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Liverpool -- from seamy seaport to garden spot and industrial jewel?

By David K. WillisStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 1982



Liverpool, England

Once the river teemed with ferries, pleasure craft, and massive ocean liners, many of them steaming in from New York and other United States ports. Troop ships landed GIs during World War II.

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The waterfront skyline was world famous. The port was one of the world's largest. The giant Adelphi Hotel, with its high ceilings, walk-in dressing rooms , paneled suites, and basement swimming pool, glittered with well-to-do travelers transferring from the London train and the liners, or going the other way.

But now the signs of stagnation are all too obvious. The once-proud city of Liverpool needs help -- badly, just as many others do in the north and west of England, as well as in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. All suffer from decades of decline and neglect and people leaving for suburbia.

At long last help is on the way. But the challenges remain formidable.

The waters of the Mersey River, for instance, are heavily polluted. Huge docks stand derelict, their piles deep in silt. Shipping has fled so fast to ports closer to Europe that Liverpool's population has dropped 200,000 people in two decades (to just over half a million). The port handled a mere 13 million tons of cargo last year, slumping to 10th place in Britain.

The Adelphi is less than half full in summer, and British Rail, which owns it , is eager to sell it off. ''But who will pay a million pounds for a hotel in a city like this?'' employees ask gloomily.

Unemployment, standing at 20 percent, is well above the national average. Bleak, inner-city Toxteth earned a grim, worldwide reputation last year for rioting, and almost one person in two there is unemployed.

Racial tension, small by US standards, is growing. Tony Excell from Toxteth, aged 17, speaks angrily about discrimination:

''No blacks in the post office, people patronizing us, police harassing us for no reason. You in America, you had a civil war and the civil rights revolution of the 1960s for black people's rights. We have to have the same here. No blacks are in big jobs here. Me and my friends, we're fed up.''

The city council squabbles endlessly with the Merseyside County Council. With no single party able to win a majority, strong local leadership is lacking.

What are the answers? So far it has come from outside -- in the form of new laws, more money, and fresh thinking from the Conservative government in London. Since the Toxteth rioting a year ago, the Cabinet minister in charge of urban affairs, Michael Heseltine, has paid regular visits to the Merseyside area. London is working with local and county authorities, trying to speed them along and provide leadership.

Even before then, the Thatcher government had picked up some inner-city ideas from the previous Labour government, some of them borrowing from the US model cities and urban development grants.

Liverpool never had a solid basis of manufacturing on which to fall back. It had the port and a strong commercial center but lacked the nonshipping industry that nearby Manchester possessed. A London effort to send in large car plants and other factories has failed. Decisions to move away were taken by boards of directors in London, who had little involvement with local affairs.