I spent two recent weekends in the ‘twin cities’ of Manchester and Salford. Despite appearances to the contrary, they’re separate places, but this is delicate ground upon which a Londoner should tread carefully. Similarly, the question of second city status, but whether it’s Manchester or Birmingham, both have aggressively pursued the style of civic boosterism that was a hallmark of the Urban Renaissance under New Labour, but is now being replaced under the Con/Dems with a reversion to the North/South Divide fallacy that characterised Thatcherism.
I like Manchester, but the centre of the city can feel a bit like a post-industrial theme park, particularly at night. There appear to be few places to go that aren’t part of a made-over, corporately re-branded factory or warehouse. Salford has been less successful at reincarnation. As you cross the river Irwell and walk along Chapel Street and the Crescent you pass a succession of boarded up, abandoned or neglected buildings interspersed with only fitful signs of social or economic life, before arriving at a shopping centre of our worst Modernist nightmares. It’s a sorry sight and while not on the Detroit scale of urban desolation, it’s particularly striking because of the magnificence of some of the buildings that now stand as empty monuments to a period of municipal pride that was very different to the flimsy urban entrepreneurialism of today and its Pyrex castles of consumption. Among the ruins of Salford’s past – when it was the ‘Dirty Old Town’ of Ewan MacColl – are the neo-gothic education office, the Romanesque cinema and several ornate pubs. Fortunately, one to survive is the Grade II listed ‘Crescent’ where Marx used to get pissed with Engels.
Guarding against post-Soviet bitterness and romanticisation of a mass-proletarian past, I visited the fragment of Salford that has fallen under the magic wand of regeneration, Salford Quays. If you’ve seen one ‘spectacular water-side development’, you’ve seen the lot, but there is something particularly grotesque about erasing the cornerstone of a working class community and replacing it with ‘Media City’. The public spaces around the new BBC studios are as arid as what goes on inside them, but there is a real sense of conquest when the journalistic handmaidens of capitalism occupy a place of honest (if under-paid and brutalising) toil and create a redoubt of privilege in the midst of one of the most socially deprived areas in the UK.