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We live right on the edge of glitzy New Labour Manchester, here. Five minutes to the south, Harvey Nicks, the Gomorrah that is the Printworks, Selfridges and the cathedral; five minutes to the north, Strangeways and a mass of rag-trade warehouses, empty parking lots with forbidding barbed wire surrounding it and armoured loudspeakers that bark 'Caution! Car thieves operate in this area!'. It baffles me, coming as I do from Dublin, where the inner city dissolves into tightly-packed working class villages, then redbrick villages, the suburbs and finally the industrial wasteland, three to ten miles out. Out of my window, which is situated on the very edge of the inner city, I should be looking down on a lively working class district like Leonard's Corner or Inchicore, not on... nothingness. It baffles me.

One time, driving into the city through the wasteland, I saw a sign for the Manchester Jewish Museum, and this grey moody Sunday I decided to visit. It's in the old Sephardic synagogue, ten minutes' walk north from here; full of relics of a lively Jewish community, complete, in that very British twentieth century fashion, with a flurry of self-improving organisations: schools, charitable organisations, amateur dramatic societies, working men's clubs, all the trappings of a lost community life.

But Jewish Manchester hasn't gone. I am sadly used to wandering around the Scheunenviertel in Berlin and its equivalents in other European cities, stumbling over the Stolpersteine and realising the extent of the lives and communities destroyed by the Nazis. Manchester, though, is still one of the Jewish cultural centres of Britain. So why was this area - Red Bank and Strangeways, as it is properly called - so devastated, so triste and empty where once it was full of working-class Eastern European Ashkenazis, Sephardic lords of industry and Gentile Mancunians besides? The guide at the museum explained that it had been designated a light industrial zone after the war, so the dwellings were pulled down.

"Didn't the Jewish community feel attacked?" I asked, the forced resettlements and ethnic cleansings of Europe on my mind. "Oh no," she said breezily, "people were upwardly mobile, and most of them had moved to the leafy suburbs already." The same story, then, as with Dublin's Little Jerusalem, full of Ostjuden in 1900 who had mostly become middle-class and moved to Terenure and similarly salubrious pastures by 1930. No tragic tale, then, just... rezoning. But Little Jerusalem is still an immigrant district, boasting Ireland's first mosque, full of halal southern fried chicken shops and callshops and African hairdressers. One set of immigrants moves up in society, another moves in; it's the multi-cultural urban dream, right? And the energetic clash of cultures and influx of new citizens keeps areas alive? Whereas this utter abandonment of a district within ten minutes' walk of the city centre to shabby warehousing, import-export businesses and decaying surface carpark is baffling to me.

Armed with a map of the old Jewish Quarter, I wandered around the district, and realised that it's not dead at all. There's the Sikh temple, for one thing, and the erstwhile Red Bank is now brimming with independent businesses - car hire or storage warehouses, but mostly the rag trade, with Asian names and hard-nosed discounts on the signs stacked up on the frontages of a wild array of disreputable buildings. These range from corrugated iron shacks, brave 1990s one-story brick buildings to mouldering palaces of industry of indeterminate age. And among them are the lost Jewish buildings: that is, those that remain and haven't been used and re-used until they've been condemned and replaced. I'm still bewildered by the mentality that sternly deems the area for industry only, not for dwellings or heritage or art or leisure, but that's the learning experience of emigration for you. Andere Länder, andere Sitten. And hey, there's always the inexorable onward march of buy-to-let apartmentland to revive the area, right?

traces )


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September 2012

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