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Have 20 Years of Leeds' Unity Day Free Party Actually Brought Anyone Together?

After some unrest – and the burning down of a pub – in Leeds' Hyde Park 20 years ago, the community decided to start an annual event to prove that people there weren't so bad.
Simon Doherty
London, GB

Someone having a nice time at Unity Day (Photo by John Leach, via)

It's 30°C and the UK is losing its shit. People are very red and moist. Train tracks are literally melting. I'm sat on a bench in Hyde Park, the centre of Leeds' mammoth student community. If you've never been here and are simply passing through, it could be easy to see the litter, the bars across the windows and the burglary statistics and dismiss this place as a less than perfect area to call home.

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But don't let the fact that it consists pretty much exclusively of poorly maintained back-to-back red bricks (that come complete with some of the scummiest landlords in the country), or the fact it becomes an eerie ghost town when the bulk of the populous – the students – go home at Christmas or Easter, fool you. The postcode LS6 is a paradise of hedonism for many. Leeds is quietly – or maybe not so quietly, if you live here – one of the UK's best party cities, with Hyde Park at its epicentre.

But things haven't always been so chill in LS6; in the mid-90s, the area was hit with "riots" sparked by an allegedly overzealous policing operation. Local residents argue that, although there was some unrest, calling it a riot is just plain ludicrous. There's a lot of contradictory (mis)information online regarding those events, so only a few things are for sure: a pub was burned down, cars were vandalised and it led to a lot of negative coverage in the national press.

At the time, local community leaders – who felt aggrieved by the "unfair and misleading" coverage – rallied together and started to construct a plan to prove what the residents of LS6 were really all about. They came up with Unity Day (UD), which is essentially a pop-up free party. A one-day "community event" that celebrates the people, culture and community of LS6 by bringing everyone (particularly students and non-students) together.

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Massive rigs and stages are set up on the local park, Woodhouse Moor, and the party goes on all day. It's free and everyone is invited. Having been to each one for the past five years I'm well versed in the ethos behind it all, but has the event – which has now been going for over 20 years – achieved its overall aims and objectives set out all those years ago? With this year's UD coming up tomorrow, I caught up with some locals and some of the organisers to see if they could help me answer that question. I also contacted Leeds City Council and the West Yorkshire Police for a chat, but neither wanted to talk to me.

WHAT DO THE LOCALS SAY?

I headed to Brudenell Road, the hive of activity in the centre of the neighbourhood, to find some local residents. I soon came across an elderly lady dressed in green who was feeding a number of stray cats in a back alley. Her name is Maria and she's has been living in the area right next to the UD site for over two decades. I asked about her experiences and her response was mixed: "I think it's a nice idea; the original plan behind it was to unite students and local residents," she said. "But I'm not quite sure that it does that; I'm not sure how far-reaching it is other than the one day."

Maria told me that the unprecedented restrictions that the council place on the event (the organisers can't promote the event in any way outside LS6, and even then can't release the date more than two weeks before) can be a barrier to bringing different parts of the community together. "I find it a bit difficult," she said, "because I know that the council don't allow [the organisers] to announce the date until right near the time, which seems ridiculous to me. It should be promoted and more widely accepted."

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I moved on and soon got chatting to a retired teacher called Simon who was buying milk. A proud Loiner, he's been in Hyde Park for 30 years and insisted that UD "100 percent does" bring the community together. "There was a 'riot'," he explained, wildly gesticulating inverted comma signs. "But the media blew it out of proportion. That's what they do, don't they? It was like 'the troubles' in Ireland; that was a full-blown war that they called 'the troubles', but in Leeds they called it 'a war' when, in reality, it was just a bit of trouble."

WHAT DO THE ORGANISERS THINK?

I left Simon, who was off to have his lunch, and wandered through Woodhouse Moor before my phone started ringing. I'd been putting the feelers across the city and it was one of the organisers on the line who invited me to the Management Committee's final meeting that night. Once I had arrived at the local church hall, and after listening to the rigorous health and safety lark regarding fire extinguishers, I had a chat with some of them who volunteer their time and efforts to fundraise for, manage and deliver the event.

Kyle is the Steward Co-ordinator for this Saturday's edition of UD and will be managing 65 volunteer stewards. He's originally from Darlington but, like many before him, found the area so alluring he made it his permanent home. "It's the day that everyone bands together and shows we can work as a team," he assured me, citing the last five years that he's been in attendance as evidence. "We have this amazing celebration of the community where everyone comes together," he said, "but not many people outside Leeds 6 even know."

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Sue, a long-standing member of the local community since she moved here as a student 50 years ago, is in charge of raising funds by selling advertising space in the event programme. She argued that the way the area was portrayed in the 90s was "totally sensationalised". She said: "It was awful that the pub was burnt down but it's the sort of thing that happens in lots of places when it's hot – look at Hyde Park [in London] this week. There were a lot of social and political reasons; the guys who kicked off were suffering from social deprivation. That's obviously not an excuse to set fire to a pub, but it's an explanation."

AND THE MUSICIANS?

It's also important to note that UD does serve another purpose other than uniting the inner-city area's various different social groups; it fosters creative endeavour and encourages young people to harness and showcase their talents.

"UD is also about providing a platform – a safe space for artists and musicians to try out new ideas," said Kerri, head of visual arts. "When I was younger UD provided that for me, and I'm so grateful." This was a sentiment matched by Amit, who is a veteran on the Management Committee. "All the artists who perform have a connection to the area," he said. "If anyone has a creative idea that they want to do, there's nobody barred. We're not going to say, 'No, you can't do that.' It reflects the creative mood of LS6 in many ways."

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Of course, well-versed, professional musicians volunteer their skills on the day, too. I had a chat with Danny T, one of the city's more well-known dub and dancehall DJs, who makes up half of the Danny T and Tradesman duo. He's been performing at UD for the past six years. "It definitely brings the students and the locals together; you'll see 50-year-old Hyde Park heads raving away with freshers, and everyone is loving it," he said.

Vital Techniques are producers who have been taking time out of their schedule to play on the park for free at UD since 2008. They are helping to run the ADAPT stage this year, playing UKG, house and drum 'n' bass. "UD is a collaboration of all the best homegrown talent that Leeds 6 has to offer," said Antony, one half of the duo, over the phone. "U-N-I-T-Y Day – it's in the name, innit? Different cultures united."

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Tomorrow, all types of people in LS6 will be coming together to dance in the park. Some will be from Leeds, others students from all over the world. Some will be getting on it in front of the monstrous homemade Iration Steppas sound system, others will be taking their kids to enjoy the Children's Area or entering their pooch into the annual UD dog show (think Crufts meets It's Me or the Dog). If that's not evidence of some kind of success over the last two decades, what is?

The writer's fee for this piece will be donated to the Unity Day fund.

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