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Margate's Top 10 Award: Cruel Joke or Optimistic Appraisal?

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For over ten years, I grew up near Margate, Kent. It's a place synonymous with the dying art of the British seaside holiday, boasting brightly broken arcade fronts and the gaping wounds of burnt out buildings.

It wasn't always like that, of course. Things used to be better, bustling in fact. Before globalisation led to cheaper flights abroad, Margate was a hugely profitable holiday destination, crowded with beach bums from all over Britain.

After a series of mysterious fires and the unrelated launch of a mega-mall nearby, Margate turned from beloved tourist destination to ghost town - practically overnight. Despite the efforts of high-street hero Mary Portas and the valiant rejuvenation of the Old Town, Margate continues to reek of recession and disrepair.

And yet Rough Guide has just named it one of the top 10 must-see destinations in the world.

Upon reading this, I was dumbfounded. That's not my Margate, surely? My Margate is an impoverished place that's drunkenly mourning its glory days. My Margate is a sad face, a fly-tippers paradise and a blank, grey ocean of murky uncertainty.

Surely, this can't be my Margate?

On the contrary, according to Rough Guide's Tim Chester, "Margate now offers much more than its beautifully dilapidated seafront."

Whilst I agree that something can be beautifully dilapidated (see the slideshow below), the dichotomy seems a little lost on my hometown. Chester goes onto celebrate "the proliferation of... indie art spaces, retro shops and cute cafés." Wait... what? Indie art spaces? Retro shops? This sounds like a hipster's haven - not the gritty haunt of my disgruntled youth.

However, according to the Daily Mail, locals are equally bemused. Margate resident Robert Spires said "If this guide causes tens of thousands of people to descend on Margate... I am afraid they will be very, very disappointed... It's not the kind of place you really want to live in, let alone go on holiday to."

Whilst the town has got a profoundly long way to go before it can be called "world class," it's evidently (and, indeed, nobly) trying to resuscitate its image. On a recent visit, I decided to investigate the conflicting reports for myself and found that, to my surprise, Margate Old Town is a genuinely trendy spot with sweet little cupcake cafes and vintage clothes shops on every corner. Independent art galleries have clustered around the new Turner centre like barnacles, as have organic eateries and coffee houses. Every building is freshly painted and chewing gum has been peeled off the pavements. A Banksy copy-cat has immortalised Tracey Emin, the local girl done good, and swaths of stencil-happy graffiti artists have followed suit. The area seems to radiate an atmosphere of expectation, as if everyone is holding their breath and waiting for it to be compared to Brighton. However, the Old Town is surrounded by construction sites and a sense of desperation. Cath Kidston's sickly shade of twee is accompanied by zeitgeisty pop-up projects and Keep Calm posters. It's all a bit five minutes ago.

As the pictures illustrate all too well, the rest of Margate continues to struggle. The boulevard is a testament to the abandoned nature of this place, with the modernist Dreamland cinema standing resolutely empty and the cruelly characteristic tower-block casting a shadow over the shoreline. The arcades mean well with their light displays and their gaudy songs, but bulbs are missing and a man cradling a litre of cider is banging his fist against a 2p machine. There are no tourists here. With many more shops closed than open, it's no wonder. This should be the face of a convicted come back and yet, on first glance, it appears to have been forgotten. On closer inspection, it really has.

All that remains of Dreamland, a theme park that was opened in 1880 and enjoyed decades of seaside success, is a near-empty plot of concrete bearing the stains of dismantled rides. The damaged Scenic Railway hunches miserably in the middle, providing a stark reminder of the arson attack that engulfed it in 2008. It's the oldest roller coaster in the UK and one of only eight of its kind in the world, making it Grade II listed. Like a heap of sodden firewood, it rots away in the biting winds of the English Channel.

Although plans for a heritage theme park were announced by the local council, any progress will have to wait until a land ownership dispute is resolved. The council received approval from the secretary of state to action a Compulsory Purchase Order in August 2012. However, the landowners have appealed the decision and it's due to go to court this March. To add to the dilemma, Tesco want to build a superstore right next door, proposing a building that is three times the size of the Turner Contemporary. Mark Taylor, the architect, is the ninth person in 10 years to draw up designs for the redevelopment of Arlington House - a grim tower-block that has become an unwittingly negative Margate landmark.

It would be a crying shame if the Dreamland appeal were successful. The council and the Dreamland Trust promise a respectfully restored Scenic Railway and vintage rides from a by-gone era. The new park will celebrate Margate's holidaying heyday and take advantage of the retro renaissance that has given an identity to the Old Town. In other words, it's a chance to secure Margate's future whilst rejoicing the past.

The Turner Contemporary, although aggravatingly ugly, is a testament to the potential of Margate. It has radiated its influence throughout the Old Town and whilst I seriously question the commercial viability of gingham bunting and owl-shaped pillow cases, Margate is clearly ready and willing to emerge from the ashes of its destitution.

I understand why Turner loved painting this place. The pastel-coloured sunsets that inspired his work continue to bring the buildings to life, capturing a sad kind of concrete beauty. Every evening, these sunsets remind Margate of how much it's revival is really worth, even if it is a little rough around the edges.

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