The Reclaim the Night march and Wilsmlow Road’s new cycle lanes expose the subtle tensions that exist between the Rusholme and student communities
Wilmslow Road now boasts an almost uninterrupted cycle lane. Oxford Road will soon follow suit, with the addition of a 9am-6pm general traffic restriction through the University of Manchester’s main campus. The project aims to reduce commuting times for those travelling from South Manchester to the universities and further into the city, as well as improving air quality.
Construction of these developments, and those in the wider Oxford Road Corridor, are a point of contention for surrounding communities. For many of us, crawling through the afternoon sludge traffic, the whining of pneumatic drills, and lengthy pedestrian diversions are sore memories.
These pains were, and are, not equally distributed. Last year, firms on the east side of the Curry Mile began to complain of ‘constant’ power outages that went on for weeks, causing significant damage to their businesses. Electricity North West initially claimed they were unaware of the cuts, but residents said that numerous complaints were ignored. These power cuts, though less severe, continue today.
With regards to the intent of the project, Rusholme, with its ‘Curry Mile’ main street hosting at least 70 food, drink, and Shisha outlets, has a high ratio of businesses per person. Those non-students that live in the area are therefore less likely to be commuting along the Oxford Road corridor towards the universities and the city centre.
The new cycle lanes, though a welcome move towards more sustainable transport infrastructure for the city, have introduced their own problems. Deliveries to businesses are often obstructed by passing cyclists, space for crowds around bus stops and during the evenings has been restricted, and local drivers face added challenges when pulling in and out of side streets. Whilst these are minor issues, and will soon be adapted to, they create moments of friction between cyclists (most frequently students and professionals) and locals.
We might look at the continued promotion of this area as a cycle and bus route as evidence for positive engagement between students and professionals on the Curry Mile. However, in contrast to the passovers that elevate users over poorer area in other cities, the lack of engagement found between commuters and the Curry Mile is less material. Packed into busses or trains, staring at phones, reading newspapers, or chatting to friends, we may be described as passing ‘over’ the areas that we travel through.
This is no criticism of our individual behaviours and it is hard to place much blame policy makers. Rather, we may understand the Curry Mile as something of an isolated community in between University campuses, with a commuter route, mostly used by students, lodged in the middle of it. Though, such a view might be seen as merely the perspective of an outsider looking in, observing the oriental. And, of course, there are plenty of students who live in Rusholme, as well as many non-students who live in the areas referenced.
Given the inequities of the development and some of the interpretations of travel through the area, a risk of conflict, though minor, emerges. Perhaps one saving grace is the student body’s leftward lean. Students’ interpretation of international events, such as terrorist attacks or the west’s foreign policy, would hopefully not be generalising towards Muslims or people from the Middle East and the Indian Sub-continent.
However, it would be crude to assume that this leftist view reduces tensions. Whilst marching at last year’s Reclaim the Night event, I felt rather awkward as we marched through the Curry Mile.
Aside from the validity or worthiness of the march, this detail of its location is intriguing. Here was a mass (there were 2,500 for this year’s march) of leftist students, protesting through a space where they felt unsafe, with, amongst others, the chant “who’s streets? Our streets.” Our streets? By that, was the march suggesting that Wilmslow Road was their street? Why were these students claiming (public) ownership in a community so detached from their own?
Though I had these thoughts, the Reclaim the Night protest is best understood as a strain of ongoing big tent camping for making all public spaces safer and freer. In that sense, all citizens are united for a wider cause. However, at the scale of this one march through the Curry Mile, some may have misinterpreted it as an assertion of ‘ownership’.
But what can be done? Perhaps the only obvious objective is for the Council to get on the back of Electricity North West to improve infrastructural equity. The Curry Mile’s electricity supply should be assured, street lighting ought to be widened and intensified in some areas, and the Council must continue to develop inclusive infrastructural decision making.
This is an awkward situation for the two communities. This issue may seem to be a trivial at present, and there are communities across Manchester that are, no doubt, in worse states. But given the wider context of austerity economics, increasing political polarisation, and the continuing assault of some media outlets and politicians towards immigrant and ethnic minority groups, we must foster an awareness of the ebbs and flows in the current friendly awkwardness shared by communities in the area.