Manchester – a culture capital? (The New Statesman, June 2007)


Talk given by Dave Haslam to the Bolton Arts Quarter Initiative committee September 2002.

First of all, I’m going to admit I haven’t come armed with all the answers. I don’t know all the ways that culture and creativity can play a part in urban regeneration, but I do have an inkling that it’s about finding local solutions to problems. One size doesn’t fit all; in fact, one of the criticisms that could be levellled at the regeneration process in this country is that it’s created corporate uniformity in our towns and city centres; they all aim for the same thing; a piazza, a big Marks & Spencer and loft developments. Uniformity at the expense of individuality.

What I do know is the Manchester experience. And I am certain that the experience of Manchester over the last twenty years can throw some light on what can happen in towns and cities. And it’s not all good news, as we shall see.

Manchester, as we know, as we are told, has enjoyed a recent surge in urban regeneration, by any accepted definitions of the phrase. When I walk around the city centre now I’m surrounded by new buildings, sparkling hotels, rampant property development, retailers galore, cafe bars, and quality restaurants; well, maybe not all quality, maybe some are pretty average, but that’s another story.

So Manchester city centre has been transformed in the last twenty years. In the early 1980s I remember wandering round Castlefield with my friend Fiona Allen (now a respected comedienne in London). Back then we had this idle plan to make a gritty film set in an evocative post industrial landscape. We had no script but we loved Castlefield. Rusty bridges, canals the colour of lead; it was the best example of urban dereliction you could find anywhere in the world.

Elsewhere in the city centre there were areas nobody had cleaned up since the Blitz, and acres of empty warehouse space. Eventually new uses for these old buildings were discovered. In 1982 the Hacienda club opened in an old warehouse on Whitworth Street. Over in Ancoats rehearsal studios opened in the old Beehive Mill on Jersey Street.

Around the same time, the early 1980s there was a Government backed scheme called the Phoenix Initiative. The aim was to drum up interest in Manchester, and investment into the city centre, and it failed.

The baton passed to the local Urban Development Corporation. During research for my book ‘Manchester, England’, I met people at the CMDC who were only too happy to admit that the high profile music scene in the city in the late 1980s had helped kick-start their much more successful efforts to attract investment into Manchester.

As the Hacienda became known as one of the best clubs in Europe, and bands like the Smiths and then the Stone Roses emerged, the Manchester scene featured on the front cover of Newsweek magazine in America, and multiple issues of the New Musical Express and the Face. This was 1989, 1990. Politicians, investors and developers probably not readers of these magazines but still word reached them that the music made in Manchester and the clubculture, particularly the Hacienda, was of international quality. Manchester was on the map, if you like.

By 1990 it was clear that popular culture was something the city excelled at. There are many reasons for this; the influences that flow from the city’s multi racial make-up; the ability of the city to draw strength from surrounding towns like Wigan and Bolton; a sub-terranean tradition of popular entertainment in the city; a spirit of independence that went back to the Victorian entrepeneurs and the Chartists; and a belief in the power of cooperation, learned from the cooperative movement founded in Rochdale down the road.

Whatever the reasons for the boom in the music scene in the late 1980s, the results were plain to see; applications from potential students to the city’s universities boomed, jobs were created (not just in the clubs, but in the many ancillary businesses, like fashion retailing; after all, many of the clubbers – especially I suspect, the female clubbers – had to have something new to wear to the clubs every week); and a flurry of bars opened, and other clubs appeared. I can remember the first tourists I ever met in Manchester were music fans; serious young men from Germany who wanted their photograph taken outside the legendary Hacienda.

The buzz helped CMDC and the city at large; it stimulated interest, confidence, and thus investment.

CMDC also acknowledged that the pioneers in many rundown areas were the clubs and bars like the Hacienda, the Boardwalk, and Manto. It’s no coincidence that many of the places where the regeneration process has taken strongest hold in the city are spaces first repopulated by clubbers; Castlefield, the Whitworth Street corridor, Knott Mill, Canal Street. Repopulated at first by clubbers, but subsequently too by apartments and lofts.

The City Council had no pre-prepared policy towards this boom in popular culture in their city; they hadn’t gone out of their way to nurture it, but they certainly didn’t hinder it. In 1990, in fact, when the police wanted the Hacienda closed, Councillors Stringer & Karney were vocal in their support for the club; they had realised it was an important cultural asset to the city.

The Manchester story from the late 1980s onwards has been replicated elsewhere in the North West, most notably by Liverpool. There the club Cream has played a pioneering role in raising the profile and stimulating the local economy, not least contributing to the growth of retailers like Wade Smith, and the rise of an arts quarter in the area around Cream’s HQ in Slater Street.

Now, I want to put forward some issues that can arise when popular culture like this is a driving force in a city. First of all, the scene that grew up around the Hacienda grew organically. All the great scenes with longevity, from the mods to Northern Soul to punk grew naturally; they weren’t manufactured. Secondly the best kind of pop culture is often oppositional, created by maverick, unsettled people.

These are things that need to be acknowledged because in Britain when the authorities intervene in this cultural process, they often make some wrong moves. First of all they assume that all culture will benefit the community and give the city a pat on the head, whereas art and creativity may be critical and uncomfortable. More importantly, though, when the intervention comes from cultural planners in this country it tends to be top down, not from the grass roots.

It’s to do with the definition of culture. How we see culture; top down, or from the grass roots. Too often when we talk about culture in this country we’re talking just about famous paintings, museums, major concert halls, or maybe now we talk about retail and leisure; i.e we’re talking about culture that’s something to be provided for the people. A more enlightened, lively, regenerative definition of culture is not something provided for the people, but something created by the people.

The result of this limited definition – culture provided for the people – is that cultural regeneration doesn’t achieve what it could. It gets too wrapped up in providing, not empowering. It ignores the grass roots. Instead of creating opportunities for creativity for the young and the mavericks locally, or the budding enterepeneurs, it creates a community of passive consumers.

In Manchester we’ve got retail and we’ve got restaurants, and museums and concert halls, and far too many film multiplexes all showing the same films. In addition, the intervention of the property developers have given us hotels, and loft apartments. You look at Manchester now, and certainly on one level there’s some civic pride, but also there’s alienation.

Indeed many of the most vaunted icons of regeneration fail to empower, or enrich the ordinary citizens. The situation as it is now has created a crisis of ownership. Who’s city is it? I don’t think I’m the only person who feels like the city is in danger of being sold off to the big corporations and property developers.

I’m a DJ, so I can’t help recommending records. There was a single by a band called the Gang of Four from 1978 called ‘At Home He Feels Like a Tourist’ which neatly encapsulates feelings of emotional or social disconnection with your town or city.

The crisis in housing is especially problematic. We have a contradiction that’s only just becoming clear. Although there has been an enormous rise in the number of people living in the city centre, the social mix isn’t there, and, in fact, there’s been a 15% fall in the general Manchester population in the last ten years. Loft apartments at Number One Deansgate are selling for close to a million pounds and Ryan Giggs has apparently put his name down for one, but less than two miles away there are vacant properties, boarded up houses, whole streets with a value next to nothing. Conflict and gaps in wealth have always been been in the city, but its still worth pointing out that the new wave of urban regeneration has exacerbated not solved this problem.

It’s clear we need to revise our definitions of urban regeneration. Just as we should look again at our definitions of culture, so we should look for a new definition for regeneration. We should go back to the roots, reach out to those empty streets.

How regenerated, reborn, would a community feel if people lived in an environment where they could pursue their dreams; no doors closed. Their dreams could be anything; pop star, footballer, make a film, paint, design. How many people get to live out their dream?

Having the space and opportunity to live out our dreams and ambitions is important for what you might call ‘the psychic health of a city’. Cultural activity is good in itself; I was recently researching the early days of hip hop in the Bronx. Now worldwide, hip hop and rap have become big business, but back in the mid-1970s it was a neighbourhood phenomenon, and the neighbourhood was the rundown, written-off area, the Bronx. It was an unknown scene that had grown organically, around DJs graffiti artists and breakdancers. One of the breakdancers back then was a guy called Crazy Legs – it’s possible that Crazy Legs is not his real name – anyway, Crazy Legs looks back on those days breakdancing in the Bronx like this; ‘It was our outlet and our way of expressing ourselves, and showing our indivduality, our strength and our attitude.’

You get the feeling that if the local youth had not been given – or taken – the space and opportunity to live out their dreams or express their identity, the alternative would have been silence, or violence.

So how can the planners and the policy makers nurture this grass roots, empowering culture on the streets? Is nurturing something that grows organically virtually a contradiction in terms?

Well, I think there are areas of cultural policy which could usefully be adopted.

First of all, let creative cultural activity grow – don’t stifle it. Instead, give it space to grow.

Policy makers could go further and intervene in the cultural process.

I could give you the names of dozens of musicians, artists, writers, journalists, designers, playwrights, film-makers, and DJs in this area who have plenty of desire and talent. The problem is harnessing that talent, keping it in the North. One girl I know did one issue of her own fanzine in Manchester, then decamped to London where she is now the editor of Dazed & Confused; two guys I know started out in Manchester in the mid-1980s designing record sleeves; one has gone to be one of Reebok’s top designers, the other is now art editor of the Face. In London.

Imagine a ladder. A comedy ladder. The first rung is there OK, near ground level and the top rung; but there’s nothing in between; no rungs to get you to the top. Well, there are plenty of people around who have the impetus, talent and desire to get on the first rung on the ladder, but to get further they have to go to London. The power stays in London. What we don’t have in the North West are those missing rungs in the ladder that could take somebody on from their first flush of enthusiasm, all the way to the top. That infrastructure doesn’t exist anywhere outside of London; if you’re a writer you need agents and a publisher. if you’re a fashion designer you need access to major fashion houses, and chainstore buyers and magazine editors. If you’re a musician you need a recording studio, a powerful record label.

Planners and policy makers therefore can have a useful role creating networks and infrastructure. Practical but necessary steps. And finding ways of providing information and advice (creative people not always practical people)

Planners and policy makers could make available the kind of financial incentives previously enjoyed by big business – the likes of Vauxhall, Fujitsu – or public subsidies of the kind received by the likes of the Royal Exchange Theatre. And spend money creating that infrastructure, building those rungs. Could major record labels or fashion houses be brought into this area? Could we move the ‘New Musical Express’ up North?

It’s not an either/or siuation. Funds are available for the Royal Exchange; why not for the region’s record labels, or live venues or nightclubs?

Instead what’s happening in Manchester is that building new multiplexes and restaurants and lofts and museums, has pushed out young artists from their studios, bands from the rehearsal spaces, young busineses from their offices. A result of rising real estate prices and rising rents. Something has gone wrong somewhere.

What the cultural and creative community require is space and an opportunity. Back in 1961 in this book by Jane Jacobs – The Death & Life of Great American Cities; the Failure of Town Planning’ – about slum clearance and urban regeneration forty years ago, the author points out how an area dominated by property developers building new buildings, means there’s always major capital costs to recoup, so developers are looking for higher rents; and that this doesn’t create the right environment for small, risky, adventurous businesses – the life-blood of a city – instead it encourages safe, dull, corporate enterprises

When I say that what the cultural and creative community require is space and an opportunity, I don’t just mean physical space, the buildings, but also, for the dreamers, the creators, a space in their lives and time to create. There’s a case for individual grants, grass roots subsidies, mentoring, arts and culture training. Then we’ll be moving towards cultural regeneration.

One day we might have created a town or a city in which culture mattters, and the value of self expression is acknowledged and the possibility of fulfilling personal dreams and ambitions feed through from school to local council and through the streets. It requires some new ways of thinking, beyond bricks and mortar, and a belief in the local talent, and space and opportunity. The solutions might be close to home.

At one point in her book Jane Jacobs says this; ‘Dull, inert cities contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration’