The Disappearing Face of Manchester Desperately Needs Saving

Caffs, chippies, old bookshops ≥≥≥ Co-working spaces and office blocks

Late in the morning of New Year’s Eve, 2021, my wife and I sat in the back of an Uber en route to St.Mary’s hospital at the top end of Oxford Road. My wife was set to undergo her 20 week pregnancy scan, where we would also discover the sex of our second child. Slightly tense, as most people so often are ahead of any hospital visit, I gazed through the back window across a cityscape that was merging between the past and the present to create what I hoped would be a furiously exciting future for my kids to make the most of.

While the final day of 2021 wasn’t one in which we were beholden to lockdowns or covid restrictions, the recent Omicron variant had pummelled an already exhausted hospitality industry almost beyond breaking point. The mass closures that had been predicted since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 now feeling like impending doom, ringing in the new year in the bleakest manner imaginable.

Following the relief laden hysteria that, not only was everything absolutely fine with my wife’s pregnancy, but that we were also just five months away from welcoming our first son into the world to join our then two-year-old daughter, I made an impassioned plea that we instil a proper sense of hometown pride and knowledge into our children. To ensure they are wholly familiar with their city’s history and culture.

The aforementioned closures didn’t materialise at the time, but the enormous strain that so many proud institutions in the city had been placed under had provided a sense of urgency. Disasters can strike at any given moment. Covid robbed us all of so many months of our lives. It ripped away loved ones and livelihoods. It also shifted into focus my own personal desire to no longer take for granted the city I had called home for the past decade and that my children will more than likely spend their most formative years.

Almost 15 months later, however, and it already feels as if the character and charm that makes so many people fall in love with Manchester is being ruthlessly stripped away by opportunistic property developers, landlords and an uncaring, incompetent government.

One-by-one longstanding independents are closing and new, inventive ventures failing. District, the pulsating Neo-Thai sensation on Oldham Street, didn’t manage to see out 2022 before shuttering, despite a raft of rave reviews and some of the most mind blowingly great plates and cocktails that have ever graced the city. Mary-Ellen McTague helmed The Creameries tragically shut up shop in Chorlton in the first half of the year, even after a rapturously received rebranding as ragu and focaccia led Campagna.

This was just the beginning.

Since the calendar rolled over into 2023, it seems as if every other news story regarding Mancunian hospitality is on the subject of more closures. Energy bills are long past unmanageable. Food costs are soaring and customers don’t have as much money left over in their bank accounts for meals out as a result of their own bottom lines being catastrophically impacted.

Independent businesses are in a chokehold. And as many of them enter their death throes, they breath life into the scourge of the depleted. Property developers, eager to capitalise on tenants that are unable to sustain another financial shit kicking move without conscience. They force out the Cafe Metros and fuck over the McCall’s vegetables and Manchester Book Buyers. They’d gentrify their own fucking gran if they could.

As I type, the Northern Quarter’s sartorial overlords Oi Polloi are announcing their closure. Bought by JD Sports in 2021, this past week has brought with it the news many have feared since that sale two years ago. A JD owned Hip Store is expected to take the place of a proud Mancunian institution. A corporate hiding in plain sight as an independent. Essentially one big, massive ‘we don’t give a fuck’ from a high street chain with about as much charm and character as a dinner date with Nadine Dorries.

With the conservatives shit scared of standing up to record profit setting oil companies because, y’know, that would require having an ounce of self belief or a shred of backbone and compassion, most traders, regardless of success, are finding it nigh on impossible to scrape together rent each month. When your energy bills more than double almost overnight, that is an inevitability.

Through no fault of their own, and completely avoidably (TAX THE FUCKING OIL COMPANIES. IT’S REALLY NOT THAT FUCKING DIFFICULT) restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars are plummeting helplessly into the abyss. And what is taking their place?

What do you think?

During Manchester’s seemingly ceaseless regeneration over the last two decades, Victorian brickwork has been shouldered into the middle distance by glass fronted uniformity. By white boxes with varying numbers of bedrooms. By ‘quirky’ offices and co-working spaces (banging a neon sign on the wall, putting out a few boxes of cereal and having a ping-pong table isn’t quirky. It’s needless shite for £15-a-day). Multinational chains have taken over historical spaces, in case you really need some frozen, flavourless TGI’s mozzarella sticks before taking in a matinee at the Royal Exchange theatre. And news incessantly breaks about London transplants moving Northwards, gripped to the coattails of the monumental Hawksmoor.

“No, yeah, looks good that mate. Not at all out of touch with the surrounding area or owt.”

Of course, it must be said that Hawksmoor has been a resounding success story in Manchester. A move executed flawlessly by all involved. It is, deservedly, one of the most widely respected and ruthlessly enjoyed restaurants in the city. Food, service, decor, it is utterly unstoppable, feeling as though it has stood proudly on Deansgate for decades. A rare example of a London establishment slotting into the heart of Manchester seamlessly and being welcomed with open arms while doing so.

But then came the rumours of Sexy Fish, at one point believed to be taking over the Armani space in Spinningfields. That entire sentence just feels grotesque to read, doesn’t it? It felt fucking grotesque to type, anyway. When we at EATMCR shared the news on our Twitter account, beautifully coiffed jazz enthusiast and food critic Jay Rayner bluntly replied, “you say this as if it’s a good thing”. The robata grilled fish enthusiasts of Mayfair have long loved themselves some king crab California maki and kombu cured tuna belly, washed down with £20 cocktails and a surrounding aesthetic of ‘literally the worst fucking nightclub you have ever had the misfortune to set foot in in your entire life’. So why wouldn’t this ‘sparklers in champagne bottles’ millionaires playground be desired in Manchester?

Well, fortunately, it appears as if owners Caprice Holdings have had second thoughts about the space and are now opting for a Greek leaning concept instead, according to reports that did the rounds at the beginning of 2022. However, the point remains that corporations with chequebooks the size of Jack Grealish’s Albert Schloss bar tab are relentlessly targeting Manchester for their next stages of expansion. Some, undoubtedly, will transition well and hopefully become beloved spots for years to come. Others will simply be soulless, influencer fronted cash grabs, of which we are already overburdened with.

In season six, episode eight of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano laments to realtor Julianna Skiff that “you drive around America today and everything looks the fucking same” as he attempts to dissuade her from continuing her attempts to purchase Caputo’s Poultry – a chicken shop owned by Tony in the old neighbourhood of the North Ward in Newark, New Jersey. While Tony will eventually relent for several hundred thousand dollars (and a brief, failed extramarital dalliance with Julianna) his point remains. The site, long owned by a local Italian family, is to be turned into a Jamba Juice. Earlier in the same episode, the manager of a sterile looking coffee shop, newly opened in the area, is unsuccessfully shaken down for protection money by two of Tony’s foot soldiers, unwavering in his plea that every expenditure must go through corporate. Later in the episode, an aghast Patsy Parisi laments “what the fuck is happening to this neighbourhood?”

Obviously, a fictional mafia family in New Jersey being left out of pocket isn’t exactly the sympathetic image I’m trying to paint, here. But their mindset as it regards the streets where they grew up is one we can all share, regardless of geography or legality of profession. When there are fewer places you can walk into and feel immediately at home, as if you’ve stepped into a relative or an old friend’s front room or kitchen, you ought to be concerned for the future. When these places begin to disappear, their replacements are seldom as embracing. A Starbucks or a Costa or any other chain where the management and staff have no emotional investment in their place of work, is a death knell for the culture of a city.

You can argue that these venues have a place and serve their purpose when it comes to their ability to generate jobs, especially during a period of such austerity. Yet if independents were offered the level of protection the government offer their hedge fund hoarding mates, more of them would be allowed to prosper. Or just survive in the first place.

Even Ancoats, the rare occurrence, in this writer’s opinion at least, of a neighbourhood regenerated in the right way and actually adding to Manchester’s allure, could be the precursor for something altogether more sinister when you take into account the perilous position of the cash ravaged areas around it yet to be touched by gentrification.

It is times like these when we must cherish the China Towns, Wilmslow Roads and Cheetham Hills. The neighbourhoods retaining their character and community while plating up some of the finest plates of food in the city (if not the country). We must hold out hope that the Higher Grounds and Ersts and Osmas can continue to produce their elevated levels of gastronomy to demonstrate to the world that Manchester is a destination for fine dining and experimentation, rather than them eventually going the way of District, which will forever feel like a seismic loss given the mind bending skill demonstrated in their kitchen.

Manchester has prided itself on innovation, on industry and craft, throughout history. In recent years, it has rested on its laurels, veering dangerously towards becoming a Madchester theme park, where you gain free entry for wearing black and yellow chevrons and correctly naming five New Order b-sides. People became so obsessed with doing things differently here that they ended up doing things even worse than most other major cities. Championing the past is all well and good until you realise that the present and future have been totally neglected.

I wish I could take my ‘old man shouts at cloud’ frustrations to CBRB until 2am, drowning my sorrows in a bowl of broth and about 14 cocktails. Be nice, wouldn’t it?

A 1,000+ word despairing rant may not seem particularly productive when it comes to solving Manchester’s myriad of issues. Cathartic, perhaps. But it is a plea to rail against the soulless and the opportunistic. To proudly uplift those most in need. To protest mistreatment and not allow token gestures from those with power and money to distract from the real issues plaguing or city. Make the most of the caffs, the greasy spoons, the subterranean drinking dens and the old bloke pubs. Remember that Tesco Express and Sainsbury’s Local cannot hold a candle to the crisps and fizzy pop selections at any given corner shop or off license.

Anyway, I’m just off to round up a load of people to chain ourselves to Rustica and The Millstone. Just in case.

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