How the Beatles Ruined Liverpool

For the middle-aged pilgrim, the trail is well marked. Stroll west from Liverpool's Central railway station and you're soon in the "Beatles Quarter." There's the site of the Cavern Club, the sweaty dive where the Fab Four wowed their first British fans. For refreshment, try the Abbey Road Pub or the sleek Hard Day's Night Hotel with its submarine-yellow jukebox and Beatles busts in the lobby. Or maybe head straight down to the Mersey waterfront for the Beatles Story, the principal treasure house of Beatles relics, housed in a smartly restored warehouse complete with the memento-filled Fab4Store. Want more? Even the ferry terminal gets in on the act with a "four-dimensional 'Fab4D' show," as well as a new exhibition of previously unseen Lennon family memorabilia. If you squint hard on a clear night, you might even see a girl named Lucy in the sky, with diamonds. Yeah, that one's a joke, but don't be surprised if some Beatlemaniac makes it happen someday.

After all, just about every other Beatles dream is coming true. Devotees from the '60s are lining up for the remastered CDs; the BBC has run a series of new documentaries. And let's not forget The Beatles: Rock Band, the videogame that forces baby boomers to finally answer the 40-year-old question: if you had your choice, who would you be—John or Paul?

But the lads' hometown was busy long ago enshrining their musical legacy with a rich mix of sentiment and commercial savvy. Every year a few hundred thousand tourists are shepherded around to Beatles sites large and small: the cathedral where Paul McCartney was rejected as a chorister; the hall where the teenage John Lennon first met McCartney; suburban Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields. The city calendar now features a weeklong Beatles Festival and, since last year, a Beatles Day: July 10, the anniversary of the band's return to Liverpool after their first U.S. tour.

Trouble is, there's plenty a returning Beatle might not recognize now. Sure, there are still plenty of handsome monuments to the city's heyday in the 19th century, when Liverpool was the greatest port of the British Empire after London. But for better or worse, this is no longer the raunchy city of the 1960s, still recovering from a wartime pounding by German bombers, that shaped the Beatles. On a fine autumn day, the banks of the Mersey in downtown Liverpool make a great place for the coffee-swilling tourists, but the river is empty of shipping. Large patches of slummy inner-city housing survive, but much has gone. These days Liverpool takes pride in the size of its shiny new downtown shopping mall and a cluster of new museums and galleries, including the new International Slavery Museum and the Tate Gallery's Liverpool outpost. Last year the city was chosen as Europe's Capital of Culture, a designation awarded annually by the European Union. In the past five years, the number of overseas visitors has more than doubled.

The irony is that some of this would not be here if the Beatles hadn't put their hometown on the map—they are, in a sense, complicit in erasing the Liverpool that inspired them. Boomer tourists are thrilled that Lennon's and McCartney's childhood homes are now in the hands of the National Trust, painstakingly restored to mid-20th-century dowdiness. (Though Ringo's modest first home, in a working-class district, is due for demolition. Poor Ringo never gets any respect.) Developers demolished the original Cavern Club in 1982; it survives as a brick-for-brick reconstruction. But it's hard not to wonder if the Fab Four would be happy about the ersatz legacy they've left behind or if they'd rather that Liverpudlians long ago said, let it be.