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The Condition of the Working Class 10/01/2010

Posted by brendan in Avions, Trains et Voitures.
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City of Manchester

Industrial decay, Joy Division, Buzzcocks, Factory, Granada, Magazine, council estates, Madchester, Moss Side, Haçienda, The Guardian. The city of Manchester boasts a legacy that is equally inspiring and frightening. Traveling there filled me with the same anticipation of creeping through decrepit docks in the middle of the night. Exploration and death walk hand in hand.

Just as Gotham is no longer the nightmarish world of Scorsese’s violent fantasies, Manchester isn’t the bullet riddled drug den of poverty and gangs. Pete’s mom was more worried that we would be stampeded by post-Christmas bargain hunters than gunned down in the streets. The southbound train from Chorley was already standing-room only when we boarded.

From Oxford Street Station we wandered the outskirts of downtown. Remnants of a factory town poked through crumbling overpasses, old brickwork lined the trash strewn canals and the empty streets along the tracks towards Deansgate. The Haçienda has been torn down, replaced by faux-brick luxury apartments that chose to keep the name. According to Pete the neighborhood now welcomes weekenders looking for a night out on the town with bars that maintain a strict dress code down to your shoes.

Welcome to Manchester

Stopped at Manchester Art Gallery. Britain is an expensive place but most museums have free entry, which is handy when it’s cold or you have to go to the bathroom. This was one of the few where I haven’t felt completely overwhelmed. Too many pre-Raphaelite pieces, a local source of pride, but their temporary collection of Francisco de Goya prints was excellent. Unfortunately the special exhibit, Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism was £6.

Strolled through the main plazas, sinking into retail hell. Nothing by Dante’s standards, although Pete’s mom would have felt crowded. Megan looked for cheap boots while we watched kids bounce around some family pavilion, or the bored employees of a dormant artificial ski slope. The shopping district grew thicker, revealed Arndale, the UK’s largest inner-city shopping mall. Not even the IRA can prevent progress, apparently– they bombed it in 1996 and it’s now eclipsed its former glory.

Northen Quarter

Old industry of textiles, shipping canals, chimney smoke and deprivation become the new industry of clothing sales, junkfood, and a towering ferris wheel. Buildings in the Northern Quarter grew smaller, less glass and steel, less plastic. Streets narrowed, alleys appeared, fragments of what had come before still held their ground. Smaller shops, cafés, the best curry in the world. But they were closing early because it was the Sunday after Christmas.

Oklahoma served us coffee as dusk descended. Interesting place, half café and half novelty shop with a tasteful, albeit limited, selection of DVD rentals. It reminded me of Olympia, and it reminded me of Minneapolis. The more we walked the more I thought of the midwest. Maybe it was all the brickwork, but I think there’s a similar vibe. Manchester might not be the most hip and happening city but it’s confident and comfortable enough with itself to have its own thing going on. Which makes it cool, even when it’s totally not cool at all.


All of this was sensed as we scurried through the deepening night, skirting Chinatown. Apparently the two major universities court foreign students, resulting in a large influx of young Chinese. While redevelopment was razing large swaths of poverty row slums and converting factories into luxury lofts it was also reinvesting in museums, musical programs, a lightrail system. You get your retail excesses, but you also get giant prehistoric crabs lurking in the window of Manchester Museum.

None of Pete and Megan’s old pubs were open, driving us back through the college district towards the center of town. Everything was closed, as if a curfew were in place. Broad boulevards free of traffic, isolated pedestrians hurrying home. Beneath the train tracks we found a caricature of a pub called The Salisbury. They were playing hair metal inside and the girl behind the bar chastised me for ordering a John Smith’s over the collection of cask ales.

There were few eating options. Downtown restaurants are strictly for convention attendees and witless suburbanites. The noodle emporiums seemed expensive and I wondered about the ethic make-up of the kitchens. It was cold, it was getting late, and we decided to head back to Chorley. Stopped at a corner store for bread and cheese and a four pack of Carling, then sat shivering in the open air Oxford Street Station waiting on the train.
Quiet Sunday Night
Pete says that most Americans can’t integrate in Manchester. They come expecting something cute and frilly, something twee and London. The pacing up north is different, the culture is different. He could live there, and Megan seems to enjoy the city as well. He thinks I could live there, and I think it might just be possible.



1. sam - 21/01/2010

glad to see you haven’t forgotten the midwest. we haven’t forgotten you. This article was so detailed, I will be alright if I never make it to Madchester.

2. blaark - 07/02/2010

Can you believe it’s been over ten years? Can you believe how often I said I was gonna go back to Minneapolis and never did? I miss that city, and I miss all of you.

Even if it takes me forever to write back.

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