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Property Will Eat Itself

The transformation of industrial spaces into clubs and then into flats in cities like Manchester has created a strange ouroboros of self-consuming development.

Clubbers at The Haçienda nightclub, Manchester, circa 1995. (Photo by Clive Hunte/Redferns/Getty Images)

When the techno DJ Jeff Mills pulled up in his cab to play at Sankeys Soap in Manchester in the mid-1990s, he said, ‘Oh my god, this is just like Detroit.’ At that time, Emma Warren of the club’s promoters Bugged Out confirms, ‘There was nothing around — just some cabbies, an old pub and cafe. That was about it.’

It’s a striking moment in Jim Ottewill’s new book Out of Space: How UK Cities Shaped Rave Culture, not least because I remember going to that area only around a decade later, when it already seemed very far removed from the image of Michigan’s biggest city familiar from the ‘ruin porn’ photography of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. Ancoats and the Northern Quarter were not yet quite the hipster paradise they are today. I remember browsing through record shops and a few cool-looking bars, but they stood cheek-by-jowl with some pretty shabby old haberdashers, the odd pornographic bookstore, and one or two fairly dubious-looking pubs. It appealed to me in much the same way Soho had when I’d first moved to London a few years before: that odd mix of glamour and grot, a feeling at once of promise and slight danger. It felt alive.

Now, as another legend of Manchester clubland, ‘Balearic’ Mike Smith attests, that has largely been displaced. ‘Every corner has a deli, a coffee shop, clothes shops, microbreweries, loft living — it’s like downtown Manhattan,’ he tells Ottewill. ‘Every time I return something new has appeared.’

Back in the 2000s, I had come to Manchester to play a gig at a cafe called Night & Day, a brightly-coloured, low-ceilinged venue barely ten minutes’ walk from Sankeys. Before they began topping the charts and winning international awards, bands like Elbow, Manic Street Preachers, and the Arctic Monkeys found a home at Night & Day; 808 State’s Graham Massey hosted a regular night there for several years. It was a part of the Northern Quarter before Sankeys arrived in 1994 and before the area was even rebranded as the ‘Northern Quarter’. But for the last few years, the venue has been threatened with closure. Barely had the venue re-opened after the lockdown of 2021, when a neighbour, only recently moved in, started complaining about the volume. In November of that year, the council issued a Noise Abatement Notice. Any breach of that notice could lead to immediate closure.

In a sense, the history of Manchester’s clubbing scene is inseparable from the city’s romantic view of its own industrial past —and from property developers eager to profit off that romanticism. The Haçienda, Factory Records’ much-loved Madchester cathedral, occupied a former luxury yacht showroom right in the centre of town, but Ben Kelly’s interior design work made it look like a loading bay for forklift trucks. After the club closed down in 1997, it was bought by Crosby Homes, demolished, and rebuilt as a block of luxury flats, now called ‘Haçienda Apartments’ (with the linguistically incongruous cedilla still in place). Anton Stevens, booker for the club Hidden near Strangeways prison, recalls ‘coming into the city as a kid and heading up towards Ancoats and it would be full of empty buildings. Before they were transformed into flats, these outskirts were primed for different uses.’ DJ Paulette, one of Hidden’s regulars, notes that the ‘industrial environment’ became ‘the actual selling point’ of the club. But the hip cachet of urban decay, exploited and commercialised perhaps better in Manchester than in any other city, soon turned ouroboros-like upon its own myth-makers.

The resident who complained about the noise at Night & Day lived in a former commercial property that was converted into flats around the turn of the millennium, when the venue had already been in operation for a decade. According to documents seen by the venue management, one condition of that endeavour was that the builders would carry out insulation and sound-proofing work to protect future residents from any disturbance. But the developers simply ignored that provision and carried on anyway, leaving the residents — and Manchester’s music scene — exposed as a result.

Out of Space joins a growing literature fusing stories about cities with stories about clubbing. Following Matthew Collin’s globetrotting Rave On in 2018, Velocity Press has published Paul Hanford’s Coming to Berlin, focused on nights out in the German capital, and now Ottewill’s more UK-specific survey. Together, they represent something like the equivalent of the Lonely Planet for a worldwide rave industry with an estimated value of $7 billion, carefully selecting the key nightspots and interspersing vox pops from resident experts with potted histories and a smattering of local colour. But besides the breathless travelogue, there’s another narrative that threads through Out of Space: a story of conflict between gentrification and the cultures that made those forces of gentrification appealing in the first place. Ottewill quotes Shain Shapiro of the research group Sound Diplomacy:

[T]he argument in cities is how you don’t build places to live, you build places to live for. Historically, those advocating for these communities haven’t been great communicators with governments. This is now changing.