Cottonopolis to cool: Manchester's Northern Quarter
Captain America: the First Avenger was shot in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Brooding warehouses on narrow streets, overhung with iron fire escapes casting dark shadows, posed as 1940s New York City.
A regular feature of NQ street life is the coned-off parking, film makers’ vans, multicoloured spaghettis of cables, and waiting crew as yet another director tries to capture the edgy cityscape as backdrop to his story.
Wedged between the city centre, Ancoats, Piccadilly and Victoria and centred on Oldham Street, this is Manchester’s self-styled creative quarter. If Jane Jacobs – the great urbanist and apostle of vibrant, mixed use neighbourhoods – was alive today, she’d love it.
Imagine – start the day with a Fairtrade cortado and a productive Wi-Fi session with the PowerBook, an ethnic wrap for lunch, a burst of street photography of hipsters, dudes and rag-trade white-van men and the night raved away with drinks, chemicals and sounds – all within a two-minute radius.
The street names speak of history: Back China Lane, Mangle Street, Faraday Street, Bunsen Street. The business names speak of today: Northern Tea Power, TAKK, Eastern Bloc Records, Mufti Hairdressing, DJ Academy, Allotment Bar and Restaurant, Keep Pedalling Bike Shop, Port Street Beer House, Matt and Phreds Jazz Club, Afflecks – emporium of eclecticism, totem of indie commerce.
Doggies have gone boom! A record number of bars, cafes and shops have opened their doors to our beloved pooches...it’s now a common thing to see a dog out drinking a doggiecino with their owners.
And so many ghosts...Mrs G. Linnaeus Banks, creator of Manchester Man Jabez Clegg, lived in Oldham Street when it was alive with shops, markets and merchants.
By the 1840s, Manchester had become the world’s first industrial city. Stevenson Square was the scene of political rallies and festivities. Cottonopolis reached its peak just before World War 1. Then the long decline began. By the late twentieth century, the area was marginalised as the Arndale Centre and Market Street anchored the chain stores, and much of the rag trade migrated to sheds in the edgelands.
Rebranding and reinvention as The Northern Quarter in the nineties, together with easy in easy out low rent space, fuelled the revival. Long-life, loose-fit warehouses were perfect for conversion to apartments, offices, studios, bars, clubs and small shops. Obliteration by large-scale redevelopment was never financially viable. Most of the historic urban fabric remains. Early investment by developer Urban Splash showed others the design-led way.
More recently, infill development has been absorbed without destroying the funky ambience. To this day, the area is almost entirely chain-free. The coffee shops and pubs are independent. The vibe is messy, an alternative to the straight city centre.This is the area of the city in which you’re likely to be surprised by pineapple on rooftops and poems embedded in the sidewalks.
Gentle dilapidation makes a perfect setting for young creatives living, working and playing. Northern Quarter spirit is beautifully captured by the mosaic on the wall of Goth paradise Afflecks: and on the sixth day, God created MANchester.
Walter Menzies is an independent advisor on sustainable development and partnership development and management with the public, private and third sectors. He is chair of the new Manchester and Pennine Waterway Partnership (of the Canal and Rivers Trust) charged with providing leadership, championing and developing a strategic plan for Manchester and Pennine area, provisionally titled: “Manchester - Capital of the North’s Waterways?”.