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Construction or Destruction? Manchester Renaissance Through a Photographer’s Lens

Not Quite Light Manchester
Not Quite Light Manchester by Simon Buckley
Simon Buckley, a Manchester-based photographer, is examining the transition of Manchester’s economic, industrial and spiritual heritage through his creative project Not Quite Light as the city builds for the future.

Simon Buckley, a Manchester-based photographer, is examining Manchester’s renaissance: the transition of the city’s economic, industrial and spiritual heritage as Manchester builds for a strong future.

In the beginning of April, while as usual looking through my twitter feed for inspirational stories and people, I came across several tweets mentioning Manchester Renaissance. With my curiosity being woken up by the question of the effect Manchester’s regeneration had had on local artists, I started to follow the short series of tweets from an informal discussion panel held by creative artists in Manchester.

That’s how my acquaintance with Not Quite Light Manchester and its founder Simon Buckley began.

Manchester Now and Then

As with many British cities and towns, Manchester the unofficial capital of the Northern Powerhouse is living through an exciting time of change and reinvention.

By focusing on economic revival and growth the city is managing to attract much-needed investments that enable it to continue reshaping itself, creating a new Manchester: successful, modern, vibrant and dynamic.

It is the UK’s beta city and is pushing for the second largest tech cluster. It wants to attract and retain the young and talented. It is working hard at creating its own urban identity and taking its due place in the country’s economic and cultural landscape.

It is also a city steeped in its history and industrial past that makes a stark contrast with the modern and high-tech visionary Manchester that is developing today.

Manchester’s notorious19th-century Victorian slum with the sweet and pastoral name Angel Meadow was called once ‘Hell on Earth’ by F. Engels. It was home to more than 20,000 people who lived in awful conditions, big families often felt lucky to share 10sq meter room and an outside privy built for 100 people. They also had to pay an extortionate rent for it. The poverty and unthinkable social deprivation brought crime, disease, and violence in the true spirit of Dickensian novels.

Angel Meadow in 1899 and an Artist Impression of a Proposed Redevelopment in Angel Meadow 2015
Angel Meadow in 1899 and an Artist Impression of a Proposed Redevelopment in Angel Meadow 2015

Nowadays there are few visible traces of the past hardship: the rows of terraced houses are buried under the surface of the carparks dotted amongst modernistic office buildings. The ‘Grim Ancoats’ itself – an industrial suburb that used to house Angel Meadow – is now a trendy residential area reshaped and reinvented by talented architects and property developers.

Redevelopment Boom, Not Quite Light by Simon Buckley
Redevelopment Boom, Not Quite Light by Simon Buckley

Great or gruesome, Manchester’s history is what shaped the city, and as such cannot be cast away under the pressure of modernising and rebuilding.

Simon Buckley’s concern is that often developers who come to transform a place have so little connection and understanding of it that their project ends up looking out of place and unfit for the city’s spirit and character.

 Is Regeneration Disconnecting Manchester?

Simon also raises a question of a spot-based approach to the city’s regeneration. He wrote in his blog: “It appears that the council’s policy is to establish the city centre as the focal point for growth, hoping that the new prosperity seeps northwards like ink on blotting paper. However, as the city undergoes its transition, it often feels to me as if Swan Street and Great Ancoats Street act as a tarmac moat, and that very little wealth has managed to make it across to the north side.”

The View of the Northern Quarter from Aspin Lane by Simon Buckley
The View of the Northern Quarter from Aspin Lane by Simon Buckley

Simon lives in the Northern Quarter – Manchester’s arty spot, a funky and bohemian area full of bars, shops and refurbished properties rubbing shoulders with industrial buildings awaiting redevelopment.

While the Northern Quarter is going through the revival phase, those living in Collyhurst, or Moston and Cheetham Hill see very little change in their own environments. It feels as if the city centre is a bubble. All the flats being built in the city centre are for a very specific demographic, and it feels that the decisions are based more on satisfying investors than providing Manchester, as a whole, with what it needs. In Simon’s opinion, the single biggest issue is that the economics of seeing property as an opportunity to make money for shareholders is crushing the needs of the citizens who want safe, affordable housing in stable communities. The current thinking appears narrow and self-serving.

Simon is convinced that the city needs investments in its suburbs. Then that would feed into the city centre. “It seems entirely the wrong way round to me. The trickle down, or trickle out effect, does not work economically. It’s not how rich, powerful people think. The money made in the centre won’t trickle out into north Manchester, it will leave Britain for offshore funds”.

Simon is passionate about his city and its history. As a creative person, he has found his own way to have a say in Manchester Renaissance – through his camera lens.

His project Not Quite Light captures, in the half-light of dawn, the evolving northern edge of Manchester City centre. The images of half-lit buildings and streets are phenomenal – in them the city is telling a different story than in the daylight.

There are just about 35 minutes of ‘not quite light’ time for Simon to work each morning – a short precious period between dawn and sunrise when the sky is light but the sun is still below the horizon.

Manchester Not Quite Light by Simon Buckley
Manchester Not Quite Light by Simon Buckley

There is a certain magic of desolation in the Not Quite Light images: buildings stand unrecognisable in the twilight and occasional people are hurrying along without a look or a word. Everything and everyone focused inwardly and in deep conversation with themselves.

I have asked Simon Buckley how such an extraordinary project has come to be, and what was the inspiration behind it.

Here is his own story of Not Quite Light, the story as remarkable as his images of the city.

NOT QUITE LIGHT by Simon Buckley

In January 2015 I was out with my flatmate as he walked his dog through Angel Meadow, just north of the city centre in Manchester. Angel Meadow was once at the heart of industrial Manchester, and the slums that existed there inspired the work of Marx and Engels.

My friend and I talked of the 40,000 people that lay buried in the mass grave beneath the grassed turf, and I looked up towards the new, glowing CIS tower, the shape of a fat country squire’s belly that shone light onto the gravestones below, and simply wondered what our Mancunian ancestors would make of the city that we’d created today.

Not Quite Light by Simon Buckley
Not Quite Light by Simon Buckley

And this is when the idea for the project Not Quite Light formed in my mind. The rampant ambition of the city centre seemed to quickly dwindle as it reached the tarmac moat of Swan Street and Great Ancoats Street, and so much had been destroyed without any apparent plan as to what was to be put in its place.

I decided to photograph at dawn, using it as a metaphor for transition, and began to explore my changing city, examining themes of heritage and regeneration.

I set the boundaries from the Ancoats Dispensary on Old Mill Street to Strangeways Prison at the end of Empire Street. From retribution to restitution, and also a reference to Britain’s industrial and colonial past.

It was clear that heritage was as much a state of mind as it was about bricks and mortar, and it occurred to me as I photographed shifty modern apartment blocks next to solid Victorian brick, stood like when people attempt a selfie with a legend, that change is inevitable but progress isn’t. The rubbled, empty car parks hosted muddy puddles and street lamps drew the eye to strange clashes between the new and the old.

Not Quite Light by Simon Buckley
“The rubbled, empty car parks hosted muddy puddles…”

I’m not against change in a city. I believe that we do have to evolve and adapt and, if we didn’t seek to re-invent the space we use, then buildings from the Middle Ages would line the streets of Manchester. However, I also think that we need to think carefully about the city that we want and need. It may not be enough to simply seek huge investment, often from people who have little understanding of the city and its soul, to throw up buildings that may not be expected to last longer than a few decades at most.

I decided that the photographs could become a catalyst too, and recently I staged a Not Quite Light weekend, which featured live events, tours and debates. It can often feel as if we, the inhabitants, have very little say in the environment created around us. A city needs sustainable communities, green spaces, proper infrastructure to support long-term residence in any given area.


Not Quite Light by Simon Buckley
Not Quite Light by Simon Buckley, the Borders of Redevelopment

I hope that the Not Quite Light project is able to contribute to the discussion about the future of Manchester. Now that I’m bringing ‘From Old Mill To The End Of Empire’ to a close, although I will still revisit it from time to time, I’m now going to move to the area around the Irwell and the borders of Salford and Manchester. This work will be titled ‘From Trinity To The Crescent’ and will look at the regeneration now taking place as both cities swell with new financial hope and ambition.

The Future of Manchester

Manchester Northern Quarter by Simon Buckley
Manchester Northern Quarter by Simon Buckley

As a creative person, Simon is sensitive to the way architecture connects to the people and the city. There are projects he favours for the thoughtfulness and sense of purpose and there are …other projects.

What has been happening in the Ancoats around Cutting Room Square and Jersey Street is a vivid example of thoughtful regeneration. It still feels like Manchester and yet there is the acknowledgement that there is a new purpose for the buildings.

Other favourites are the Hive by 5 Plus Architects and Sadler’s Yard in NOMA.

“What Are We as Manchester?”

“Manchester is going through a huge transition. Heritage is more than just bricks and mortar, it’s a state of mind. I wanted to ask the question: what are we as Manchester? If you’re knocking something down, what are you going to put in its place? You’ve got to be careful you don’t demolish the soul of a city whilst you’re running rampant, hoping to make it better.”

Simon Buckley

This April Simon organised an exhibition and a series of events to explore the social history of the city through a range of talks, photography courses, walking tours and collaborations for the Not Quite Light weekend with a charity fundraising event DoNation in the heart of it. It also included an informal panel discussion – Manchester Renaissance.

I asked Simon a few questions about the Manchester Renaissance conversation:

How powerful, in your opinion, can creative people be when it comes to influencing the local authorities as to what way the city should develop?

One of the great mysteries of the human race is how it allows the powerful to become powerful, often unchallenged. People coming together have the potential to exert great influence. Art can be the checks and balances of current thinking. It is also something that can easily sum up ideas and inspire. It is essential in influencing change.

When you were discussing Manchester’s regeneration and its influence on creative people, what were the highlights of your conversation?

One of the interesting aspects to the conversation was how quickly it became about general issues of urban redevelopment, with regard to living space and sustainable communities. It was almost as if before art could be discussed we needed to establish a place to live.

Another point was made that many of the artists are now moving to Salford and that brings a big opportunity for that city to make a point of difference, that Salford can be the place that creates and Manchester can be the ‘front’ for that creativity.

There was also concerns raised about artists simply being parachuted into communities, box ticking grant funding opportunities, but not really energising people to make their own art. You can’t force people to make art, was the thinking, you have to create the conditions where it happens naturally.

Did you come to any conclusions, make any plans for the future?

The main conclusion was that there needed to be more opportunities for debate, and that there was a real need to challenge many of the decisions currently being taken by developers and city planners.

That what Manchester Renaissance panel discussion was about: using photography as a tool and means, Simon aimed to start a debate about Manchester regeneration and give creative people more say in how their city is shaping for the future.

“In 20 or 30 years, someone else will have an opinion on the city. I’d like to think I’m creating social history through my photographs, leaving clues for historians to see exactly how I feel the city is developing.”

Simon Buckley

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