As you may have noticed, Manchester is growing. In every possible direction.
Sites on the fringe of the city are beginning to put their plans together. Old Granada Studios (St John’s as it will be known), the Co-op’s 21 acre NOMA estate; the former BBC Oxford Road site; nearby First Street, not forgetting Chapel Street and Middlewood Locks on the Salford border.
‘Has Canal Street has
struggled to keep up?’
The Middle East is rebuilding Ancoats/East Manchester and China is taking care of Airport City.
Before all that, the Northern Quarter has now gone fully bananas, Spinningfields is (finally) an established evening destination (Leftbank is beginning its rebirth) and former Beirut-theme park parody Peter Street is revived, just about.
Deansgate Locks still packs them in too. If you’re the kind of person still young enough to get hammered on a Tuesday night.
New neighbourhoods are being created. Urban villages are piecing themselves together. The old is connecting to the new.
But what does this mean for some of the city’s elder statesman, geographically? How about the city’s ‘gay village’ – as almost nobody refers to it these days?
As the city swells, some feel that Canal Street has struggled to keep up. It’s looking tired. The atmosphere has changed. The vibrancy has dipped.
Put simply, there are more places to go for a night out these days – and Canal Street is near the bottom of a lot of people’s list.
When I first moved to Manchester, in the mid-90s, Canal Street was fun, welcoming and celebrated the diversity of the city in a way that nowhere else could. Especially in the wee small hours. It was different to anything else the city had to offer.
It was a great daytime drinking spot, a decent bet for a good evening meal and a safe and fun after-hours option when everywhere else had kicked out.
Queer as Folk sent Canal Street’s profile into overdrive and it was one of the best parts of the city centre.
Then, somewhere along the line, Canal Street stopped being fun.
As a straight thirty-something, I didn’t feel particularly welcome there. None of the bars spoke to me – pile it high and sell it cheap booze, no particular standout food offering, fluctuating levels of cleanliness – and I started to realise that I hadn’t suggested it to anyone for a night out for years, whereas previously, it had been an absolute staple.
It’s all about identity, of course. Everybody knows what the Northern Quarter is. Or Spinningfields. Whether they like it or not is up to them. But what is the village nowadays?
Events like Pride put the village in focus for a few days every year, but because of its size and ticketing policy, effectively cuts itself off from the rest of the city. A victim of its own success, but finding a greater connection to the rest of the city is something the organisers have been keen to address recently.
So what does Canal Street need? Well, how about a few basics? Operators working more closely together, a refreshed tenant mix, better marketing, clear identity?
It’s encouraging to see businesses like Tea42 moving in. A few years back, The Molly House introduced a different kind of boozer to the village, which was exactly what it needed. For the first time in years, I found myself spending more time on Canal Street.
And hopefully, I will again soon.
Let’s not be too unkind to Canal Street. It’s not the only ‘old’ neighbourhood’ that has lost its way or failed to keep up with the positive changes across the rest of the city centre. Chinatown is an essay in itself. But Manchester’s other established waterside leisure spot – Castlefield – has managed to stay relevant and popular with a broad mix of people. So why not Canal Street?
Ironically, what Canal Street probably needs to do better is diversity – as well as putting aside whatever differences might exist within the neighbourhood for the greater good.
And then, maybe, people like me might start going there more often – and telling other people that actually, despite Manchester’s new and shiny pubs, bars and restaurants, the older generation can still mix it with the best of them.