Living for the city
‘What is it that separates us from animals?’ asks Professor Bauer, the Anthropology teacher in the hilarious comedy, Community. ‘Tools!’ she declares ‘Like this blow gun I used to hunt monkeys in the Amazon’ upon which, she shoots a dart from her blow gun and tranquilises an annoying student with star shaped sideburns.
For now, most of us, apart from key workers of course, have literally downed tools and the streets are largely deserted. I regard the city as another ‘tool’ that is fundamental to carving out a life and is the ultimate testament to human endeavour. But without people using the city, what is it but a collection of roads and buildings?
Manchester has its fair share of beautiful buildings but it’s no secret that its friendly, talented people are just as good. People, give a city its purpose, meaning and soul. Equally, a city can give you a purpose, meaning and soul, in other words, an identity because ironically we need the need the identities of others to know ourselves.
As we roam around, we can see people who have made similar choices to us and recognise them as part of your ‘tribe’. We take part in ‘social display’ as described in Grayson Perry’s TV programme All in the Best Possible Taste our choices about what we wear and where we go, reaffirm our identity and send constant indicators about who we think we are.
Cities are a playground for expression, but with no where to go and no one to notice, we are forced to be at peace with our essential selves without the big bad city. Manchester based photographer Ahmani Vidal has captured Manchesters inhabitants at home, during lockdown, using Facetime, the portraits capture subjects at their most relaxed, away from the world outside.
There are 2.813 million people living in Greater Manchester, I use the same streets as everyone else, but it feels like no one uses them, the way I do. There is a formal version of Manchester in maps and tourist books and an informal version, your version. Those buildings which tourists admire mean something different to you because they hold memories that only you have.
Everyone makes their environment their own. One of my favourite descriptive phrases is ‘desire lines’ those renegade paths which people create and are a common sight in parks now, from people keen to maintain their two metres distance. Desire lines are not on the official maps of Manchester, this is people making the city, their own and is described by some academics as a sign of ‘civil disobedience.’
For me, Manchester Central Library is not just a brilliant example of Neo Roman architecture, it’s a place where the smell of old books instantly takes me back to being twelve years old in my Mums office at the Library Theatre where she worked, or my first job there as a seventeen year old theatre usher. Despite this being twenty years ago (God, I’m old) as soon as I smell those old books the memory is as fresh as if I was seventeen again.
It’s a cliché but remembering something as if it ‘happened yesterday’ proves that our personal narratives are not just linear, they spread out too and are shaped by time and place. We can go for years staying the same and within minutes experience a fundamental shift in attitude depending on our, environment.
Although it is profoundly sad to see a once buzzing city centre, subdued and empty there is also a strange ethereal beauty to the empty streets and a strong will to make Manchester liveable again. This is captured beautifully by Luke Shepherd for Lemontape videos.
An empty city is like having a free house. At first you roam around it, doing what you want, feeling free but after a while with no one to share your space with, the novelty wears off and it’s pretty dull .
I am an eternal city kid and have never lived in any other environment but I am beginning to understand what it might be like to live in a small, rural village: seeing the same four people every day, with limited opportunities for entertainment and expression.
But this is not necessarily a love letter to Manchester or cities in general I understand that they can be crowded, smelly and unwelcoming places and now, more than ever it’s sweet relief to escape to the country. Being in nature frees you from small concerns which seem somehow of great importance in everyday life. You no longer have to worry about social display and have the freedom to just ‘be’. But, after a large dose of fresh air, I am ready to come home again and follow my own path.