These personal reflections on cultural regeneration, place and memory expand on a presentation Thea made at Design Manchester’s Liveable Cities conference last November, drawing also on her current focus on the Estuary 2021 festival.
Recommended soundtrack: Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea by PJ Harvey…
In 1997, just as The Haçienda nightclub was bolting its doors, I arrived in Rusholme – green, slightly nervous and adjusting to the strange traditions of academic gowns at meal times, high tea and the faint whiff of boarding school in my new Halls of Residence.
In the University of Manchester’s music department (then on Denmark Road) I navigated my way around the snaking staircases, appreciating the chequerboard tiles in the entrance lobby, and the warm, friendly atmosphere – remnants of the building’s music hall past, perhaps – embodied in the worn red velvet seating that descended in cramped, raked rows inside the central lecture hall-come-concert venue.
In many ways, it felt like I stumbled through the three years of my undergraduate music degree. Moments of musical revelation, academic break-throughs, and small bursts of creativity were accompanied by seemingly amplified melodies from friends. Rehearsing in adjacent, baffled practice rooms, it was inevitable that at times this opened gaps between perceived personal failings and the immense talents of my peers.
I sought out wider things to sustain me in the incredible city that was now only a short Magic bus ride away. A photography exhibition at the Holden Gallery. An Archigram retrospective at the Cornerhouse. These were tasty treats outside the music department.
Closer to home were frequent visits to the Whitworth art gallery to inhale works. Always the contemporary-modern textiles. Once Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. Often accompanied by lunchtime concerts – usually and happily the sensational Lindsay String Quartet, once a gamelan ensemble – all with the calm steady backdrop of tree branches and twig-laiden grass of the neighbouring Park.
Back in the music department, tactile pleasures of splicing and taping Revox captured my imagination, and attempts to transcribe strange compositions, sometimes for friends, was probably where I was at my happiest.
Experiments in sound
When I’d completed my degree in 2000 I hung around in Manchester, reluctant to leave its friendly embrace. Somehow I got recommended by my tutor for a composition gig at the Contact Theatre, writing the soundtrack to a youth performance that ran alongside their main production. It was an incredible experience to work alongside the crew, learning the inner workings of theatre practice and getting hands-on experience developing a performance and working behind the scenes.
My leanings towards experimental musical approaches pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable for the young people involved, who might have been happier for me to replicate their regular musical tastes and interests for the soundtrack I’d come up with.
My theatrical dabbling coincided with Manchester hosting the Commonwealth Games that year. This was a really big deal. Along with the city centre redevelopment that had started after the 1996 Manchester Arndale bombing, this heralded a period of rapid expansion for the city. Sleek, slender buildings climbed skywards, swanky new venues were unveiled, the public realm scrubbed up. Piccadilly Gardens was almost unrecognisable.
End of an era
It was also around this time that bits and pieces of The Haçienda began to be auctioned off for charity (bricks, pillars etc, with traces of unmistakable hazard lines). It may quite possibly be that a very small part of me was chipped off back in 2000 too, left somewhere on the Oxford Road, waiting for me to return and reconnect with years later.
Back to the future
In November 2019 I was invited to speak at a ‘Liveable Cities’ conference on cultural regeneration hosted by Design Manchester, where I had a chance to reflect and share the experiences I had gathered over the previous decade and a half working in the creative industries for charities, social enterprises, and arts organisations of varying scale and remit.
During my presentation I teased out the common threads between these organisations, their strategies, and their connection with place. I see this as striving to create the conditions that are needed to emancipate and empower communities, whether they are based in a city or by the coast.
I’m currently working on Estuary 2021, a multi-arts festival embracing sixty miles of Thames Estuary coastline, as well as the river itself.
Wealth and power of community
This has prompted me to consider the flow of capital (creative, people, ideas, and – not least – power) that is ingrained in the estuary story. From activism and rebellion sparked by injustice and aimed at the seat of power in London, such as the Peasants Revolt of 1381, to the continual theme of prospecting land, water and liminal space, triggered by proliferating overseas exploitations, whether to reassert dominance, right perceived wrongs, and/or accumulate wealth.
Throughout estuary history, it seems there has been little or no consideration for the people, communities and wildlife in existence in the area. Almost as if no-one actually lived there at all. As a result, it is clear to see how all these communities – human and natural – have been buffeted by the changing priorities of nearby centres of authority.
Now the Estuary is the focus of an initiative that seeks to redress this historical imbalance, and flow things in a different direction.
Creative Estuary is an expansive and ambitious programme of work, centred on the belief that within the Thames Estuary there are people with innate talents, along with a unique context that is worth investing in. The strength of this approach lies in a strategy to enact the enrichment of creative life, bringing its inherently positive wellbeing benefits, both social and mental.
If we properly address what it takes to achieve authentic regeneration in a way that respects and nurtures the diverse and thriving ecologies that exist there (as well as the memories these places hold), then there can be a positive future for the region.
One that’s driven in no small part by arts, culture and heritage.