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Sagar, D., 2016.

Rag Tag Bags of People and Zones of Experimentation

Output Type:Conference paper
Presented at:Alternative Futures and Popular Protest
Venue:Manchester Metropolitan University
Dates:21/3/2016 - 23/3/2016

As kids, the best Street in our world was the mad mad world of Tib Street full of pet shops, joke shops and dodgy dirty book shops.
By the late 80's Tib Street and the, posher main shopping drag of Oldham Street felt abandoned. 'All the shops had been closed down' and had decanted to the Arndale Centre [dubbed the biggest public toilet in Europe] leaving a dark decrepit, derelict and dingy black hole.
The buildings held together by pigeon poo and dry rot, were falling down, 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.
A zone of experimentation developed, where people could play and hone their specialist interests in the form of shops and independent businesses, away from the chains of the corporate chains of the high street. Independents eking out a living following their passions. This loose group of people eventually formed a community-lobbying group, which went onto to spearhead the regeneration of the area, now known as the Northern Quarter. The City unsure what to do with this diverse and complex area, were receptive to the wishes and hopes of the community group, who eventually formalised themselves into the Northern Quarter Association.
The story of the association has never been fully documented, a long a story, a labour of love, joy 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; a 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, a NQ HQ office opened and so much more, including a conference delivered entitled "We never promised you and a roof garden" more on that later.
The Northern Quarter now a thriving bustling area, obviously easy to be cynical, baristas, hipsters and all that, gentrification happens, nevertheless the buildings now saved from dereliction, their upper floors full of small business employing, thriving and feeding off each other, an economic stronghold.
Leaving the Northern Quarter for a while, heading to Hulme, again back to the late -eighties, another no go area, a free for all, a squat city full of all the 'mad heads' another rag tag bag of musos, artists, writers, thinkers and tinkerers, another creative cauldron whose cultural output changed the cultural face of Manchester. The key protagonists going on to infiltrate the NQ, the city and the world. These creative groups helped make the city what it is today, a rebooted city, dragged up by its bootstraps, attracting people back into the city.
Rewind even further back to the late 70's a truly post apocalyptical, post-industrial city, ravaged by unemployment, bin strikes, dereliction, no electricity, home work done by candle light, god's cop on the rampage, persecuting communities, riots, 'burning and looting' draconian times indeed.
Or as Tony Wilson put it "this was our fucking Detroit" like the car crash of 'Motor City', 'King Cotton' was on its knees, its industrial heart ripped out the City at a loss what to do, various industrial initiatives tried and failed. Thankfully, the new cotton was taking root under the pavements, underground grass roots, a culture growing, slowly transforming the city, without the city even realising, music and bands attracting young people. Manchester reinventing itself visionary vibrant as ever 'The beach beneath the pavement' to quote a Situationist text so beloved by Factory et al.
Obviously investment is a good thing, but there is a real danger the city forgets its creative cultural roots, kowtowing to the corporate mentality and the spinning field spin, the plastic people, the streets and pavements designed by the bean counters, the accountants, the 1% v 99 % where by our culture is sanitised and commodified to death.
We've had Madchester and Gunchester, god forbid this city becomes brandchester and blandchester and forgets its inventiveness, its innovations, its radical roots, the suffragette movement, the TUC movement, even the Vegetarian society and RSPB ! and just as important its recent cultural renaissance derived from the streets. Let's not forget the meddlers, the tinkerers, the thinkers making a difference, tackling thorny issues, in positive creative ways, not just sweeping them under or off the pavements !
Where are the new zones of experimentation, antidotes to the Spinning Field spin, where new ideas and visions and creative approaches can be fostered, often cheaper and positive solutions to the problems of our times.
In a way the city instigated the onslaught of consumerism it now need to redress this balance. There are seeds of hope, may be even a slow sea of change, hope that the tides may turn from eras of consumerism to one of consciousness, care and compassion. Community groups making a difference, so bring on the rag tag bands, bring on the FC Utds, the Detriot City FC's,[theres even hope in Detroit!] the Save Withy and Vicky baths, Stretford Town Hall, the Moston Miners club et al, often the community knows best. Let's hear it for the rag tag bags of people ! People not just hoping but doing.
Now back to the Northern Quarter, there is hope, we now even have a co-designed community roof top garden in Stevenson Square, the former home to Manchester's speakers corner. The buildings now saved and occupied, but we have new problems now, globalisation, climate change, generally running out of stuff, the homeless etc etc Does the NQ need reinvigorating with more radical approaches, before it's too late, too commodified. May be that's what's needed a roof top Speakers Corner, a talking shop for the city, to shout from the roof tops ! A Manchester Altruistic and Philanthropic Society ? anyone ? A Northern Community Powerhouse manufacturing our own future, a city shaped more by its citizens.