Parts of the following article sound a bit dated (97/98 time) now but I thought it might serve as a semi-useful introduction until I find something more suitable!
The Northern Quarter
The NQ is a unique area of the City Centre, and an unrealised asset for Manchester. It is contradictory and paradoxical: Oldham Street, the central thoroughfare, has boarded up pubs, sex shops and choking traffic fumes alongside designer bars and cafes, nationally recognised record shops, fashion outlets, and 'regenerated' office space. Shabby, with stylish next door.
The NQ is one of those areas lying between the City Centre and the 'inner city' residential belt that characterises many British cities. It was the central trading area in Victorian Manchester, home to the City's Smithfields food markets - bustling activity from dawn 'till dusk, a 24 Hour economy. In post war years it was Manchester's main shopping district, Oldham Street its central attraction. The retail revolution of the 60s and 70s suddenly left it marginalised. Land and property values plummeted and the retail sector went into decline. But this marginalisation has also allowed new sorts of business operations into the area, just as it has allowed activities mostly banished from city centres to persist.
It is a still a mixed-use area of the sort that has disappeared in many cities and is now sought anew by the current wave of urban regeneration: Fashion designers and market traders; curry houses and architects; council houses and craft centre; designer hairstylists and barrowboys; World-Wide-Web weaving microbusinesess and sewing machine shops; recording studios, renowned music venues, record labels and pram shops, pet shops, wool shops; a Methodist Hall and a Buddhist Centre; Dickensian pubs and ambient chill-outs.
City Fringe: Zone of Innovation
The NQ is a 'transitional zone', a city fringe. Its marginal status is its weakness and its strength. All big cities have these zones, sandwiched between the city centre and the outer districts: Camden, Hackney and Whitechapel; Belleville in Paris; SoHo and the Lower East Side, NewYork's emergent 'silcon alley'; Gracia in Barcelona; Keuzeberg and Oranienburger in Berlin; Naviglio in Milan.
These areas not only provide a refuge for smaller, marginal businesses, they act as incubators of new economic activity. Cheap rents, short contracts, lots of sub-letting are accompanied by dense networks that allow both old and new businesses to survive and grow. Many of these new businesses fail. The ones that succeed and grow will quite possibly move out to other areas of the city. They are generators not showcases.
City Fringes are crucial to the economy of the city. They are areas of seedbed industries - and of a special sort. They tend to be innovative and thrive on the localised accumulation of knowledge, skills and ideas that are transmitted by dense networks. Economists have called this clustering. In the 80s science parks and industrial districts were seen to reap the benefits of this cluster effect. In the 90s one of the major economic advantages of cities will be to provide for and build on this clustering, adding to the new the dense accumulation of older existing networks.
One of the main strategies for NQ regeneration is as Manchester's 'creative quarter'. It is not a 'cultural quarter' in the commonly understood sense of an area of mainly subsidised cultural provision; it refers to its function as a zone of innovation, experimentation and risk-taking.
This is not just about immediate job creation, nor about the regeneration of a particular area (though it involves both); it is about the strategic role of the Regional Centre as a whole. If Manchester is to move forwards into the next century, as a city that works and not just limps along, then it needs to adapt and innovate. No one thing will provide for this, but as with education, we all know that without information, communication and knowledge this will not happen. The cultural industries exist at the heart of these and play a crucial role in the adaption to change and the pursuit of innovation to which Manchester strives.
The NQ can be Manchester's cultural industries quarter, focusing and extending its support for new creative businesses; its urban training quarter, building links between new businesses, the big cultural production houses and the huge Higher and Further Education resources that this Regional Centre possesses; its intelligent quarter, establishing Manchester at the forefront of the Information and Communications revolution; its creative quarter, linking this creative and innovative sector to the development of the wider city economy.
The focus is on economic regeneration, capitalising on the increased importance of the cultural industries as a growth sector - but the creative quarter incorporates the new models of urban regeneration which value quality of life and urban milieu as a creative, supportive environment. The NQ certainly has its share of heritage; its Georgian cottages, its looming 19th century warehouses, hidden traces of popular culture in its pet shops, pubs, even cinemas and roller rinks. With its adjacent districts the NQ already has three Conservation Areas and a range of listed buildings. But this heritage is to be linked to the future.
City centre living, the 24 Hour City, the 'European City' - these are all different ways of creating and sustaining a new metropolitan lifestyle, a new way of living in the city. If the Centre is not to be destroyed by the out-of-town retail and leisure complexes it must begin to create new forms of attraction and civic pride, suited to the 21st century.
The NQ is a city fringe, a metropolitan zone as vital to the success of the city as the great showcases of the centre. Only a few cities in Britain outside London can sustain such areas; all vibrant cities have them. Here the city is fertile ground sprouting seed bed industries; here networking and clustering takes place, small and microbusinesses creating synergy; here is urban living, thriving on that sense on cultural animation, expression and experimentation not found in other city spaces; here are urban art and urban pleasures which vividly express that dynamic urban culture which is the true mark of a cosmopolitan, creative city.