After the bomb, the boom

Two years ago the IRA destoyed the centre of Manchester. Europe has been the inspiration for its spectacular recovery
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The Independent Online
SECRETLY, some Mancunians may offer up a small vote of thanks to the IRA. Two years ago this month, the Manchester bomb tore the heart out of the city centre. It was only by a miracle that nobody was killed.

At the time, the havoc seemed pure nightmare. In retrospect, things look different. The bombing is described as "the first opportunity to rethink Manchester since the blitz". Certainly, the transformation of the city has been dramatic. Two years on, business is booming.

There is plenty of corrugated iron to remind the visitor that the post- bomb repair work is not yet complete - and not all of the city centre has changed. Much of the depressing, toilet-tiled Arndale Centre has survived. None the less, an extraordinary revolution is taking place. Crucially, that revolution has a driving force that goes well beyond the bomb. Visiting the city now is like looking at a partly completed jigsaw; as one or two linking pieces are rediscovered and revamped, whole parts of the picture suddenly come to life.

Designs have been chosen for a new exhibition centre, "the city's tribute to the new millennium", and for Exchange Square, a newly created area close to the Corn Exchange and the once almost isolated cathedral, which will be at the heart of the new city. Open and communicating spaces are being created, where there were none. Unyielding Manchester is becoming a city that you can wander through.

There are signs that the city could once again achieve some of the style that made it, in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and when cotton was king, one of the world's great merchant cities. The current changes are the climax of an urban revolution that began a decade ago, well before the IRA put their deadly mark on the town. When I lived in Manchester in the mid-1980s, Canal Street was memorable for nothing. Now it is the centre of Manchester's famed Gay Village, where thriving bars and cafes attract both gays and heterosexuals. Another new canalside development ("a gay village for us heteros", in the words of one enthusiast) is planned, close to the elegant glass-fronted Bridgewater Hall, the gleaming new home of the Halle Orchestra.

THE impressiveness of the hall contains poignant contradictions: the Halle came close to extinction earlier this year. Per- fectionists complain that the Bridgewater Hall is an architectural missed opportunity. "It could have been the Guggenheim," complains one Mancunian, in reference to the world- beating new museum in Bilbao. Which sounds a bit picky - except that the pickiness may prove to be one of Manchester's hidden strengths. Fifteen years ago, Manchester lived on past glories, with more of a log than a chip on its shoulder. With little more than its principal football club to sustain it in the eyes of the world and with its great heritage of Victorian architecture still to be rediscovered, it resented the collapse of the industries that had once created the city's wealth, and believed that the world owed it more. Now, ahead of the millennium and playing host to the Commonwealth Games in 2002, there is a new pride in what is being achieved.

Woe betide anybody who does not rate those achievements highly enough, including the city council itself. Last year, the city launched a post- bomb publicity slogan which declared: "We're up and going." The reaction: indignation. The slogan implied that the city was a plucky little loser which had managed to pull itself off the ropes. For the malcontents, this was "mediocrity at its most mediocre". In a hastily convened council of war, it was agreed: "They cannot be serious." The McEnroe group, as it soon became known, forced the slogan to be dropped. Now the city fathers are allowed to set their sights only at the very top.

It is in Manchester itself - one of the 10 boroughs of the Greater Manchester area - that the most dramatic changes are taking place. Howard Bernstein, chief executive of the city council and head of Manchester Millennium, insists that the changes are not just irrelevant glitz. He talks frequently of a "holistic" approach, and boasts of the successes in the district of Hulme, which in the 1980s was a byword for deprivation and neglect. The notorious Crescent blocks have been torn down, replaced by small houses on residential roads. A giant Asda has opened, and new shops are due to open in what has been baptised Hulme High Street. "It used to be so frightening," says one shopper. "I could never have believed it could change this much."

Not everywhere is gleaming. Barely a stone's throw away from the new money of Salford Quays, parts of the greater Manchester conurbation are as deprived as ever. This is original Coronation Street territory: the cat-on-the-roof opening titles were filmed looking down Laburnum Street. In the on-screen Street, a cosy community spirit remains strong. But there is little cosiness in the real-life Laburnum Street. Many houses are boarded up. Residents cross the road to get away from the gangs of youths roaming aimlessly along Langworthy Road. "It's always been rough," says one local. "But never like this."

Police insist that Manchester is generally "a very safe place if you are not looking for trouble". But figures published last week confirmed that the dangers are real. The number of murders in the greater Manchester area rose by a quarter last year; serious woundings rose sharply to 1,800.

PAT KARNEY, a city councillor who has been a powerful force behind much of the change, admits that Manchester is "a bit ahead of the game" on guns and violence. None the less, he insists that the visible transformation is more than just affluent froth.

"We're trying to sell a city centre with a glitzy cappuccino image," he admits. "The big jobs in manufacturing are not coming back. We know we're playing a glamour game. But beneath it, there are jobs associated with that - non-glamour, but still jobs." He argues that Manchester's image - for example, as a music capital - is itself an exportable commodity, helping to lure new talent.

Above all, what the returning visitor notices is the changing identity. In the words of one Mancunian, "even if you go away for a fortnight, you feel the Europeanness when you come back". Partly, it is the oh-so-European trams that now glide through the city centre. Partly, it is the abundance of pavement cafes and airy bars. In addition, however, it is the way people here look at life outside the UK.

Europe has become the buzzword. Howard Bernstein argues: "Manchester has to lead in a Europe of regions. We must compete with Lyon, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Barcelona." Pat Karney agrees: "Europe infuses all our thinking. We're addicted to the European model."

One of those who has been at the forefront of changing attitudes is Tony Wilson, who claims to dislike the name "Mr Manchester", though most would agree that it is as good a label as any. Wilson, Salford-born television presenter and creator of the now-closed Hacienda club and of Factory Records, retains the same enthusiasm that has been his trademark for 20 years. He expounds on some of the reasons for the city's renaissance, citing its immigrant traditions, openness to outsiders, and the eclectic quality of its record collections ("the best in the world").

For him, the bomb was "almost an irrelevance" in the reshaping of Manchester. Instead, he argues that the willingness to experiment has been the most important factor. "Revolutions: made in Manchester" was one alternative marketing slogan suggested by the McEnroe group, in which Wilson played a leading role. The series of publicity phrases encompasses everything from the industrial revolution in Manchester's heyday to the digital revolution (computers began here) to the more recent "French revolution" - otherwise known as Eric Cantona. Wilson associates the unique vibrancy of the music and club culture in the 1980s and the vibrancy of urban development that is changing the face of the city. Both have had profound effects, relying on a readiness to strike out in new directions. According to the Wilsonian credo, "Property has become the new music industry".

Wilson acknowledges that not all is rosy. "There's real poverty. But to have at the centre a major European city, not a decrepit town - that has real value." He insists, too, that the possibilities of further change for Manchester have not begun to be exhausted. "It goes on accelerating. It's only just starting. You feel No.1 - because you are."