No Place Like Hulme
Ally Fogg marvels at the blessings woven from the curse of concrete housing estates and discovers genuine community among the squatters, tenants and travellers of Hulme.
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pp. 34-35.
It has to be Michael Howard’s worst nightmare. Squatters, Ravers, eco-warriors and hunt sabs passing their rowdy days and nights in the last comer of the disastrous experiment in modernist architecture known as Hulme.
Its location near to Manchester’s City Centre illustrates much that is contradictory about the south side of the city; you can take one road out of Hulme and find yourself in Moss Side’s Gangsta belt, another and find the academic spires of the universities and colleges, another and you’re with the upwardly mobile professionals of Chorlton. And standing proud in the middle of it all, a five minute pedal ride from all of the above, is a maze of streets, closes, squares and walks, the hub of them all being the near-legendary Otterburn Close.
At first glance it may look like a less than happy valley. BBC news have shots that they use as stock footage for any story about urban deprivation, drugs or crime. The psycho-killers of Cracker and Prime Suspect always live here, and your granny probably wouldn’t enjoy visiting if you moved in. But, as we all know, appearances can be deceptive, and the Council’s plan to move the residents into the terraced boxes of ‘New Hulme’ and raze the Close is moving less than smoothly. The problem is that people keep moving in faster than the Council can move them out. A unique spirit has developed in Otterburn and the residents are reluctant to leave behind something that has disappeared from other modem housing schemes - a sense of community. A large part of the atmosphere is the result of years (some would say centuries) of shared struggle in the area. Not just the immediate daily struggle against poverty, the DSS and drug and alcohol problems, but also wider political struggles. “Pay no Poll Tax” is still emblazoned on every wall, and most recently the community has been bonded like never before by the Criminal Justice Act which has to some extent criminalised the lifestyles of virtually every resident. Manchester Freedom Network has its office at number 9 next to the tenants’ pressure group Partnership for Change.
Molly and Katy have just moved into a squat. Their reasons are largely typical; financial hardship, friends on the Close, moving somewhere ‘fun’. But some of their thinking might be a surprise to many. Mollie says: “Otterburn is the only street in Manchester where you can leave a vehicle and have a good chance of finding it as you left it. I left my van parked at the back of where I used to live one night and the next day it was completely trashed. I feel a lot safer here too, you’re far less likely to get burgled than in student areas. I’ve been done over so many times in other places, I was fed up with it.”
Katy adds: “Our parents’ generation have this nostalgia for a mythical ‘good old days’ when everyone knew their neighbours and would nip round to borrow a cup of sugar. Well this is exactly that. Since I’ve moved in I keep meeting old friends in the pub or whatever and they say, ‘Oh yeah, you’ve just moved into number ** with Molly, haven’t you?’.” This interpretation of the Close as a post-modern urban village is echoed by many of the residents who talk about Mallarky’s Health Food Shop and Cafe as “the shop” and who, when looking for each other, will just wander from door to door asking if anyone has seen so-and-so. Usually somebody has.
There is a pervasive attitude of cheerful chaos everywhere, and not just among the people. The streets change names seemingly arbitrarily as you walk around; the numbering of flats is so anarchic that even long-term residents have never worked out the system involved. The lift will work fine so long as you nudge the door with your elbow at just the right moment. There is a cock that crows every morning at the crack of half past ten, and then crows “hello” to everyone that passes for the rest of the day. All this adds to the character and friendliness of the area, but more significantly is the depth of talent and ideas lying behind the anarchic facade. Many of Manchester’s most interesting cultural and musical events have originated here, going back to the infamous ‘punks’ picnics’ of yesteryear, through the Dogs of Heaven performance art festivals of 1993, to the present, monthly dub and techno extravaganzas known as ‘Prana’. Many of the murals and works of street art by graffiti artists like ‘Kelzo’ are breathtaking. Reputedly, Otterburn Close has the highest concentration of graduates per square yard of any residential area in the country. Skills like those rub off, and while there will always be a high proportion of lunch-outs, casualties and telly addicts, the opportunities to get involved in anything from party organising to political campaigns are endless. As Katy told me: “The thing about his place is that there is absolutely nothing to do, except whatever you want.”
At the heart of it all, both literally and spiritually, are the travellers. No-one is quite sure how long travellers have been coming to Hulme. Certainly nobody around here questions that they are very much part of the community. There have been inhabitable vehicles parked in Otterburn Close for as long as anyone can remember. Many of them belong to seasonal travellers who live in squats over the winter and travel over the summer. As more and more of old Hulme was flattened over the past three years, travellers were forced closer and closer to Otterburn, the last sanctuary in the area. Now at any given time there are between ten and twenty inhabited vehicles. The benefits of the travellers are clear. They have a friendly, peaceful environment, relatively free from harassment by police or locals. They have friends in flats who can provide emergency facilities. They have access to water and toilets. And, of course, it means a place close to the city where they can live, work, study and play. In return, the travellers provide security for the residents; both the police and the Housing Department have admitted that crime is dramatically lower as a result of the traveller’s presence. Many residents have benefited from the mechanical skills and other talents of the travellers. And most importantly the residents are now living in the Close because they want to, having been offered rehousing many times by the Council. They appreciate the festival spirit and unique flavour which the travellers play a key role in maintaining. The great majority are prepared to make a political judgement about the current persecution of travellers in this country and are willing to stand by them. The attitude is very much one of OKIMBY rather than NIMBY.
It was, therefore, something of a surprise when, in late March, the travellers received notices of eviction from Manchester City Council Department of Land and Property. The notices were unsigned, undated and have no legal validity, but since travellers can be, and are regularly, moved on without warning, it was enough to cause considerable concern. And so, at 10.30am on Friday March 31st, the travellers braced themselves. A large crowd of supporters began to hang around, the media arrived in force and everyone got very cold and wet on a miserable day. As there was no sign of any action the reporters interviewed everyone and each other to pass the time. Granada TV News were interviewing Dave, one of the travellers, and as he explained the situation a six foot, fluffy white bunny rabbit called ‘Shagpile Splendour’ walked across the background smoking a roll-up and grinning broadly. When you try to explain just what the authorities are up against in Otterburn, that event always springs to mind. How can you send the riot squad in to deal with fluffy white rabbits?
In response to the first threat of eviction the travellers all put notices in the windscreens of their vehicles reminding the council that their obligation to find alternative accommodation for them was greater than their obligation to evict them. Shortly after, the travellers received their only signed communication from Pete Jarman, then Hulme Housing team leader, offering them a place on the council house waiting list. Over the next two weeks they received two more unsigned letters from the Housing Department giving notice to leave by April 7th, then by April 28th. The letters also confirmed that there were no available sites in Manchester for them to move to. Since then, at meetings with council officials, a final, final eviction date has been set for Friday June 30th. In the meantime, council departments give the impression of trying to throw a hot potato to each other. Unsigned, unreferenced letters do not exude authority, and no-one on the Hulme Housing Team, the Director of Housing’s office or the Department of Land and Property would give me a statement about the affair. Instead, I was referred to the Press Office who would only repeat that, following complaints, from July 1st Land and Property would conduct evictions on behalf of the Housing Department by removing any vehicles not having a legal right to remain.
According to the letters from the Housing Department, the complaints which had been received were of dogs running loose, litter, noise levels, and blocking of access to parking and garages. It is hard to reconcile the council’s description of the travellers with my personal impression of the people I met. No-one disputes that some complaints were received at the outset, although suspicions are that the number of complaints were tiny, and that they may have come originally from councillors themselves.
Dave often acts as spokesperson for the travellers. With a quaker beard and eyes which can only be described, with apologies, as twinkling, he could probably charm Michael Portillo into letting him park his van at the bottom of his garden. Deep down he feels he is being scapegoated by the council. “All the things they have had complaints about do happen, but it’s not us doing them. The council has a problem with dogs, litter, noise and all that and it’s much easier to make it look as if something’s being done by picking on us, than to try and track down on the people who are actually responsible. If you ask anyone who lives here who the unsociable neighbours are, they will tell you it’s the smack-heads not the travellers.” Of course there are some nice, friendly, sociable smack-heads around too, but as a generalisation everyone I talked to agreed. The area has its problems and the biggest one is brown powder.
If Dave and his friends feel put upon by their persecutors, they are not the type to give in quietly. They are putting together a campaign not only to stop the immediate evictions from Otterburn, but to persuade the council to provide a permanent travellers site in Hulme. Their plans are ambitious; applications are now being considered for use of Birley Fields, the last green site in Hulme. The travellers are seeking permission to turn the area into a permaculture zone; a traveller’s site with work on the farm as rent. They are hoping to find grant awards to help establish the project and to use the council’s Agenda 21 obligations as a campaign tool. Like most local authorities, the council’s current policy on Agenda 21 appears to be “sorry, Agenda what?”. Dave agrees that they are aiming high but they are hopeful. “There is a long history of radicalism in Hulme, and also a history of ordinary people getting things done. Who knows what we can achieve (twinkle, twinkle) there’s some that say Hulme is on a Ley Line you know!”
Alongside Dave in the plans and negotiations has been Ray, a veteran traveller and campaigner who has lived in the same van for eight years, including two winters at Greenham Common, but is hoping to trade it in for a newer one in the summer. “I can’t make myself younger, but I can make my van younger,” she says. Ray came to Manchester to study Arts in Communities last year. While Dave twinkles, Ray soothes. When I first approached her to talk about the campaign she sat me down on a stool and made me look at the books on street art she’d just borrowed from the library. She told me that she was getting together a women and girls wall-painting team, and had arranged a wall to legally decorate around the comer. When I persuaded her to tell me about the campaign she told me of the three pronged attack. “Firstly we have to show the council the depth of feeling among the residents. We have already handed in a petition of several hundred names just from the Close opposing the original evictions. We’ll be starting a new Manchester-wide petition soon demanding an end to the harassment and stressing the historical role of travellers in the community, the massive local support, and the need for a site in Hulme. Secondly we shall try and explain to the council the difference in cost of providing a site as compared to forcing evictions and make them see the financial sense of a site. Thirdly we’re going to continue meeting with council officials and hope that they get fed-up before we do.”
There is a feeling of great confidence that the evictions can be stopped. The physical layout of the square means that entrances are easy to block and, if necessary, there are many people who are willing to conduct a bit of NVDA. What happens in the long term to the residents and travellers of Otterburn is difficult to predict. The ultimate irony may be that the travellers get their site in Hulme just as the residents who shared their community finally get moved out and their homes demolished. This could well be the last glorious summer of the Old Hulme. The travellers will be part of it. The squatters, ravers and eco- warriors will also be part of it, and nobody is in a hurry to let the bulldozers in. When it’s gone we will wonder if it was nostalgia that created the memories of a little comer of a hellish estate, where travellers and non-travellers, black and white, young and old, mad and madder, all lived together in relative harmony for a few years at least. But we’ll know it wasn’t.
* Ally and the Travellers Campaign can be contacted at: c/o Manchester Freedom Network, 9 Otterburn Close, Hulme, Manchester M15.