Welcome to the People’s Republic of Hulme. It is smaller than it used to be. It is safer and less anarchic. Some say it’s not as creative or exciting. But it has survived.
More than 20 years after the Crescents, once Europe’s most notorious housing estate, was demolished, its spirit lives on in Homes for Change.
This 75-unit housing co-op, with around 100 residents, is complemented by Work for Change; a separate co-op of 12 business units which provides workspace for Homes for Change members and the wider community. Co-working space Openspace and Ethical Consumer magazine are among the co-op businesses based here.
This cluster of co-ops is a product of the ‘cultural activist’ community that blossomed in Hulme in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, as the Crescents spiralled into disrepair. Built in a style that echoes the Crescents’ brutalist architecture and deck access features, it stands out in the new Hulme, which is dominated by low-rise flats, traditional-style terraces and student housing blocks.
Charlie Baker, co-founder of Homes for Change and member of urban design co-operative Urbed, says the original vision was to create secure housing for those who enjoyed the vibrancy and creativity of the Crescents.
“The people who were running businesses in their flats in the Crescents knew that they were going to have to downsize,” he remembers. The co-op aimed to build upon the cultural businesses that had flourished in the area, to bring blue collar work back into the inner city and to develop rather than criminalise its grey economy.
Today most of the units at Work for Change are occupied by people outside the housing co-op, and there is little blue collar work. “We’re all very different businesses here but we work together,” says Debbie Cunliffe, who runs her sewing business, Source Unknown, from Work for Change. “Only two of us are proper makers, me and a jewellery maker. There are a few artists too, and a few offices.”
At the Openspace co-working co-operative there is desk space, meeting space, a kitchen and a lounge area. Members include an animator, a website builder, a furniture designer, a fitness instructor, a charity administrator, a fundraising consultant, a mediator and a mathematician.
Political cartoonist and Openspace member ‘Polyp’, who does not use his real name (“like Banksy”), says Openspace provides easily accessible workspace for local professionals.
“The whole idea was work and home not being miles away, especially for freelancers,” he says.
There are two tiers of membership, for those who want to get involved in running the co-op and those who don’t. “You get a discount if you’re active,” Polyp says. “We’re currently looking for new members.”
Across the road, Hulme Community Garden Centre provides green space and work and volunteering opportunities. A cafe at the entrance of Homes for Change, Kim by the Sea, acts as a hub for this community.
It is a hive of activity, but Charlie Baker says the original Homes for Change vision is becoming a memory. “I still mourn the loss of the only British equivalent to Christiania or Kreuzberg,” he says.
Freetown Christiania is a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood in Copenhagen, which, according to its 1971 mission statement, had the objective of creating “a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the well-being of the entire community”. Kreuzberg, in the centre of Berlin, is still renowned today for its alternative scene and counterculture.
Mr Baker’s original vision for Homes for Change was to create a lifeboat for this, but this has been watered down under pressure from those with less experience of what that meant. For him, today’s Hulme is “a travesty of what could have been”. But, he adds, “Homes for Change and Work for Change have survived, and that’s an achievement”.
The rise and fall of the Crescents
- Hulme, on the southern fringe of Manchester city centre, has been virtually flattened and rebuilt twice since 1960. It gained notoriety in the 1970s, 80s and 90s as home to the Crescents, Europe’s biggest public housing development, comprising 3,284 deck-access homes with capacity for over 13,000 people.
- Built in 1972 and demolished in 1994, the Crescents was a stark lesson in how not to do inner city development.
- The ‘scorched earth’ approach to slum clearance employed in Hulme ahead of their construction has been criticised by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others for breaking down the area’s social, cultural and economic networks.
- Less than two years after the Crescents was built, families were excluded from its four massive blocks after a five-year old child fell from a balcony and died; an accident that exposed one of the development’s many design flaws.
- The estate became pest infected, unmanageable and unpoliceable. Drugs were pervasive. Heating was not.
- Manchester City Council had stopped servicing the flats and charging rents by 1984. The city’s police force refused to venture above the first floor, instead policing the estate’s perimeter.
- The Crescents were colonised by squatters, anarchists, activists, creatives, ravers, doomers, criminals, students and immigrants. Illegal nightclubs proliferated gained a reputation as the Hacienda’s wilder cousins.
- A grey economy of cultural industries flourished. Political activism blossomed.
- As film critic Mark Kermode, who lived in the Crescents while studying at the University of Manchester, said: “Hulme was a great place to live in if you were a student. I’m sure it wasn’t a great place to live in if you had no choice.”