This article is adapted from the script of my video ‘Is Manchester a mini-Manhattan’.
I’ve always felt there were similarities and parallels between Manchester and New York. I said this once in conversation with a guy and he replied ‘No, there’s no similarity whatsoever. No connections, totally different cities’. I was proven right however, when in 2013, filmmakers arrived in Manchester and turned Dale Street into 1940s New York. It was chosen because of its similarity to New York.
The street was sealed off, they brought in classic American automobiles, police cars, shop frontages, lamp posts, signs, fire hydrants, all to create a fantasy of 1940s America in the heart of Manchester. They were making ‘Captain America The First Avenger’. They also filmed in Stanley Dock Liverpool.
So there’s no doubt that there are echoes of New York in Manchester, especially in the Northern Quarter. The former warehouse on Newton Street called The Bradley, now an Easy Hotel, has a similarity to the Flatiron Building.
Many of the red-brick façades in the Northern Quarter were built around the same time as those in Lower Manhattan, in the late 19th century. With the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894, trade flourished, architectural styles spread across the Atlantic, people migrated, mostly in a westerly direction.
The metal fire escapes on many buildings in the centre of Manchester are very reminiscent of those in New York. The building on the corner of Hilton Street and Newton Street, now Hatter’s Hostel looks similar to buildings along Broadway and 5th Avenue, New York, not Manchester.
That inner cutaway with the windows and yellow tiles seems very Manhattan-esque to me. I can imagine a view over the Lower East Side and Midtown.
There were strong trading links between the United States and Manchester in the 19th century. Manchester was famous as Cottonopolis and cotton was shipped here. The Abraham Lincoln statue commemorates the president’s gratitude for the solidarity of the people of Manchester during the American Civil War and their help in the struggle to end slavery.
I love the rear façades of the buildings, which were constructed purely for commercial intent, and yet there is a beauty about them. With their stepped back façades, The Birchin and neighbouring buildings, near Tib Street, remind me of those in Lower Manhattan. They were later altered and a new building has appeared in front of them, so that link is gone.
I think Manchester’s Northern Quarter with its bars and street life has a strong similarity with Greenwich Village. There’s a building with pillars on Oldham Street that reminds me a little of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. On Great Ancoats Street the cast-iron façade of Hudson Buildings is very reminiscent of those in Lower Manhattan. Even the name carries an echo of New York. It was built around 1924, when there was vigorous trade via the ship canal.
The American Ford Motor Company set up a car factory in Trafford Park, which was the first purpose-built industrial park in the world. Cars were built there from 1911 to 1931, when production moved to Dagenham. The US company Westinghouse set up a subsidiary in Britain and opened a factory in Trafford Park. It later became part of the British company Metropolitan Vickers.
The façades on Swan Street near Rochdale Road are classic New York, even more so since the arrival of the new skyscraper Angel Gardens. That skyscraper is small by American standards but enhances the similarity to high rise cities like New York and others. Nearby is Manchester’s first skyscraper, the CIS tower, which was inspired by the Inland Steel Building in Chicago.
After the destruction of the Co-op buildings on Miller Street during the Manchester Blitz, a delegation went to the United States to look for ideas for a new building. In 1962, the CIS tower was opened. I’ll feature it in more detail in another article and video.
When I visited the Inland Steel Building in Chicago, the similarity was obvious, though, in scale, it’s closer to the neighbouring New Century Hall, which was built at the same time as the CIS building.
Nearby High Street, in the Northern Quarter, was transformed for another movie set in New York. That movie was the 2006 remake of ‘Alfie’ starring Jude Law. It unfortunately was not successful.
As with Captain America, signs and cars were imported. The Northern Quarter provided a perfect mini-Manhattan film stage at a fraction of the cost of filming in the reallocation.
As a child, I longed to live to America, an impossible dream, so I imagined Manchester as a kind of Manhattan or an imaginary American city. I listened to Northern Soul, a style of American R’n’B that was especially popular in Manchester and other parts of Northern England, hence the name. At Twisted Wheel club all-nighters, the records were almost exclusively 60s and 70s Black American. Later generations of Manchester DJs also found inspiration in New York and Chicago.
When I eventually arrived in New York to spend a summer working there, I felt as if I’d already been there. I lived on 9th Avenue and 34th St. The view of 10th Avenue from the High Line by 14th street reminds me strongly of a similar view from the partially disused railway bridge over Deansgate. That’s quite a coincidence as it’s planned to convert the nearby disused railway viaduct into Manchester’s High Line.
There are other architectural parallels. The Jefferson Market Library in New York was originally built as a courthouse from 1874 to 1877. Manchester’s Minshull Street Police Courts were built from 1868-71.
Minshull Street is at the end of Canal Street and in New York, there’s also a Canal Street and let’s not forget New York bar near Canal Street Manchester. Both New York and Manchester have internationally-known gay scenes.
Is it a coincidence that New York’s UN Building and Manchester’s City Tower, former Sunley Tower look similar? The Chrysler Building was completed in 1930, Manchester’s Northcliffe House on Deansgate, was built in 1931 and demolished in 2003. There are even parallels with Manchester’s Alexandra Park and New York’s Central Park, which are both overlooked by imposing buildings, St Bede’s College Manchester and the Dakota building Manhattan.
Over in the area known as The Village, in Trafford Park, by Westinghouse Road and Europa Way, you’ll find First Avenue, Second Avenue, Third Avenue, Fourth Avenue Fifth Avenue and then Fifth Street, Sixth Street, Eighth Street, Tenth Street and Eleventh Street.
These street names date back to the time of those American factories I mentioned earlier in this article. The magnificent Trafford Park Hotel stands empty. There are shades of Detroit-style decay. And at the centre of the Village on Third Avenue and Eleventh Street, you’ll find some nice places to eat and a strong community spirit. Even the corrugated iron St Antony’s Church for me has overtones of New England though this style of corrugated iron church originated over here.
So if you disregard the chip shop, the double yellow lines, the broad Manchester accents, the cars and trucks driving on the left, the cheese sandwiches with grated cheese in them and the double-decker buses – you’d swear you were in Manhattan or maybe Brooklyn! Well I think so, with a bit of imagination!
The new Manchester skyline has been called ‘Manc-hattan’ and the towers of Deansgate Gardens recall the Twin Towers, but is it true to say that Manchester is a mini-Manhattan? No, probably not, but there are undoubtedly forgotten echoes, influences, clues and connections between Manchester and New York as well as the wider continent of North America, if you care to look for them. And anything that helps us to look at our surroundings in a new way and to bridge the miles and the years between us and those distant events, people and places, can only be a good thing.