Tag Archives: history

‘Skeletons in the closet’: Forgetting the past in an urban present

by Kostas Arvanitis, Museology, School of Arts, Histories and Cultures

The past is closer to us than we sometimes think, says Susan Pearce (1990) and this cannot be truer than in Greek cities. A number of them, built layer upon layer on medieval, hellenistic, classical or prehistoric settlements have ‘deep roots’ in the land they occupy. These ‘roots’ are often visible in the material traces of past environments, such as archaeological monuments, sites or remains, that still stand or lie around the city.

In recent years, archaeological and museological research and practice in Greece has been concerned with the display in situ of such antiquities. However, this is often limited mainly to high profile sites, such as the antiquities excavated in the construction of the Athens Metro (images 1 and 2), or in the foundations of the new Acropolis Museum (images 3 and 4). Their preservation and display have been seen as the contemporary city ‘paying respect’ to the ancient city; a statement that today’s urban development won’t scrape away the material evidence of a shared history and identity. The state, through its strict legislation and powerful Archaeological Service turns the in situ antiquities to permanent reminders of a cultural and national past. In turn these ‘celebrity’ antiquities located in their busy and visible public spaces become the signposts of public memory.

Image 1: Displays of antiquities in Athens Metro

Image 2: In situ preservation and display of antiquities in Athens Metro (flickr: artandmale)

Image 3: Acropolis Museum, Athens

Image 4: Archaeological remains at the Acropolis Museum, Athens

 

However, in my research I have been focusing on archaeological sites or remains that exist ‘out of sight’, beneath modern developments (usually blocks of flats) in Greek cities. Those archaeological remains are found during construction processes and due to their archaeological significance they are preserved in situ, usually in basements of buildings. The local Archaeological Departments of the Ministry of Culture are responsible for safeguarding, preserving and monitoring the remains, the majority of which are not accessible to the public. In fact, the ‘public’ (locals, visitors or tourists) may be unaware of the remains’ existence. Locked away in basements (image 5), hidden behind walls or underground (image 6), or blending in everyday environments (images 7 and 8), these antiquities become almost ‘invisible’. They are also invisible inasmuch they are not published in e.g. guidebooks, museum exhibitions, etc.

Image 5: Roman remains in a basement (Veroia, Greece)

Image 6: Tomb under a street (Veroia, Greece)

 

Image 7: Roman remains in a furniture shop (Veroia, Greece)

Image 8: Roman remains in a furniture shop (Veroia, Greece)

This notion of the remains’ ‘invisibility’ links to issues, processes and practices of urban, public and national memory and identity construction and professional ethics in archaeological and heritage management. However, this process of making the remains invisible does not function like e.g. the public veiling of the Reichstag (image 9), whereby the veiling functioned ‘as a strategy to make visible, to unveil, to reveal what was hidden when it was visible’ (Huyssen, 2003: 37). It does not form a space for reflection, contemplation and public memory; quite the opposite. The act of covering, hiding or ‘locking away’ the archaeological remains represents an act of separating them from their metonymic relationship with a heritage past and so actively excludes them from the city’s and nation’s ‘social and cultural memory bank’. Ultimately it is an act of selectively forgetting (about them), even before they become memory.  If memory is a mode of representation (Huyssen 2003), then the hidden away archaeological remains are excluded both from memory and their effect on the self-representation of residents and professionals alike.

Image 9: Christo, Wrapping of the Reichstag (Image from http://itsourplayground.com/29/memory_difice)

But one can of course challenge to what extent remains of a Roman or Byzantine street or building can find a place in people’s processes of constructing their identity or ‘forging’ their memory. Although the 19th century discourse of the monument as ruin (Huyssen, 2003) has inspired and ruled (still does) archaeological heritage management and public perception of archaeology in Greece, yet it does not always define people’s interactions with archaeological monuments or ruins. One can argue that an ‘antiquities fatique’ has built up the last 50 years or so in Greece, during which an intense property development in cities met with the professionalisation and state centralisation of archaeological practice.  The meeting wasn’t a happy one (still isn’t). The proliferation of ruins and remains in building constructions has led to local people’s over-familiarisation with the symbolic past, yet an estrangement from its material counterpart. This estrangement has become greater as residents have constantly been excluded from any involvement in the uncovering and managing those remains. As Laurajane Smith stresses, ‘embedded within this discourse is the idea that the proper care of heritage, and its associated values, lies with the experts, as it is only they who have the abilities, knowledge and understanding to identify the innate value and knowledge  contained at and within historically important sites and places’ (2006: 30). In practice, this exclusion has led to a lack of (symbolic) ownership and the remains are seen as ‘intruders’ not only to people’s lives, but also people’s cultural identities.

These archaeological remains are in a liminal state: between public and private; cultural heritage and cultural rubbish; visibility and invisibility; selective accessibility and general inaccessibility; knowledge and ignorance; acknowledgment and forgetting. They have become a fetus of an unborn public memory, disregarded traces of a city’s heritage identity and cultural imagination and self-perceived guilt of an aspiring professional archaeological practice. They are ‘skeletons in the closet’; prisoners in an in-betweeen space and state that yet expose the characteristics, perceptions and boundaries of archaeological heritage management and people’s relationship with the city’s built heritage.

***

Related Project: ‘Curators in Residence’: Hidden archaeological sites and ‘virtual curating’

This research aims to engage residents in Veroia, Greece with the interpretation and presentation of antiquities preserved under modern buildings via the use of digital media. Through the active involvement of residents and the application of digital technologies, the project aims to develop a network of volunteer ‘virtual curators’ that would contribute towards a collaborative, localised and personalised presentation of the ‘hidden’ archaeological sites. The project aims also to explore whether through participation in the presentation of built heritage, residents develop a sense of ownership and stewardship of the antiquities and how their process of ‘heritage memory’ is enhanced, disrupted or challenged through that process.

References

Huyssen, A. 2003. Present Pasts. Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Pearce, S.M. 1990. Archaeological Curatorship. London: Leicester University Press.

Smith, L. 2006. Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

 

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Contemporary Cities and Infrastructural Imaginaries

by Martin Dodge, Geography, School of Environment and Development.

On way to academically approach the city is to interrogate the infrastructures that keep its inhabitants moving, working and communicating. Engaging extensively with the materiality and technicality of infrastructure subsurfaces of the city is still relatively uncommon in the social sciences (1). It is also somewhat unusual to focus attention on infrastructure that never came to be and technical systems that remained on the paper plans.

Infrastructure typically exudes physical permanence, at least to superficial visual inspection, and on the engineering overview plans and construction schematics, it can appear so believably real. Moreover, the functioning of technical space and built structures as infrastructure for the city often equates to cultural permanence, which is generated by a widespread lack of technological comprehension [or even awareness] in the general public. The very essence of infrastructure is that it can be seen as invisible and ignored in the conduct of our everyday tasks. In established industrialised cities, like Manchester, the ‘basic’ utilities of water, power and communications are seemingly present everywhere, always ‘on’ and working, which appropriates an imaginary of infrastructural permanence and stability. In contrast to this image of permanence and stability, systems of infrastructure are in reality delicately balanced, prone to failure, highlighting the vulnerability of urban processes that depend upon them. As such, one of the defining aspects of utilities and structures, which achieve the cultural status of infrastructure, is that they become ‘visible upon breakdown’. (2)

Over the last couple of years I have conducted research that has sought to uncover the histories and technical extents of several infrastructure systems in Manchester and the impact these have had on the shape of the contemporary city(3). A particular focus has been on the water supply and hydraulic infrastructure (4). More recently, and in partnership with Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) we spent several months delving into the engineering details and concrete materialities of a number of iconic projects and several unrealised infrastructural dreams within post-war Manchester. The immediate goal for the research was build up narrative understanding and a visual record of the four key modes of communication – road infrastructure, railway transportation, passenger aviation and telecommunications –  and to display the results publicly to reach non-academic communities who want to learn more about their city. The results have been assembled as Infra_MANC a new exhibition exposing infrastructural imaginaries of Manchester and it is due to open next week in the CUBE Gallery / RIBA Hub. The exhibition sets outs to analyse the conception, planning, construction and promotion of four infrastructural projects: the Mancunian Way, the never realised Picc-Vic railway tunnel, the Guardian underground telephone exchange and fanciful dreams of a city centre heliport.

The conception of the Infra_MANC exhibition

Two of these infrastructural imaginaries become real being built largely as planned and at considerable financial cost, but proved to be rather ineffectual by completion.  The other two projects were to remain unrealised dreams of city planners, to be forever infrastructural imaginaries lying inert on paper plans, drawings and maps. All four were imagined as large scale pieces of infrastructure, that were envisioned create new spaces for communication, with two being buried underground and two being up in the air to facilitate movement above the congested city. They partially overlap and intersect across and through the central area of Manchester. One has now become something of an infrastructural icon for the city [the Mancunian Way (5)], another is a source of intrigue for some [the underground telecommunications ‘bunker’ codenamed Guardian], and the two unrealised infrastructures are significant in that they offer scope retro-futurist urbanism, imagining how the city would be different had they been built.

Overview map. The four infrastructures being interpreted in the Infra_MANC exhibition are displayed on a 1950s era street map of Manchester city centre. [Source: Map compilation created by Graham Bowden, Cartography Unit, University of Manchester]

We have chosen to approach the materiality and imagined forms of these four infrastructures by analysing them primarily through visual artefacts of engineers and original mapping of the planners, much of which is never normally published or even meant to be exposed to the public. Undertaking primary research in archives, seeking recollections of those involved and borrowing key items held in private collections, processing some new photographic images, we have striven to present the distinctive aesthetic of a Modern city as viewed through the professional eyes of the engineer, the technically-applied architects and the transport planner. Many of the drawings we have chosen for the exhibition are highly technical – apparently de-humanised and seemingly a-political – showing only what was to be manufactured, concreted, wielded together and hammered into the ground. Whilst harsh as first sight, infrastructure can often have sculptural qualities to its insertion in the landscape, while the angular forms, materials and architectural styling speaks of the age in which they are conceived (6). Infrastructural plans, sectional diagrams and drawings depict fluidly shaped lines of pipe routing, sinuous steel reinforcing and muscular concrete supports, along with arrays of cryptic acronyms and hand-drawn annotations that truly invite scrutiny and thought from non-expert viewers. There are rewards that arise from the time one must take to decode the content of such engineering schematics and planners diagramming of space; we would argue it brings a new kind of infrastructural sublime to the fore. Of course, one might counter-argue that it is not sublime space one is seeing displayed, but merely infrastructure being laid bare to be easily objectified as a kind of pornographic exposure of the workings of the urban entrails. We leave it to the judgement of visitors to the Infra_MANC exhibition and readers of the accompanying catalogue to reach a verdict.

Our role as exhibition curators has focused on trying to find the right kind of plans, maps and schematics of infrastructure and we have spent many [happy] hours in libraries and online catalogues tracking down obscure technical reports, as well as wading through mundane committee minutes and correspondence between public officials and technocrats. Most importantly, we have been able exploit several valuable, locally-held, archives that have been little or never used before, including, firstly, the collections held by the Transport Museum Greater Manchester  relating to 1960s and 1970s activities of the city and regional transport authorities. While the museum is best know for its big buses, restored trams and other large metallic objects, it actually has accumulated a sizeable archive of textual materials, including important documents, printed ephemera, unpublished reports and working plans. This material has little or no cataloguing at the moment but has yielded some valuable artefacts for this exhibition. [We are most grateful to George Turnbull in facilitating access and guiding the research at the museum.] However, the most significant archival resource that has underpinned this exhibition project is the huge collection of plans of the Manchester City Engineers and Surveyors that were photographed onto microcards in the mid 1980s (7). Stored at the Greater Manchester Record Office the multiple filling cabinets contain tens of thousands of separate plans, maps and drawings. Many of the most interesting plans displayed in Infra_MANC came from this source, including key material regarding the unbuilt Picc-Vic underground railway stations and the sites of potential city centre heliports being considered by Manchester Corporation in the mid 1950s. This collection also contains much else we are sure and merits greater scrutiny for those interested in the recent urban history of Manchester as narrated through it built structures and unrealised plans. Unfortunately, the microcard collection is rather physically inaccessible and lacks readily usable indexes.

Imagined infrastructure under Manchester. An architectural render for a subway station on the Picc-Vic line that very nearly got built under the city centre in the 1970s.

We have also consciously taken on historically-focused description, seeking to understanding how the infrastructures were imagined in different times and socio-economic circumstances. We begin with the optimism of the immediate aftermath of war, the reality of construction in the 1960s and the disappointments with the economic downturn of the 1970s, all against a backdrop of increasing paranoia of the cold war. The 25 year period at the heart of Infra_MANC encompasses the fortunes of Britain in the post-war era and lurches wildly from far reaching vision and ambition, to failed dreams and urban disappointments.

We hope, however, that visitors to the exhibition will come to understand something of the infrastructure of Manchester via our curation of  original maps, engineers schematics, architects drawings and marketing ‘machines’ that we have brought together in an attempt to expose the role of communications infrastructure in the contemporary city and to introduce historical context to these overridingly technological propositions.

Exhibition Details:

  • Infra_MANC // Post-war Infrastructures of Manchester, an exhibition curated by Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) and Martin Dodge (Department of Geography, University of Manchester), with support and help from MMU, Museum of Transport Greater Manchester, and Greater Manchester County Record Office and Manchester City Archives.
  • Dates: 27 February – 23 March 2012. Free entry, open from Mon-Fri. 10-5.30, Sat. 12-5.
  • Location: CUBE / RIBA Hub, 113-15 Portland Street, Manchester, M1 6DW.

(1) Although see notable work by Steve Graham, Maria Kaika and Matthew Gandy.

(2) Star, S. and Bowker, G. [2006] ‘How to infrastructure’, in Lievrouw, L.A. and Livingstone, S. [eds] Handbook of New Media: Social shaping and social consequences of ICTs [London: SAGE], p.231.

(3) Some of the results were presented in a successful public exhibition Mapping Manchester: Cartographic Stories of the City [June 2009-March 2010, Rylands Deansgate Library; co-curated with Chris Perkins]. Ongoing research is feeding into the Mapping Manchester book project discussed by Chris Perkins in an earlier Cities@Manchester blog post.

(4)  See discussion presented in Dodge, M. and Perkins, C. [2012] ‘Maps, memories and Manchester: The cartographic imagination of the hidden networks of the hydraulic city’, in Roberts, L. [ed] Mapping Cultures: Place, Practice, Performance [Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan]

(5) Millington, S. [2011] ‘Mancunian Way: On the road to Manchester’s lost utopia’, in The Modernist, Issue 1.

(6) In relation to the sculptural forms and concrete aesthetics, see the sublime materiality of water supply infrastructure captured in Stanley Greenberg’s photography.  [Greenberg, S. [2003] Waterworks: A photographic journey through New York’s hidden water system [Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press].

(7) The creation of this collection is partly explained in this article: John, S. and Guest, P. [1986] “Mapping Manchester’s sewers: The engineering archives project”, in Manchester Region Local History Review, 2(2): 33-37.

Rioting and Architecture

by Mark Crinson, Art History

They broke every window in our street… You have to hammer at the window glass for twenty minutes to get an impression. They were able to batter them to such an extent they were able to break through the glass (i).

More than 130 people, many youths, were arrested in a night of turmoil which saw £500,000 of damage caused when the mob descended on the exclusive Emporio Armani (ii).

The rioters vandalized the centre of the city and have destroyed everything that came in their way. Fire bombs were thrown at shops and windows were smashed. The police was overwhelmed by the huge number of rioters that reached 2000 persons… After they have destroyed the shops, the looters have stolen electrical items, jewelry, designer clothes, mobile phones and alcohol. They have trashed high street shops and banks and smashed them to pieces and banks too (iii).

Armani Store and John Rylands Library , Spinningfields

 

Was architecture merely incidental to last summer’s riots? Did it seem not only to contain the things desired or reviled, but in itself to be loathed: the complacent bank and the sleek boutique, as much as the decorated sheds of retail parks? Could not some of the damage be seen as an attack – if often blurred and mis-targeted – on the architectural forms of our ‘rampantly feral’ capitalism(iv)? Images of burning buildings and broken glass certainly played a notable part in the media coverage, acting as both trace and symbol of broken Britain. Because this damage was largely to shops and high streets, however, it was easily subsumed to the politicians’ view that the riots were not symptoms of social breakdown but opportunistic outbreaks of acquisitive criminality. Yet, in such a complex sequence of events and causes, could not some of this building bashing be interpreted in a different way?

That the immediate target of much of the rioting, the membrane to break through, was glass, has not been commented on in the numerous blogs and articles on the riots. In a sense it’s too obvious and therefore ignored in the search for reasons and causes. Of course people smash windows when they riot, it’s much easier than smashing concrete or brick. Along with fire, the shattering of glass offers the most direct challenge to the materials of urban order. And now there is an awful lot more glass around – glass walls and floors, the aquaria of offices and shops, the time-denying gleam of glass towers. By extension, then, this smashing can be understood to deal a different kind of violence to a history of modern urban and architectural thinking. Glass was never just glass, never a mere building material – there was a poetics and theoretics to it (v).  Glass embodied many of the symbolic properties of modernity, including the interpenetrating magic of space-time itself. It meant intoxicating forms of living through the dematerialisation of walls and the exposure of previously hidden interiors. It would revitalize experience, offer a ‘new vision’, and promise new states of consciousness. It would clad the Stadtkron and other crystalline fantasies. It promised a new reconciliation of man and nature, a new oneness facilitated by modernity, and a life leaving behind old habits and traces. If it had once shown people glimpses of paradise and let in God’s light, now it enabled the panoptic gaze, ‘[spawning] new paranoias’ and new forms of ungodly exhibitionism (vi).  Its taut skins seemed to supersede oppositions of the mechanical and organic. It evidenced democracy and promised egalitarianism, a new social transparency, the open society, accessible government: as contemporary architects like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster still repetitiously insist, glazed walls signal ‘democratic values of openness and participation… [or] the accessibility of a judicial system’, ‘the transparency and openness of the democratic process’, ‘dignity, transparency and openness’ (vii). In all this glass was always closely bound into modernism’s dialectics of the rational and the enchanting.

If such is the rhetoric of modern architects and their clients, for others glass may not and may never have signified in these ways; it may actually be about false accessibility, about temptation and leading astray. One of the original arguments, for instance, against building the Crystal Palace – that free trade utopia, icon of modernist pre-histories, and paean to glazed showcasing – was that it would inevitably be stoned by the mob (viii). The 2011 smashing of glass might be seen, then, as an appropriation of the architects’ view of it, and if it was sometimes a refusal of that kind of rhetoric it was also a way of taking it literally. What is inside is desirable and must be got at even using illegitimate means? Democracy is just another means of delusion? Transparency is finally recognised as obfuscation? If so, then this doesn’t mean the end of a now long history of utopian glass thinking but another chapter in it. After all, even some architects might continue to welcome riots as ‘the awakening of cleanliness’.(ix)

Suggestive parallels to the recent riots can be found in Isobel Armstrong’s fascinating book Victorian Glassworlds (2008). The breaking of glass in riots leading up to the 1832 Reform Act and then during the Chartist-linked Birmingham Bull Ring riots of 1839, were clearly demonstrations of alienation from political process: ‘[the crowds] affirmed something about the specificity of their own experiences as well as, or through, shattering glass’ (x). The patrician attitude of establishment figures like the Duke of Wellington (whose houses and tours were a frequent target for stone throwers) was that such smashing up demonstrated the endemically irrational behaviour of the lower classes, justifying their exclusion from legitimate politics (xi). Although those riots did not have an element of material acquisition to them, it is the cathartic fury directed at glass that parallels the recent riots. Breaking glass generates a visceral excitement as barriers are broken and the building’s orifices penetrated: the façade can demonstratively be cracked, defenestrated. Armstrong suggests that the sound of glass breaking was more than the accompaniment to this somatic release, but also an ‘insistence of being heard… [being] redeemed from anonymity’, challenging the insulation of privilege through the direct agency of body against building. This kind of corporeal assertion contrasts with the property-owner’s order, ‘demonstrating that his are literally constructed categories, bound up as they are in his very buildings (xii).’

Like E. P. Thompson’s famous argument for the ‘moral economy’ of eighteenth-century rioting against the economy of the free market, Armstrong insists on the self-discipline and idealism of her Victorian rioters, their refusal to loot. This may not sit easy with comparisons to the summer of 2011, let alone to other crystal nights. A glib way to express this is to say that the commodification of labour has been replaced by the commodification of desire – a demand for change by a demand for trainers – though this misses the initial protests of 2011 and the sense of deep injustice around stop-and-search and the killing of Mark Duggan. That there were protesters and there were looters, and sometimes the two were indistinguishable, is what makes the riots of 2011 too complex, too diverse in cause and effect, for us to reach easy conclusions about. But there are some parallels with Armstrong’s account. Among its drives, rioting is about a taking over of space, an ownership of it and a sense of power through owning it, however briefly. Such was certainly behind the spontaneous taking to the streets of the powerless and the disaffected after Duggan’s death. And the group action of rioting, its ‘performative unity’ (xiii), raises the prospect not of the spectral rabble but of an urban collectivity acting on its disenchantment – as indicated by those instances of co-operative looting among rioters, even between members of different gangs (as observed in the recent Guardian/LSE report ‘Reading the Riots’). Is to riot in this way to reverse the expected behaviour of the disempowered subject and the individual consumer?

It’s clear that in Manchester’s case the spaces in which riots took place were the same spaces as the city’s much acclaimed ‘regeneration’; that’s to say, at the centre of the Victorian industrial city in those areas revamped in response to the 1996 IRA bomb and the threat of out of town shopping in the Trafford Centre. The post-1990s regeneration has been uneven, and largely focused on the central city. A new urban order has been created which seems mainly to be about the rebranding of central Manchester. Yet although it does not use shops to hide slums from the bourgeoisie, as in Friedrich Engels’s canonical account, it does share much with Engels’s notion of a ‘hypocritical plan’. The conspicuous demonstration of the resources and pleasures of affluence are narrowly bestowed on certain areas of the city, leaving the ‘underclass’ as marginal onlookers. In this context, then, we might adapt Armstrong’s idea that her Victorian rioting constitutes its own style or aesthetic into an understanding of the 2011 rioting as a form of architectural criticism. Was this an ironic way of dealing with the spaces of consumerism as disqualified consumers seized hold and upturned the effects and meanings of transparency? To put it differently, how does the shattering of glass sit with the hermeneutics of glass? Let’s look at one – admittedly limited – instance.

Among the areas of Manchester’s city centre attacked on the evening of 10 August was Spinningfields. The name is redolent of Manchester’s Cottonopolis past and the area, midway along Deansgate and between it and the River Irwell, was one of the most notorious slums of the Victorian city, one selected by Engels for particular attention. Spinningfields was re-zoned in Manchester’s postwar city plan as an area for Manchester’s courts and its legal profession, and it is this legal architecture that has been updated in the last five years, linking it to a considerably expanded business quarter. Two of the features of this form of regeneration are particularly important for the argument here. One is the extraordinary vista of glazed buildings that have taken over the area; and the other is a new kind of mixed zoning that has deliberately been built into this as the area touches Deansgate itself, for long one of Manchester’s main shopping streets.

One of the shops targeted by the 2011 rioters was Emporio Armani, fronting Spinningfields on Deansgate. (Emporio Armani was also a particular target of the looting in Birmingham, as one of the quotes at the head of this article shows.) Apparently, rioters were baulked here by a line of security guards and only smashed one large window before heading off to easier targets. The shop fills the ground floor of No 1 The Avenue, an entirely glazed building but of a specifically 21st century type. It was designed by the London-based architectural firm Sheppard Robson and opened two years ago. Sheppard Robson is one of the many middling practices (though of large size) that diffuse (and perhaps defuse) vanguard styles for mainstream clients. In this case the building is a near-parody of late deconstructivism mixed with high tech, Daniel Libeskind crossed with Norman Foster. Such buildings must have a ‘concept’, and here this is based on a simple-minded game of slicing a parallelogram, flipping it and then misaligning the two blocks. The cantilever created by this misalignment provides a wedge-shaped canopy for shoppers, with a sharp-edged arris of glass panes pointing at the street. One detects that recent concerns about architecture and security have entered many architects’ unconscious – even in a shop like this there is a strange combination of vulnerability and aggression, come-hitherness and repulsion. Across the whole building and reinforcing its strident geometry is a jazzy diagonal cladding of trapezoidal glass panels. The skill of the architects here, if it can be called that, is to tantalize and enthrall. We look into the darkened windows to see the displays but also see beyond them to view parts of the shop’s interior. Perhaps it’s meant to flatter the consumer with a sense of discretion, entitlement, and hipped up slickness. Transparency as obfuscation, then: as teasing glamour, a heightening of emulative desire, with more than a hint of those intoxicating qualities that some modernists perceived in the potential of glass.

No 1 The Avenue is a local if not very distinguished example of a widespread phenomenon, named by Owen Hatherley as ‘pseudomodernism’ (xiv). Here, in a reactionary metamorphosis, the postmodernist love of the building as sign has now turned back to the surface effects of modernism – a veneer of its good taste or even of its political associations – so providing the boosterist built logos of our neoliberal age, its glass shards, obelisks and gherkins. As Hal Foster has suggested, the old transparency of modernism has become ‘spaces that are not only opaque, but that are illusionistic… [such space] purports to be about perceptual experience, but in many ways it does the perceiving for us.(xv)’ One cannot argue that these glazed buildings were the particular target of rioters; in fact many styles and periods of buildings were attacked. But there was a particular poignancy at Spinningfields that would emerge only a few days later.

Passage, Spinningfields

In the week following the riots across British cities many of the perpetrators of both righteous protest and opportunistic shopping were hastily brought to court as part of the avenging government’s attempt to show that it was in control. One of the busiest courts was the Manchester City Magistrates Court and Coroners Court located, as it happens, in Spinningfields just behind the Emporio Armani shop. The court building’s entrance façade is clad to its full height in glass and displays a multi-level escalator within, implying a kind of vaguely efficient and, of course, ‘transparent’ disposal of functions. On one side the court building turns a corner and becomes a menswear shop, on the other it terminates a wide pedestrian passage – while Armani is on the left, the new extension to the John Rylands Library is on the right (the library also fronts onto Deansgate). This passage is parallel with The Avenue, which houses several more luxury clothes shops, but the link between the courts and The Avenue is barred by a glazed wall, clearly an ad hoc measure to separate a restaurant’s outdoor space from court attendees snatching time for a last cigarette. The passage can’t be described as a street nor is ‘pedestrianised way’ quite right – too old fashioned for one thing – though it certainly evokes vague associations with older planning fantasies. Such passages are designed for shopping and certain other leisure activities deemed legitimate, a ‘right to the city’ is the thinnest of its effects. Manchester has quite a few of them, and quite a few were also the places where the rioting happened – in the pedestrianised Market Street, for instance, and in New Cathedral Street. The latter is not as cloistered as it sounds but actually a group of high-end shops on an elevated curve of walkway leading to the ersatz environment that is Manchester’s version of a cathedral close.

With these spaces, seductive and absurd by turn, the city attempts to ward off the rivalry of the out of town shopping centre, offering an urban density of commerce close by the cultural, civic and religious institutions of the traditional city. In Spinningfields the uniform material of different building types signals a uniform rhetoric of accessibility – whether of the judicial system (transparent justice), of a library (access to learning), or even of an ‘exclusive’ menswear shop (‘modern lifestyle… with a sense of classic sophistication’). Cynical and insensitive in social terms, the development is alternately ‘sensitive’ and ‘cutting edge’ in the terms of architects’ and developers’ jargon, the commercial and cultural cream for the business quarter beyond. In Sheppard Robson’s own publicity No 1 The Avenue is described as pivotal in form and location, ‘tying Manchester’s retail and business district with its civic core (xvi),’ and the building itself embodies this mixed-use, combining Armani with offices, a roof terrace, and a basement nightclub. (Another example, that epitomizes the absurd end of this fad for mixed-use, is close by – the oast house-style pub, clad in faux-distressed materials, that now fills the square in front of the older court building.)

Emporio Armani benefits, then, from its proximity to the Rylands Library and the courts. And they all benefit from an extraordinary CCTV concentration inside and outside the buildings, the vehicle of a new social contract assuring security and inviting affluent exhibitionism. We are in the heart of a 21st century panopticon here, one intersected by the complementary practices of shopping, surveillance, and punishment, and coterminous with an immaterial architecture of data formation and retrieval (xvii). And like most previous panopticons, of course, it courts failure, reproducing the conditions that brought it into being, its pleasures and disciplines emptied out and turned perverse because of the lack of a complementary political space.

In its great wisdom Manchester University in 2007 saw fit to build a minimalist glass box to house a café and shop as the most public face of the Rylands Library’s extension in Spinningfields. Sitting in the café one can take a table right beside the glazed wall and, eating one’s carrot cake, observe the human traffic into and out of the courts, as well as into and out of Emporio Armani. The rioters apparently sniffed at attacking this extension, probably because it had nothing obvious that could be looted and perhaps also because a library had no evident recognition factor – it clearly wasn’t a bank or Starbucks or Miss Selfridges. One might complacently say this confirms the marginality of learning in these our neoliberal times, but if so it is a marginality the university itself had already played into with the architectural appearance and the very function of its new extension. The original Victorian library’s glory, now made into a mere appendix by the new extension, was the way it addressed the street directly and then absorbed the visitor in its evocative entrance spaces. It used the gloomth of neo-Gothic tectonics to suggest the special mysteries of learning; access here was a matter of passing through successive spatial densities. Now the hidden structures of contemporary architecture suggest nothing but the lightness of modern being.

So, there is this extraordinary conjunction of functions more or less cheek by jowl in Spinningfields – designer clothes shop, magistrates court, and academic library. And inbetween these buildings, as if to cap the conjunction, is a mini glass shard, an enigmatic transparent pyramid that turns out to be the entrance to the underground nightclub – not so enigmatic after being boarded up following the night of 10 August. So in this 21st century corridor we run the gauntlet or we take to the catwalk. Glass is used to different ends, but the glazing also unites these institutions in a common play on a now meaningless accessibility. Part of the lost potential of this area might have been in the very dissonance of these institutions; that there might be something interesting about the clash of their values. But, post-riot, the leveling transparency had become guilty spectacle. This was where Manchester’s regeneration got differently confrontational, where the contemporary glassworlds of the law, security, consumerism, and learning were newly exposed in terms of who is entitled to use these streets in the manner for which they had been designed.

Georges Bataille defined architecture as the physiognomy of a society’s authority, and saw such events as the storming of the Bastille as a way of transgressing against the very nature of architecture: ‘it is difficult to explain this impulse of the mob other than by the animosity the people hold against the monuments which are their true masters (xviii).’ It is perhaps no more than an interesting fantasy to imagine the riots as an uprising against our present phantasmagoric forms of transparency. But even to say ‘this shattered window is the work of my hands’ is to reveal a certain kind of meaning in the moments of madness.

References

i. John Henn, owner of a shop in Wolverhampton, as reported in The Guardian, 5 December 2011.

ii. http://www.expressandstar.com/news/2011/08/09/birmingham-riots-100-arrested-after-night-of-looting/ accessed 8 December 2011.

iii. www.londonisburning.co.uk/…, accessed 6 October 2011.

iv. David Harvey, ‘Feral Capitalism Hits the Streets’, The Bullet (Socialist Project e-bulletin), 535, 12 August 2011, http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/535.php accessed 10 November 2011.

v.  For the various mythologies that follow see Detlef Mertins, Modernity Unbound: Other Histories of Architectural Modernity, London: Architectural Association, 2011.

vi. The architectural practice Diller, Scofidio & Renfrew, as quoted in Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, London: Verso, 2011, p. 98.

vii. The first quote is Richard Rogers, the second and third are by Norman Foster: as quoted in Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, pp. 29, 48.

viii. Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 11.

ix. Le Corbusier, The Radiant City: Elements of a doctrine of urbanism to be used as the basis of our machine-age civilization (1935), New York: Orion, 1967, p. 23.

x. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 62.

xi. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, pp. 65-66.

xii. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 68.

xiii. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 67.

xiv. Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, London: Verso, 2010, pp. xx-xxiv.

xv. ‘Art lessons’, interview between Thomas Wensing and Hal Foster, Architecture Today, 222, October 2011, p. 14.

xvi. www.sheppardrobson.com/projects/page.cfm?projectID=100052, accessed 7 December 2011.

Cafe Historique

Dominique Tessier
Local Historian + Museum Consultant
Founder of Manchester’s Cafe Historique
November 2011

Since its creation in Autum 2009, the Cafe Historique has been presenting talks, discussions and quiz events promoting new interpretive approaches to local history. A recent focus on the history of science and medecine led to surprising discoveries such, as mentioned below, Sigmund Freud’s stay in Manchester.

I still marvel at your description of the seven weeks spent in 1875 visiting your brothers in Manchester, England. If the verbal portraits of your brothers and city were paintings, they would be displayed in a prominent gallery in Vienna.

Source: Letter written in 1883 by Martha Bernays to Sigmund Freud

“Freud and Manchester Historical Women” was the Cafe Historique’s first quiz event. Fascinating links between psychoanalysis and Thomas de Quincey were also explored. Born in Cross Street, Manchester in 1785, the author of the Confessions of an English Opium Eater is credited for the first use of the word subconscious. Interestingly de Quincey lived in Moss Side which, as illustrated by the quote below contributed to its status a prime touristic attraction to cosmopolitan Victorian travellers such as William Sanders Scarborough.

Manchester is rich in libraries as I found under Dr. Axon’s guidance. The famous Chetham Library of some 60,000 volumes has many rare manuscripts – most interesting to an antiquarian. Then there is the John Rutland’s Library of some 60,000 volumes has many rare and ancient manuscripts which includes the costly Althorp Library of Earl Spencer, totaling some 90,000 volumes of the finest collection of Bibles in the sixth century. There is also a Free Reference Library of 125,000 volumes. I could have spent months among these books with Dr. Axon’s enriching knowledge and comment to aid me. Add to this the small De Quincey collection in Greenheys near Dr. Axon and we understand something of the city’s wealth in books.

Source: William Sanders Scarborough, The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship

This quote was read by Elizabeth Gow, Archivist at the John Rylands Library, during her talk on Cuba born Enriqueta Rylands – it was presented as part of the Cafe Historique’s Manchester Women series (March 2011). Back to Greenheys – sometimes spelled Green Hayes – in one of her memoirs, Suffragette and Pan Africanist campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst provides an interesting description.

Green Hayes: the very name seems caressing. In its garden were borders of London pride; the starry little pick flowerets wonderfully beautiful amid the black soot of Manchester; like fairy flowers (…)

Volumes have been written about Greenheys and its police station…

On 8 July 1981 more than 1,000 mostly young people besieged Greenheys police station on what is now Charles Halle Road and tried to batter their way inside before being repelled.
Source: The Manchester Compendium: A Street-by-Street History of England’s Greatest Industrial City, Ed Glinert

Named after one of its most famous residents, Charles Halle Road deserves closer historical investigation. Sir Charles Halle, German conductor and founder of the Halle Orchestra resided there with his family for about 40 years. His first wife Desiree, native of New Orleans, was related to French painter Edgar Degas.

 

Interestingly in 1914 Jerome Caminada, Manchester’s first Victorian detective, died a short walk away from Moss Side Police station. “One of the Manchester’s most successful thief-takers”, he was according to Don Hale “of mixed race parentage with an Irish mother and an Italian father”. Caminada’s autobiographical “Twenty-five Years of Detective Life” (1895) – is a must read as it challenges current stereotypical understanding of Manchester’s crime and gang culture.

The Manchester with all its great moral, religious and political associations, its commercial enterprise recognised in every part of the world, and its corresponding wealth, still has its dark spots.

Areas such as Deansgate are one of the dark spots covered in “Twenty-five Years of Detective Life”.

Within an arrow’s flight of the princely grandeur of the Town Hall may be seen many dreary dwellings of misery and wretchedness.

For the very first time this October, the Cafe Historique presented a Black History Month programme which opened at Victoria Baths, Manchester (02/10/11) with a talk by Bill Williams on early Black communities in Ordsall and Greengate. Bill stressed that Black presence in Manchester has been continual for at least 200 years. With the opening of its Ship Canal in 1894, Manchester joined a global network port cities which led to the formation of new urban communities including newcomers, such as a Japanese hairdresser, arrested in the 1920s for using his salon as a front to store contraband goods.

From beginning to end, amazing connections and historical facts were revealed throughout this first Black History Month. The last talk, The 1945 Pan African Congress: Manchester contribution (28/10/11) by Washington Alcott, Manchester’s city centre as home to an influential cosmopolitan pan africanist hub led by Guyana born T. R.Makonnen, key funder of the 1945 Pan African Congress and owner of several businesses. His Pan African Federation and Bookshop was located at 58 Oxford Road – it might have been visited by Sylvia Pankhurst who was a friend of T. R. Makonnen. She also corresponded with African American Sociologist and President of the 1945 Pan African Congress W.E.B. Dubois, who at the time of her death wrote:

I realised … that the great of Sylvia Pankhurst was to introduce Black Ethiopia to White England, to give the martyred Emperor of Ethiopia a place of refuge during his exile and make the British people realise that Black folks had more and more to be recognised as human beings with the rights women and men.
Source: The Correspondence of W.E.B. Dubois: Volume III, Selections 1944 – 1963

Each Cafe Historique event is an invitation to reconsider both the nature and the geography of Manchester’s history. When it comes to exploring the cosmopolitan nature of the local, autobiographies and comparative family histories are the key tools used by the Cafe Historique. Focusing on individual histories allow to effectively fill current historical interpretative gaps and challenge stereotypical approaches to “community histories”. In keeping with a long standing local tradition, the Cafe Historique also promotes the free exchange of knowledge and the creation of new self-learning networks.

More information about Cafe Historique at meetthelocals.blogspot.com or email cafehistorique@googlemail.com

Shop a Looter: Renaissance style

by Stephen Milner, Serena Professor of Italian, School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures.

The outbreak of seemingly random violence and looting which marked the end of the summer continues to generate comment, analysis and discussion in the press and amongst politicians, policy makers, and academics as evidenced already in this blog. Causal explanations have been drawn from the full range of ‘–ologies’ made available to us by the social sciences whose own disciplinary roots lie in late nineteenth century attempts to account for collective violence, crowd psychology, and the relation of the individual to social structures. Many have blamed the loss of moral compass in the political and social realm by linking the street level opportunism of the urban dispossessed with the corporate opportunism of the financial sector and political opportunism of some MPs who continue to place private wealth before any common wealth and who view the state as a supplier of patronage for the benefit of friends and relations.

Yet unlike the complex and intricate investigations into covert political and financial malpractice, the very public nature of the recent riots and looting has seen the police deploy information collected from so-called ‘security’ cameras and surveillance technology to help identify participants. This ‘publication’ of the riots, in the sense of both using media to identify and capture participants and in calling on the public to participate in the policing endeavour, resulted in Manchester in the ‘Shop a Looter’ campaign: faces caught on camera were displayed on billboards together with the number of a confidential helpline for use by the general public when forwarding information.

As a historian of Renaissance Florence based in Manchester, I’m naturally interested in the analogy that was often made in the nineteenth century between the two cities. It was to Italy and to Florence as the cloth, wool processing, and financial capital of late medieval and Renaissance Italy that the industrialist entrepreneurs turned when seeking a cultural paradigm that fused capital accumulation with cultural production in a civic context. In the figures of the Medici and Strozzi, this new industrial class saw fellow merchants who demonstrated a high level of cultural discernment and civic pride in their roles as patrons of the arts and builders of the city’s architectural fabric.

Yet the analogy also encompassed the respective cities’ social inequalities, for both cities also had their underclass. Just as every mill-owner and merchant employed a mass of workers, so every Florentine mercantile dynasty employed numerous lesser guildsmen and wool-carders. The uprising and seizure of power by the so-called ‘Ciompi’ wool workers against their patrician overlords in 1378 is often given pride of place in western histories of social insurrection and industrial dispute as the so-called ‘popolo minuto’ sought wider political participation within the governance of the city’s affairs. The parallels with the Chartists abound. Behind the great palaces of both cities, the living and working conditions of the labouring poor were abject. Engels’ description of Manchester assumes a Dantean hue as he describes how his partner, the working-class Irish radical Mary Burns, acted as both Virgil and Beatrice in leading him through the slums of Cottonopolis and its ‘subterranean dens’ and ‘smokiest holes’.

But recent events, and specifically the ‘Shop a Looter’ campaign, reminded me of a more pertinent parallel between the two urban centres, albeit at over 500 years remove, a parallel which begs again the question as to how recent events look when placed in a broader historical context and what such a view may tell us about the enduring characteristics and dynamics of urban life. I’ve recently been looking at the Florentine town criers as mediators in the flow of information in Renaissance Florence having come across 500 written proclamations that were read out on behalf of the Florentine policing magistracy between 1470 and 1530. Proclaimed by the banditori, or criers, of the so-called ‘Otto di Guardia’ or ‘Eight of Security’, these documents are bound into communal registers. Significantly the bandi do not just proclaim the law on behalf of those in authority, they also call for information from members of what we might term ‘the general public’ concerning those who have transgressed. In fact they constitute a latterday form of ‘Shop a Looter’ or ‘Crimewatch’, publishing to a wider constituency what may have been known to only a few in the search for information. Just as contemporary viewers voyeristically scan the faces of looters or tune in to find out what goes on out there, so, I would hazard, contemporary Florentines awaited these proclamations with a certain relish, fascination and faux disgust.

The scenarios described are easily recognisable today. The vandalising of allotments; riot and the assaulting of police officials; breaking and entering; arson; street fights betwen gangs using slings and knives; drunken brawls and so on. Most take place outside the hours of curfew as established in the city’s statutes and chimed out by the city’s bells. Once such calls for information had been proclaimed, citizens were invited to pass information to the authorities anonymously by placing details on a piece of paper which they were required to deposit in sealed wooden boxes, known as ‘tamburi’, which were located at key points around the town. Judicial officials would then empty these boxes daily and were legally bound to investigate all denounciations. Amongst those sought for questioning are Niccolò Machiavelli and Benvenuto Cellini, neither of whom can be charactrised as members of an underclass.

Renaissance Florence was probably one of the most policed pre-modern cities in Europe. It certainly had a pletora of magistracies concerned with law and order. Yet what these documents show is that even within what, by current standards, was a small city bounded by a circle of walls, they still struggled to contain social unrest and crime, calling on fellow citizens to help maintain the rule of law and bring offenders to court. They bear witness to governmental anxiety concerning their ability to maintain order, to moments otherwise unregistered, to incidents behind which lie irrecoverable stories, to the traffic of the street, in sum to social practice beyond the ritualistic.

And it was in the streets that most of this action took place. Defined by the built environment, streets embody the networks that their social traffic constructs. At once place and space, they offer a literal ‘via del mezzo’ between the two foundational co-ordinates of sociology as a discipline, namely structure and agency: whilst the former prioritises the description of social structures and the institutions of social ordering, the latter foregrounds the agency of the individual as he/she negotiates a route through the conditioning (not determining) cultural landscape. On the one side stand figures such as Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, and the early Foucault on the other the likes of the voluntarists Gabriel Tarde, Walter Benjamin, Goffman, Bourdieu, De Certeau and Latour.

For it is the street in particular which provides a liminal space, physically and symbolically, in which the continuing dialogue is carried out between the binaries of society vs the individual, frames vs flows, and maps vs pedestrians. Indeed, it is precisely the inbetweeness of the street as an empty space which allows identities to be called into being, regenerated, challenged, contested and afforded a scene. They are also the prime urban site through which social energies are channelled. In the process they obviate in the clearest way the tension between the desire for liberty on the one hand and the need for security on the other. The street, therefore, can be thought of as a medium through which information flows, a way (via) of delivery and dispersal rather than a decisive factor in disciplining identifications. Unlike the ‘Other’ places studied by Foucault which marginalised and contained those considered a threat to the normative structures of potentially repressive political ordering, the streets and open spaces of the city are permeable, and as such ‘The’ places where such normative structures of social ordering are legitimated and contested. As practiced spaces, streets and squares have always been perennially receptive to the imputation of symbolic meanings and resistant to definitive closure. As sites of social centrality they are resistant to any form of political marginalisation. Consequently, they remain ‘places of invention’ for the individual and society, empty spaces through which the life-blood of communities flows. As sites of contiguity they generate community but conversely they carry the perennial threat of contagion. In the words of Friedrich Kittler, ‘The City is a medium’ and as such it constantly challenges us when seeking to read its message.

Between Two Rivers – Another Cairo

by Nick Jordan

Violence erupts on the streets of Cairo. Bricks and stones are thrown between opposing groups on either side of the street. Shots are fired, as armed police intervene to separate the two fighting mobs. But this is not the 2011 revolution in Cairo, Egypt. It is Cairo, Illinois, deep in the heartland of America, and the year is 1969. These are archive scenes from a new feature-length documentary, Between Two Rivers (www.betweentworivers.net), directed by myself and Jacob Cartwright. The documentary centres on Cairo, Illinois, a small city with a dark and turbulent history, located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Once mooted as a potential capital city of the USA, Cairo exists on the border between America’s northern and southern states, and is a city of marked contrasts and intense conflicts. Isolated and encircled by levees, the once prosperous town has been devastated over time by floods, racial violence, depopulation and severe economic decline. Mirroring the Ohio-Mississippi confluence, Between Two Rivers combines the past and present, connecting themes such as history, politics, economics and the environment, all to be found in a single location, here at the ‘Confluence of America.’

The documentary sets Cairo’s tumultuous past against the backdrop of the latest crisis to afflict the community: the record-breaking floods of spring 2011, when the rising Ohio & Mississippi rivers threatened to engulf the town.

In editing the documentary, which we researched and filmed over a four-year period, we decided to combine our own cinematography with historic film clips, including remarkable archive footage from Cairo: City in Turmoil, made in 1969 by Southern Illinois University. Unseen for over 40 years, City in Turmoil captures the town at the height of racial tensions, when Cairo witnessed the last pitched battles of the American civil-rights movement.

Our collaborative practice often explores the relationship between cultural and natural history, and Between Two Rivers looks closely at the unique natural environment that encircles the town. Cairo is positioned at a biological midpoint of the USA; a region of natural diversity where numerous species and terrains meet at the limits of their northern and southern range.

We originally came upon Cairo by chance, whilst working on a series of short films based on the writings of the 19th century American frontiersman and ornithologist John James Audubon. After filming in neighboring Kentucky our search for somewhere to stay in the area lead us to Cairo. The town’s name conjured up notions of civic grandeur and pioneer ambition. We imagined a clapboard river town, where the old world converges with the new; an exotic, old Americana, offering a welcome antidote to generic motels and chain-food franchises.

We arrived at night to find the town in a state of ruin. Commercial Avenue, once the main mercantile thoroughfare, was lined with the crumbling facades of 19th century stores, banks, abandoned warehouses and saloons, some littered with police tape and bullet holes. Adjacent streets were punctuated by burnt out ‘shotgun’ houses, deserted churches and gutted mansions. Cairo’s troubles were all too evident. It was only later that we discovered the scope and nature of its baleful history: from booming river trade, lavish opera halls and lively juke-joints to mob-lynchings, curfews and armed vigilantes.

At a time when the “99%” majority, who paid trillions to bail-out the financial markets, are left shouldering the burden of higher taxes and food prices, public service and welfare cuts, job losses and a huge drop in living standards, the small, isolated and largely forgotten city of Cairo graphically represents the pressing social problems facing western economies today, with gross levels of wealth inequality, rising poverty and environmental pressures. Candid in its representation of severe economic and social failings, we hope that our film also highlights the dignity, faith and optimism of the people of Cairo, many of whom are proud of their community and yet feel that they have been left behind.

The film will be released to festivals and wider distribution from January 2012.

There will be a special, non-public screening of the film at Cornerhouse, Manchester on November 7th, 2011. The screening is free and will begin at 4pm. If you would like to attend please e-mail mail@betweentworivers.net to secure your place.

Nick Jordan, Director

For further trailer, clips and further info please visit:
www.betweentworivers.net

Nick Jordan is an artist/film-maker based in Manchester (www.nickjordan.info). He also works for the University of Manchester, making educational training videos in psychiatry and psychology.

Manchester, Abolitionism, and Frederick Douglass

by Dr Natalie Zacek, English and American Studies, University of Manchester

Manchester had since the seventeenth century been a centre for radical movements, and many of its people in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries devoted themselves to the abolition of slavery. Although it was never a slaving port, Manchester was tightly linked to the African slave trade because, beginning in the seventeenth century, the “coarse check” cloth and the silk handkerchiefs its mills produced were one of the principal goods which English traders exchanged for captives on the West African coast. Moreover, as the global demand for cotton clothing boomed in the eighteenth century, traders brought ever more slave-grown cotton in to be processed in the Manchester mills.

Visiting abolitionist activists found Manchester a fertile ground in which to spread their message and raise funds for their cause; important visitors included Thomas Clarkson, the founder of the British abolitionist movement, who on 8 October 1787 gave an address at Manchester Cathedral which effectively kicked off the parliamentary abolition campaign. Nearly 11,000 people (more than one fifth of the city’s total population at that time) signed Clarkson’s petition in favour of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Another visitor was the former slave Olaudah Equiano, who came to Manchester in 1790 to support the abolition campaign and to promote his recently published autobiography, whose first-hand account of slavery, particularly of capture in Africa and survival of the dreaded “Middle Passage” to the Americas, had a profound impact on the abolitionist movement.

Clarkson and Equiano’s visits encouraged the formation of a number of anti-slavery organisations in Manchester. Around one quarter of the subscribers to the Manchester Abolition Society were female; many were Unitarians or Quakers. But if the Abolition Society was open to women, it was less so to the city’s working classes; the annual subscription rate ranged from one to five guineas, and thus was unaffordable to many people. The leaders of the Manchester abolitionist movement tended to come from the ranks of the educated elite, and included leading physicians and ministers, such as Samuel Bradburn, who encouraged his fellow Methodists to abstain from sugar because it was “a drug comprised of the slave dealers’ sin and misery.”

While the abolitionists were overjoyed by Britain’s abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, many felt that much remained to be done. Manchester cotton goods were used as a trade good in the now illegal slave trade, which persisted for several decades after 1807. Of far greater concern was the fact that it was slave-grown cotton from the American South which was the principal raw material for Manchester’s textile mills.

One might expect that, once Britain abolished slavery in its colonies in 1834, the British anti-slavery movement would end, but it became more fervent than ever, not only because Britain traded extensively with the American south, but because American activists looked across the Atlantic for a moral example. Both white and black abolitionists made repeated visits to Britain to meet with British campaigners and raise awareness of and funds for their cause. Many black anti-slavery campaigners were ex-slaves who lived in terror of the American fugitive slave laws, so some of them chose not only to visit but to settle in England.

Many of these people came to Manchester, the most famous of whom was probably Frederick Douglass, who was born in Maryland in 1817. He lived with his grandmother on a plantation until the age of eight, when he was sent to work for his owner’s brother in Baltimore. The man’s wife defied state law by teaching him to read, and the adolescent Frederick gained both artisanal skills and knowledge of the wider world, and thus of the possibilities for escape, working in the racially-mixed shipyards of the great port of Baltimore.

In 1833, after seven relatively happy years in Baltimore, Frederick was returned to the rural Maryland plantation on which he was born. After years of comparative liberty, he found it extremely difficult to re-accustom himself to life on the plantation, and resolved to escape. In 1838, posing as a free black sailor, he escaped by train to New York City, where he changed his name to Frederick Douglass. He wrote of his escape: “I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil…A new world had opened upon me. I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life.” He later moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he worked as a labourer, and began active involvement in the anti-slavery movement.

After hearing Douglass speak in 1841, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the fiery anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, arranged for him to become a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass was a great success, and in 1845 the society supported the publication of his autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a classic narrative of slavery and African-American autobiography.

After the book gained considerable popularity for its dramatic story of suffering and escape its graceful and forceful prose style,, Douglass was afraid that his new-found fame might result in his recapture by his owner, and so embarked on a lengthy trip to Britain. Struck by the passionate agitation against the Corn Law which he observed on visits to Birmingham and Manchester, he became active in the anti-Corn Law movement, and was intrigued to learn about the economic theories of the “Manchester School” (a group of liberal intellectuals committed to free trade and opposed to mercantilism, led by Richard Cobden and John Bright), which defined his views on many social and economic issues for the rest of his life. He was extremely impressed by the degree of political engagement he observed amongst the English working classes, and particularly, in Manchester, by the fact that, although many workers’ livelihoods depended entirely on the continued availability of slave-grown cotton, they nonetheless empathised with the sufferings of slaves.

Douglass visited Manchester in 1846, speaking at the Free Trade Hall at a meeting of the Anti-Slavery League, and stayed for several months in St Ann’s Square. Notoriously, Douglass was said to have been spotted exiting a Manchester brothel. Douglass was furious at this charge, and sued for libel the Free Church of Scotland minister he suspected was behind the rumour. Douglass had angered the Church with his “Send Back the Money” campaign, which urged it to reject the donations of Scots-descended slaveholders in the United States. He eventually extracted an apology from Reverend Smyth, but the tactic of playing upon Douglass’s sexuality would be a constant weapon in the arsenal of his antagonists.

While in England, Douglass raised the funds to establish his own anti-slavery newspaper, the North Star. This led to his break with Garrison, who opposed the formation of a separate black-owned press, fearing that the abolitionist cause would be weakened if it divided along racial lines. But Douglass felt that his time in England had transformed him: he wrote to a friend, “I seem to have undergone a transformation. I lead a new life.” He began to move away from what he increasingly came to see as the paternalism of the American Anti-Slavery Society and other white-dominated American abolitionist groups, and became determined to strike out on his own after this “liberating sojourn.”