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Urban Life Saturday Night at the Haçienda Manchester, England
Once a city of dying mills, Manchester, England, has been revived by the music and nightclub industries. But has it merely traded one "dark Satanic" economy for another?

by Eric Schlosser

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.)
Discuss this article in the Global Views conference of Post & Riposte.

Related links:

  • Manchester's Web Site
    Statistics, general information, and news updates about Manchester's community and economy, posted by the Manchester City Council.

  • Manchester Online
    Manchester news, culture, regional-interest stories, civic life, and more.

  • A Guide to Manchester's Nightlife
    A comprehensive listing (with brief descriptions) of Manchester pubs, clubs, and bars. (Uses Shockwave.)

  • Youth - Sound - Space
    A site "designed as a 'crossroads' of sorts for young academics and researchers who have common interests in youth cultures that involve musical practices and the construction of social space."

  • Out of Hand e-zine
    "This is the best place to check out the latest goings on in the kicking UK clubscene."

  • WE hit speeds of more than 110 miles per hour on the road between Sheffield and Manchester, weaving among three lanes as a light rain fell. Eddy Rhead was sober and meticulous behind the wheel. He politely flashed his high beams before passing, and downshifted smoothly on curves. His navy-blue T-shirt warned, NEW YORK CITY FIRE DEPARTMENT: KEEP 200 FEET BACK. The other cars on the motorway seemed to be stuck in molasses. Tom Wainwright sat in the front passenger seat and casually looked back at me, explaining the various door policies at local nightclubs. Wainwright was a popular disc jockey based in Manchester; Rhead was his roadie for the evening; and the rented Ford was being pushed near its operational limits to reach the next gig in time. We were headed for the Haçienda, a club as notorious in the United Kingdom as Studio 54 once was in the United States. A group of Wainwright's fans, who had watched him DJ at a Sheffield club earlier in the evening, now struggled to keep up with us. They were crammed into a small Vauxhall that fell behind, vanished for long stretches, and then suddenly reappeared in our rearview mirror. Rhead and Wainwright saw nothing unusual in the mist and the mad rush and the blur of scenery flying past us, like a video played on fast forward. This was part of the routine. It was just another Saturday night in the north of England.

    On the outskirts of Manchester we passed empty lots, abandoned factories, warehouses with broken windows -- an industrial wasteland punctuated by row after row of modest brick houses. There was more life downtown, amid the faded grandeur of massive Victorian buildings. Rhead slowed down considerably to avoid pedestrians, but ran a few red lights too, hitting Whitworth Street at twelve-thirty, right on time.

    About twenty or thirty people stood in front of the Haçienda, hoping to get inside. They had come from all over the north, from Blackpool and Preston, from Bradford, Leeds, and Stoke-on-Trent, some of them driving for hours just to dance here tonight. The building was low and unexceptional. It had once served as a yacht warehouse. You could hear muffled bass notes through the brick walls, a dull, thumping four-four beat. Rhead removed cases of twelve-inch singles from the trunk and handed a couple to me. This was as far as he would go. Rhead wouldn't set foot in the Haçienda. It had been his hangout for years, a "brilliant" place, the best, nothing like it, but lately everything had changed. The club had a different feeling now, a much darker one; bad things were happening inside. Rhead said good-night and got back into the car. I turned and followed Wainwright, helping him carry the discs. The crowd parted for us, a bouncer opened the door, the calm of the street fell away, and we stepped into the maelstrom of a teenage party, hot and sweaty, with people dancing, strobe lights flashing, and music so loud it seemed to have acquired a physical presence -- so loud that I could not only hear it but feel it, as though a stiff breeze were emanating from the speakers and somehow penetrating to the bone.

    THE popular culture of Great Britain has long been torn between contradictory impulses, often symbolized by the rivalry between north and south, between a faith in the common people and a proud elitism, between an urban, working-class sensibility and one that cherishes tradition, rank, and the arcadian values of country life. At the moment, the north is ascendant. You can see its newfound prestige in the current mania for soccer stars, in the success of films like Trainspotting and The Full Monty. Most of all, you can hear it in the music. The stale gentility of the Thatcher era has given way to a culture that is iconoclastic, often outrageous, and fed up with the trappings of hereditary privilege. The election of Tony Blair's Labour government only confirmed a change in popular attitudes that had been mounting for years. British youth culture has been exerting a sort of influence, both at home and overseas, that the United Kingdom has not enjoyed for thirty years. Laura Ashley prints and Brideshead Revisited nostalgia are long gone. There's a craving for the shock of the new, and middle-class kids in England are once again dressing down and dropping their aitches.

    Abandoned factory During the "beat boom" of the early 1960s, Liverpool was the trendsetter, home of the Beatles' "Mersey sound." For the past decade another northern city, Manchester, which though only thirty miles from Liverpool considers itself a world apart, has led the way in music, fashion, and graphic design. Both the rise of electronic dance music and the current revival of British rock-and-roll got their start in Manchester's clubs. In the summer of 1988 the city became a latter-day Haight-Ashbury, as young people from all over England and Europe flocked to a club scene, dubbed "Madchester," whose ground zero was the dance floor at the Haçienda. An urban center once famous for its factory system became renowned for its nightlife, for the rock clubs, bars, and dance clubs opening in abandoned warehouses downtown.

    Manchester's local government has encouraged this hip new image, hoping to create a postmodern, postindustrial economy based largely on entertainment. But youth culture changes rapidly; trendy scenes can vanish overnight; and the drugs and violence that doomed Haight-Ashbury's brief reign now threaten to end Manchester's. The city today has a surreal, highly charged atmosphere. Its plight says a great deal about what has happened lately in the "other" England -- the great northern industrial cities that rarely appear in British tourist brochures. Amid long-term unemployment and some of the worst urban poverty in Western Europe, the "dark Satanic" mills of Manchester deplored by Victorian social reformers are being turned into tapas bars and discos.

    Trendy venue
    Trendy venues emerge
    from the decay. 
    MANCHESTER was the world's first industrial city. The factories built here in the late eighteenth century used elaborate, innovative machines to make textiles out of the raw cotton picked by American slaves. The city became the industrial heart of the British Empire, serving as a model of economic development and inspiring whole new political philosophies. From 1760 to 1871 Manchester's population increased more than twentyfold, as laborers arrived from the rest of England and from Ireland, Scotland, Italy, and Greece. The metropolis that arose stood in total contradiction to aristocratic values and a stable rural order, as self-made men earned great fortunes and the countryside of Lancashire was blanketed with railroads, factories, and towns. Manchester seemed to embody the best and the worst of the modern age. The free-trade movement, liberal economic theory, and the worship of the free market took root in Manchester during the 1830s, amid opposition to England's Corn Laws, regulations that favored agriculture. A decade later the city produced one of the fiercest critiques of such laissez-faire capitalism. After living in Manchester and observing the poverty of its workers, Friedrich Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, a book that supplied much of the empirical basis for Marxism. As the textile mills moved to the outskirts of town, huge warehouses came to dominate the city center -- grandiose monuments to their owners' wealth, often built to resemble Renaissance palaces and surrounded by miles and miles of slums.

    Manchester reached its industrial peak in the years before the First World War, eventually manufacturing automobiles, chemicals, and heavy machinery in addition to textiles. It has been in decline ever since. The rise of more-efficient competitors overseas, the effects of the Great Depression, heavy German bombing during the Second World War, and the fall of the British Empire all took their toll. Warehouses, factories, and mines throughout Lancashire shut down. Manchester became a different sort of model, a harbinger of the de-industrialization that other great cities would endure. From 1921 to 1980 Manchester's population fell from about 800,000 to about 465,000. The Thatcher years were particularly devastating for the city, as government policies favored economic development in the Tory strongholds of the south -- London, Cambridgeshire, and Surrey. During the first decade of Conservative rule 94 percent of the jobs lost in England were in the north, where state-owned industries were privatized and ruthlessly downsized. Despite its economic woes, Manchester had enjoyed nearly full employment of its male population perhaps as late as 1970. The combination of more factory closings and deep cuts in social spending left the city reeling. By April of 1982 its unemployment rate was 32 percent. The greater Manchester area (which has a population of about 2.5 million) lost almost a fifth of its manufacturing jobs during the 1980s, and more than 125,000 people moved away. The unemployment rate in some Manchester neighborhoods still exceeds 20 percent. According to Gabrielle Cox, the head of greater Manchester's Low Pay Unit, approximately half of the city's population qualifies for government housing benefits, which are a means-tested grant. Half of the city now lives in poverty.


    The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.

    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.

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