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Is Manchester's Redevelopment Killing Its Culture?

Today sees the opening of HOME, Manchester's new cultural center. But plenty of the city's venues are worried about eviction as development sharks circle.
May 21, 2015, 8:30pm

All photos by Chris Bethell.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Today, Manchester finally sees the opening of its confusingly named new cultural hub HOME ("see you at home, mate"). It will kick things off with a "sonic firework display" curated by Danny Boyle just in time for when everyone's finishing work, before making way for a bank holiday weekend of DJs, events, and a program of theater, films, and all manner of cultural shenanigans. It really has been a long time coming.

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HOME has been built partly to rehouse Manchester's iconic Cornerhouse cinema. The Cornerhouse closed its doors in April with a huge rave, filled with live music, strong men, belly dancers, Manc drag royalty "Sisters Gorgeous," and a load of DJs, who collectively smashed the windows—literally bursting their way into the building through the windows to bid farewell to the old place.

In its time, it hosted the UK premier of Reservoir Dogs and was the first public gallery to showcase British Art's master trollsmith, Damien Hirst, who serves as a patron alongside Danny Boyle and Helen Mirren. The place has been a central hub of film, art, and more since 1985, when it screened its first film, Nic Roeg's Insignificance. The main building was built in the early 1900s and was a furniture shop right up to the mid 80s, when it transformed into what the city knows it as today.

The Cornerhouse.

The sad farewell to the Cornerhouse and the exciting opening of HOME tells a story about Manchester right now. In the shadow of redevelopment, Manchester could actually be losing a lot of the character and the heartbeat that has helped to shape the city. Future developments could be built on the graves of cultural institutions. There's a lot of good coming Manchester's way—but is it coming at a cost?

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The move, which sees the Cornerhouse merging with the Library Theatre Company, came about along with plans to redevelop the area around Oxford Road. While the building itself is safe for now—thanks to Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) moving in to use it for teaching space in the short term—there are fears that site could end up being flattened in favor of something, to paraphrase the first flick shown at the Cornerhouse, largely insignificant. There are rumors of hotels, newly built flats, and some inevitable mini-me supermarket chains where there was once a vibrant cultural venue.

Ken Bishop, senior director at DTZ, which has been appointed to oversee work on the area, says, "This opportunity has great potential to make a significant intervention and contribution to the regeneration of this part of the regional center." Great potential could also mean the potential destruction of many of Manchester's alternative spaces. Under threat are some of Manchester's alternative venues, such as The Salisbury, Thirsty Scholar, and Grand Central. Nearby Sound Control, Black Dog NWS, and more could face closures, as Network Rail remodels the arches to make way for an improved rail system.

Polly and Vicky in the Cornerhouse.

Polly Bentham, part of the Save Oxford Road Corner protest group, hopes that the area will retain the character that it is famous for, but is a bit worried. "We want the Council and Network Rail to commit to keeping the buildings and find other viable uses for the two Cornerhouse buildings. The very fact they won't commit implies the buildings will go."

Vicky Payne, also of the protest group, added, "I'm worried that the Council's tactic is just to create confusion in the hope that, by the time a planning application is made, it will be too late."

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There's also a huge amount of cynicism at what will happen when MMU moves out after the short-term agreement. As Bentham told me, "The council statement about MMU was deliberately ambiguous so lots of people may now think the buildings are safe—which they're not—and there's the risk that people will forget about the buildings now they've been taken out of public use and Cornerhouse has moved to HOME. We know 70 Oxford Road is in need of renovation so there's also the risk the council start making noises that it would cost too much to do this and the buildings are structurally unsound and what have you, well before the planning application, just to strengthen their case."

Nearby, Whitworth Street West is set to be pedestrianized, with the railway arches being strengthened and patched up. Oxford Road train station itself, is getting a makeover. A lack of clarity from those behind the redevelopment has got local sole-traders worried.

Graham Hall.

At Harry Hall Cycles, there's a fear from staff that they'll be evicted. Graham Hall, son of the legendary and eponymous Harry, worried that the family-run business could be invited back to the site of their shop after work has been completed with no compensation and an additional kick-in-the-teeth of doubled or tripled rates. "We're worried we won't be able to stay here" he said, adding, "We're looking at our options and we may have to move out of the city centre altogether."

The closed Wim Wham Café.

Yards away, the Whim Wham Café has already closed after they faced eviction from the redevelopment plans. In a statement, they said that they had no choice but to leave: "As an independent family business, still in its infancy, our position is too fragile and the business is not strong enough to hold on whilst further details of eviction come to light."

In a bitter irony, it was changes to the area that attracted them here in the first place: "Our business plan was one which was based on other long term changes in the area, with the redevelopment of the First Street site, eg HOME, being the key factor in locating at Arch 64."

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One trader privately told me that they have heard of plans which would see escalators being built straight through the middle of his unit.

The area also houses some of Manchester's best alt. rock spots. If they go, Manchester will be losing more than it gains.

At The Thirsty Scholar bar, the manager said that Network Rail already had compulsory purchasing orders, which is hoped that this just means the premises can be accessed for any work that needs doing, rather than to evict existing businesses: "This area is one of the best parts of Manchester—self policing, safe, and not really like anywhere else—we hope to still be here after all this."

John.

John Rawlinson, landlord at The Salisbury—frequented by bikers and noise lovers—is more confident that bureaucracy could work in favor of this part of the city. "These things take such a long time that I think we'll be all right for a while—and if any redevelopments want to build around us, rather than on top of us, then fine… but I won't let anything happen to my pub though, if that lot try owt," he said.

If the area is transformed, it'll take years of work to try and build something that is already there—notably, a hive of activity and a hub of creativity. While the Cornerhouse's output is moving down the road, that shouldn't mean that the buildings it vacates can't bring some new artistic and culture endeavors of its own.

Manchester is very keen to espouse the idea that "we do things differently 'round here," but there's a collective sense of trepidation that some of Manchester's quirkier places could succumb to London style redevelopment, blandification, and gentrification. The fact that the 20 acre First Street area is being sold to a property developer and news that some of the first new tenants will be a Sainsbury's and a Pizza Express, will do nothing to allay these concerns.

At the same time as the Cornerhouse's closing party, The Thirsty Scholar, Sound Control, and The Salisbury were hosting parties of their own. We can only hope that these places won't be throwing their last bashes too soon, to become rubble buried under rent-increases and plate glass new-build. If we're not careful, the combined forces behind the redevelopment are going to steamroller all the character out of Manchester.

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