The story of Manchester's housing estate on the roof of the Arndale Centre, and the beat clubs and streets that stood before the shopping centre.
Recent news that Zhuzhou, China had built villas on the roof of a shopping mall sparked excitement across the world with the concept being labelled as the future of urban planning, however, this future had already been realised, in 1981, on top of Manchester’s Arndale Centre.
Cromford Court, known to tenants as ‘the podium’, was a housing association venture by Manchester City Council. In all there were 60 flats on the rooftops of the Arndale Centre and they were inhabited on and off from 1981 until 2003, when they were demolished soon after as part of a redevelopment brought on by an IRA bomb in 1996.
"My friend had a one bedroom flat but the storage cupboard was also turned into a single bedroom. Good place to crash after a night out in town and no need for a taxi home. He lived there during the Manchester bomb in 1996…it had been declared unsafe and everybody was kept out, in order to retrieve his passport to go on holiday he had to sneak past the police" - David Crausby
Former Hacienda DJ Graeme Park said of the flats:
"Not long after I started DJing at The Hacienda, Mike Pickering moved to one of the flats above the Arndale Centre in Manchester. In 1988, I used to stay at Mike’s and I had my own room. I’d roll up to his every Friday and park my car in the Arndale’s multi story car park and get the lift from the street up to the roof. It was weird, because you’d expect a great view, but the flats weren’t as high up as people thought. You could see some of the city and look down at people on the street whilst walking from the lift to Mike’s flat but once inside you couldn’t see anything but the lift.
There were two bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs and a living room and kitchen upstairs if I remember correctly. The ground floor of Mike’s flat was very dark and upstairs quite bright. We had some great nights in there after finishing The Hacienda at 2am.
I remember once crazed evening up there that involved me, a raw egg and Martin Fry from ABC.
On Saturdays, I’d often get the lift down to the shops before heading back to Nottingham. Well, until the lift stopped between floors. I got the foul smelling stairs after that. In fact, to this day I’ll always use the stairs if I can."
Cromford Court was named in tribute to the area that existed prior to the shopping centre which razed it to the ground. A city surveyor in 1962 said that Manchester was “crystallized in its Victorian setting“ and the dense, dirty collection of Victorian buildings on what is now the Arndale site, were presented as a maze of inequity.
The beat clubs that saturated the area before the Arndale was built were the cause of much concern for the authorities - they were unlicensed members only venues, as such they didn’t have to abide by the same legislations as licensed public venues. This meant, as well as a haven for undesirable characters, runaways and around the clock opening hours, a prevalence in drugs such as Purple Heart amphetamines and a constant haze of marijuana smoke.
"They go by different names—coffee and dance clubs, beat clubs, jazz clubs and the like. They are clubs at which refreshments of the coffee, snack and soft-drink variety are available, and they offer evening and often all-night entertainment in the form of ''pop' music"- surveyor's report, 1962
One of the most notable of the clubs in the area was The Magic Village, the owner of which would later move to the eponymous rooftop houses. Also known as The Cavern it was a leaky venue with a rope swing on the dancefloor, it saw the likes of Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Jethro Tull grace the stage.
"Who needed beer all you had to do was breathe" - Andrew Gibbons, Manchester Beat
It was decided that even the innocent who went with good intentions would “slide into the evils which these clubs purvey”.
"Many young people who become members of a jazz club in all innocence because of a love of music or dancing may find themselves enticed in the intimacy of a private club into trying drugs"
In 1965 the Manchester Corporation Act was passed meaning that the clubs could be closed without reason. At the time Manchester had 250 beat clubs, by 1967 it had just 3.
Under construction, 1980. Courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives and Aerofilms (copyright unknown)
Parliament discussed the act two years on as part of the Private Places of Entertainment Bill, quoting an article from The Times (May 12, 1965) about the classification of the clubs in the area.
He said: "Club No. 1 would satisfy anyone. It is well decorated and even looks clean when the main lighting is switched on. It has fire exits, closes before midnight, and is run by a manager who insists on reasonable dress and cleanliness and who has often helped parents to trace missing children. There are several beat clubs of this standard in the city and most people will be happy if legislation brings them all near to it. He went on to describe Club No. 2 and Club No. 3, and at the bottom of the list he described Club No. 4. It …consists of a dilapidated detached house which looks something like a Tennessee Williams set with Manchester rain added. It is surrounded by a rubble and litter-strewn yard labelled ‘Car Park’. Juveniles are supposed to leave at 11 p.m., but the house is open all night, every night, until 6 a.m. Recently a girl of 17 was arrested there after she had stabbed a boy of 16 in the back. We do not need to close down Club No. 1 in order to eliminate Clubs Nos. 2, 3 and 4, and it is good to see that this Bill is drafted in such a way as to enable local authorities to have discretion"
The discretion the local authorities exercised was the same discretion that saw 250 clubs become 3. It seems a very brutal move and perhaps,when you consider that both the plans to clear this area had long been mused over and that it was eventually through compulsory purchase orders that the area was cleared for the Arndale, one not without ulterior motives.
The people who lived their lives here were at a loss, it wasn’t about losing the streets but the loss of their sense of freedom and bohemian way of life. The facelift that modernised the main thoroughfare was done so at the cost of a burgeoning scene. Even today, now that the surrounding Northern Quarter area has flourished quite in spite of the Arndale development, there’s still that feeling that we’re chasing after something that was lost.
Today the Arndale Centre is the third largest city centre shopping mall in Europe, when it was built in the 70s it cost £100m. After the IRA bomb, which was detonated from a van just outside, the insurance payouts made the attack the most expensive man-made disaster ever. The redevelopment that followed in the wake of the attack gave Manchester a chance to rebuild and improve the area, but despite this the Arndale still regularly makes the lists of ‘most ugly’ and ‘least loved’.
The rooftops dwellings, the new Cromford Court, were eventually demolished after many years of uncertainty that had followed in the wake of the 1996 attack. The houses were not a part of the city’s vision of a new Manchester.
For all the ideals the rooftop location presented it did have its downfalls - the financial handling of the company was peculiar and often unfair, the area was lively and thus the go-to spot for parties which, although not a problem in itself, left the area open to crime as with the Cromford Court that came before.
Around Cromford Court’s peak in the late 1980s Manchester’s city centre population was less than 1,000 but this summer, at a little over 503,000 for the region with more than 15,000 in the city, it had cemented its place as Britain’s boom city; growing at a rate three times the national average.
A masterplan for the next 15 years hopes to grow the city further, aiming for 80,000 more residents and 60,000 more homes. Part of this plan encourages a flurry of skyscrapers- it seems that the abundance of empty units in quite remarkable old builds are being brushed aside in favour of a glazed (and so far unimaginative) myriad of buildings, but there was a time the city if not a little misguided was fundamentally more innovative than that.
It’s a bitter irony that the very things that continued to support Manchester as the Original Modern City over the years were swept under the carpet in moves to modernise the city.
Cromford Court isn’t the only rooftop housing in Manchester, in 1940 the caretaker of Ship Canal House lived on the roof with his wife, up among the chimneys. Read about it here
Thanks to Manchester Libraries, David Crausby, Graeme Park and Guinness Northern Counties
Article republished on Untapped Cities