovely.”
The Starbucks was busy. I had taken my tea to a seat along a wall, hemmed all in by folks, and made a little room on a table to spread things out: pot, cup and saucer, pen, postcards. I counted them out; I had bought more than I knew who to send to. Some friends would perhaps like to have two. But what to write?
“What have I seen today?” Well, I’d seen the Minster from the east, the west, the north; I’d been inside too, of course. I had some postcards of that. And The Shambles and Clifford’s Tower. But what had I seen? What could I tell people about York?
I flipped a view of the Minster from the south and began to write. “Dear Mum, Having a lovely time in York. Today I went to the Minster. It really is as impressive as the picture.” I got stuck there.
“Dearest Sister,” I wrote on another, selecting a picturesque view of Parliament Street. “Having a lovely time in York. Wish you were here.” I was quite sure my sister was happy where she was, but that’s the sort of thing one writes on postcards. “Even without you, the streets of York are very busy. I’m sending you a picture of Parliament Street. On October 11th 2014, 57,580 people were counted passing by here. That was the most of any day of that year in York. I wonder why there were so many?”
I signed the card and almost put it to one side, but thought of a postscript. “P.S.,” I wrote along the edge, by her address. “Only 4,205 people walked down Church Street that day. It’s only a short walk. I wonder why so few?”
That was my sister. For my cousin in Toronto, I chose a view of The Shambles. All those quaint little shops. They were probably not so quaint back when it was all butchers and slaughterhouses. What could I tell my dear cousin, over there in Canada?
“Dear Cousin,” I wrote. “I walked past these medieval shops today. There are a great many shops in York. Not all are as pretty as these.” Or as full, I thought. “Not all are full, either. There were 45 empty shops in York at the last count. That’s about average for York, though; at one point in 2011 there were 54 empty, but during 2013 only 39. Perhaps if you moved to England, you could open a shop? Or maybe you could open one in Toronto.” To tell the truth, I don’t know what my cousin does out there anyway. They could own a whole chain of supermarkets for all I know. “With best wishes,” I ended, “From York.”
The pictures can only do so much, I thought; and describing what I’ve seen can only add so much. What can I really tell my cousin in Canada about York? What can I tell anybody about York? What would they like to know? I began to rummage in my pockets for my guidebook, but I had read it to death. I wondered what the people around me knew about York; what they’d like to know. I wondered if they’d like a postcard. A picture postcard really can give you a different perspective on a place; they have the photographs taken especially to catch the eye. Still so lovely. I suppose they must appeal even to people who live here and see the things on them every day, but I bet they don’t stop to browse the racks at the gift shops, much less buy them. They don’t see the city the way it looks on a postcard. But do they see everything there is to see?
“BUT LISTEN. WHAT DO YOU THINK HAPPENS IN SEPTEMBER?”
The young man who had served me had a fair beard and arms dark with tattoos, and while he was resting these on the counter in a quiet moment I approached him with a postcard. “Have you ever seen the Minster like this?” I asked him.
He looked at the card. “Well, it’s the Minster,” he said. “The Minster from the south,” I told him. “Right,” he said. “Can I get you anything?” I declined, and took the card away.
“Dear Barista,” I wrote on it. “York Council’s call centre usually answers more than 80% of the calls it receives, and around half of them within twenty seconds. But in September, it only answered 13.6% of calls within twenty seconds, and only 51.5% of them at all, compared to 72.4% in August.” I thought for a moment, and added, “September is their busiest month for online enquiries, too: 2,606 in 2014, 2387 in 2013. The city is very picturesque and I’ll be sad when my holiday ends.”
I took the card back to the counter and the young man, initially confused, read over it. “Did you just send me a postcard?” he asked at last. “Like, an intra-Starbucks postcard?”
“That’s the cutest thing,” said another barista. “But what happens in September?” asked the first. “Read it,” he said to his colleague. “What happens in September? Do you know?”
What ever happens? I looked around at the coffee drinkers of York; the citizens and guests, the regulars and occasionals; the dailies and the once-evers. What ever happens, to any of them? I began to write on a postcard that, “York’s population produced 5.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide per head in 2012,” but looking at the people around me, I thought I’d spare their spirits that one.
Instead, I wrote, “72.9% of arrivals at York Station last year were by cycling, walking, taxi or bus.” “1,043,285 people went to the library in York last year,” I wrote on another. “An increase of 37,690.” “All kinds of graffiti,” I wrote on a third, “Is removed a day and a half after it’s reported.” “940 businesses started in York in 2013/14,” I wrote on a postcard of Lendal Bridge. “The most for years; 600 closed, the fewest for years, too.”
There were more. I gathered them up into a stack, and thought about walking around, handing them to the customers; but I had a better idea. I took each one, and I flicked it. Flicked it through the air; airmail. “You’ll have an eye out!” someone yelled, but most people just laughed; free postcards, after all. With an image of the city on the front. And a thought about the city on the back. Or is it the other way around? It depends how you look at it. And that’s what this was all about; you can see The Shambles, the shops, the shoppers every day, but have you looked at them lately? Have you noticed so many more people on the street in mid-October than in mid-January, and have you wondered why? Have you passed the same empty shop for months, and asked yourself why it’s empty? Have you ever gone back to Instagram some graffiti, and it’s gone, so soon?
“Excuse me,” said my barista friend, “I can’t really have you chucking stuff around.” It was fine, I told him. I was leaving anyway. I still had a lot to look at. “Thanks for the postcard, though,” he said, “I’ll keep that behind the counter,” and I was touched. “But listen,” he continued. “What do you think happens in September?”
“I don’t know,” I told him. “You live here. Don’t you know?”
Originally published in The City Talking: York, issue 1
Data taken from York Open Data • yorkopendata.org • the information is licensed under the terms of the Open Government Licence