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How gentrification and hostile architecture have pushed out the working class

Gentrification has pushed out poor and working-class residents from Manchester's city centre, concealing the consequences of hostile design

A city square filled with bar tables

Stevenson Square, Manchester

City centres have to be more inclusive and accessible for everyone. Manchester’s Northern Quarter has a reputation for bohemianism; home to record shops and independent music venues, the Quarter is lined with street art celebrating the city’s uniqueness. 

But beneath the veneer of progressivism lies a harsher reality: the area is fast becoming a poster child for gentrification, pushing out poor and working-class residents and concealing the fatal consequences of inequality. This is the subject of The Modern History of the Northern Quarter, a walking tour run by placemaker Hayley Flynn under the name Skyliner. 

Flynn delved into some of the most striking examples of the area’s failures to protect its residents and visitors amid rising costs of living – an increasing problem in city centres across the UK. There is hostile design all around us, invisible until we learn where to look.

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Wholesale Fish Market

An empty square

Once a thriving covered space, Wholesale Fish Market is now an open, empty square. 

“When it was a market, sex workers would come here because it was busy and they felt safe, and it’s always been an anchor for working-class people,” Flynn says. “There was a night asylum entrance, so if you were homeless, you could come and sleep here. 

“But now, it’s a really barren space – and it’s been designed that way. The gate’s open today, but that’s hugely rare. [The council] lock it as much as they can and there are signs about CCTV, but the planning permission was granted based on this being public realm.” 

Accessing the space requires a code, but when Flynn requested it for her tours, she was told by residents of the surrounding flats that “we can’t because of homeless people” who might seek solace on the market’s benches, if they knew they were there. 

“It’s a hostile design – if you’re stood by the gate, you can’t see that there’s anywhere to sit because the benches are hidden,” says Flynn. 

In the centre of the square, now in a state of disrepair, a plaque reads: “In Memory of Julie Margret Jones Found July 1998 Sadly Missed R.I.P. All Our Love Mum & Family.”  

“Julie Jones was a sex worker, and her body was found here,” Flynn says. “Effectively, the council used her death to say, something bad happened here; they used sex workers and homeless people, working-class people, as leverage, and because that gate is almost always closed, her family can’t even come to her official plaque.” 

A street corner

William Fairburn Way

On the corner of William Fairburn Way and Copperas Street, adjacent to the market, the corner of a residential building is lined with tasteful wood panelling – but if you look on Google Earth, you will see an open space bracketed by pillars and covered by a first-floor balcony. 

“Two homeless people died there in the last couple of years,” Flynn explains, resulting in the proprietors covering the space so that people could no longer shelter there. 

“I just find that so tricky – that the default is: ‘If they’re not here, the problem is removed.’ There’s such an onus put on city design as a means to fix all the problems and push them aside.” 

Thomas Street

Art installation: broom on a plinth

Opened by Prince Charles in 1981, social housing was built on the roof of Manchester Arndale shopping centre, which “near enough doubled housing figures for the city centre”, Flynn says. 

At this time, local businesses were closing, unable to compete with the Arndale, and the area was falling into disrepair – and disrepute. But as creatives moved into the new housing, the council made efforts to rejuvenate the area. This included the construction of an art trail. 

Back when the trail was first in development, “There was a plan to introduce benches and things that you need to improve an area,” Flynn says. “But that was too expensive, so they fell back on just the art. But people came back and said, ‘You have to put some benches in or you’re not having the art,’ and where that happened on a big scale was here” – on the corner of Thomas Street and John Street. 

Today, though, there are no benches to be seen. 

“One set of benches was set fire to a few years back,” Flynn explains, “and all of them were then removed. Because it was a homeless person who did that, the council said that they can’t have space here, so now people rest on the wall.” 

This notion of punishing a large demographic – in January, 7,407 people were known to be experiencing homelessness in Manchester, or 1.35% of the local population – for the actions of an individual is prevalent among the decisions that lead to hostile planning of city centres. 

The square now features a statue of a broom to celebrate the city’s street sweepers. “So all these pieces of art are about people without much money,” says Flynn, noting the irony.

Brightwell Walk 

Key safe on a wall surrounded by rubbish

Nearby Brightwell Walk is home to social housing built in the late 1970s. “Some of the residents have been here since they were built,” Flynn says. “But because of right to buy, a lot of them became privately owned, and a lot of those became Airbnbs – and that’s a huge issue

“Aside from removing social housing, it’s pushing social tenants out because these units are really small, but the Airbnb listings say, ‘Sleeps upwards of 10 people’, so they’re not explicitly saying, ‘Come and party,’ but they are saying that.” 

Nearby, a stretch of sheltered ground big enough for someone to sleep under is blocked off with a metal gate and filled with litter. Beside it is a key safe of the type used for Airbnb properties. 

Stevenson Square

Stevenson Square (main picture) was once the epicentre of Manchester’s radical politics. “This was the official meeting place for the suffragettes,” Flynn says. “Any protest started here. 

“It was also known as Speakers’ Corner, because in the Victorian era, there was a tax on paper so poor people couldn’t afford newspapers, so people would set up a stage here and read the papers every day. We’re only a radical city because of Stevenson Square.” 

But now, it is commercialised, inaccessible and even dangerous. 

The streets are lined with boards advertising trendy bars, but seating is reserved for money spenders, and the arrangement leaves the uneven pavement unusable for wheelchair users, parents with pushchairs and others with limited mobility. 

“The pedestrianisation has left it less accessible than it ever was,” Flynn says. Bus stops were even sold to bars to make space for additional seating. That has resulted in the removal of bus shelters, taking away the only free seating “in what is supposedly a public square”. 

Flowerbeds now take the place of former benches, but “they are regularly used to stash knives in,” Flynn says. “What’s the danger of having a bench? There’s nothing more antisocial than not allowing people space to rest.” 

Flynn notes the city’s attachment to Factory Records and Haçienda nightclub owner Tony Wilson’s infamous quote: “This is Manchester, we do things differently here.” 

“We do: we do things worse,” she laughs. “We don’t learn from the mistakes of other cities.” 

To learn more, visit theskyliner.org 

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about city centres where you live? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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