What Is the City but the People? // Asif Majid

What is a city? The opening event of the 2017 Manchester International Festival (MIF) put forth an answer: its people. That the city is not the space those people inhabit, as much as it is the people who inhabit it. Paying tribute to Manchester, MIF’s What Is the City but the People? compelled audiences to see the city as more than a static collection of buildings and concrete. This is not a new idea, but rather one that draws heavily on social geographer Doreen Massey’s decades-old notion that spaces have multiple identities, are embedded in power dynamics, and rely on networks of social relations. What Is the City made its claim by parading dozens of Mancunians down a 100-meter catwalk in the heart of Manchester, Piccadilly Gardens. Dogwalkers, children, cyclists, refugees, taxi drivers, and lovers all appeared. It was a beautiful collection of people.

But Manchester is many things, both what was seen on the catwalk on June 29th, its opposite, and a range of lives in between. The event presented experiences of hope, strength, and community, but the city is also more than that, for better and for worse. Alongside the positive, the event might have also acknowledged the spice epidemic plaguing those experiencing homelessness in Piccadilly, an area inundated by the drug. Or it might have gestured to the major cuts to university staff at two Manchester universities (The University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University), disproportionately effecting social and artistic fields, that are being fought by students and faculty alike. It might also have considered the spike in hate crime against those who are visibly Muslim that occurred in the month after the attack on Manchester Arena, reinforcing continued tensions and fears. Perhaps, then, the evening was more about highlighting what Manchester sees as the best parts of itself rather than reflecting all its complexities.

With Manchester still healing after the violence of May 22nd, What Is the City became an unintended commentary on the city’s resilience: anything other than celebration would have been inappropriate. At the same time, however, it is important to bear in mind another of Massey’s ideas, that space is no more than “a cut through the myriad stories in which we are all living at any one moment.” This runway-inspired slice of Manchester is only one drop of honey taken from a much larger pot, one boll of cotton drawn from a much wider field. It is a particular selection of people, reflecting a particular artist’s intention, at a particular moment in the life of the city. It should not be taken as universally or even totally Manchester, but rather as an invitation to deepen our relationship with the urban. For if a city is its people, to celebrate it is to take its good with its bad together. (AM)

- Asif Majid

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

MIF - What Is the City but the People?

Doreen Massey and Theories of Space

The Spice Epidemic

Cuts to Manchester Universities - Guardian and Manchester Evening News

Spike in Hate Crime after Manchester Attack