Dominic Sagar: N/4

This article is a story of the Northern Quarter [not?] as we know it today, written by one of those responsible, currently senior lecturer at the MSA, Dominic Sagar.

Dominic was one of the founders of Sagar Stevenson Architects who formed a part of the Urbanistics team, that was commissioned by Manchester Council to carry out the first Northern Quarter Regeneration Strategy, including a feasibility study and a masterplan.

His interests since have continuously orbited around the industrial roots of Manchester and transformation of the city post the IRA bomb. He has published papers and delivered talks about the parallels between Manchester and its American twin city Detroit - expressed in music, football, and community movements.

The N/4 has not been previously published, and is one of a few tales of Manchester Dominic has shared with us.


N/4 The Northern Quarter from the Big Bang to a black hole, from the present to the future and beyond (?)

The story of a former black hole, now known as the Northern Quarter, and the untold story of The Northern Quarter Association. Part One.

In the late 80s, in the decaying area north of Piccadilly Gardens, a zone of experimentation developed. Traders, residents, artists and musicians could play and hone their specialist interest in the form of shops and independent businesses - away from the oppression of the corporate high street chains as independents eking out a living and following their passion for individuality. This loose rag tag bag group of people eventually formed a community-lobbying group, which went on to spearhead the regeneration of this rundown area, now known as the Northern Quarter. The City, unsure what to do with this diverse and complex area, were unusually receptive to the wishes and hopes of this community group, who eventually formalised themselves into the Northern Quarter Association.

The story of the association has never been fully documented. A long story. A labour of love and heartache. Essentially, the idea was to change people's perceptions of the area, and this was done by any creative means necessary. The Northern Quarter Bugle, a ‘news and views’ newsletter was printed, an NQ radio station set up, festivals of fun were had, Stevie Square was closed for concerts, a drive-in movie was held (led by Mrs Merton in a pink Cadillac), exhibitions organised, an NQ HQ office opened, a conference titled "We never promised you a roof garden” delivered [more on this that later].

Now a thriving, bustling area [obviously easy to be cynical] - baristas, hipsters and all that. Gentrification happens, nevertheless the buildings, now saved from dereliction, and their upper floors full of small businesses are employing, thriving and feeding off each other. An economic stronghold.

 View from Tib Street car park, Summer 2016, JG

Now, on what is the 21st birthday of the Northern Quarter Association, is probably a good time to reflect on what was the past, what is the present and what of the future?

So this is the rarely told story of the Northern Quarter Association. Are you sitting comfortably?

In the beginning there was the Big Bang, and the subsequent spinning and burning cauldron of Earth, which eventually calmed down a bit. Dinosaurs roamed the Earth, then things calmed down a bit more again. Eventually fields and rivers developed, including a small tributary in the Northern wastelands of England, to become known as the River Tib. Rumour has it that it was nicknamed by a Roman Centurion, a little Roman joke contrasting Rome's mighty Tiber. The Tib was more of a stream, draining into the confluence of the River Irk, Irwell and the Medlock. Nearby there was a small hillock. When the Romans ruled and roamed the Earth, this was where they set up a garrison fort, having stupidly walked all the way from sunny Rome to this small, probably rain soaked grassy knoll, resembling a small mammary gland. Hence this developing trading post was named Mamcunia (another little Roman joke?). This was latterly changed to Mancunia, and eventually became known as Manchester.

It was there near the River Tib, where another ‘big bang’ exploded in the form of the industrial revolution. The first railways, canals and roads were built to feed the new cotton mills. Many of those futuristic structures of the time were built nearby the Tib, which was soon to be culverted over to allow for a new thoroughfare, and Tib Street came into existence.

As kids in the 70s, the best and favourite street in our world was the mad mad world of Tib Street, full of pet shops teaming with life or death (pets purchased usually died within a few weeks), joke shops, air rifle shops and the dodgy dirty book shops, pubs, clubs, including one of the first gay clubs, aptly named Dickins, Band on the Wall, etc. Places to drink, dream and forget your troubles. It has always been North Manchester’s playground, a place of experiment, a place of fun and misery, a place for transients, transgressive and experimental behaviour, alongside commerce and consumerism.

So back in time again, from the 1970s to the 1870s, the visionary Victorians had turned this area into their industrial garrison. In clamour for money and power they centered around Tib Street, and new mills sprung up alongside the inadequate slum housing. A powerhouse of new technologies and machinery, embedded in the new innovate mills and factories. Alongside this, the rag trade developed, and the Smithfield markets, meat and fish, fruit and veg and latterly pubs, clubs and shops popped up. A twenty four hour party place, even before the phrase came into use. A twenty four hour multi-cultural thriving hub. This new futuristic area attracted inquisitive visitors from far and wide. Tourists witnessed this wild heel of a city, including one gentleman from London in 1849, who said:

In returning last Sunday night, by the Oldham Road from one of my tours, I was somewhat surprised to hear the loud sound of music and jollity, which floated out of the public house windows. The streets were swarming with drunken men and women; with young mill girls shouting and hallooing and romping with each other. Now I am not one of those who look upon the slightest degree of social indulgence as a down right evil, but I confess last Sunday night in the Oldham Road astonished and grieved me. In no city have I witnessed a scene of more open, brutal and general intemperance.

As the area developed, specialist shops set up relating to the markets and mills, including premises selling flour, seeds and nuts, and then going on to sell caged song birds. Soon Tib Street developed into a street full of pet shops, alongside cafes, pubs and other odd shops. Parallel to Tib St, Oldham St was changing too - becoming full of more specialists shops relating to the rag trade haberdashers. It slowly became the main shopping street, with the first Marks & Spencers, C&A and posh department stores, including Afflecks & Browns and Dobbins (sadly, recently burned down, it formerly housed a very fine roof top dining area with a string quartet and silver service).

Moving on again, past World War One and whizzing past the bombs of World War Two that dropped on the area, through the 40s and early 50s to the post war optimism of late 50s and the swinging 60s, and back to the decline of the 70s.

All was not well. Manchester, the first truly industrial city of the nineteenth century, subsequently experienced a massive decline in fortune, having had its large industrial heart ripped out and left dying. The city turned into industrial wastelands of despair, dereliction, desolation; vacated by a massive exodus of the inhabitants.

By the late 70s Manchester was a truly post-apocalyptical post-industrial city, ravaged by unemployment, bin strikes, dereliction, electricity shortage (homework done by candle light) and so on. James Anderton dubbed God's Cop was on the rampage, persecuting communities. Riots kicked off. Burning and looting. Draconian times indeed or, as Tony Wilson put it: This was our fucking Detroit. The ideals and hopes of the sixties had drifted and floated up and away.

In the early 70s the Arndale Shopping Centre was completed. An ugly behemoth of a building, clad in drab creamy mustardy tiles and dubbed 'the biggest toilet' in Europe. All the main shops around Tib Street and Oldham Street decanted to the Arndale Centre, leaving a decaying black hole. A hole where the elegant Victorian buildings were falling down, held together by dry rot and pigeon shit. By the late 80s Tib Street and the posher main shopping drag of Oldham Street felt abandoned. All the shops had been closed down, leaving a dark decrepit, derelict and dingy black hole. A slightly scary no go area. However, the cheap rents attracted a rag tag bag of artists, musicians, charities and small businesses - an interesting array of like-minded people.

Flyer printed on the back cover of The Northern Quarter Bugle

Around this time an architectural practice Sagar Stevenson Architects was set up on Tib Street, in a former haberdashery warehouse. The partners wandered around on the streets of Smithfield, New Cross and the burning old mills of Ancoats. Early urban explorers drifting through and around these abandoned areas, the city almost at its majestic best in its decay, before CCTV and security guards. They were free to plunder, old fittings, furniture, slabs of slate and rubber (abandoned rubber works in Ancoats) to kit out their office. Whilst out and about, they were bumping into people, meeting locals in the first Indian curry houses (set up for the local rag trade, where food was eaten by hand as no cutlery was provided).

Wandering, drifting and just chatting to residents of Smithfield housing estate (some of the first inner city housing), artists, musicians and local business owners, it was evident that there was an underlying burning resentment to how the area had become neglected and abandoned; whilst over in Castlefield, where there was just one man, his dog and a few scrapyards, millions were being invested via the Central Manchester Development Corporation.

Gradually, a head of steam built up, and the first informal meeting was organised in a former chip shop (now Night & Day). The initial meeting of local traders and residents was slightly wild and chaotic. Angry people aired their views about the squalor, the dog shit, even human poo, litter, needles, crusties, trusties, dogs on strings, winos, smackheads, beggars, blaggers, drug dealers, thieves and robbers, endless break ins, ‘impossible to get insurance’, lack of street lights, no bins, no paving, no parking, choking on Oldham Street ‘chock a bloc’ with wall-to-wall buses. Angry, mouthy people, venting their views and visions. People whose businesses and lives were on a knife edge, like the area, and in a bit of a sorry state.

However, slowly and surely people calmed down, and realised they had no real alternative than to do something themselves and become more organised. Eventually, this unwieldy rag tag bunch became formalised into The Northern Quarter Association, determined to stop the rot of their beloved area, their cherished home. Many with a long standing family allegiance to the area - home to their works, passions and beliefs.

NQ grafitti 

Something was happening. A slightly magical and mysterious time. Somehow the stars were aligned. At the time we didn't really know what we were doing, we were just doing it, a la Factory records and the situationist’s punk Mantra: "Just do it! And see what happens.” We were doing it because we believed in it and in each other. It was a love/passion thing. Looking back, we were early urban explorers, tinkerers, thinkers, regenerationists.

The meetings became more regular and with a more organised approach. Aims and objectives set out, and more people attended. Eventually, it was decided to invite council liaison officers and members to attend.

The city were at somewhat of a loss how to tackle this diverse, dark, dirty, dingy, decrepit crazy area. Anyone coming around suited, booted and with a clip board received very short shrift. Shutters would go down, as there was great scepticism and little trust or faith in any intervention from the city. Especially from the rag trade, charities, squats and studios.

Having attended the meetings, one of the first outcomes was to appoint an artist in residence - Liam Curtin, who worked alongside Wendy Jones at Majolica Works based in the Craft Centre. Some splendid works were achieved, posters produced, the community engaged, but Liam as an artist realised this was just posturing, postering posters, and really just papering over the cracks. The bigger picture(s) and painting the future needed to be considered with more of a creative vision and view, a more strategic study was needed.

To be continued…


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