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A Letter from Manchester in 2005
In this 'mixed bag' of an Eyewitness update, written as a 'Letter from Manchester', I address some important questions, including one repeatedly put to me by local expats friends I met on recent trips abroad: "How is Manchester at the moment and what's been happening?" I list the upbeat, and not so upbeat things that have appeared in recent news reports, share some worries, and conclude with my answers to a student questionnaire about Manchester.

First, some thoughts about the nature of the city: Expats tend to think of their home city as an absent friend. You want to check up on how they are, what they're doing, and maybe arrange a visit the next time you're back.  For those of us who live here, living in Manchester can be like being in a relationship: Maybe you're happy, or maybe things are not going so well, you feel your partner has changed, and perhaps you're on the point of leaving...

So how are things in Manchester at the moment, and what's been happening? 

The overwhelming message to report is that Manchester is changing, and changing fast:  Changing streets, changing buildings, a changing cityscape. As featured in the previous edition of Eyewitness in Manchester, many old and familiar buildings - and even a few newer and less well-known ones - have been demolished. Everywhere you look in the city centre, new buildings are under construction or old ones are being renovated. Here are just a few of the new developments taking shape:

  • A mass of new office buildings in the Spinningfields area, between Deansgate and the River Irwell.
  • A new residential development, the 'Green Quarter' at the bottom of Cheetham Hill Road is emerging.
  • New apartment developments in Dale Street canal basin, part of the Piccadilly Gateway scheme.
  • New construction recently started on the empty site between London Rd and Aytoun St near Piccadilly Station
  • The Green Building, part of Macintosh Village close to Oxford Road Station, is largely complete
  • In Ancoats, the refurbishment of Royal Mills is well in progress and many apartments have been sold.
  • The nearby New Islington project is underway, with striking new canalside buildings and amenities.
  • The UK's tallest tower outside London under construction at the bottom of Deansgate, is climbing skywards at a remarkable rate.
  • Further towers are planned for sites next to Piccadilly, GMEX and across the Irwell in Salford.

Whether you're in property, construction or demolition, there are many opportunities in Manchester at the moment. Local government publicity, industry and local media seem almost unanimously upbeat about the way things are going, making frequent use of the words 'new', 'exciting' and 'vibrant', but is the future really so bright?

To gain a fair assessment we also need to balance the upbeat with some slightly less encouraging recent news items:

  • The Boddingtons brewery ceased production in late 2004 after making 'the Cream of Manchester' more than two centuries
  • The Odeon Cinema closed its doors for the last time in September 2004 after being in continuous use since 1931.
  • Metrolink continues to be put on hold, and it is doubtful whether it will be extended to Didsbury or the Airport
  • Crime and economic deprivation continue to be a problem in many parts of Manchester.
  • Manchester has been found to be one of the most expensive cities in the world.
  • Manchester continues to be under-rated and under-recognised abroad.
  • Many people, including architects and planners I've met, are disappointed with the mediocrity of many residential developments completed recently.

And as if to hinder a better appreciation of the architecture around us...

  • CUBE, the Centre for Understanding of the Built Environment, situated on Portland St, is to close

On the plus side, a recent survey discovered that people smile more than in other UK cities, so maybe it's not all bad.

I pride myself in being an independent observer, a 'man in the street', an impartial 'Eyewitness' free of commercial, corporate or political affliations. I'm not directly involved in local government or business, and don't have access to insider knowledge. So I generally prefer to raise issues and ask open questions rather than put forward detailed policies of my own.

As with a close family member, I worry a lot about Manchester. Here are some of my worries which have come to the surface in recent discussions and news items:

  • Is there a possibility that new buildings are falling short of what we would want and in a few years time may become more of a liability than an asset?
  • Is it possible that too many viable older buildings are being swept away to be replaced by mediocre new ones?
  • Is it going to be difficult for families to live in the centre due to the lack of amenities?
  • Is the cut-throat nature of the British high street, with the rise of chain stores and franchises, killing off the local uniqueness of Manchester?
  • Is the quality of life in Manchester being negatively affected by the shortcomings of public transport and the continuing postponement of Metrolink extensions?
  • Does the closure of Boddingtons and the loss of Lewis's not send out as negative a message as if the Guinness brewery and Bewleys coffee shop in Dublin were to close? (Actually Bewleys did close in October of last year but is set to re-open later in 2005)
  • Is it possible there might be a property crash in the city cente, causing difficulties for businesses and individuals?
  • Despite the current prosperity, is it not true that there are many communities who are excluded from a better quality and standard of living, and possibly even exclude themselves.
  • Is the city centre at night less of a European style cultural haven for all ages and more of a rat run for local and regional under-25 binge-drinkers?
  • Is the lack of a single local government authority covering the whole of the Manchester conurbation impeding the development of the area and its standing in the world?
  • Don't the unresolved questions about whether places are in or not in Manchester, or Lancashire, Cheshire or Greater Manchester still cause confusion and obscuring of local identity?
  • Are there so-called 'invisible issues' which might threaten the future viability of the city, and cause a similar downturn to those we have experienced in the past? (Example of a past 'invisible issue': the unexpected collapse of Manchester's Docks and heavy engineering industries)
  • Is Manchester losing its identity, individuality, uniqueness and suffering from a kind of 'municipal amnesia'?

My answer to most of these questions is a qualified 'yes', but my opinion is less important than the need for all of us from or with connections to Manchester to ask discuss, debate and investigate them and, if possible take action.

Some of Manchester's greatest achievements are happening at grass roots level. I'd like to draw attention to three individuals and their respective groups who have taken action and are making a difference to Manchester.

Chandy Coverley and the Friends of Victoria Baths - With their tireless campaigning, fund-raising, and organising of events they have secured the survival of a building that might easily have been lost.  The future use of the Victoria Baths is still not certain, but the restoration of the Turkish Baths is set to go ahead, probably in the autumn.

Michael Wingfield and the Friends of Angel Meadow Park - Local resident Michael Wingfield, assisted by the Friends group,  has instigated the remarkable transformation of the formerly abandoned and neglected St Michael's Flags, infamous as the Plague Burial Ground, into an attractive park. Grass is soon to be planted, and history information boards will be put up and life will return.

Kate Dickson and the Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust - Ancoats BPT has played a key role in reversing the decline and dereliction of Ancoats, one of the principle homes of the Industrial Revolution, helping to steer it towards re-emergence as an urban village and community. Much work remains to be done, but Ancoats, thanks to all at Ancoats BPT, is on the up and up.

There are plenty more around, but these are the ones I've had the most contact with.

Manchester continues to be an interesting place, full of life, challenge and change (I will avoid mentioning the over-used word beginning with 'v' above).  Recently I visited expat Mancunian friends Frank and Gae in the Philippines as well as Rick and Isabella in Austria. I've been out for leaving do's for Glenn who's emigrating to Canada, and Jeni who has moved to London.

People ask me: "Wouldn't you rather live abroad?" and the answer is "No." I could never emigrate. I am so connected to Manchester, some would say umbilically, it would be very difficult to leave. People think I obviously love everything about Manchester, otherwise I wouldn't spend so much time photographing and writing about it. Actually there are many things I dislike about Manchester. But it is so much a part of me, I have to be here to witness what's going on with my own eyes.  When I was an expat in the Gulf, Manchester was something in my head, a gradually diminishing memory, a place fixed at the time I got on the plane and left. Nowadays it's easy and relatively cheap to travel to all parts of the world, and my 'hub' will remain Manchester.

To finish, here are my answers to questions in an e-mail questionnaire sent by Salford University Design student Dawn Gilligan. She has put these questions to many people. It was interesting and challenging answer them. Maybe readers would like to have a go themselves:

Name: Aidan O'Rourke

Age:
47


Where are you from? Manchester

Occupation: Photographer writer

Do you like Manchester in general? Yes

Why is this?
It's my home city, it's part of me and it has lots of things going for it, despite many faults.

Describe your vision or image of Manchester. What does the city say to you?
It's a fascinating, multi-layered city and conurbation with all kinds of faces and influences.  It's a lively and challenging place that still retains a reasonably strong local identity. But it's also a dysfunctional place with problems of crime and social deprivation. It is losing its identity and uniqueness through over-development.

What do you feel makes Manchester different from other cities?
It's bigger than most cities in the UK and has multiple facets. It's a conglomeration of lots of towns, villages, and urban areas, rather than a single entity. It lacks many of the disadvantages of London.  It has a dynamic character and is a place of change and constant evolution, often traumatic. It has had and continues to have many problems but that's part of its character.

What is your favourite and least favourite area of Manchester?
My favourite area is the central area of Manchester, where I have studied, lived and worked, excluding my periods abroad for over 25 years.  I'm also very fond of the south Manchester / north Cheshire area, where I also lived and spent a lot of time. I'm not keen on certain run-down and economically deprived and crime-ridden housing estates

From a cultural and image sense, how do you feel that Manchester has changed  over recent years?
Manchester has gained an air of sophistication, it has seen rapid development, not all of it good.  It is a much more positive place than it was in recent decades, but it has lost much of its individual character and uniqueness.

If there was one word to sum up the city of Manchester, what would it be?
To describe Manchester, both the city and the conurbation, there is no one word to sum it up, but the best I can suggest is:


Multi-faceted


That's nearly all for this update of Eyewitness in Manchester but before I go, let me draw your attention to three events and happenings which may be of interest to Mancunophiles:

  • The Supercities exhibition at Urbis runs until 15 May and for the rest of the exhibition period it will be possible for people of all ages to design their own city skyline for Manchester and other cities.  More details from www.urbis.org.uk
  • The Manchester Letherium is a fictional architectural project in which architects and others were invited to submit designs for an imaginary building to be constructed at the junction of Whitworth St and Princess St. The 15 best designs are on show at the Cornerhouse until 21 May.
  • Manchester Civic Society are holding a festival celebrating the '7 Ages of Manchester', based at Exchange Square near the Cathedral. There will be activities, walking tours and presentations as well as some real life Romans and Tudor visitors - well, real life people dressed up!  Festival dates are 17 and 18 June 2005. More at www.manchestercivic.org.uk


 

All photos and articles © Aidan O'Rourke

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