A few years back it felt like Manchester city centre was changing exponentially, writes Len Grant. Certainly I’d come across parts of town that had been totally transformed since my last visit. New buildings, and sometimes whole districts, were springing up almost overnight.
Now, it seems, its the turn of east Manchester. There are neighbourhoods I haven’t visited for several weeks that are now almost unrecognisable. New public buildings are preparing to open; construction sites are crawling with yellow-vested works and dumper trucks; there’s a buzz about the place which seems at odds with economic forecasts.
For this ‘back to school’ progress report, I’ve included some highlights from a whistle-stop photographic tour of east Manchester.
This is the East Manchester Academy, whose progress East has been following for the past 18 months. On Monday it opens its doors to 203 Year 7 pupils, the first cohort of a long-awaited secondary school for the area. The Academy’s Principal, Guy Hutchence, calls them the ‘pioneers’, the ones who will set the standard for the years to come. Check out East next week where we will feature the historic first day of the Academy. Beswick Library shares the same building and opens to the public a week later on the 13th.
Over in Miles Platting this is the brand new Park View Community School which moves from its Victorian building on Nelson Street to its new home on Varley Street.
Up Oldham Road the Greater Manchester Police 240,000 sq ft Force Headquarters is nearing completion at Central Park. The steel frame in the background is the £35 million Divisional Headquarters which, when complete in 2011, will house those officers currently stationed in Beswick at Grey Mare Lane.
Across east Manchester the most visible construction activity is the laying of the Metrolink tracks that will take trams from the city centre to Droylsden. This Phase 3 extension work sees trams running along the main roads, as well as through new tunnels and across new bridges, taking in New Islington, Holt Town and Sportcity.
Here’s the beginnings of the £24 million BMX Centre, part of the National Cycling Centre. Built right alongside the Manchester Velodrome, it will eventually seat 2000 spectators and become the home of the British Cycling Federation.
Some of the biggest changes in east Manchester are currently happening in Openshaw. Morrisons will be the cornerstone in a £40 million retail development including other stores, offices, a car park for nearly 700 cars and a new piece of public art. This week hundreds of local people are being interviewed for positions at the store.
Further down Ashton Old Road, yet another housing development is progressing to fulfill the ambition of more new homes in east Manchester. This is The Key, a development of houses and apartments for sale or shared ownership. Visit www.thekeyeastmanchester.co.uk.
In 1985 photographer Charlie Meecham set out to photograph the seven mile Oldham Road between Manchester city centre and Oldham. Images of disused mills, new housing, concrete underpasses and rubbish-strewn wasteland were subsequently exhibited and published.
Now, nearly 25 years on, Charlie is back with his camera, about to embark on a sequel.
East: How did the first project develop?
Charlie: Originally it was very much about the road itself, but, after working on it for a short time, it was clear that the changes on either side of the road were more interesting.
Behind the roadside buildings it was like a stage set: new housing estates were springing up and whole areas were being re-landscaped. All this against the backdrop of the cotton mills. That became the focus for the project.
East: How did you go about it?
Charlie: I’d do a lot of walking. I’d pick an area and explore it for half a day or more. At first I’d use the camera as a notebook, so nothing gets too precious, too early. Then I’d go back to particular areas and re-photograph them with a large plate camera – you know – the type with a cloth over your head.
Recently I re-discovered a box of work prints from the first project that didn’t make it to the final exhibition. They’re fascinating, like a story book.
East: So, what’s changed in 25 years?
Charlie: What’s been a real shock to me is the housing in Miles Platting, at the Manchester end. There are swathes of houses that are now boarded up which were pretty much new 25 years ago. Whatever they were trying to do then clearly didn’t work.
Some of the tower blocks are still there, and the mills, or bits of mills, of course. But the big companies – Sharp, Pifco, Ferranti – appear to have closed down.
After 25 years of change I’m finding it quite hard to find some of the original locations from the first view but when I show local people the photographs, I do get a lot of help and I’m pleased to say there are still plenty of people with sharp memories and tales to tell about how it was and what has happened since.
I would like to build on this experience by working with local community groups and I feel there is more activity on that level than there was in the mid-1980s. It’s these groups I’d like to work with on this new project.
East: That will be a different way of working for you?
Charlie: Yes. Originally I’d work in relative isolation, maybe just chatting to the people I met along the way. This time I want to get much more involved with local community groups and with nearby schools. In this digital age, we are all photographers and I want to give everyone to opportunity to contribute something to this project.
East: So what questions will you be asking residents?
Well, I’d like to know what gives them a ‘sense of place’. What’s important to them locally? Is there a building or a feature – however strange or simple – that gives character to their surroundings?
I’d like to hear as many views as possible which is why I’m spending the next two years on the project. Any ideas or suggestions to help get me started will be gratefully received.
Follow Charlie’s project on his blog here, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.