Wednesday 28 September 2016

How the Hipsters are saving Cork

Did you ever wonder the what hipsters did for anyone? You can stop wondering. We take a look at recent developments in Ireland's second city and discovers that a tired and worn city centre is being rejuvenated by a gang of energetic hipsters. In fact, working in tandem with some high-profile developers, there is a good chance that this unlikely alliance might just save Cork's soul

Pat Fitzpatrick

Published 13/04/2015 | 02:30

Cork's underdog mentality has worked for Roy Keane.
Cork's underdog mentality has worked for Roy Keane.
It's no coincidence that one of Cork's best restaurant's, Farmgate Cafe, is located upstairs in the English market.
Derval O'Rourke
Ronan O'Gara

Fancy a taste of what's going on in the second city? Get the 3pm Aircoach from Westmoreland Street in Dublin on a weekday, it will have you in Cork city centre a touch before six. From O'Connell Bridge to Patrick's Bridge. You set out from a city on the make, with all sorts of people going about their business. You arrive in a ghost town.

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The first thing you'll notice is Cork's rush-hour traffic. There isn't any. There's a bit of late-night shopping, but not a lot. There aren't enough people around to make it worth your while. A foreign visitor could hop on a bus to west Cork at this point, convinced that the city will never recover from the recession. They'd be wrong.

A few well-publicised projects by pre-boom developers such as Owen O'Callaghan and John Cleary already have the cranes back up over the city. Those are the obvious signs of recovery. You'll need to get out of the bus and walk around a bit to see some more. Cork is suddenly home to a lot of people with old bikes, beards and brown shoes. The hipsters have arrived on Leeside, and not a moment too late. The developers are going to bring thousands of new young workers into town. The hipsters are going to give them places to eat and drink. This could change everything.

They still have their work cut out. The city feels like it's on a different planet to Dublin. Alright, it's not entirely fair to compare Cork to a capital city, 10 times its size. (Even if that's what they do on Leeside all the time.) But allowing for scale, there is still a feeling that events have taken a detour past Cork. Dublin has Silicon Docks and the Luas and throngs of people who walk to work. Weekday Cork can sometimes feel like you are in a movie where someone just shouted, 'clear the set'. And parts of Patrick's Street look like a movie that is set in post-war Berlin.

There are just not enough people coming into town. You'll often get a parking space on what used to be a hectic South Mall at 10 in the morning. A cross-town drive to the train station should take no more than 15 minutes. The traffic and late-night shopping are out around the South Ring Road and in Mahon Point Shopping Centre. That's where the action is now, as people make their way to the technology and pharmaceutical companies on the ring road and east of the city, out the N25. The result is a ghostly atmosphere in town outside of the weekends.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Go back to 2010, when Cork made it to Lonely Planet's Top 10 Cities in the world worth a visit. Or that sunny day in 2011, when the Queen walked into the English Market and there was talk of a deluge of visitors from around the world. Back then, it looked like Cork was on track to take off as a buzzy business and tourist spot. The story was that Cork would soak up visitors looking for a uniquely Irish experience, now that Dublin had morphed into Zurich, but with more litter.

Where did it all go wrong? Why does Cork city centre look like it is dying? One reason is that Corkonians aren't dying, at least not quickly enough. The last census showed the average age is getting older in town, while any population growth is being recorded in satellite towns around the county. Older people are enjoying a longer life in their city homes. The next generation, unable to buy near the centre, are heading beyond the city bounds to Glanmire, Ballincollig and other places.

I've heard of one large primary school close to the city centre in Douglas that can only get 20pc of its intake from the local area. Cork can sometimes feel like one of those hollowed-out American cities, where all the action is out of town. If you think this is a good thing, then spend a week in Dallas.

Thankfully, things are about to change. Not everybody is happy about this, but it looks like the first phase of Cork's recovery is down to our old friends, the Developers. It's like someone in the Central Bank pressed a big red button marked 'Everybody give Cork some money' and there are new developments all over town. One of the biggest is the block fronting on to Grand Parade, which includes the old Capitol Cinema and Central Shoe Stores.

These are landmarks for Cork people of a certain age. The Central was where you got your first pair of shoes. The Capitol was where you copped your first feel in the jumbos. (The jumbos are two-seaters, where couples would get up to all sorts in the dark. It's surprising they haven't made a big comeback in cinemas, now that so many young adults still live with their parents.)

This block is being redeveloped, expecting to attract blue-chip retailers such as Zara. More importantly, it will also include office space for 300 workers. The developer involved with the Capitol site, John Cleary, is also behind a new conference centre and office buildings across the city at Albert Quay. This is projected to house 1,800 workers. Along with Apple's new offices in town, this mob of well-paid young people could be just the sort of thing to bring new life into town. And hundreds of hungry and thirsty builders are just the thing if your pub or restaurant is feeling the pinch.

There is a development at the old Beamish & Crawford brewery on South Main Street. This is going to be known as the Brewery Quarter, because no one gets fired these days for trying to appeal to hipsters. And it beats the more descriptive alternative, which would have been to call it The Eyesore District.

The new development will include an events arena. This will draw in the crowds who previously had to trek out of town to the Marquee, near Blackrock, to catch acts such as Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan. There's a nice bit of continuity here. The Brewery Quarter sits across the road from the site of Sir Henry's, where Cork's ravers used to host a large event in their heads every Saturday night.

The more interesting aspect of Cork's recovery is all down to our old friends, the hipsters. Fifteen years ago, they started to appear in certain parts of Brooklyn, New York. Five years ago, they were all over Dublin. And now, finally, they are in Cork.

It's easy to laugh at the hipsters. In fact, I'd recommend it. But they have their uses. You can't deny that they have raised the bar for Irish men on the style front. That's no bad thing in a country where a Mayo jersey and a pair of chinos is still considered a fashion statement. Real hipsters are curious, entrepreneurial types who move things back into town from suburbia. And they might just save Cork city yet, like some kind of modern-day Father Mathew. Who knows, maybe the next big statue on Patrick's Street will feature a guy wearing a foolish hat on a limited-edition Belgian racing bike?

The hipsters have been slow to make their mark on Leeside. Nothing new there. With the exception of dance music in the early 1990s, Cork has never been an early adopter when it comes to new trends. There were still punks in Cork in 1984, six years after the Sex Pistols called it a day. I watched them spit at Morrissey and The Smiths until they left the stage during a concert in the Savoy. Rumour had it that a gang came down from Limerick to ruin the Cork gig because The Smiths weren't playing on Shannonside. That was just second-city paranoia. It was the Cork punks what done it.

Back to 2015 and a plague of hipsters seems to have converged on Douglas Street. This southside street has a bit of form when it comes to the counter-culture. The gay-pride rainbow flag has flown over Loafers pub there, long before it became big and clever to do that sort of thing.

Back then, Loafers was surrounded by pubs full of locals drinking Beamish and playing a Cork card game called Don. The hipsters obviously sniffed a bit of local authenticity there and moved in. Or maybe they just liked the rent. The result is a smattering of noodle bars and atmospheric pubs in the area, such as Coughlan's and Callanan's, where the beard count is through the roof.

Don't underestimate the hipsters. It only takes a small number of them to make a difference. They don't even have to sport laugh-out-loud facial hair and thick-rimmed glasses. It's the hipster entrepreneurs who make things happen, with their preference for small and real over big and corporate. Thanks to a few pioneers, Cork is recognised by people in the drinks industry as the craft-beer capital of Ireland. There are currently three microbreweries around the city centre. The Franciscan Well has been brewing on the North Mall for 17 years, which is a lifetime in that industry. It has been joined in the city centre by the Rising Sons Brewery on Cornmarket Street, and Elbow Lane Brew & Smokehouse on Oliver Plunkett Street.

A classic sign of hipsters at work is an explosion of small cafes. You know, the narrow ones with three tables that make you wonder how they make their money. The kind of place where you are allowed to nurse a flat white all day and use the free wi-fi, as long as you are using an Apple Mac. Filter is one example, bringing daytime life to a dead stretch on George's Quay. Alchemy on Barrack Street is another, serving coffee and second-hand books to people who take those kinds of things very seriously.

And then there's food. Even emigrants home at Christmas time from Australia were forced to concede that city-centre restaurants were showing some form. That's something, given that people back from Oz usually can't stop pointing out that their life is so much better than yours. (We get it. There's a fabulous Cambodian place two doors down from your place in Sydney. Congratulations.)

Cork is riding a new wave of restaurants taking advantage of cheaper rents around town. This has led to a new phenomenon of Cork people actually looking forward to their lunch. Iyer's is getting rave reviews for its south-Indian food on Pope's Quay. The yummy mummies flash their buggies at each other in the Perry Street Market Cafe. You'll struggle to get a table in favourites like Idaho Cafe, Nash 19, Liberty Grill, Italee Cafe (geddit?) and Cafe Gusto around the middle of the day.

So lunch is good. Dinner, not so much. There is a smattering of stars around the place. Fenn's Quay, Electric, The Cornstore, Isaacs, Orso and a few others will keep you coming back for more. Aroi and Huguenot have brought a fresh buzz to Carey's Lane.

The problem is that Cork likes to promote itself as the Gourmet Capital of Ireland. It might as well claim to be the capital of Peru. For one thing, it doesn't have a single Michelin-star restaurant. Dublin has five; Co Kilkenny has two, with one each in Galway and Co Waterford. The Michelin Bib Gourmand - which recognises restaurants where you don't need a new mortgage to tackle the bill - also overlooked Cork city.

Cork just doesn't have enough corporate heavyweights or government departments to sustain an eatery that wants €100 a head just to get in the door. What it does have is over 25,000 students. So you are never more than 50 metres from a plate of nachos in the city centre.

The gourmet-capital thing oversells what's on offer. A lot of Cork people live in fear of the Foodie Text. It's the one that says "a Dublin friend is heading to your gourmet capital for the weekend. What would you recommend on the restaurant front?" It can be hard to come up with a reply, other than maybe drive through Kilkenny and eat there. That said, who wants to be a gourmet capital? The name itself has a nasty whiff of the 1980s about it. It's a bit Area Sales Manager bringing the lovely lady out for a treat in his gold Ford Granada Ghia, showing her the cassette player with his leather driving gloves. Cork should drop that and stick to its strengths.

The reason the English Market works is because it genuinely is the best place to buy locally produced food. That's why there was uproar last year when it emerged that one trader was selling vegetables from Lidl. It's no coincidence that one of the best restaurants in Cork is located upstairs in the market. Farmgate Cafe dishes up simple, local food, the way granny used to cook. (Provided, of course, that granny was an exceptional cook, which wasn't always the case.)

It's cheap cuts of slow-cooked local beef; fresh fish; tripe, and drisheen. It's delicious. When you think about it, Granny Food is just the kind of thing that could take off in Cork. It's sentimental and ironic. Just the kind of thing the hipsters like, if they could be lured out of the new Asian-street-food places.

That's a Cork you can see working. Cafes and brasseries instead of high-end dining rooms; atmospheric old pubs that are largely extinct in Dublin; over-familiar locals with funny accents who are dying to find out if you like them. All that and a peculiarly Cork type of hipster. You might call them Hipsters, Like.

That's a great story for Cork to tell people coming in from overseas. But it still won't be enough to save the city centre. Because retailers can't live on hipsters alone. Enter Starbucks and Nandos and Wetherspoons. They might be kryptonite for on-trend 20-somethings, but these chains have recently announced plans to open in Cork city centre.

Starbucks is like the bus. They had no place in Cork city centre for ages. And now there are two arriving at the same time. Not everyone is happy about the arrival of big chains. Richard Jacob, owner of the popular Idaho Cafe near Brown Thomas, is a pioneer of the emerging cafe culture in Cork. He took to social media to make the claim that Starbucks has an unfair advantage and will squeeze out some smaller rivals, diluting the unique atmosphere around the city centre. He pointed out to me that the total of 180 new seats planned by Starbucks is 180 less cups of coffee sold in the smaller, indie places. It's hard to argue with that.

On the other hand, the pub Sober Lane seems up for a fight. As they put it on their Facebook page: "the corporates waited until the little guys built a bit of buzz and now they are sweeping in to take the cream. They watched on the sidelines while we struggled along, pulled together and survived. Soon we will be thriving and they want a part of it. The more the merrier - bring it on."

That sits nicely with the cranky Cork underdog mentality that has worked for Roy Keane, Ronan O'Gara and Derval O'Rourke. It reminds me of my first experience of Cork chippiness, when my mother took me to Turner's Cross to watch George Best play for Cork Celtic in 1976. I couldn't really see Best over the fence. But I could hear 12,000 locals shouting, "Sure I could do that myself" every time he touched the ball. That's Cork for you. Getting stuck into someone while also being in awe of them.

Whatever side you are on, there's no denying that the city centre could do with more occupied premises. Cork is a skinny squiggle of a place, laid out on its side along two channels of the River Lee. The result is pockets of life, with a 30-minute walk between both ends. That's no joke when you're wearing stilettos, I'm told.

Pubs and restaurants at the west and east end of the city centre can feel a bit isolated. The ambitious Boardwalk Bar and Grill on the east end recently closed its doors after six years, citing lack of footfall and poor prospects, because the new events centre is going in the other end of town. In case you think that's bleating, Kate Lawlor, who owns Fenn's Quay down the west end, confirms the new centre is vital for her business.

In short, Cork needs filling in. If this involves some multinational chains, then why not? We've all enjoyed the simplicity of a Big Mac on our travels, when you are too hungry and tired to tackle a strange menu in an odd-shaped room. There are plenty of vacancies in the city centre. And while the atmospheric cafes and grubby pubs will bring in the hipster element, more chains will bring in the stag parties and shopping tourists.

It's not only that. The atmospheric cafes and bars might appeal to foreign tourists, including those down from Dublin. But that's not such a big deal for people in Bantry, Dungarvan and Cashel, who have all that in their own towns. This is a very important customer base, and all of these towns are a mere hour from Cork.

In fact, a personal shopper in a large department store told me that her typical client is a Tipperary woman with a bit of land. The rural shopper wants a bit more of a big-city experience. They might well fancy a trip into Starbucks on their day out in the smoke. And if they don't, their kids will.

Food and drink is the key these days, if you want people to pay your city a visit. Any retailer will tell you that the spectre of online shopping is what drags their numbers down. The only way to get people off the couch is to give them an atmospheric experience they can't get online. That means a mix of hipsters, hens, builders and ladies who lunch. Anything else won't cut it.

Go back to that Westmoreland Street bus stop in Dublin. Behind you is the reason Dublin went from backwater to a must-visit party city. I'm not talking about the site of the old Bewley's. Dublin wouldn't be Dublin without Temple Bar.

Yes, it's kitsch and pricey and there's too much vomit. But it's also some kind of paradise for a lot of people who just want to have a good time. It's not an exact fit with Cork's new hipster image. But sometimes a city needs to sell a bit of its soul so everyone can make a living.

A classic sign of hipsters at work is an explosion of small cafes. You know, the narrow ones with three tables that make you wonder how they make their money. The kind of place where you are allowed to nurse a Flat White all day and use the free Wi-Fi, as long as you are using an Apple Mac. Filter is one example, bringing daytime life to a dead stretch on George's Quay. Alchemy on Barrack Street is another, serving coffee and second hand books to people who take those kinds of things very seriously.

And then there's food. Even emigrants home at Christmas time from Australia were forced to concede that city centre restaurants were showing some form. That's something, given that people back from Oz usually can't stop pointing out that their life is so much better than yours. (We get it. There's a fabulous Cambodian place two doors down from your place in Sydney. Congratulations.)

Cork is riding a new wave of restaurants taking advantage of cheaper rents around town. This has led to a new phenomenon of Cork people actually looking forward to their lunch. Iyers is getting rave reviews for its south Indian food on Pope's Quay. The yummy mummies flash their buggies at each other in the Perry Street Market Café. You'll struggle to get a table in favourites like Idaho Cafe, Nash 19, Liberty Grill, Cafe Italee (geddit?) and Cafe Gusto around the middle of the day.

So lunch is good. Dinner, not so much. There is a smattering of stars around the place. Fenn's Quay, Electric, Cornstore, Isaacs, Orso and a few others will keep you coming back for more. Aroi and Huguenot have brought a fresh buzz to Carey's Lane.

The problem is that Cork likes to promote itself as the Gourmet Capital of Ireland. It might as well claim to be the capital of Peru. For one thing it doesn't have a single Michelin Star restaurant. Dublin has five; county Kilkenny has two, with one each in Galway and Waterford. The Michelin Bib Gourmand - which recognises restaurants where you don't need a new mortgage to tackle the bill - also overlooked Cork city. Cork just doesn't have enough corporate heavyweights or government departments to sustain an eatery that wants €100 a head just to get in the door.  What it does have is over 25,000 students. So you are never more than 50 metres from a plate of nachos in the city centre.

The gourmet capital thing oversells what's on offer.  A lot of Cork people live in fear of the Foody Text. It's the one that says "a Dublin friend is heading to your gourmet capital for the weekend. What would you recommend on the restaurant front?" It can be hard to come up with a reply, other than maybe drive through Kilkenny and eat there.

That said, who wants to be a gourmet capital? The name itself has a nasty whiff of the 1980s about it. It's a bit Area Sales Manager bringing the lovely lady out for a treat in his gold Ford Granada Ghia, showing her the cassette player with his leather driving gloves. Cork should drop that and stick to its strengths. The reason the English Market works is because it genuinely is the best place to buy locally produced food. That's why there was uproar last year when it emerged that one trader was selling vegetables from Lidl. It's no coincidence that one of the best restaurants in Cork is located upstairs in the market. Farmgate Cafe dishes up simple local food, the way granny used to cook. (Provided granny was an exceptional cook, which wasn't always the case.)

It's slow-cooked, local, cheap beef cuts, fresh fish, tripe and drisheen. It's delicious. When you think about it, Granny Food is just the kind of thing that could take off in Cork. It's sentimental and ironic. Just the kind of thing the hipsters like, if they could be lured out of the new Asian Street food places.

That's a Cork you can see working. Cafes and brasseries instead of high-end dining rooms; atmospheric old pubs that are largely extinct in Dublin; over-familiar locals with funny accent who are dying to find out if you like them. All that and a peculiarly Cork type of hipster. You might call them Hipsters, Like.

That's a great story for Cork to tell people coming in from overseas. But it still won't be enough to save the city centre. Because retailers can't live on hipsters alone. Enter Starbucks and Nando's and Weatherspoons. They might be kryptonite for on-trend 20 somethings, but these chains have recently announced plans to open in Cork city centre.

Starbucks is like the bus. They had no place in Cork city centre for ages. And now there are two arriving at the same time. Not everyone is happy about the arrival of big chains. Richard Jacob, owner of the popular Idaho Cafe near Brown Thomas, is a pioneer of the emerging cafe culture in Cork. He took to social media to make the claim that Starbucks has an unfair advantage and will squeeze out some smaller rivals, diluting the unique atmosphere around the city centre. He pointed out to me that the total of 180 new seats planned by Starbucks is 180 less cups of coffee sold in the smaller, indie places. It's hard to argue with that.

On the other hand, the pub Sober Lane seems up for a fight. As they put it on their Facebook page, " the corporates waited until the little guys built a bit of buzz and now they are sweeping in to take the cream. "They watched on the side-lines while we struggled along, pulled together and survived. Soon we will be thriving and they want a part of it. The more the merrier - bring it on." That sits nicely with the cranky, Cork underdog mentality that has worked for Roy Keane, Ronan O'Gara and Derval O'Rourke. It reminds me of my first experience of Cork chipiness, when my mother took me to Turners Cross to watch George Best play for Cork Celtic in 1976. I couldn't really see Best over the fence. But I could hear 12,000 locals shouting "sure I could do that myself" every time he touched the ball. That's Cork for you. Getting stuck into someone while also being in awe of them.

Whatever side you are on, there's no denying that the centre could do with more occupied premises. Cork is a skinny squiggle of a place, laid out on its side along two channels of the River Lee. The result is pockets of life, with a 30 minute walk between both ends. That's no joke when you're wearing  stilettoes, I'm told.  Pubs and restaurants at the west and east end of the city centre can feel a bit isolated. The ambitious Boardwalk Bar and Grill on the east end recently closed its doors after six years, citing lack of footfall and poor prospects because the new events centre is going in the other end of town. In case you think that's bleating, Kate Lawlor, who owns Fenn's Quay down the west end, confirms the new centre is vital for her business.

In short, Cork needs filling in. If this involves some multi-national chains, then why not? We've all enjoyed the simplicity of a Big Mac on our travels, when you are too hungry and tired to tackle a strange menu in an odd-shaped room. There are plenty vacancies in the city centre. And while the atmospheric cafes and grubby pubs will bring in the hipster element, more chains will bring in the stag parties and shopping tourists.

It's not only that. The atmospheric cafes and bars might appeal to foreign tourists, including those down from Dublin. But that's not such a big deal for people in Bantry, Dungarvan and Cashel, who have all that in their own towns. This is a very important customer base, all an hour from Cork. In fact, a personal shopper in a large department store told me that her typical client is a Tipperary woman with a bit of land. The rural shopper wants a bit more of a big city experience. They might well fancy a trip into Starbucks on their day out in the smoke. And if they don't, their kids will.

Food and drink is the key these days if you want people to pay your city a visit. Any retailer will tell you that the spectre of on-line shopping is what drags their numbers down. The only way to get people off the couch is to give them an atmospheric experience they can't get on-line. That means a mix of hipsters, hens, builders and ladies who lunch. Anything else won't cut it.

Go back to that Westmoreland Street bus stop in Dublin. Behind you is the reason Dublin went from backwater to a must-visit party city. I'm not talking about Bewley's. Dublin wouldn't be Dublin without Temple Bar. Yes, it's kitsch and pricey and there's too much vomit. But it's also some kind of paradise for a lot of people who just want to have a good time. It's not an exact fit with Cork's new hipster image. But sometimes you need to sell a bit of soul so that everyone can make a living.

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