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Student meet Leeds: Chasing culture in the city

I have been living in Leeds for almost four years, yet it feels as though I’ve only just been able to start calling it home. For most of my time here I feel I’ve moved in a sleepy student daze floating from Hyde Park, to University or to town and back to Hyde Park again. It wasn’t until this time last year when I was coming back up to the city for my final term as an undergraduate, that I really woke up and appreciated Leeds for what it was.

I don’t know how many other students live a similar story in the student bubble of Hyde Park and Headingley – where we don’t know our neighbours much more than where they’re getting deliveries from or what music they listen to. We are all guilty of slipping into that routine where we see the same people, move in the same circles, and do the same things. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing or that we all need to change what we’re doing – student culture is very much a part of Leeds and makes up so much of what I remember and love about the city. But I do think that we need to look up more and see Leeds.

Emily Baldwin on Student Culture in Leeds
Emily Baldwin on Student Culture in Leeds

As students I feel we miss a lot of what’s going on – yes we get leaflets through our door about club nights coming up or about fast food offers, but maybe we are interested in more than how many pizzas we can get delivered for £10 – I said maybe…

What we don’t hear so much about are all the local events going on in our community. Unless you know the right people you may not hear about new exhibitions or galleries – it becomes easy to miss the food and music festivals in the city centre simply because you didn’t know it was happening. There are so many cultural aspects of Leeds to shout about, but unless you move in the right circles and know where to look, you can miss out on so much that’s going on right on your doorstep.

When we do hear about what’s going on, the focus is always on the city centre, Hyde Park and Headingley. We are lucky that we live in such a vibrant student city that there is always so much on locally for us to go and see or do. Yet for so long, I naively just accepted that was all Leeds was – but what about what’s going on in Armley, Otely, Roundhay…? There seems to be little or no way for students to find out about what’s going on in greater Leeds. If they could access more information about what was out there, it could help students to break free from that cultural bubble they often get stuck in. It would help in getting students to truly start engaging with the community of Leeds – seeing it as a home rather than just as a University address.

So what’s next for the students of Leeds…?

Student culture is dominated by club nights and pizza deals. !Forward Russia! play Live at Leeds. Image courtesy of I Like Press
Student culture is dominated by club nights and pizza deals.
!Forward Russia! play Live at Leeds. Image courtesy of I Like Press

Leeds is home to five universities and over 40,000 students. It is undoubtedly a student city. And yet, I only know a handful of people who have chosen to stay on in Leeds after graduation – whether that be for postgraduate study or for a new job. So why aren’t more people choosing to stay? I’ve been speaking to graduates about why they’ve chosen to stay in Leeds to understand a little more about why so many students do tend to leave after their 3 years of studying here.

Many of the graduates I spoke with wanted to keep living the life they had grown to love here in Leeds, they enjoyed the independence the city had given them. Those I spoke with felt that Leeds had a unique quality – in seeming like a ‘little London’ – there was always plenty for them to see and do, and yet it was still small enough to feel safe and accessible. To them, Leeds felt different than many other cities they’ve been to, and that was something they wouldn’t want to change. They described the city as ‘gritty’, and ‘a little bit rough around the edges’ – it seems to promote a young ethos, which is a big part of what attracts so many students to Leeds to begin with.

There’s so much going on in the city for students. Some of the graduates I spoke with had always liked the discounted tickets to matches at Headingley Stadium – others enjoyed all of the free events in and around the city, like Belgrave Food Feasts or the recent pop up Weather Café. But what’s next…? It seems to be accepted that people come here, study, graduate and then go. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of incentives for graduates to stay on and live in Leeds. I think the difficulty is that many people can’t imagine what it would be like to live here after they leave the vibrant student world that Leeds fosters. Perhaps they worry that this student bubble will burst – and the reality of graduate life in the city is something that they don’t know enough about to consider.

In choosing to come back to Leeds after my degree to study my masters, I feel that I managed to keep one foot in the student world of Leeds, whilst I’ve also been able to start to experience the city as a graduate. I don’t know if I would have considered moving back to Leeds if I wasn’t coming to study. As much as I had loved my time here as an undergraduate – without the knowledge of what could be on offer for me in the city after my student days – there was little pushing me to consider committing to moving here full time.

So how can we change that? We need to start talking about culture!

Emily's Culture
Emily’s Culture

What is your culture in Leeds? This is a question I’ve been starting to ask the people of Leeds – students and otherwise – over the last few months…it’s something no one can answer.

My culture or ‘my Leeds’ has always been its amazing food and drinks scene – the independent cafes, the pop up street food, and the local beer or food festivals. My other love is photographing these memories. I always have to take snapshots of things I see or places I go to try and capture a moment. There are always new and exciting things going on in Leeds that I honestly feel lucky to have right on my doorstep. Yet sometimes it is as thought we just need an excuse to make the time to go and see them – over the last year I’ve enjoyed giving myself the time to really see and enjoy Leeds.

Leeds means so many different things to different people. I’ve been in such a fortunate position helping with the Culture Strategy, as I’ve been able to get a taster of all of the wonderful faces Leeds has for the people who live here. I have had the chance to explore the diverse events, spaces and places in the city. I’ve been able to speak with different people about where they like going and what they like doing. I’ve spoken to people I’d never have otherwise spoken to. I’ve heard about places in the city that I would never have known existed and I’m going to events I would never have considered going to before. I’ve seen Leeds in a new light – through everyone else’s eyes. Leeds is so much more than a student city, it has so many cultural identities that many of us, especially students, never get to see.

We don’t seem to speak enough about all the amazing things going on that we love about our city. So much seems to be hidden or go under the radar because we don’t shout about how great the culture of Leeds is often enough. It has been so nice for me to have an excuse to start having these conversations about culture. It has meant that I have been able to learning so much about my city that I never knew. It has given me the appetite to explore more of what Leeds has to offer. I hope that these conversations around the Culture Strategy will help to get people talking about culture in Leeds – helping everyone to access more of their city.

I’ve always felt that sense of pride in being from Leeds and the pride from people who call Yorkshire home – I feel like I’ve only just started to experience Leeds and all the faces it has – but already I can see why. If we can start to tell more stories of our own cultural visions of Leeds, we may be able to help open the city up, both to people looking in, and to those who may be wanting to call Leeds home. In starting to share and celebrate more of what Leeds means to us we can help others, like me, catch that cultural bug and the want to explore more of what the city has to offer.


One Comment

  1. Susan Nicholas Susan Nicholas

    Well, I don’t know who else is reading this young woman’s descriptions of Leeds but they certainly need to be be seen by many others.
    I shall be very interested to hear about some of the exciting places, events and lifestyles which Emily alludes to in this piece… keep writing, searching & finding out Emily. Good luck!

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