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
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
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
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
- Many people, including architects and planners I've met,
are disappointed with the mediocrity of many residential developments
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
Where are you from? Manchester
Occupation: Photographer writer
Do you like Manchester in general? Yes
home city, it's part of me and it has lots of things going for it,
despite many faults.
your vision or image of Manchester. What does the city say to you?
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.
do you feel makes Manchester different from other cities?
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.
is your favourite and least favourite area of Manchester?
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
a cultural and image sense, how do you feel that Manchester has
changed over recent years?
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
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:
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