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THE unemployment rate in Manchester has recently declined, according to official statistics. The city has become the financial center of England's northwest, and also a popular place to shop. Expansion of the Manchester Airport, the upcoming Commonwealth Games in the city, and the rebuilding of a downtown section heavily damaged by an IRA bomb in 1996 have attracted outside investment and created new jobs in construction. There are great hopes for increased tourism: Manchester's industrial legacy is being displayed in new museums and transmuted into theme-park attractions. In The Road to Wigan Pier,(1937) George Orwell used the slag heaps of Lancashire and the "smoke-dim slums of Manchester" as a metaphor for the evils of capitalism and of a technological society that valued efficiency above all else. Today Wigan Pier boasts "a major heritage centre depicting life ... at the turn of the century," according to an advertisement placed by the local borough. The ad is dominated by a photograph of a golfer taking a swing; above him is the slogan "Tee off in Wigan for a perfect break."
Most of the recent growth in Manchester employment has occurred in the service sector, where wages are generally much lower than those paid by factory jobs. Great Britain still does not have a guaranteed minimum wage (though one is due to take effect next year). In 1994 it was estimated that almost a third of full-time workers in Great Britain were earning less than the "threshold of decency" established by the Council of Europe -- poverty-level wages. "It's our job to glory in inequality," Margaret Thatcher once said, "and see that talents and abilities are given vent and expression for the benefit of us all." From 1979 to 1993 the number of British people living in poverty nearly tripled. Two years ago a United Nations report found that Great Britain had the most unequal society in the West, with the poorest two fifths of the population receiving a smaller share of the nation's income than the comparable population receives in any other industrialized country except Russia. The widening gulf between rich and poor is evident in greater Manchester, where the wealthy of suburban Cheshire live far removed from the slums of Ordsall. Homeless people now wander amid the city's trendy new restaurants and bars. Some are young people who were drawn to Manchester by the club scene, partied too hard, and wound up on the streets.
Over the past decade the use of Ecstasy has become commonplace throughout Great Britain. According to Mike Linnell, a staff member at Manchester's Lifeline Drugs Agency, roughly a million hits of Ecstasy are now consumed every weekend in Britain. Each tablet costs about £8 ($13). The short-term risks of using Ecstasy seem relatively mild for most people. Nevertheless, half a dozen or so British kids die every year from the heatstroke that can be caused by taking Ecstasy and dancing for hours without drinking enough liquid. The long-term effects of Ecstasy use are much less clear. A number of studies conducted on animals suggest that chronic Ecstasy use may permanently damage seratonin-secreting cells in the brain. The current generation of British young people, known as the "E-generation," may in the future face an increased risk of depression, among other things. Ecstasy now permeates British youth culture, its influence extending from music to literature and advertising. Television ads have used house music to sell cars, and candy advertisements in magazines have relied on imagery with obvious references to Ecstasy. The mass marketing of the drug reached an apotheosis when the Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, author of the best seller Trainspotting, promoted his Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance with a book party at the Haçienda.
Manchester's crime rate has soared in recent years. It is one of the highest in England and Wales. Most of the city's crime is property-related: burglaries, shoplifting, and car thefts. Muggings have become more common, however, and police officers at times wear bulletproof vests. The city has an anarchic feeling. Playground equipment and bus shelters are destroyed for the sheer joy of it; tidy middle-class homes sport burglar alarms; and boisterous young men stream from pubs at closing time, looking for a fight. "A shocked vicar woke to find thieves had stolen three stained glass windows," a Manchester newspaper reported not long ago; these days anything that can be sold may be stolen. Manchester's teen idols, much like America's "gangsta" rappers, often boast about their youthful criminal exploits (and no doubt exaggerate or fabricate a few of them). Shaun Ryder, the charismatic lead singer first of Happy Mondays and now of Black Grape, claims to have burned down a school science building at the age of ten or eleven, to have shoplifted and pickpocketed his way through the major cities of Europe, to have sold drugs, fed rat poison to the pigeons of downtown Manchester, and started his musical career with sound equipment that his father nicked from Manchester social clubs. Noel Gallagher, of Oasis, has bragged about committing burglaries as a teenager. And Rob Collins -- the keyboard player of the Charlatans UK who died in a car accident two years ago -- was arrested after the release of the band's second album for serving as the getaway driver during a liquor-store robbery. The Charlatans had to stop touring for four months while Collins was in prison.
The drug culture of Manchester's dance clubs soon attracted the attention of local gangs. Taking control of a club's door policy became an important first step toward controlling the sale of Ecstasy within the club. Bouncers affiliated with one drug gang tried to prevent rival dealers from getting in the door. The Haçienda was drawn into a rivalry between the drug gangs of Salford and Cheetham Hill. In February of 1991 the club voluntarily closed for a few months -- people were bringing weapons into the club, and a gang member threatened one of the bouncers with a gun. One night not long after the Haçienda reopened, gang members sneaked in through a side door, eluding the club's metal detectors, and stabbed half a dozen bouncers. A drug scene that had begun with promises of peace, love, and harmony degenerated into a lucrative market for Ecstasy dealers. Different gangs eventually laid claim to different parts of the club. In July of last year a young man leaving the Haçienda was attacked by gang members. Losing money and facing the revocation of its license, the club shut down. As of this writing the Haçienda remains closed, and the building has been sold.
Graham Parker, a Manchester artist, compares the city's predicament today to that of the beleaguered French Foreign Legion fort in the movie Beau Geste. "At the end there are only about three soldiers left," he says, "but they're running around propping up the bodies of the dead in the turrets to make the fort look fully defended." Parker thinks the current nightlife economy is kept going by a handful of creative people and "a state of endearingly stroppy denial." New bars and clubs keep opening, but the continued prosperity of downtown Manchester is by no means a sure thing. In March, Richard Leese, the leader of the city council, warned that Manchester's "rampant lawlessness" threatened to undermine investor confidence. Too much crime might put a damper on the nightlife; a thrilling sense of vague danger could easily turn into fear of walking the streets. Ten years after the second summer of love the acid-house that emerged from Manchester's club scene has mutated into new forms of electronic dance music: trance, techno, happy hardcore, drum-'n'bass, acid jazz, jungle, trip-hop, and speed garage. At the moment, some of the most innovative British music is coming out of the city of Bristol, from performers like Tricky, Massive Attack, Portishead, and Roni Size. In music, as in so much else, Manchester may soon find itself trying to make money from its past. The façade of prosperity may crumble as the party moves elsewhere. Even if Manchester's nightlife continues to boom, the thousands of laid-off factory hands and their families may find it difficult to gain employment in this postindustrial economy. No matter how many new bars and clubs open, the demand for bass players and drummers, for bouncers, bartenders, cocktail waitresses, and disc jockeys, will never absorb the supply of proud but discarded workers in Lancashire.
AT two in the morning on Whitworth Street a couple of young girls, all dressed up and made up and no older than fourteen, are still trying to talk their way into a club. The bouncers tower over them, make fun of them, take their cigarettes. No amount of flirting will get these girls past the velvet ropes tonight. Some old winos sit on the ground a few feet away, drinking and cursing everybody who walks by. Whenever the door of a club opens, music spills into the street. Couples weave and stagger down the sidewalk, gently guiding each other home. A pack of middle-aged clubbers -- the men with bald spots and ponytails, the women wearing pants too tight -- leave the Ritz, where the DJ is playing classic rock. Bikers in head-to-toe leather stand in front of Jilly's, admiring some Harleys parked by the curb. At the Rainbow twenty-four-hour snooker is still going on. In the Gay Village handsome young men chat at tables beside the canal, and the bars are packed.
On a dark, narrow street filled with trash a young woman suddenly appears from a doorway. She has blonde hair and a lovely face that is covered with sores. She wears the torn remnants of a fashionable outfit and gloves with their fingers cut off. She sweetly asks me for money "to buy something to eat, luv, swear to God, just something to eat." I give her some money, and she acts grateful, much too grateful, before receding into the darkness again. On the next block a woman walks away from her boyfriend, who stands and yells at her. She ignores him, and he hurls an empty bottle at her back, missing by yards. She walks off without turning around, as the sound of his shouting and of shattering glass echoes off the brick walls. Outside the Britannia Hotel -- what was once the grandest warehouse in town, each story built in a wildly different architectural style, and now adorned in a manner that would have pleased Elvis -- five gaudy prostitutes stroll into a nightclub. An old Rover full of teenage boys speeds by, its stereo blasting Daft Punk, and the boys cheerfully wave to them.
Despite a century of decline and eleven years of Margaret Thatcher, despite lousy weather and even lousier prospects, despite the grim housing estates, the boarded-up buildings, the shallow obsessions of club culture, the drugs, gangs, and garbage in the streets, Manchester still feels alive. That is an accomplishment, however long it lasts. The place survives through small acts of defiance. In and around the ruins of an empire, kids are dancing.
Eric Schlosser is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.
Photographs by Aidan O'Rourke
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1998; Saturday Night at the Haçienda; Volume 282, No. 4; pages 22-34.