While the dominance of London in British political, social, cultural, and economic life is beyond question, the UK’s disputed second city of Manchester holds its own as a city of firsts, with current discussion following the Scottish referendum that it could become England’s first devolved city. With further devolution promised to Scotland, there are widespread calls from Manchester’s leaders and citizens to have control over the region’s taxes and public spending. Greater Manchester has a population of almost 3 million and an economy larger than Wales, yet full financial control and decision-making of the region’s and country’s affairs remains centralized in London. Manchester council leader Sir Richard Leese recently wrote: “Comparable cities in Europe, the likes of Munich and Barcelona, have far greater autonomy. The current position [for Manchester] is untenable.”
In the world’s first industrial nation, Manchester was the first industrial city. Located in the northwest of England close to the port city of Liverpool, Manchester was the birthplace of the revolution which went on to redefine the modern world and of the opposing ideologies which continue to dominate the political battleground between left and right. Modern capitalism was born with the expansion of industrial techniques born in Manchester. It was the main place in England that Fredrich Engels visited before writing “The Condition Of The Working Class In England”, one of the key early socialist texts. Indeed it was in Chetham’s Library (the UK’s oldest free public library) in central Manchester that he and Karl Marx, with whom he would go on to co-author “The Communist Manifesto”, first met.
Within Manchester, the area of Ancoats just north of the city centre became the heartland of the burgeoning textile industry and was dubbed the world’s first industrial suburb. Almost 200 years on, the area is once again pushing toward new political and social forms as a group of artists and community leaders have joined forces for “Politika“, an ambitious art exhibition and community engagement program to question the aggressive regeneration of inner city areas in decline and ask the question: who has the right to decide the future of our cities and urban communities?
The Rise and Decline of the World’s First Industrial Suburb
From the late 18th century onward, the “dark Satanic mills” of the textile industry dominated the skyline of Ancoats, attracting workers to what historians Roger Cooter and John Pickstone describe as “a mass of mean streets and courtyards zig-zagged amongst factories and canals.” Average life expectancy for a labourer in Manchester in 1842 was just 17 years. In 1851 the population of Ancoats had grown to 53,747.
Overcrowding and public health crises were major concerns and had prompted the building of the Ancoats Hospital and Ardwick and Ancoats Dispensary, a voluntary hospital, between 1872 and 1874. A stunning example of Victorian neo-Gothic architecture, the three-story hospital and dispensary functioned at the heart of Ancoats until 1989.
By 1989, Ancoats was quite literally a shell of its former incarnation as a hub of industry and working class life in Manchester. The decline of the cotton industry in the early 20th century followed by the mass clearance of Victorian terraced housing in the 1960s, displacing residents to estates in the north and east of the city, cemented Ancoats’ fall into decay.
The decades following the closure of the Ancoats Dispensary saw another vision for Ancoats emerge. Supported by local authorities, property developers set about converting the abandoned cotton mills into luxury apartments under the Millennium Communities Programme to create “villages” intended to “set the standard for 21st century living.” Led by Manchester developer Urban Splash, the south side of Ancoats was redeveloped after funding was secured in 2002 and renamed New Islington. This effectively transformed large parts of Ancoats into a privately owned enclave with little-to-no provision for, or relationship with the area’s historic low-income community.
As part of the regeneration plans, Urban Splash purchased the Ancoats Dispensary building in 2oo1 with plans to convert, with company chair and co-founder Tom Bloxham reported as saying, “if we don’t deliver on this one, we’ll never work in this city again.” But the project stalled and was subsequently deemed unviable. Urban Splash applied for a demolition order in 2o11.
At the launch of “Politika” last Friday, 19 September, in the renovated engine room of a former cotton mill, Ancoats resident Linda Carver remembered learning of the demolition plans for the Ancoats Dispensary. “I thought, this is just so wrong. This just cannot happen to a grade II listed building that has meant so much to the people of this area,” she says. “I thought, you’ve got a fight on your hands if you think you’re going to wipe out a piece of working class history.”
Galvanizing the diminished but enduring local community, the proposed demolition was met with a sustained, engaged campaign to save the building. Carver explains, “It’s about what has happened in this area over the last 50 years – the displacement, fragmentation, lots of changes, a sense of loss – and something needs to be brought back.”
Coordinator of what is now called the Ancoats Dispensary Trust, Carver talks of the campaign to save the landmark: the vigil which remains to this day, leaflet campaigns, public consultations on double decker buses, and going door to door asking people in the area not just for support but to help define a vision for a new Ancoats Dispensary. She argues, “There’s a place for a fabric of Manchester’s heritage to remain as a reminder, not of what it was, but what it could be and that’s what we’re interested in: a centre that traditionally used conventional medicine to heal people and now is going to do that in a slightly different way, in a creative way.”
The group’s impassioned resistance and vision for an integrated community hub prompted Urban Splash to withdraw the application for demolition in July 2013. Ancoats Dispensary Trust have since been applying for funding to realize their vision and successfully secured a US$ 1.26 million grant from the Lottery Heritage Fund in July of this year.
Until now, the regeneration and gentrification of Ancoats, as in other areas of the UK and the world, had seemingly passed without active resistance from longtime residents. However Carver hopes that the Ancoats Dispensary Trust victory shows otherwise.
“People have said about this area ‘Oh it’s very difficult to reach and engage with this community. There’s a lack of engagement.’ Well actually, this is living proof that this community just needs to be asked and have the opportunity to become involved, because they think it’s wonderful,” she beams. “Maybe they’re starting to speak about it now. Instead of remaining silent, they’re starting to be active.”
Merging Art, the political and the Social
While the south of Ancoats has been redeveloped and populated by Manchester’s young professionals, the abandoned mills to the north have been occupied and converted by the city’s artists and craftspeople. Upper Space, a collective of street artists and activists formed in 2o11 with a mission to challenge how shared spaces are perceived and how arts can enact social agency, is based on the fourth floor of an Ancoats mill. Having delivered public space art interventions including converting bus stops into bedroom installations to comment on the UK housing crisis and flyposting billboards with alternative advertising messages, the collective developed the “Politika” exhibition and project to engage with the local area of Ancoats to ask questions over the right to the city.
Upper Space co-founder and director, Barney Francis, explains, “The initial idea for Politika emerged in March last year as an extension of the type of art we do, tying it into grassroots community activism and contemporary art context.”
He goes on, “It’s about the right to the city and having agency over the way communities are shaped and the underlying values that underpin the types of decisions that are made within capitalist societies. So looking at alternative visions for how things can be for citizens that is truly democratic.”
— Nathan Jackson (@njxn) September 20, 2014
“Politika” boasts a multi-faceted creative program featuring an exhibition of 20 urban interventionist artists from nine different countries; community engagement workshops ranging from screenprinting to guerrilla gardening to guided history walks; film screenings; a hackathon; live debates with political artists and authors including Anna Minton, who wrote the acclaimed “Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st Century City”, which explores the privatization of public space and the effects of urban regeneration on local communities; and the installation of Steve Lambart’s giant “Capitalism Works For Me! True/False’ interactive intervention” outside the Labour Party Conference. Disrupting the urban landscape and accepted structures are recurrent themes of the artworks in the exhibition.
British artists Ben Parry and Peter McNaughey, who pioneered the “Cultual Hijack” exhibition project last year, exhibit a one-to-one scale photograph of Karl Marx’s bust at Highgate Cemetary anointed with bespoke black balaclavas created by elderly knitters. Speaking at the “Politika” launch, Parry and McNaughey told how the project covering London’s statues with balaclavas not only looked to raise questions about civic statuary and systems of power but also engage a different community in activism. Ben said “[It shows] how a generation of people who’ve retired and are no longer active on the front line of protest movements could be active, not just in the dialogue but be physically useful to the concepts of resistance, revolution and protest.” Other Politika-participating artists look to disrupt not the visual landscape but the financial. Jan Ritsema from the Finland-based Robin Hood Minor Asset Management Cooperative explained how their hedge fund uses the tools of the financial centres of power to “parasite on the rich and give it to the poor.” Using an algorithm to identify and invest in high-performing stocks, the cooperative generates wealth to support social projects which open up common space between people, be it a public space initiative or an alternative school. The works in the exhibition largely document, through photography or installation, artistic projects which intervene in the cityscape to challenge the values of consumerism and capitalism which dominate the reality of 21st century Britain.
Possibilities for local power
Firmly rooting the “Politika” project in Ancoats and creating discussion and work with the local community was a priority for Upper Space from the outset. Francis says, “It’s about Ancoats, about local residents, and one of the main themes are about direct engagement with local community leaders and merging the arts, the social and the political. We’re trying to manifest that and not just reference it.”
In the run-up to last week’s launch, Upper Space teamed up with the Ancoats Dispensary Trust and artist Ed Hall to host art and crafts workshops resulting in a patchwork banner expressing the community’s love and hope for the historic landmark. The engine room, hosting the exhibition, was renovated by Upper Space to create an arts hub for community events, a complementary space to what will become of the Ancoats Dispensary.
This quiet revolution of community engagement and political discussion in the world’s first industrial suburb is reflective of the electric debates over power, space, and identity that have swept the UK over the last month. The referendum in Scotland over independence may not have broken the union, but has sparked a furious national questioning over the balance of power within the most centralized country in the Western world.
Within England, Manchester is in many ways at the forefront of that discussion. On 15 September, the think tank ResPublica released a report arguing for that Greater Manchester should be fully devolved and have control over all public spending. Local leaders are already reported to be in talks with the Treasury.
In Ancoats, where neglect and decline followed by a neo-liberal remodeling of a historic district have left local people disenchanted with the political system, these fresh debates over power and place have been invigorating. At the “Politika” launch, Linda Carver’s voice strains with enthusiasm speaking of the vitalized discussions. She said, “Taking the Scots lead, there is a sense now throughout the country of ordinary people thinking ‘Do you know what? If we all get together and we want something badly enough, let’s start doing something about it, instead of sleepwalking into the future.’
“This is local people, ordinary citizens, who maybe feel powerless because they are not in positions of power in any other form in life, saying ‘Actually we have got quite a bit of influence.'”
Politika runs until 1st October. For more information visit the Upper Space website.