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Manchester: making sense of the place, its strengths and its future

Manchester: making sense of the place, its strengths and its future

staceycav, CC BY

Manchester’s character, achievements and history were woven into Tony Walsh’s The Place, a poem that Walsh – conjuring the city’s pride, passion and defiance, its unity in diversity – recited to thousands of people who had thronged to the city’s Albert Square following the attack on the Manchester Arena.

Manchester is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK and has a long history of migration from different parts of the nation, mainland Europe and the rest of world.

During the Industrial Revolution, large numbers of Irish migrants arrived in Manchester, followed by European Jews fleeing persecution in the 18th and 19th century. Arrivals from the Caribbean and South Asia followed World War II, preceding waves of migrants from former colonies in Africa, such as Asians from Uganda and Kenya.

In the early 2000s, many skilled workers from Europe, India and West Africa were attracted by employment opportunities in Manchester – as IT professionals, for example, helping transform the city into a tech hub for the north of England. Many were also drawn to the health and care sector: many nurses come from countries outside the EU, making a vital contribution to the NHS.

These arrivals have transformed the economy, the culture and the social landscape of the region through their businesses, diverse cultural communities and the mixing of global cultures. This can be seen from Manchester’s “curry mile” in Rusholme, its Chinatown, the vibrant Northern Quarter, the “gay village” along Canal St, and many East European delicatessens.

The contributions of migrants to the region needs to be recognised, not just in terms of their labour but also the wider benefits. For example, one Indian nurse’s efforts through working with hospitals and communities has boosted organ donation among South Asians in the region.

A resilient city, but unequal

The IRA’s 1996 bombing of the Arndale Centre in Manchester was a turning point, bringing substantial funds to help regenerate areas of the city. The Manchester Arena attack is a reminder that the city holds great promise and opportunity, but also challenges. Throughout that dreadful night, heartwarming news spread quickly of how Manchester’s citizens, from local businesses and Sikh temples, from taxi drivers to homeless men helped provide safety, shelter and transport for those caught up in the bombing. This social solidarity reveals a Mancunian spirit that crosses class, ethnic and religious boundaries.

The Beetham Tower, not everyone’s favourite landmark. sykerabbit77, CC BY

Manchester aims to become a top 20 “global city” by 2035, with tremendous investment in transport and infrastructure, transforming the city into a north west hub or “Northern powerhouse”.

Yet we should ask if the vision that Manchester’s leaders have for the city embraces all the groups that make up the city’s inhabitants? Alongside the huge increase in new developments throughout the city region, there have been increases in poverty, crime rates and homelessness that are as stark as the jagged lines of the Beetham Tower, revealing a city of deeply unequal access to housing, education and security.

Flashpoints and the future

An event celebrating the region, Manchester as Cosmopolis, summed up the rich heritage of the city through but also highlighted concerns following Brexit, the rise of homophobic and racist views, and the effects of economic austerity.

Cities have long been flashpoints for war, racial and religious strife, and conflict between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. But major cities’ capacity to handle internal conflict is suffering in the face of the growth of new types of conflict, notably asymmetric war and urban violence.

Current trends of rising economic inequality, the refugee crisis, and conflict cannot be fully understood in the usual terms of poverty and injustice, but rather through processes of socio-economic and environmental dislocations that displace people and communities across the globe. This process of “expulsion” – of people from their districts and communities through gentrification, or from professional work through de-industrialisation – creates islands of privilege and deprivation, unsettling the social fabric of a city.

For example, the development of vast and visible “luxury zones” in the heart of cities leads to the exclusion of people and families who may have lived there for generations. Such luxury zones may create monoliths or forms of de-urbanisation at the cost of affordable inner-city social housing.

At the same time, densely inhabited city spaces overwhelmed by inequality and injustice can become the breeding grounds for a variety of secondary types of conflicts, from the rise of drug-related crime and violence that Manchester has witnessed, or even the incubation of terrorist sympathies.

Manchester, like many cities, must forge a future with its communities that will fight off terrorist threats. Government strategies aimed at combating extremism, such as Prevent, have proven ineffective and created more unease and suspicion – even, it has been suggested, leading to more extremism. Cities have long had the capacity to bring together people of different classes, ethnicities and religions through commerce, politics, and civic practices. Contemporary conflicts unsettle and weaken this cultural strength – something Manchester must unite to overcome.