Manchester After Engels

Extract from ‘Manchester After Engels’, first published in Places (June 2020)

Manchester is, to say the least, an enigma. Ever since the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, the United Kingdom has been languishing in Brexit limbo, investment confidence has been flagging, and everyone has been fretting about the future. The North of England, where a majority voted to Leave, has long been notoriously, pathologically depressed, its cities and towns, one after another, the victims of postwar post-industrial decline and post-millennial austerity. So how to explain the recent show of confidence in the self-styled capital of the North?

IManchester, whose collapse in the mid 20th century rivaled that of Detroit, is busily, loudly rebounding; the city is now constructing a cluster of skyscrapers on the edge of its downtown core, the scale of which dwarfs all existing buildings. 1 Not all that long ago, a big building here could perhaps boast 100,000 square feet; today “big” means half a million. The new South Tower of Deansgate Square, a collection of mostly residential towers, rises priapically to more than 600 feet, and it might soon be overtaken by the 700-foot-tall Trinity Islands. There were at the end of last year an unprecedented 80 construction sites in the city center, including 14,000 future apartments, many of which are underwritten by international investment. This is proving to be the most thoroughgoing transformation of an English city for some time; indeed, one of the great spectacles of contemporary Britain. “Manchester is visibly booming,” wrote Oliver Wainwright, the architectural critic of the Guardian. “Cranes cluster across the skyline and the concrete liftshafts of future towers dot every corner. The city is even beginning to look drunk on its own success.” 

Inevitably this is a local story, one that underscores much about the unpredictability and uncertainty of Britain as it finally leaves the European Union, a departure that was expedited by the Conservative party’s victory in the recent general election. Yet it is also a global story; a story about how a city that was at the center of the industrial revolution, and that shaped global capitalism in the 19th century, is today being reshaped by post-industrial globalized capital. As the geographers Jamie Peck and Kevin Ward put it in 2002, in a prescient book on the beginning of the contemporary boom: “Being first proved to be a double-edged sword. The first industrial city was the first to experience large-scale deindustrialization. … Once a global player, the city is in many ways now just another potential investment site in the global economic system.” 3 And now, as I write, the future of the global economic system has been put on at least temporary hold by the spread of a global pandemic; the partly constructed new skyline of Manchester now constitutes an unwitting memorial to the moment the city went into lockdown.

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