How did the Northern Quarter become a haven for independents?

And is it still?

By NQ Manchester | Last updated June 9th '20

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Any Google search of the term “Northern Quarter” will uncover hundreds of thousands of mentions of what many people call Manchester’s “hippest” area – a small corner of the city that’s an independent “haven” full of small, “creative” businesses at the forefront of what’s “fashionable”, “cool” and “innovative”.

I mean, these are all buzzwords that people have written about the place, but what is it really? Sure, it was once a haven for independents in the city, but how did it get there? And does it still adhere to the qualities and values that made it so?

It’s always best to start as early as possible, so that we can all get an idea of how a place became to be what it is today, and then we can look deeper. In order to explore the moment the Northern Quarter became the Northern Quarter, you don’t really need to go back too far – it was back in 1993.

But first I’m going to go a little further back than that, back to a time when Manchester was in the throes of an Industrial Revolution and the Northern Quarter was just a series of streets in a city that was rapidly expanding.

We’ve all heard the story before, Manchster was the centre of the industrial world, and it rapaiduly expanded within a relatively short space of time from a few little settlements, farms and fields into a bustling metropolis.

By 1853 there were around 108 mills in the (relatively tiny) central Manchester area, and as the city grew, so did the poverty and the over-crowding of its workforce.

Down near Shudehill you’d find high levels of poverty and piss-poor sanitation, a section of the city that continued down towards Angel Meadows and was described by Friedrich Engels in ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ as “Hell upon Earth”.

The streets of Shudehill became choc-full of homes for the city’s industrial workforce, and as you’d expect – it was haphazard and had very little planning.

As time went on though and more homes were needed, someone with their head screwed on took a more planned approach, with a layout of grid-like streets and regular squares in which to place more affluent houses alongside.

This planning can still be seen on the streets of the Northern Quarter today, as the area developed from Shudehill east towards Piccadilly, this grid system is visible to anybody with eyes and Google Maps, and there’s even a few of the squares there today.

As the city’s mills continued to churn out goods, Manchester became not just a centre for industry but also a world-leader in commerce, mainly due to its excellent transport links.

It wasn’t long until the Smithfield Market was built, slap bang in the centre of the NQ and extending right the way up to Ancoats, and it was a place where people could buy pretty much anything they wanted from all over the Empire (and beyond).

But as the First World War ended, production and manufacture in the UK started to move elsewhere, and over the course of a few decades, trade, commerce and manufacturing all started a steady decline in the city.

By around the early 1970s, the area that would later become the Northern Quarter was suffering badly through neglect and decline. The reasons were many, but the biggest was the closure of the Smithfield Market and the opening of the Arndale Centre just a few yards away.

The area that was once seen as an affluent retail and residential area lost pretty much all viability as a serious shopping destination, with the larger department stores on Oldham Street eventually moving altogether and smaller independent shops heading towards the Arndale Centre’s brand-spanking new covered Underground Market.

Without shops and footfall, the area was left largely derelict or struggling, and even Tib Street’s famous pet shops disappeared altogether, with only that one right at the top managing to weather the storm and still exist today.

By the late 70s the area was mainly residential, helped by the new social housing estate built up near the Smithfield Market, and filled with a large number of textile or clothing wholesalers who occupied many of the cheap warehouses left over from a more industrious and productive past.

The 80’s weren’t much better, but there were initial sparks that would go on to help the area in the coming years. One such spark was the opening of Affleck’s Palace, an independent, local market that people flocked to from far and wide and became a platform for many an artist, creative and even highly-respected fashion designers.

It was at this point that young people and ‘creatives’ began flooding back into the Northern Quarter, spurred on by what was on offer at Affleck’s Palace and wanting to get in on the act.

The areas derelict buildings were very cheap and provided the perfect spaces in which to settle and start a business – and the artists and musicians and inventors and chancers took the bull by the horns and set up shop.

So, we’re at 1993 and from the outside, the Northern Quarter is in a pretty dire state. There’s empty warehouses everywhere, there’s abandoned shops and the only places that seem to have lights on when the sun goes down are the few boozers, and the odd ‘Rice & Three’ restaurants – both catering to a city centre workforce looking to get fed and tanked up for cheap.

From the inside though, the area was a hotbed of counterculture, one made up of artists and musicians, charities and creatives, all contributing and surviving in an area that had mostly been forgotten and left for dead by the people in power.

Places like The Unicorn, Koffee Pot, The Millstone, Mother Macs and This & That of course, still exist today, and get exceptionally busy, but a new breed of business was ready to set up shop in the area, and it was all down to two words – urban regeneration.

1993 was the year that Manchester City Council officially commissioned a regeneration study into the NQ, and they roped in local developers such as Urban Splash to turn their attention to the area and get the ball rolling.

The first step was to start building homes for people to live in, and then, so the theory goes, the community and businesses will follow.

And indeed, follow they did, as the 90s saw HUGE changes in the Northern Quarter, both on its streets and in people’s minds. As more young people moved in, tempted by cheap rents and inner-city living, so did the independent businesses, offering everything you could ever think of.

The whole process was further accelerated with the closure of the Arndale Underground Market, as well as the decline in the shopping centre as a whole, as independent businesses decided to set up shop again in the NQ, taking advantage of cheap rents, and also looking for a piece of that ‘something special’ that appealed to the people living, working and socialising in the area.

The plan was an unmitigated success – turning a once forgotten corner of the city centre into a bustling, profitable and ultimately really cool place to hang out and, it beggars belief that I’d say this about anywhere, the NQ actually became THE place to be seen in Manchester.

So, am I set to bring all of this crashing down in a cloud of cynicism and hindsight? No, of course not – I’m not like that – I mean, I work in the Northern Quarter every single day, drink there, eat there and generally run amok like a prized idiot – and it’s somewhere that I truly enjoy being and where I think many of the city’s most influential and innovative businesses are located.

Not everyone feels the same though. After the 90s and a decade of increasing business, footfall and residents, one word quickly began to creep in – gentrification.

A word that many consider to be the true antithesis of a community, there have been numerous studies and pieces written about gentrification not just in Manchester but throughout the country, and its often-disastrous effect on an area’s original residents and culture – and even a place’s soul.

And there’s no denying that the Northern Quarter has completely changed in the last decade. Rents, both residential and business, have skyrocketed, pricing out the vast majority of independents and young people, and the big brands have cottoned on and started to move in.

Weekends too have become a problem in the area. The decline in popularity of ‘mainstream’ corners of the city such as Deansgate, the Locks and the Printworks have shifted attention towards the Northern Quarter, resulting in a spate of bars and clubs that cater solely for a weekend crowd and completely disregard the area’s counterculture ideals.

There’s also the argument to be made that the vast majority of venues within the Northern Quarter aren’t in fact even independent any more. A small number of establishments have become part of a chain of venues owned by the same people, a process which contributes to pricing out the smaller operators and ensures a distinct lack of creativity and innovation in the area.

There are however still many shining lights amongst this creeping darkness, businesses that are truly independent and that are still innovating and creating, even in the face of these increased costs and barriers.

The Koffee Pot is still going strong, recent renovations have brought back from the dead old pubs like The Castle and The Lower Turks Head and there is still enough innovation and creativity in the area to not completely dismiss it just yet.

True independent venues are still opening up and doing really well, and there are still big brands and operators that are going to aim to open up and take advantage of an area that has become the cultural centre of the city.

The Northern Quarter still has ‘it’, but it’s just a different ‘it’ from what ‘it’ was in the past. And even though it’s something that will never fully return to the area, there are still pockets of that counterculture and community that will never go away.