Canal Street and its History - Article updated Dec 2010
I sit writing this in the civilised peace of a window seat at Taurus. Slightly above Canal Street, I can watch the world go by on this uniquely queer street. I can even cruise the prettier bits. Two years ago I wrote an article calling for planning guidelines to protect the character of Canal Street from the onslaught of post "Queer as Folk" hen parties, Brewery greed and hettie populism.
I pointed out that the street had become a jewel in the municipal crown, not through any cleverly conceived policy of the Councils, but rather because of good luck, the entrepreneurialism of gay business owners and the enthusiasm of lesbian gay and trans people. I worried that, without protective policies, this could just as easily disappear.
Following my article, things got even worse. The move towards being a Butlins style Saturday trash party for straight and mixed groups accelerated. Brewery power dominated where once independent businesses had set the tone. Bars found the management issues of choosing who they should serve became increasingly impossible. Even the long established and mighty Rembrandt filled its bars with cheap beer and opened its doors to even cheaper people.
At the same time there were rumours from the Town Hall of a new bus station on Bloom Street which would have demolished everything up to the back of our street. It would have destroyed much of the Village, to say nothing of our ability to hold Pride weekend here.
This was the planning nightmare which I had sought to prevent and would have made Canal Street an isolated row of cheap bars at the back of the bus station.
I didn't want to be right in my doomsday prophecies, but it seemed that I was. At least, that was the situation until about a year ago. But thankfully, since then the tide has turned. The recession has made the huge and costly new bus station seem like an unrealisable pipe dream. It is certainly on ice if not dead and buried. More importantly, is the revolution that has taken place amongst the gay entrepreneurs. The queer fight back has begun!
It started in The Parlour, a hairdressers that became the quirkiest of retro bars with the friendliest of staff. The last 6 months has seen a fast gathering tide of new, smaller independent bars that are properly queer. Eagle and its Black brother now attract the type of crowd that once drank and cruised in The Rem. The testosterone is interrupted only by an occasional blast of poppers and it is a great place to drink real ale and have a real conversation.
The Rem itself has done an amazing job of rebranding itself to create a new upstairs showbar. This is similar to the old Hollywood, but better. It sits above a new men only traditional and comfortable space on the street. They are working hard to make this gay mens space appropriate with a range of events which include Thursday's sportswear night and Sunday strippers.
The newest kid on the block is the Molly House above Company. This has a rural chic that you associate more with Cheshire than Canal Street but is a fab place to meet your friends and be yourself. Its rear balcony is the best smoking area in the street.
So, at last, as I reach the end of this article, I can have another drink at Taurus. I can have a snack and chat to the relaxed clientele, but, I no longer need to stay all night. I can leave my island and go for a cruise. It's just like the old days.
There are now enough smaller independent venues run by committed queer people determined to serve our needs. They are serving good food and drink and working hard to get to know their customers. We may have moved up to one end of the street and spread to the back alleys, but we have rebuilt a real village.
Well done to everyone who has risked their cash and spent their energy to make this happen. I really hope you all succeed.
And I am glad to have been wrong. We didn't need planning policy to protect our queer heritage. It is unstoppable. At the same time, however, we would be wise to recognise that it might be easier to protect our village if it had some clear place in the policies that govern city centre development. We have fought our way out this time, but it may not always be thus.
Manchester's current 'Gay Village' developed alongside the Rochdale Canal, which still runs through the city centre. The canal was opened in 1804 and was the 'M1' of its time. This was the first canal to run from the Pennines through Lancashire, bringing raw materials to the city and then finished products to the docks at Liverpool on to the farthest corners of the British Empire. When the cloth trade declined in the early and mid 20th century, the area went into decline and the old warehouses became silent, dank and derelict. The area along the canal was perfect for gay men to meet as it was dark and unvisited, but was near to good transport links such as Oxford Rd and Piccadilly Station. On the other hand, those who prefer a more comfortable means of travel can drive rental cars from perfectcarhire.com companies in Manchester.
The years before the Village in the 1980's were ones of repression, with relations with the local police at an all-time low. Even with the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967, only those over 21 and in private were legally allowed to express their emotions physically and many a young gay man exploring his sexuality along Canal Street like Nathan from 'Queer as Folk' was still prey for the authorities. Club raids were the norm, a particular example being that of the Mineshaft in the late 1980's when several innocent men were hauled off to the police cells. These days, things have changed enormously, with a Police Liaison Officer for the gay community and the local police being cheered as they proudly march in the Pride parade through the city streets every year.
In recent years Manchester has started to take great pride in its gay and lesbian heritage and in 2003, when the Europride festival visited the city, it was decided to initiate walking tours around Manchester's gay and lesbian history for the general public. These trails were so popular that extra 'trails' had to be laid on, and they were brought back again for the following year's Pride Festival. Nowadays, they are run on a year-round basis and in 2005, the walks were literally 'set in stone', as Rainbow Tiles were commissioned from a local artist and set into flagstones around the city centre, following the route of the trail, including sites around the Canal Street area. Manchester was the first city in the world to so commemorate its LGBT past in this way.
The gay community once feared that the Village would lose its identity after it became a fashionable place for the 'in-crowd' to go during the 1990's but this hasn't happened and these days everyone comes to the Village, be they young or old, gay or straight, local or tourist. This is surely as it should be. The gay community never wanted to socialise in a ghetto - it was the early homophobia of society in general that created this set-up. Today the modernGay Village is able to look back upon a proud history of queer culture and also forwards, toward a more diverse and tolerant future - one that it helped to inspire and create.
Jon Atkin, 2007.
Much of this information features in the 'Out in the Past' Manchester Pride Lesbian and Gay Heritage Trail. For more information on the Trail and the Manchester Pride festival in general, go to www.manchesterpride.com
FROM GRIME TO PRIME.
Canal Street as an accidental paradigm of New Urbanism.
PART ONE: WHERE WE ARE AND HOW WE GOT HERE.
Walking past The Rembrandt on a sunny Sunday and three older leather Queens are discussing the state of the Village. John is fed up because his Saturday night was wrecked by four different hen parties. These drunkenly interrupted his attempts to have some queer time with his mates away from the hurley burley of the supermarket where he has worked all week. Charlie thinks chickens (by which he means anyone under 30) should be banned from the village because they didn't fight in the good old days to make it happen. Now he feels that they take its freedoms for granted without crediting him for it. Peter couldn't get a table to eat dinner on the Street but is pleased that it is busy, particularly because this means that there are enough people around for the Bears weekend to be a success. Darren turns up to flirt with John; he is a student from rural Wales who left Aberystwyth University because he was attracted to Manchester Uni by the Village. He spends most of his leisure time here and says he would still be stuck in the closet if he had stayed in Wales.
This stereotypical gaggle reminds us of many of the features of the Village. I hope it represents some of the strengths of the place and also the challenges facing us. I believe that, if we are to preserve the strengths of our Village, we must root its future firmly in an understanding of its past and in the social, spatial and economic realities facing it today.
Although it is a packed economic miracle Canal Street was an accidental birth. The Village arose out of a few venues, The New Union, Napoleons and the Rembrandt which sprung up in an area of the City Centre which had been forgotten as industry moved out of its warehouses and Mills. It had become a grimy back street haven for the then illegal sexual activity of gay or bi men and prostitutes. Such pubs and streets existed in all large Cities but, after partial decriminalisation in 1968 the Manchester scene grew into the village for several important reasons.
First of all, there was, as Charlie remembers, the courage of campaigners here who formed the North West Committee for Homosexual Law Reform (which later became The Campaign for Homosexual Equality....C.H.E.) Manchester politicised Gay rights in a way that other Cities failed to do and by the eighties when Thatcher's homophobia was being lapped up by a willing nation, there were already openly gay Councillors and a Council with an understanding of the importance of Equality to all minority groups. We all owe, I believe, a huge debt of gratitude to those early campaigners. They regularly suffered attacks in the street the press or the workplace. They persevered and have created the Labour political tradition which has given us Civil Partnerships, rights to equality as workers or consumers and openly gay Cabinet Members.
Charlie may have been one of the early activists but, in reality, they were a tiny handful of the thousands of men who used the venues, cottages or cruising grounds in the 60's and 70's. It is important to remember, before we attack modern partygoers for ignoring the politics of our new found liberation, that it was ever thus. Most people enjoy what is there without fighting to extend it: this was certainly the situation as the backstreet became the Village.
The other big difference between Manchester and other places can be said to be Manto. This bar was opened in the early nineties by Carol Anscow and Peter Dalton. Previous bars had been closeted behind covered windows and had perpetuated a male dominated scene which was secretive and often deliberately sleazy. Manto not only dispensed with the secluded doorways and doormen behind sliding peepholes but it ripped the whole front off the traditional gay bar and replaced it with a plate glass window (and later, balconies and pavement tables). One should not underestimate the effect of this architectural revolution on the social scene in The Village. This was gay and Lesbian life that was more stylish than heterosexual venues, it was then aggressively modern yet unmistakably queer. Of course, If you wanted to remain in the closet you wouldn`t drink in front of a plate glass window. As more of us chose to do so the myth of the deviant few had to collapse in the face of the now obvious facts.
The City's politically savvy gay leaders have also made the most of some of the challenges that we have faced over the past decades. The AIDS crisis gave rise to a number of organisations from which has emerged the hugely influential LGF (Lesbian and Gay Foundation). The Thatcherite attack on our communities culminated on the highly symbolic Clause 28 (of The Local Government Act of 1987) which forbade Local Councils from "promoting homosexuality" or describing "pretend family relationships" as equivalent to straight ones. This attack was met by an equally effective response from the now organised Mancunian community which included the huge demonstration against The Act here in 1988. These activities have also given rise to Pride as we celebrate it now, the Queer Up North Arts Festival and many other events and organisations. Out of the adversity of the attacks, the Manchester community brought strength. Local events were similar to those which occurred in London, Brighton or other large Cities, but ours were more co-ordinated and unified. This must surely be as a result of the political leadership (both inside and outside formal political structures) and the unifying influence of having so many of our venues in one Village.
It was by now about 20 years since the process of de-criminalising gay sex had begun and so many men who would in a previous generation have met furtively in cottages or cruising grounds were starting to come to The Village looking for sex. Once there they were able to socialise more normally in the gay pubs and this undoubtedly stimulated the market for these.
Following the success of Manto, Cruz 101 and Paradise Factory became a recognised part of the burgeoning Club Scene in The City. The big Breweries, seeing the huge market that was being created around the Street started to develop their own pubs and clubs. These, (like The Slug and Lettuce) were unsuccessful unless they were leased to independent managers who could make them distinctively queer. However, the huge investment that is generally associated with the big Breweries has given us Bars like Via Fossa or the extended New Union. Alongside these is the noteworthy investment of Take that manager Nigel Martin-Smith in Essential and Queer as well as the smaller scale but highly influential investment of local queer people in venues like Taurus, Vanilla, Thompson's or Hollywood. And the investment has not only been in bars or Clubs, starting with directly queer related businesses like Clone Zone or H2O we now have Village Taxis, barbers and Docs.
The development of The Village might have continued quite evenly, prodded by national factors like the growth of entertainment and leisure as an industry and shaped by local entrepreneurialism and community spirit. However in 1996 all this changed when Queer As Folk brought Babylon to Cruz and rimming to the nations living rooms. Just as the glass front at Mantos had started to drag us out of hiding so 'Queer as Folk' put us into the lime light. This (irritatingly accurate) portrayal of the gay scene in our Village accelerated a process where it was cool to be gay and everyone was metrosexual. As that "nice Mr Blair" swept into Downing Street half his cabinet seemed to be gay and half the country wanted to visit Canal Street.
Once here Sharon discovered what a nice place it was to come with the girls because she wasn`t hassled by Lads. Lads of course quickly followed in the hope of hassling Sharon without the competition of a straight club. The queer atmosphere, which had attracted these heterosexual party goers, was quickly under threat from the sheer weight of their numbers. Venues have struggled ever since to create door policies which ensure them a living without over diluting their queer ambience.
So thirty years after it started to emerge from the twilight we have a Village which is both a sort of accidental Paradise and also a bubble waiting to burst. The three sets of challenge which are inherent in the discussion with which I started are there for all to see. None are insurmountable, but, in my opinion all need identifying and managing if the bubble is not to burst.
There are social challenges. Perhaps the most obvious being the tension between the queer and the straight users. The importance of defining our sexuality is often seen differently according to age. We are challenged therefore by the tensions between people of differing ages who play in the same village. Without thought, this will only increase as our communities age. The acceptance of LGBT activity and people has brought millions out of the closet. The market for the village is therefore vastly greater than it was even a decade ago. More of these users are older than ever before as we all live longer.
There is a tension about the acceptability (or otherwise) of sexual expression in this newly metrosexual village. There are tensions between the many lifestyle choices which go to make up a Queer community. There are tensions about gender and the differing needs or wants of men and women. Like everywhere in society, there are tensions about race and religion. It is good to see groups setting up to support queers from minority ethnic groups.
The Village also faces economic challenges. With The City Centre becoming ever more successful, property in the Village is often not affordable for the type of independent business that has been seen to be essential to the development of the Village ambience. The economy of the Village with a few notable exceptions like Taurus at lunchtime is largely an evening and weekend phenomena. It is based on Pubs, Clubs and residential. We have so far failed to respond to the economic necessity of using this precious asset for more hours in the week. Similar streets in other Cities (Paris for instance) have the most stylish independent shops which have a distinctly pink feel to their merchandise. These make street frontages places which trade all day bringing footfall to bars and thus making the properties required by the night time economy sustainable despite city centre rents. Other places like The Yumbo Centre in Gran Canarias cater for a quite different daytime market but still use their property to its limit.
There are spatial and design challenges. When the Village was less used, there was plenty of space. This is fast running out and walking the street on a Saturday night can be a jostle too far. Although called Canal Street, the Village makes almost no use of this important asset. Sit in the barge at Eden and see how beautiful the street would be if it could relate more closely to proper views of the canal at more points. Most importantly, the Village relies on several pieces of open land which actually are development sites are waiting to be built on when economic conditions are right. The recent debate about the West Property site opposite The New Union demonstrates how unprepared we are for the inevitable when it finally happens. Of course, this bomb site car park was bound to be developed sometime, but it still felt like a bolt from the blue when the traditional site for the Pride outdoor market was turned into the western world's biggest hole. Now if you think that this first development has made a hole in our Village consider what will happen when the Bloom Street Car park, the Chorlton Street Coach Station and car Park the area opposite Essential and sundry bits of back land around Richmond Street and the top of Canal Street are also brought forward for development into offices or apartments. With the exception of Sackville Park and Canal Street itself, there is no open space in The Village that is protected for public use. Developments on the vacant plots are inevitable and, in my view, desirable as they bring homes, jobs and retail or leisure opportunities for us all. However, without proper management, our accidental Paradise could fragment and disappear as quickly as it arose. Without planning, the open spaces needed to hold a weekend open air Pride event will disappear. If all the existing sites were developed for uses that did not compliment the Village (say student housing or an entertainment complex) then the essentially queer atmosphere of the place could be lost. Keeping valuable inner city land as car parks is not an option and planning uses which will exploit its value whilst strengthening The Village are perfectly possible. However, without careful thought and new policy this may not happen.
So far the Authorities in The City have encouraged the development of The Village by providing enabling works, like the re-paving or the tree lights and have supported events like Pride but they have wisely left the rest to the Queer community to get on with. With the exception of The GMP's god driven homophobic harassment in the 80's we have received little but support as the miracle has happened. This is both welcome and has clearly been successful. I believe however, that the easily identifiable social, spatial and economic challenges outlined above require intervention from a central Authority if they are not to destroy the Village. Such intervention is the role of a Planning Authority and could easily be made by way of a master plan which would describe the type of developments which would enable rather than disable the further growth of the Village. Without any planning framework the precious and unique Village that we currently enjoy cannot be protected from applications for inappropriate or destructive developments because there would be no planning grounds to use against them.
PART TWO: PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE.
I will now pose some of the questions which I think such a master plan must address. Thinking about these policy areas in advance will protect The Village so that we can all to enjoy it in our own different ways and so that it will continue to add value to the economy and image of The City.
1. WHAT IS THE MARKET?
The market for The Village is complex and many layered. Whilst its success is based on it having an essentially non conforming character, it is a niche market that has achieved mainstream status, as described above, in recent years. Its value is partly dependent on the many layers of its products.
It caters for many mixed groups but specific products need to appeal to the different tastes of:
- Men and Women.
- Older and younger.
- Different food or drink tastes.
- Different sizes and styles of drinking venue.
- Different musical tastes.
- Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people.
- Different sexual interests.
A masterplan should not be frightened to examine the precise nature of each of these segments. It must take a view about the quantity of provision required for each type whilst accepting the fluidity of the market.
2. PREDICTABLE CHANGES TO MARKET?
The plan must research and define the likely trends in the immediate or mid-term future and decide how to accommodate these. So far, the market has continued to grow, will this growth continue? Will the effect of an ageing population and anti bullying policies in schools lead to increasing polarisation? Is there a new Queer as Folk on the horizon?!
3. INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES
Who are the available investors public, private or third sectors? What are their realistically available funds? What is their appetite for risk? What are their investment interests and parameters? There is no point in marketing investment opportunities to those with no appetite. However, with the right intelligence, everything from a major gay hotel, to a Gay Trades Union Centre or a permanent home for Queer Up North could be possible.
4. OPPORTUNITIES AND CONSTRAINTS OF THE LANDSCAPE.
The canal gives the Street its name and has the potential to give it much character. It does not do so at present. The differential in levels on the land surrounding the two sides of the canal gives scope for easier exploitation of the canal if the Village develops more on its southern bank. A new canal walkway (perhaps partly decked and suspended), new foot bridges and a new basin are all the kind of initiatives which have demonstrated an ability to add value and pay for themselves elsewhere.
There is a good mix of the very open Canal Street and cozy back streets as well as opportunities to create new public open spaces of various shapes and sizes. These should be designated for different use types so that synergy can be created to add value to the existing structures. If planned properly the big venues which are likely to attract Hen Parties and other intrusive groups could be clustered in wider brighter areas where they are likely to be less disruptive whilst a more laid back or discreet atmosphere could be created by the smaller back ways.
The area must rely on pedestrians and so active frontages are a vital ingredient. Policy must insist on this as existing (and dead) streetscapes such as the Chorlton St car park are re-developed and permissions on the front require access etc to the smaller back alleys.
Vehicular traffic must be managed so that the village is a pedestrian area.
Sackville Park is a great green lung for the Village, but more must be done to link it to the canal and The Street and perhaps to contain it at its Whitworth Street end (Which may provide an opportunity for a "Number one Picadilly Gardens" type of building and a land swap for another piece of open space elsewhere in the Village).
The atmosphere of The Village is conducive to experimental and avant-garde architecture. As it grows, a masterplan could encourage the use of young cutting edge architects. Developers could be attracted to the extra cost or risk of exciting design by the knowledge that their project would be part of a recognisable and desirable area.
5. LAND OWNERSHIP
A masterplan must be based on a thorough knowledge of the land ownerships locally, the owner's plans or aspirations and the value of their holdings. Site assembly and encouragement to develop might be included in the masterplans thinking and the public sector may have to work with partners to achieve shifts in ownership to enthusiastic investors or the public sector.
6. EXTERNAL PRESSURES
The Village does not exist in a vacuum. Both opportunities and threats present themselves from outside. These will include the competition from other venues, Cities or types of entertainment. It will include the economic situation, fashion, and demographics. In all cases the competition or opportunities will be both local to Manchester and the North West, or National or European and global. The Village as a Brand is now facing competition from traditional Gay Scenes like Brighton, Old Compton Street or Amsterdam but also from the newer ones in Leeds, Newcastle or Dublin.
7. PUBLIC SECTOR POLICY.
A masterplan must ensure that all of public policy supports the growth of a Village. Planning Policy, as described above, is essential to this but it will not succeed alone. In addition public Authorities must include the growth of The Village in their plans for matters including: Arts, community Safety, health, Housing, Transport, Retail, Employment creation and job training.
Economic inputs may also be required to gap fund new businesses in their early years or to promote high quality public realm and infrastructure. These must all be provided for in a masterplan.
The masterplan must lay out ways in which The Village can grow. It must promote awareness of the risks to its development. It must be a document which is the product of genuine partnership thinking by Government and Local Government members and officers as well as other Public and Third Sector employees, local businesses and community organisations and members of the public who use the Village. Ownership of this document if it is to be a real beacon, must not be negotiated, but felt.
The plan must envisage ways in which the following ingredients of a successful village can cohabit:
- Residential opportunities which are affordable.
- Retail provision for every day needs and the life of a sophisticated Pink Village.
- Restaurants, Bars, Clubs.
- Other types of entertainment.
- Office and other employment space.
- Effective transport links.
- Appropriate healthcare for residents and users.
- Appropriate educational opportunities for residents, users and community leaders.
Built in community safety features.
A distinctive and globally recognisable brand is created.
Copyright Mike Wolfe, Mike Wolfe Associates August 2008.
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