In 1844, Engels described industrial Manchester as being planned as a series of concentric circles: an inner commercial core surrounded by a ‘girdle’ of working-class quarters about a mile wide beyond which were the middle-class residential districts (2). In this way, Engels argued, wealthier people from the outer areas might come in and out of the city on its roads ‘without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and to the left.’ This ‘hypocritical plan’, as Engels called it, has persisted to this day, with the majority of the city’s thoroughfares being like spokes of a giant wheel, enabling easy travelling in and out of the city. And just as in Engels’s day, the further out from the city centre one travels, the more salubrious the surroundings become, today Mancunians reach all the way out to Alderley Edge in rural Cheshire, with its vast gated mansions: home of the footballers and their wives.
On a very cold but sparkling day in November, I decided to walk Manchester and Salford’s inner ‘girdle’, as a kind of alternative way of apprehending the topography of both cities – a counter to the frustration of generally only knowing the city as a series of linear routes in and out (1). The areas through which this walk passed – Salford, Hulme, Ardwick, Ancoats – were all just outside Manchester’s city centre and, although most of the housing was relatively new, still very much had the character Engels first observed in 1844 – that is, ‘unmixed working-people’s quarters’.
So, after taking my usual linear bus ride from the suburbs to the University, instead of heading to my office I walked eastwards towards Ardwick, in a counterclockwise direction, passing the half-redeveloped Plymouth Grove pub with its late-nineteenth century ornamental cast-iron columns by the Glasgow founder Walter Macfarlane, now rusted into rich golden hues (3). Heading westwards, Ardwick is a surprise, an old industrial area that’s still working, with textile factories still hanging on despite the tumbledown bricked-up brick buildings (4), one of which still bears the imprint of its several generations of owners, its signs overlaid as if deliberately preserving the building’s history (5). Continuing west, a great railway viaduct thickens towards Piccadilly, its enormous brick arches a sign of how Manchester’s Victorian railway (unlike London’s) ploughed its way directly through the inner city, straddling the working-class housing with apparent disdain (6).
Across the thundering Ashton road, one enters the Medlock river valley, a green oasis in Manchester’s monolithic red-brick cityscape, and a reminder that, like many other cities, Manchester’s fortunes were originally bound up with its rivers. Onwards through the edges of Beswick, a sleepy suburb in the Medlock valley, crowned on the Ancoats side by an abandoned church on Every Street – its fantastic array of turrets challenging the utilitarian brick buildings around it (7). Entering Ancoats past the Bank of England pub and over the Ashton canal, one suddenly emerges into another world – a contested landscape of waste ground, ruined factories, angular post-modernist tower blocks, and 1970s working-class housing. As one resident told me, Ancoats is now a battleground: some of the residents have been forced out, their properties compulsorilly purchased and demolished to make way for gentrification that hasn’t yet happened. Here, older 1960s tower blocks stand in limbo, condemned for demolition but subsquently purchased for £1 each by the developers Urban Splash in the property boom of the late-1990s. Now too expensive to either demolish or redevelop, these tower blocks remain as petrified ruins (8).
Over the Rochdale canal is old Ancoats, created at the end of the 18th century as the world’s first industrial suburb, and still characterised by its enormous, utilitarian brick mills and warehouses that summon up images of the industrial revolution, with its din and smoke (9). Yet, today, this part of Ancoats is silent and spotless: a closed world of private apartments, offices and deluxe recording studios. With its tightly-packed grid-like streets, cobbled for over two hundred years, Ancoats here is less contested, more fully embracing of a new kind of exclusivity that’s so characteristic of former industrial quarters in many other British cities. Out of Ancoats across the busy Oldham Road, one enters a desolate former industrial area, the factories and warehouses given over to end-of-the-line textiles (10), with the futuristic shapes of the city’s new generation of skyscrapers rising up beyond (11). With the towers of Strangeways high-security prison looming in the distance, I head towards the half-way point around the girdle (part 2 to follow).