Feature:The Magic of Manchester and New York by Andrea Ashworth (2002)

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Andrea Ashworth Andrea Ashworth

Writing my second book has plunged me into another famous and dynamic city: the novel spotlights an English girl who finds herself, just out of school, dazed and inspired in Manhattan. Watching this character grow up and discover herself on these streets-in an atmosphere at once realistic and magical-has set me thinking about the differences between the New York I've enjoyed since I was first awed by it at twenty-one, and the Manchester of my childhood, as well as the Manchester of today and tomorrow.

It's intoxicating, that magical maybe you feel on the streets; if only it could be bottled and showered over all cities.


There's a fantastic plasticity and a sense of wild possibility about New York that can be frightening, but also-as countless visitors, immigrants and old faithful New Yorkers all enthuse, without being able to pin down its essence-incredibly liberating and exciting. A heady sense that you can "escape into" the place, escape out of yourself-and into yourself. You can - New York encourages you to imagine - be anyone, do anything, you like. It's intoxicating, that magical maybe you feel on the streets; if only it could be bottled and showered over all cities.


My somewhat entranced vision of New York is, I realize, coloured by the fact that I'm coming from outside, which allows me a more uninhibited, free way into the city's mysteries and promises. Also, I'm no longer a child and no longer plagued by an English, class-riddled sense of obstacles, a lack of entitlement that can leave one feeling squashed by a city, especially a big, grand city, rather than liftingly embraced. In Manchester, as a young person and someone from the so-called "inner city" streets, it was easy to feel like an outsider, invisible, shut out from the mythical "true" centre of the city. My "place", tucked away-mired, as it sometimes felt-in back streets, made it hard for me to imagine coming to enjoy a proud and happy place at the heart of things.


Still, I grew up possessed by so many of the atmospheres of Manchester, from the spookily seductive shopping grottoes under the streets near the Arndale Centre or Hulme's looming tower blocks-concrete cakes, crammed with people like raisins, they seemed to me as a child-to the threatening-enthralling Hacienda, where nights began in bare vaulted coldness and pulsed to a giddy, steaming crush. The theatrical grandeur and simultaneous dreamy intimacy of the Royal Exchange captivated me, as did the light-filled stillness of the Whitworth Art Gallery, through whose rooms I could skulk whenever I wanted or needed to (they never charged admission), weaving teenage dreams around the glinting vintage Jaguar on show, adoring the way the sun fell through long windows.

Manchester seems to have created a precious opening for its people to repicture their city in terms of their prevailing needs and desires, along with their hopes for the future.


And yet I never felt as though the city was, or could be, mine. That's not true, though, for many, many other young people, who found a way to make the city very much their own, especially through clothes and music, clubs and caf├ęs, flourishing their signatures on the streets just by being themselves. These aspects of the city's brilliance seemed intensely tantalising to me as a teenager, only rarely able to peel away from the emergencies of my family to dive into the vibrancy. Although I couldn't feel fully a part of it then, I've always been proud to see how the very visible and audible presence of lots of young people has massively augmented Manchester's appeal in the eyes of the world.


I'm also proud and optimistic about the great sense of promise generated by the city's renaissance, in the wake of those attacks that seemed so devastating. It's an ugly and violent way to clear away the stale, and it is terrible that we lost old city treasures, unique corners of history and beauty, but out of that loss Manchester seems to have created a precious opening for its people to repicture their city in terms of their prevailing needs and desires, along with their hopes for the future. I've been relieved and inspired for many years now to see how hitherto no-go or dead-end areas like Moss Side and Rusholme have been brought to brighter life, through planners' thinking and caring about the real people who live there. I'm very excited about, and grateful for, all suggestions of a shinier future for Manchester.


One of the most depressing aspects of my childhood was the sense some streets exude: that the world has forgotten you. Over many, too many, houses, the sky seemed to lurk like a bashed saucepan lid. That no longer seems to be so darkly and heavily true, though there is much more to do to make the city a place everyone can feel involved in and free to enjoy. The wonderful work devoted to Manchester's more prominent buildings and spaces has to trickle through into all of its streets. The city needs to win over and recruit the energies and imagination of the people-old and young, men, women, children, well-off or poor or getting by-who make up its day-by-day life.

I have a great crush on New York, especially the sense of possibility that not only emanates from its soaring marvels but also crackles in its ramshackle and inconspicuous corners. But I'm itching to come back to Manchester to see and share more of its regeneration, to sense how people are feeling about their home city, their futures there. We're making a feature film of Once in a House on Fire, and we hope to shoot on the very streets whose pavements I know by heart, so I will be back for a good stay soon. I treasure the Manchester I've always known, I miss "my" old Manchester, but I salute the intelligent and sensitive and enthusiastic transformations of our city's fascinating face.