Manchester and Liverpool lie in the North-West of England, barely thirty-five miles apart. In the early nineteenth century, they epitomised the beginning of the industrial age; Manchester is justifiably known as the first industrial city in the world. Although it was between these two municipalities that Great Britain’s first passenger railway ran, the cities are long-standing rivals. Manchester was a prominent centre of world trade, whilst Liverpool, with its docks, was the logistical centre for the region’s textile factories. Later on, they sought to outdo each other with their football teams, their music scenes and their cultural institutions.
With the disintegration of the textile industry in the county of Lancashire, Manchester und Liverpool experienced a severe decline from 1950 onwards. Around 1930, both boasted approximately 850,000 inhabitants; today, only about half as many people live within the city boundaries of each. In both places, extreme de-industrialisation and suburbanisation went arm-in-arm with growing poverty among the working class and an increasing rate of population loss. The nadir of decline was marked by violent riots in Manchester’s Moss Side and Liverpool’s Toxteth districts in 1981.
Since then, the situation has substantially and visibly improved. During Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minster, when local government services in Britain were extensively privatised, Manchester chose the path of coalition, while Liverpool chose opposition. The result was that Manchester survived the crisis much more successfully than did Liverpool, even though the signs of shrinkage (such as vacant properties, poverty, blighted areas, high crime levels) are easy to find in both cities.
The withering of the textile industry, which had begun during the nineteen-twenties, was followed by the departure of other businesses. Between 1971 and 1981, the city lost almost fifty thousand full-time jobs. In 1995, in spite of growth in the service sector, Mancunians suffered from 18.9 percent unemployment. The rate today is 9.1 percent.
During the last decade, the city has tried to renew its derelict sites with a whole series of cultural institutions and events. Among these are: the Lowry Centre, opened in 2000; the Imperial War Museum North, designed by Daniel Libeskind; the bid to host the Olympic Games in 2000 and the holding of the Commonwealth Games in 2002. «But the economic success of the city centre,» as it says on Manchester City Council’s web site, «stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding districts, whose inhabitants suffer from one of the highest concentrations of criminality, as well as bad health and poor housing.»
Particularly hard-hit by change is the district of Hulme, near to the centre, which has been razed to the ground twice in thirty years. Its slums, built in the age of Queen Victoria, were demolished during the nineteen-sixties. The terraced houses were replaced by high-rise flats and a crescent «à la Bath». Not long after the last of the new accommodation was occupied, however, in 1972, it began to fall into disrepair. In the empty blocks, a vigorous sub-culture soon grew up. Notwithstanding this, in 1992 the area was visited by a second wave of demolitions, in the shape of the «Hulme City Challenge» programme.
In other parts of Manchester, young architects have been active since the end of the nineteen-eighties. The metier of this pioneer type of developer is discovering and buying-up buildings that are no longer in use. Large, deserted warehouses are especially favoured for conversion into offices and loft apartments – much in demand with the new, upwardly-mobile generation.
During the late Seventies and early Eighties, Manchester spawned a new music scene influenced by punk and indie, later also hiphop and House, whose members made vacant rooms and buildings their stage. Among the former industrial sites famous in the scene were the headquarters of Factory Records, the Hacienda Club and the Dry Bar. Even though music had little effect on the city’s economy, it played a key part in changing and improving Manchester’s image: from a manufacturing city to a centre of the service industry.
Some time later, on one of the many canal-side roads, the Gay Village grew up. This and the music scene share a development pattern typical of minority urban cultures. They are discovered first by students, then by tourists – and then by investors. The developers appropriate the aura and the myth of the place. One clear sign of this is the demolition of the Hacienda: today, a building with loft-style apartments stands on the site and the club’s name lives on as a sales gimmick. Similarly, the music culture of the Eighties has largely disappeared from the centre of Manchester, not least because of the increased cost of property.
In the days of the British Empire, the miles of docks on both shores of the River Mersey offered a single, vast, secure place of work. Most of the jobs in the ports necessitated only cheap labourers, rather than skilled workers. This mono-structure (its community characterised simultaneously by the Roman Catholicism and socialism of its Irish immigrants) turned out to be Liverpool’s undoing after the Second World War. With the end of the colonies and the introduction of container ships, the port became less viable. Attempts to site new businesses in the area failed. In the mid-Nineties, poorer city districts, such as Everton, had an unemployment rate of 44 percent. Almost every second household relies on support from social welfare programmes.
The construction of council housing as part of the welfare state played an important role in Liverpool for a long time. In response to a large population increase in the nineteen-thirties, an outer ring of residential buildings was created, almost doubling the built-up area within the city boundaries! In the nineteen-fifties, priority was given to the demolition of slums and the establishment of New Towns in the surrounding area. This reduced the density of Liverpool’s inner city. At the end of the Seventies, the economy collapsed and, in some districts, unemployment rose to nearly 90 percent: by the middle of the Eighties, Liverpool City Council was bankrupt.
This led to a radical privatisation of house-building. Within a radius of two kilometres from the city centre broad swathes of land were laid bare. Over a period of twenty years, the multi-storey terraced blocks of the Fifties were replaced by bungalows and two-storey semi-detached houses. This represented a considerable shrinkage: from fifty to sixty units per hectare previously to a mere six or eight. Since the population of Liverpool continued to decrease (by 8 percent in the Nineties alone), inner city high-rise flats were blown up, one after another. Today, large areas with a suburban layout are to be found right next to the city centre. Neighbourhood Watch Areas, designed for security, stand facing empty housing from the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-fifties, often vacated by its inhabitants under pressure from a developer. The vacuum is temporarily filled by practitioners of informal and illegal ‘recycling’. The buildings are stripped of front doors, window frames, whatever can be used or sold elsewhere.
Like other poor regions, Liverpool receives hefty subsidies from the European Union: between 1994 and 1999 alone, these amounted to eight hundred million pounds. Like its rival in Manchester, the City Council keeps trying to implant new cultural institutions in the urban fabric, to act as economic incubators. In 1988, a branch of London’s Tate Gallery was opened in a converted warehouse. The first Liverpool Biennial was held in 2000. In 2008 the city will bask in the glow of being European Capital of Culture. Liverpool City Council hopes that this will bring two billion pounds worth of investment and fourteen thousand new jobs.