Manchester's chance to build itself a centre

Manchester was little more than a village in 1750. A century later it was known as Cottonopolis, the mighty Lancashire city that produced cotton by the mile and became connected to the world's principal trade routes via its famous ship canal. This was the high point of an era that saw Manchester wax fat (except the common people) and witnessed the building of its wayward and magnificent Gothic Revival civic monuments.

A century on and Manchester was beginning to look very different. Losing her industry fast, she tried vainly to hide her decline behind a futuristic forest of high-rise municipal flats and the blatantly ugly Arndale shopping centre, which took the brunt of the IRA's bombing.

Since the mid-Eighties, Manchester has reinvented itself; now we know it as one of the youngest and liveliest of all European cities, as much in love with its Gothic Revival past as its all-night clubs.

Manchester, however, although it will host the Commonwealth Games in 2002, failed to win the Olympic 2000 bid despite a sophisticated and convincing proposal. Perhaps this is because the one thing this lively city lacks is a recognisable centre. Where is the heart of Manchester? It is certainly hard to picture in the mind's eye.

Cities can have several centres, as London does, but they need an emotive heart (when Tommies of the Manchester Regiment sang "Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square", it wasn't Manchester Piccadilly they were celebrating).

First-time visitors to Manchester are always confused by its apparently unfocused plan. If Manchester could plan and create a vibrant and attractive centre as a get-well present to itself over the coming months, not only will something positive come from the aftermath of the IRA's perverse passion for attacking civilian targets, but the city will finally have a chance to live up to its past glories and to give the rest of us a clear image of what has become one of Europe's most liked modern cities.

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