An Alternative Guide to Manchester - Part III China Town and Market Street
Around the Arndale Centre and China Town - ghost signs, seating, and architecture straight from the Soviet bloc.
You might soon notice a bit of a carpark theme running through this guide but whereas the other inclusions are for their views this one is for the seating. The car park in China Town is a missed opportunity for a multilayered, interesting park like those of Porto, San Sebastian and 'insert any other European city here', but this one at least makes an effort to beautify the tarmaced scrap of land by way of a border made up of trees and a Chinese pagado on two of the four corners.
Is this the prettiest seating area in the city? Is that a depressing thing to admit to in a guide to the greatest we have to offer? Maybe, on both counts.
Although you'll face out away from the carpark if you take a seat here it is worth turning around and taking a look at the expanse of cars before you because there's a great brick mural of a Chinese junk ship laid into the wall of a neighbouring building at the back of the car park. Whilst here take a look around the Chinese supermarkets and gift shops, and pick up either a sweet honey or a savoury pork bun from Ho's Bakery.
What's particularly nice about the relatively small area is that it's a town for living in and there's a retirement home here, right in the middle of the city. There's also some of the best doorways in Manchester if size is your thing. Notice the peculiar lack of Chinese street signs - during major investment into Manchester’s China Town in the 1980s it was mooted that the streets were renamed in honour of the area’s new residents but as this was the oldest part of the city centre that remained unchanged it was, somewhat ignorantly, decided against.
However if you're in the market for signs there's a huge amount of ghost signs around these parts including old business names on doorways and those marvellously confident carvings bored into the stone of doorways that scream in their permanence that yes, our business will be here forever. Keep your eyes peeled and wander down the greasy back streets and see how many names from a forgotten Manchester you can discover.
If, after your explorations of the area, you emerge onto Princess Street look out for the little floor-level cubby holes, a few still have the original iron bar intact. They look like tiny doorways and are a legacy of a muckier city, a city before motor engines and instead one of horses. The recesses and the iron bars are there to scrape the horse manure off your shoes before you enter one of the warehouses. Now that buildings don't come complete with these little recesses it's safe to assume that you can walk horse manure into any building you like without fear of retribution - go forth and spread muck.
If bunkers and government secrets are your bag then wander down George Street, a side street close by, and check out the Guardian bunker. It's no longer secret, it hasn't been for some time, but people like to treat it as such and inject some excitement into an otherwise dull part of the city. BT own it these days and it's used for internet cables and whatnot, but if you find the right conspiracy theorist they'll tell you a far more interesting story.
If you're a visitor to Manchester good luck finding a tourist map. The upside of only being able to get hold of said map in one, or very few places, is the fact it gives you an excuse to see some of the best hidden art in the city. The tourist office is now a mere stand in the foyer of the Mercure Hotel.
This cantilevered hotel is unique in that it was built exclusively for people with cars because that was the utopian vision of a future city - all the isolated ground floor foyer stuff is a relatively recent addition - the only way in to the hotel originally was via the car ramp. Despite the architect's dream of people arriving exclusively by car people of course did still arrive on foot, those Luddite pedestrian idiots were forced to walk up the concrete car ramp with their suitcases in tow, no doubt all the while being beeped and leered at, and given the occasional bumper up the backside by the fashionable, future-embracing, car overlords driving behind them.
The hotel is a precursor to The Jetsons age, a snapshot of how the imminent future was catered for in the 60s. It's a time capsule and as such it's a remarkable building. But what of the art? Ah yes, go up to the top floor in the lift, then walk all the way back down...spanning four floors is a huge mural by post-war icon William Mitchell, made of broken bits of pianos, table legs, pencil shavings and bottle tops. The same artist created the patterned relief on the neighbouring facade of City Tower - that design being influenced by the circuit boards of a computer and in tribute to the invention of the world's first programmable computer here in the city.
Next door is Bank Chambers, a kind of Sticklebricks looking building that has walls so thick it's one of the city's safest buildings. The most appealing feature of the building isn't actually visible but behind that thick outer wall is a gap just wide enough to fit an Alsatian dog before the next interior wall begins. This is a legacy of when the building was home to the Bank of England, and patrol dogs would secretly pace the perimeter walls. Like the Great Wall of China, I like to imagine that most of the structural support of this building is made up of the skeletons of workers, or in this case, dogs who lived out their days in the wall cavities hoping for just one bank robber to bring some meaning to their otherwise futile existence.
the arndale centre
If you find yourself sucked into the vortex that is Market Street and or the abyss that is the Arndale Centre, resist! Or at least venture over to the Withy Grove side and look up. Nothing there? Correct!
But if you could time travel a decade or more then on top of the car park you find yourself gawping at right now you'd see something altogether more exciting. Houses. Houses on the roof of the Arndale shopping 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.
If Soviet bloc prison architecture is your thing, and let me tell you it's mine, then take a walk over towards Primark, past the Shakespeare pub (check out those little painted figures merrily dicking about above the doorways) and get down on your knees and worship Lowry House. Would Lowry be happy about this eponymous building? Maybe. He was into bleak shit.
I look at it, seemingly always on a cloudless sunny day, brown against blues, soaking up the sun and I think how much it's like a block of cinder toffee. I often stand with my back pushed against the wall of the opposite building, trying to squeeze the whole view of Lowry "Crunchie" House into the frame of my camera and I drool over the cinder tower and I start to plot the illegal raves on the top floor, the squalor of a 70s squat but with the glamour of Bowie's Berlin; multi-coloured lights pulsate from the top floor windows and narcotic smoke billows from the lips of those lying supine in the corners of the rooms discussing Patti Smith. I don't want you to tell me the offices inside are top notch refurb jobs. I want junkies and techno, and a Crunchie. If you want more of this sort of thing but on a bigger scale head to Stockport to see Stopford House (the police HQ from Life on Mars).
Opposite here is a street by the name of Milk Street - it's a pretty mundane street, in fact it's little more than an alleyway and it's not even the original Milk Street - that being Kelvin Street in the Northern Quarter. Several years ago and for many years thereafter there was a drawing of a cow's face on that street sign. The simple black and white outline of a Friesian cow against the black and white street sign never failed to make me smile, and it looked almost official. For that sort of street sign and image banter these days you need to head over to Deansgate for the Post No Bills: Bill Murray/Billy Idol/Bill Cosby montage.
That's it, now leave this area at once.