Residents are fighting back against gentrification in Manchester’s Northern Quarter

A building in Thomas Street, being demolished. Image: Andrea Sandor.

As the claw sunk its teeth into the Victorian warehouse, raining down century-old hand laid brick, the spirit of residents hardened. Soon after, huddled in the back room of Gulliver’s Pub, the Northern Quarter Forum formally adopted a constitution and elected officers. The city council was failing them, and there was no other option but to organise. This was war.

The Northern Quarter is lauded in travel guides and city break round-ups as Manchester’s quirky, indie heartland, replete with independents, hip bars, and evocative street art. What these articles won’t tell you, but residents will, is that the streets are dirty, derelict buildings are crumbling, and upper floors of others are vacant. The homeless bed down for the night, stag and hen parties traipse through, and drunks pass out on the street leaking trails of urine.

So when developer Salboy, owned by billionaire bookie Fred Done, announced at a public consultation about luxury flats that one of the Victorian warehouses on the Soap Street site was to be demolished under emergency orders the next day, residents rallied. It wasn’t the first building to be torn down at a moment’s notice, and, although they didn’t know it yet, a few weeks later an eighteenth century weaver’s cottage would also be dust.

The Northern Quarter in context. Image: Google.

Unease about gentrification had been growing for several months. Arts organisations and long-time independents were forced out when their rents were put up 30-40 per cent overnight. Many of those who remain are hospitality businesses that own multiple seemingly independent establishments, and those moving in have significant capital behind them: in other words, if you think it’s an independent, it’s probably not.

The Northern Quarter has become a hotspot for short-term lets, with visitors throwing all night parties, failing to follow waste management rules, and even, say some, harassing residents in their own buildings. Property management companies are now renting flats as short-term lets rather than to long-term residents, and individuals are building up property portfolios of their own. At the moment, it’s easier to find a let on Airbnb (171 listings) than it is a long-term rent on Rightmove (143 listings).

As in other cities, there is both a concern that short-term lets are pushing up house prices, and long term questions about what sort of economy short-term lets stimulate: night clubs, not hardware stores. While city centre MP Lucy Powell raised the issue with Home Secretary Sajid Javid, he said that London’s 90-day per year restriction will not be introduced elsewhere.

Now developers have moved into the Northern Quarter, touting “luxury” flats. Salboy has three projects in the works – one under construction and two, including Soap Street, seeking planning permission. When, at one consultation, I asked director Simon Ismail to whom these “luxury” flats would be marketed, he answered candidly: not to locals. The only way to make the numbers work – to maximise profit – is to sell at a higher price point to overseas investors.

So is the Northern Quarter a cultural hub or a party district? Is it a cherished conservation area for a diverse mix of residents to call home, or a free-market playground for international capital to make a fast buck?

Manchester City Council has let the area develop “organically,” taking a developer-friendly approach. Despite having powers to issue notices requiring owners of decaying buildings to conduct repairs, some buildings have sat derelict for decades.

RIP. Image: Andrea Sandor.

When I meet with Sir Richard Leese, I ask the leader of the City Council what measures were taken to save the recently demolished buildings. He tells me both were under development, as though the expectation was they were being refurbished. And yet the original Soap Street proposal didn’t propose retaining the Victorian warehouses, and the Thomas Street plans hadn’t yet been submitted.

While Leese cites the number of refurbished buildings in the area and denies the council has allowed buildings to crumble so owners can develop them into profitable luxury flats and hotels, it’s easy to understand why many residents assume this is the case. Even Leese reminds me it can be more profitable to knock down and build new.

It seems what’s happening in the Northern Quarter and elsewhere in Manchester is a version of what has been referred to as “state-led hyper gentrification”: a process in which gentrification is “not just allowed, but abetted by government policies”.

So how did we get here?

Let’s step back a few decades to the 1980s. Manchester, having fallen from its industrial heyday into a depressed backwater, was in a dire state. Between 1951 and 1981, jobs in the city declined by 22 per cent and Manchester residents cleared out of the slummy city centre for the greener fringes. Following deregulation of London’s financial sector in 1986, Manchester’s Labour-run city xouncil switched gears in the 1990’s from a welfare agenda to a market-led approach to attract new investment.

Around this time, artists and architects started moving into the derelict Northern Quarter due to cheap rents, slowly transforming it into a bohemian mecca. Some later formed the Northern Quarter Association, and protected the area’s historic architecture by getting a number of buildings listed.


The Council’s market-led approach appeared to pay off, as Manchester was dubbed the poster child of urban renewal. And there is much to admire. Manchester’s City Centre population grew 149 per cent between 2002-15; jobs increased by 84 per cent between 1998 and 2015. But now the market-driven approach is running away from them: on some estimates, Manchester is growing 15 times faster than it can build housing.

Numerous news stories have profiled Manchester’s housing crisis, particularly the lack of affordable housing. Academic Jonathan Silver, in his report From Homes to Assets, argues this crisis is “not just an outcome of unjust austerity. It has also come about through the relatively recent emergence of housing in Greater Manchester as an investment opportunity for financial actors, from within the UK and increasingly internationally.”

The implications of this shift to financialised housing, Silver argues, “can be seen in the demolition of our built environment heritage, the growing pressures on neighbourhoods such as the Northern Quarter and perhaps most worryingly the lack of balanced communities as the central areas become ghettos for the well-off.”

Here in the Northern Quarter, those pressures are evident. The area is buzzing but also seedy; heroin addicts continue to shoot up in broad daylight. This is the neighbourhood the market made.

Since the Council won’t address this, residents are stepping up to the plate. They’ve forced Salboy to return to their designs; the development firm now propose retaining the remaining warehouse on site. Galvanised, the group are determined to do all they can to save and foster their much loved neighbourhood.

The Labour city council has been in power for over thirty years and faces no meaningful opposition. It’s in the strongest possible position to take an active role and ensure its protecting and fostering sustainable neighbourhoods. And yet, despite the wake-up call of Brexit and the growing opposition to neoliberalism, old habits are dying hard.

The Northern Quarter is a case-study in what happens to a historic area when market logic goes to town. What is loved about the Northern Quarter is not due to the market or the Council but to its residents. And once again, they’re fighting back.

 
 
 
 

A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.