Property sharks are using north Manchester's rich history for marketing, while simultaneously destroying a historic pub.
"Oh yes!", says Chris, spotting a sign down the backstreets of Manchester that states, "This is public space".
"Just take a seat and a moment to enjoy your new city space," the sign implores.
Chris, who's been homeless for three years, is having some of that. He unfurls his sleeping bag and lies down in the empty, polished-to-perfection paved square that is festooned with historical soundbites. This, states a great big blue slogan dreamt up by property marketeers, is the site "Where the Modern World Began".
Sadler's Yard is named after James Sadler, who piloted the first English hot air balloon flight – it's just off Balloon Street, another tribute. As the hoardings state, it was also the site of Arkwright's revolutionary Mill and the base of the original Co-operative Society.
The environment feels sterile, full of itself. Vertical girders come on like freshly stripped, scrubbed and plucked totem poles. It hardly seems to fit Manchester's "maverick attitude" which, another hoarding insists, "changed the world".
Within a minute, two security guards run out into the privately owned public space, telling Chris to get the hell away from here "or we're calling the police".
"Do one!" he responds "This is ours. Public money's paid for this..." He poses for photos under one of the hoardings with the words "Driven by the spirit of community and fairness."
"Get out or we'll call the police. And get a job while you're at it."
Welcome to NOMA, the latest massive £800 million Manc regeneration scheme for the rich. In the planning are 2.5 million square feet of shiny glass "prime office" blocks, the obligatory 4-star hotel and car park, a shot of retail space and one million square feet of residential space. One development brochure claims that the housing will be "for people of all backgrounds", but so far, of the 458 "high specification" apartments approved, none are "affordable".
All the routine buzzwords are buzzing around NOMA's PR: this is "a new approach to placemaking". NOMA is "a unique and modern urban neighbourhood" and "a place that captures the soul of one of the world's greatest cities".
Back in the real world, so far, there's only a big glass swirly Co-op HQ building that thinks it's in London, a barren parade of empty properties and car parks, and some soulless "public realm" – an expanse of concrete and overly kempt greenery outside the Co-op HQ and, across the main road, down the back street, Sadler's Yard. The Yard itself was lavished with £6.9 million of European grant money and £8.5 million from cash-strapped Manc Council.
The horribly named NOMA sits in 20 acres at the unfashionable end of Manchester – or NOrth MAnchester (I guess the developers are fans of South Park). Out of sight of the hipster Northern Quarter and kissing the arse of Victoria Station and The Printworks, the money men are desperately trying to open up this huge area of dereliction to developers. And they've hit on heritage to sell it. "We're evolving a neighbourhood that's been in this part of the city for over a hundred years," states the NOMA blurb.
The only problem is that the neighbourhood's evolution is not for those who aren't minted. And the heritage it's so keen on promoting doesn't include a popular pub called the Ducie Bridge that dates back to 1928. The landlord was legally booted out and the place boarded up, due to be flattened for offices.
Last week, a group of two dozen, mainly young, homeless people squatted the pub. And they're not moving. The Ducie's outer walls are now covered in artwork, including one with the slogan – "NOMA: No Money No Access".
Ever since homeless camps sprang up around the centre 18 months ago, housing has become the hottest political battle in the city. Squatters have been fired up by the Manchester Activist Network, with its slogan, "Squat The Lot!" Even ex-Man United legend turned property speculator Gary Neville had his Stock Exchange building taken over last winter.
"The Council is spending money to attract the wealthy whilst their people are rotting in the doorways," says Danny, one of the squatters. "That money could end the homeless crisis in the city. Manchester could be the frontrunner of ending homelessness, instead of managing it."
While the squatters have lost faith in the Council to sort the issue, they were even more peeved when a notice appeared on the front door of the pub from NOMA (GP) Ltd stating that, "unless you vacate immediately, court action will be taken against you to recover possession of the Property."
NOMA (GP) Ltd is a partnership between Hermes Real Estate and the Co-operative Group, which owns all the land around the area and lists "concern for the community among its "values and principles".
"They're called the 'Co-operative' but where is the co-operation?" asks 19-year-old Liam, who has been homeless for five years, on and off. "Why not co-operate? We're all humans; it's not all about money, it's about survival. They should have some sort of talks to use the space that they're not using. Even if they say, 'Right, we'll give you this place for six months, then we've got plans for it,' instead of saying, 'Get out, we don't want you here.'"
The NOMA notice states that there's asbestos in the building and the company insists that "NOMA has to consider the health and safety of anyone entering a vacant property, particularly when we believe there is a risk to people's wellbeing. The site of the former Ducie Bridge is not safe for occupation and it would not be appropriate to put anyone at risk by allowing them to remain at the property."
The squatters argue that the asbestos is in the cellar or in closed-off areas. Among the group, the desire to resist any attempted eviction is growing.
"This is a building that epitomises the reasons why we would want to resist," says Danny, noting "Manchester Council's complete waste of money on concrete squares", the stupidity of building one million square feet of residential property that the protesters fear "no-one from Manchester can afford" and the Co-op's 'kick 'em out' stance.
Maybe the Co-op will co-operate. Maybe Manc Council will switch its cash from fancy squares to affordable houses. Maybe this could be a site "Where the Post-Modern World Began". Maybe pigs can fly in hot air balloons.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Salford Star
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