Manchester psychogeographers say: it's good to walk

by Manchester Area Psychogeographic

A short while ago another new hotel opened in Manchester, on Piccadilly, near the main railway station, very handy for the traveller out of London. It was a Victorian building, once, and partially still is.

This new hotel, the Malmaison, opened with much panache. A big party, reported in the Manchester Evening News the following day, attracted soap stars from Coronation Street, Brookside and Hollyoaks. It's the sort of place showbiz people apparently like: guests reportedly get a CD player in their rooms. Whether or not they remember to bring any compact discs with them in the first place is another matter.

But the most obvious link between the entertainment industry and Manchester's newest hotel is the person who is fronting the Malmaison: Elliott Rashman, ex-manager of Simply Red. Pop and property in Manchester have an interesting history, which up till now has mostly concerned clubs. Here at MAP we don't necessarily see the Malmaison as a sinister psychogeographic development. We're more interested in the wider psychogeography of re-development, a project in progress right across the city centre. And the Malmaison hotel is a telling symbol of the way things are going.

When MAP first went into print, at the end of 1995, we were reacting to the announced redevelopment of a zone dubbed the Northern Quarter. Perversely, MAP preferred rotting buildings to gleaming loft apartments. Crackly atmos to pure soundtrack. But, from the standpoint of your average City Council anywhere in the north of England, urban redevelopment revolving around what they call "cultural industries" has become an increasingly attractive proposition.

And these industries are officially recognised and encouraged. The government likes them, and, hey, wait a minute, you might actually be involved in one yourself, right now, without actually realising it. It's so easy. "In the late Nineties hobbies can become careers," announced a recent Sunday broadsheet newspaper (1), "Enjoy keeping fit? Become a personal trainer. Enjoy partying? Open a club. Enjoy playing on your Sony PlayStation? Become a games programmer." The article went on to cover new "creative industry" jobs, in art, design, TV and film, acting, journalism and music. According to economic consultants, Business Strategies, this is the fastest growing sector for the work in Britain today. Just do what you like doing best, it seems, and a nearby shop window can be found for it.

Whaddya mean, you don't actually like doing anything? You must, must, do something. For here lies the first, puritanical lesson: cultural or creative industry, no matter how much fun it seems, is basically, still, all about work. Employing you, getting others to be employed. Keep 'em off the streets, by getting them to open shops. Well, try keeping psychogeographers off the streets.

Perhaps it's a good time to go back to that part of the city centre where we started, and look again, not only at the extent to which change has occurred on the ground, but also in the popular culture surrounding redevelopment: the ideas in the head.

It should, however, be emphasised, that psychogeographically we may not be walking along what the Americans refer to as Real Street. Our street, off the main, horrible, Piccadilly Gardens centre of Manchester, has not been really real for some time. And that's not a fact we're condemning. Psychogeography reveals multiple realities, multi-textured experience. This exploration, the one we're embarking on now, is an attempt to examine the multi-real, in opposition to the Mighty Real. For Oldham Street is, simultaneously, a mess and a triumph. It's fun and it's a horrible experience. It's being built and it's falling down. It's there but it's been made into a myth. And the myth is right at the centre of everything that's changing in central Manchester, and therefore its role in all the beliefs forced upon and suffered by the population of Manchester is crucial. So here we are. Outside a big plate glass window.

Painted on the window of Urban Splash, on Oldham St, bullet-pointed notes alert you to the following facts: Show Loft Open, Fully-fitted Kitchens And Bathrooms, Resident Caretaker, Secure Car Parking, Call In For Brochure, and last but not least Viewing By Appointment Only. Inside, groups of twentysomethings wearing nice street threads, gather round tables, talking to Loftsales reps over coffee. Above you, the whole Victorian edifice is up for grabs. You can have a slice of urban living, right over Manchester's liveliest thoroughfare for bars and shopping.

Oldham Street has been good for youth consumer capitalism since the late 1980s, the days of Madchester, when Affleck's Palace, an ex-department store, started doing good business as a sort of multi-storey flea market, flogging second-hand clothes, records, and Edward Barton's designer T-shirts. Then came Factory's Dry Bar, Vinyl Exchange records, the Night and Day Café, and others nearby. Spaced out, in more ways than one, along Oldham Street. But the Northern Quarter takes in a far bigger area. Broadly, it covers the whole zone, mostly consisting of run-down eighteenth and nineteenth century industrial buildings, between Great Ancoats St, Shudehill, Piccadilly and Newton St.

You can get an idea of the diversity of the whole area by turning off Oldham Street and moving through it. It's changing fast. And change is exciting. But what's it changing into? The Shudehill end is linked to the city via the tram-tracked High Street, overshadowed by the Arndale Centre. Here's where much redevelopment got going at the end of 1996.

Going northeast to Swan Street and along Great Ancoats Street, the old Daily Express Building, gutted of its machinery and dirt, its black glass frontage polished, has a sign advertising Offices To Let. Next to it, Virginia House is the only building retaining the street's former industrial purpose… it's where they publish the Northern edition of The Big Issue. On the corner of George Leigh St, the Victorian half-timbered building formerly collapsing with damp is now protected by English Heritage, as is the Crown and Kettle pub on the corner of Oldham Road. They are "key buildings in the Ancoats urban village" (2) - a more recent urban regeneration project, trading on the area's previous reputation as Manchester's Little Italy. Pictures have been released showing the urban village in the year 2020. "St Peter's Piazza" will welcome tourists to a Mediterranean-styled square for open-air eating and socialising. It's another episode in a long-running dream sequence, being played out in many other northern cities. But don't you ever get the feeling you're being force-fed a particularly blinkering optimism pill? For every article about new inner city villages in the Manchester Evening News or the Guardian/M.E.N-owned fortnightly events magazine, City Life, there's one less opportunity to consider what life is like, and how it could be improved, outside the city centre. It's a fact City Life's editor, Chris Sharratt, knows only too well, and has spoken frequently on the need to do something about it. But his magazine can't look outside its (post-independence) reason for existence: the promotion of lifestyle.

Heading back down Oldham Street, the old Cantors furniture shop is being knocked about a bit by another bevy of builders. Opposite, a new block of flats has gone up at 88 Oldham St, where a sign announces the bodies behind the building: the Guinness Trust, Manchester City Council, European Regional Development Fund, English Heritage. Crossing over, a row of Victorian shops formerly the homes of Sovereign Books, Rocktite Security, and OMC Office Machines, are all empty and derelict. Things are decidedly pick and mix. Scorpio Furniture (Sale Now ON) occupies the building still clearly lablled Swan Music. Closer to Affleck's Palace, it's busier, younger, and the changes have been in place longer: Kaleida (a bar), Dome Plaza (coffee bar), Hell Raizer (gothic corsets, only for the thin). And then there's also a place called Private Shop (adults only, enter through saloon bar doors, Visa and Delta welcome), City Centre Drop In and Lifeline. Whether homeless, addicted, or working and comfortable, all rub shoulder to shoulder in the flickering montage of meanings that is Oldham Street.

As buildings get gutted and smartened up and rebuilt, in the streets around the Northern Quarter, it is hoped we will succumb to the intoxication of mutability. The fiction of a wonderful future, collaged out of the images from our collective past. This isn't quite what Marx and others were saying about the early modern city, about "all that is solid melts into air". This time the old buildings, outwardly, stay the same. As is the case of the Malmaison, the Victorian shell stays intact, while the innards are ripped out and replaced. What changes is the way a building is defined: the inside equals the use. A former warehouse becomes an apartment block. A set of decaying shops becomes a fashionable location in which to drink and buy records and clothes. The process involves a mental shift in which participants "buy into" a proposition. There comes, at some crucial point, a change in public perception. People start believing the architect's drawing will become a reality. Then, it is hoped, punters will buy the product, or maybe parts of the property. Journalists have been the shock troops in the process to change the greater Mancunian mind. Odd, really, that journalists in situations like this change their minds first.

But the buildings, taken en masse, are less inclined to alter fully. From the psychogeographic viewpoint, they are switching one way, then another. Oldham Street is a gateway between parallel universes. You might not want to believe it, oh club-going, magazine-buying public. But get on that pavement and maybe you'll see.

And the montage is spreading. Linking up with other bright new bits. The Northern Quarter overshadows the Gay Village end of town near the Crown Courts on Minshull Street, where the old DHSS building, designed seemingly by the people who gave you the offices of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's novel 1984, is now partly up for sale ("Gilt Edged Opportunity, apply to Crown Buildings"), and partly under redevelopment, by the Tung Sing Oriental Housing Association. But the biggest redevelopment work followed the 1996 IRA bomb on Corporation Street, which not only destroyed Marks and Sparks but also severely damaged the building we levitated earlier that year, the Corn Exchange, as well as the old empty Daily Mirror building. A massive recovery programme led by Manchester Millennium Ltd, allowing "the talents and knowledge of the city council and private businesses" (3) to be combined, led to the EDAW design team winning the role of "Master planners" for the damaged area. The Corn Exchange will soon be upmarket shops and another hotel. What was once Thompson House, and then, when Sir Robert ruled the Daily Mirror, "Maxwell House", will now be "a spectacular family entertainment centre" (4), called The Printworks.

Plenty happened because of the IRA, but we need to return to pop, and "cultural industries", and the Malmaison Hotel. It's a logical progression, from music industry to urban redevelopment. Anthony Wilson has done likewise; his role has branched out into that of cultural ambassador for the city. The change was announced in 1997 with his late night series, New Dealers, on Granada TV in which he interviewed many of the club owners, designers and business operators, in the north west, making it look as if "Youth", fashion, pop, leisure and hedonism, the new capitalism, were all relatively recent concepts, and that the young were in control, and had vanquished the old. Tom Bloxham, founder of Urban Splash, where we started, is a prime example of a committed, stylish, young bloke, whose trading origins were humble, and now, three cheers, he's highly successful. A nice chap, apparently. One of today's peer group. But here we encounter another flickering, on-off, yes-no gateway between parallel truths.

Because, for every Tom, Tony and Elliott, we tend to forget the older property owners, the people who've been doing up buildings in Manchester city centre for somewhat longer, and who possibly own a lot more of it. We say "possibly" because it's not easy to be sure about how much a fellow like Frank "Foo Foo" Lamarr, drag artist and club owner, actually does own. He's responsible for much of what is commonly believed to be New about Canal Street. But when you ask around, there are also anonymous partners, supposed aristocrats with a bit of cash to spare, a diffuse and mysterious family of investors, shareholders, brothers and fellow-travellers. And in contrast to rock biz chinwaggers like Tony and Elliott, these people don't want publicity.

In Manchester, science, industry and showbiz merge into a money-spinning earner at the slightest opportunity. But what we end up looking at is seldom very exotic: the Manchester we idealise and commercialise is a lost, but familiar world, based on a half-remembered "truth" about the past, which we still like to think is true today. The success of Coronation Street lies in its constant ability to update a myth about community. It doesn't matter that there aren't any streets like that any more, where people know far too much about each other, but also look after each other. We think we remember times when such streets did exist, but Coronation Street's ersatz community compensates for the communities we actually live in, with all their failings in communication, their poverty, their petty crime.

In the 1980s Sharon Zukin wrote about the gentrification of the SoHo area of Manhattan, a process begun by artists who, as she put it "did succeed in the limited aim of defining a niche for themselves, in centre-city property markets. But despite their contribution to long-range restructuring, they have not been able to insulate themselves against changes in market demand in the new service-based spatial economy." (5)

What's happening in Manchester "city-centre" has exhibited certain similarities. But more important in Manchester than arts and crafts was pop music, from the mid-80s onwards, which has merged into what are nowadays being referred to as "cultural" or "creative" industries. And these, with official sanction, enjoy a healthy mutually beneficial relationship with the locally based mass media. Thanks to the strength of Manchester's media and pop music, the city is now the epicentre of an explosion in dreams. Dreams which massage old myths about community, despite the evidence which shows that people who live in British cities, particularly those "creative" or "cultural" workers whom governments love, move residence with astonishing regularity (6). The appropriation and dissemination of these dreams is a process we at MAP have termed the Mighty Real. And the fragmentation of the Mighty Real is the goal towards which psychogeography must now dedicate its energies.

(1) Britain gets arty - but not just for art's sake, by Roger Tredre and Tania Branigan, The Observer, April 19, 1998, p 16.
(2) Millennium: News on the rebuilding of Manchester City Centre, issue 4, Spring 1998, page 1.
(3) Ibid
(4) Ibid
(5) Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, by Sharon Zukin, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1989, page 203.
(6) Discussed in The Hundred Mile City, by Deyan Sudjic, London, Flamingo, 1993, page 312.

First published in Manchester Area Psychogeographic 9, Spring 1998.

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