How a Boom Ended Manchester’s Bust

Part 1: How a Boom Ended Manchester’s Bust.

Today’s slide show: Manchester

Urbis, the new face of Manchester

Manchester, England, my hometown, is so creative it virtually invented innovation. Northerners built the first factories, the first passenger railway, the first real canal, the first public bus service, the first industrial park, the first stored-program computer, and so much more. But by the 1970s, when I was growing up, the world’s first industrial city was dead last in economic opportunities and self-esteem.

As the daughter and granddaughter of miners and mill workers (and thus, by the 1970s, of the long-term unemployed), I was endowed with immense street cred—the ultimate British status symbol. And yet I was secretly ashamed, not of my accent or the lavatory at the end of the back yard, but of Manchester’s grime and general air of dissolution. Although I defended the North to my soft Southern college pals, my pride would evaporate when I headed home. Manchester might field the world’s favorite soccer team and produce great pop music (think of an English band that’s moody or mordant, and they’re probably Mancs), but as the train pulled into Piccadilly train station, or, even worse, waiting in the dingy Arndale Bus Station, all I could think was, “What a depressing hellhole!”

Twenty years after moving to the United States, I’m still torn. So few Americans—even Anglophiles for whom England is a second home—have visited Manchester. Their oversight enrages me. Don’t they know it was the crucible of the industrial revolution? That it’s the rock ‘n’ goal city? Haven’t they heard that the city is now chock full of museums, clubs, and smart shops? Then again, it is Manchester, the rainy place Alexis de Tocqueville called “a vile cesspool.” To clear up my own confusion, I decided to spend a week as a tourist in my hometown.

Starting in 1733, Northern ingenuity irrevocably changed the spinning and weaving of cotton with inventions like the flying shuttle and the spinning jenny. By the middle of the next century, the factory system transformed Lancashire’s green and pleasant land into the home of the industrial revolution’s dark satanic mills. Abundant coal for the steam engines, the proximity of the port of Liverpool, and the damp climate made it the natural home for the new mills and factories, drawing millions to the area in search of work. The population suddenly boomed, and Manchester became Cottonopolis, the urban engine of British trade.

The unplanned population explosion explains Manchester’s ugliness. The workers and their families lived in hideously overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, described by visitors from de Tocqueville to George Orwell. The destruction of 30-plus acres of downtown Manchester in World War II bombing raids plowed some of the eye sores (along with a few historical treasures), but not enough. Postwar city planners worried that the chance at a fresh start would be muffed and the city would be rebuilt—as it was built—without the guiding hand of design, leaving it “as ugly, dirty and congested as it is today.” They were right. Without money and political will, the city mostly rotted and rusted.

Slum-clearance projects in the 1970s reduced more blight, and in the 1980s the rise of club culture and lottery funding for the arts started Manchester’s regeneration. But it took a 3,300-pound IRA bomb planted and detonated in the heart of the retail core on June 15, 1996, to spark what’s been described as “the largest urban renewal project seen in any British city since the war.” The bomb not only literally cleared space for new commercial developments, it also stirred the city to fix its image problem.

Public art in Exchange Square

Manchester’s ground zero is now Exchange Square, one of the city’s most attractive areas: an open—if commercial—plaza, with tiered seating looking onto a giant TV screen where crowds of Mancunians watch soccer games, sporting events, and soap operas in the shadow of vast pinwheels of public art.

The bomb trashed the 19th-century Corn Exchange, which had been turned into a kind of covered bazaar during the 1980s. The damage gave the London-based landlords an excuse to evict the small traders and craftspeople—the terms of the lease gave them that right if the property required “major structural redevelopment.” Now, the Corn Exchange is the Triangle, home to high-end stores and fancy restaurants with sidewalk cafes.

On the other side of the Triangle is Cathedral Gardens, said to be Manchester’s first new public park in 70 years. (If that’s a park, so’s my SUV-sized back garden.) It’s a pleasant enough space, apparently popular with Manchester’s Goths, but it’s overshadowed by Urbis, one of the spectacular new buildings so beloved of marketing-brochure designers. Urbis claims it’s “the world’s only cultural institution solely dedicated to the creative exploration of contemporary urban culture and the cities of today and tomorrow.” Having visited a couple of times, I’m relieved it’s unique. Their preference for the term “cultural institution” over “museum”—a word noticeably absent from their Web site and marketing materials—shows how out of synch the organizers are with notoriously plain-spoken Mancs.

Urbis’ reflective green glass structure—it’s been compared to a ski lift, though it made me think of a glass slipper for the bride of Frankenstein—is so striking it overpowers the exhibits. If it weren’t for a cool-looking glass elevator that carries visitors to the four exhibition floors, I doubt that many people would spend more than a few minutes exploring the inside of the building. Even the elevator is a disappointment—because the building’s glass is semi-obscured, so is the view. (Apparently, the building’s top two floors, given over to a French restaurant, are clear-glazed.)

The exhibits offer some interesting factoids about the cities of the world—who knew, for instance, that “Greater Manchester has more football teams per head of population than any city in the world”?—but few of them rise above the level of trivia. The second floor focuses on “order,” and although I enjoyed the chance to spy through peepholes and listen through the walls of fake flats, most of the activities seemed more time-killing than thought-provoking.

When the museum first opened, it charged a $9 (£5) admission fee, which was dropped when ticket sales failed to meet expectations (and when local politicians complained that Manchester taxpayers were already forking over nearly $2 million per year). Even with free entry, there’s a very un-urban emptiness to the place. Meanwhile, just down the street, Britain’s largest Marks & Spencer store is always packed with huddled masses yearning to buy ready meals and knitwear.

Back in 1841, W. Cooke-Taylor said, “[Manchester] is essentially a place of business, where pleasure is unknown as a pursuit and amusements scarcely rank as secondary consideration.” The 24-hour party people who created “Madchester” in the 1980s might disagree with that last sentiment, but apparently Mancunians are still more interested in commerce than in culture.