When I first moved to Manchester nine years ago, the Gay Village was still riding the crest of the wave from the Queer As Folk boom in the early 00s. Everything was glossy, bright and new and Manchester seemed, to me, like a Queer City Of Dreams. Gays were flocking from all over the country to come and live in a city that wasn’t just accepting of their sexuality, but actively encouraged them to come, stay and become part of the community. It’s now been fourteen years since “The Scene” was given its nationwide television debut, so what has become our Village?
While Queer As Folk put Manchester on the map for gays, it also brought the Gay Village to the attention of everyone else too. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it has increasingly become a tourist destination for hen parties and those in search of a novelty night out. Canal Street itself has basically divided itself in reaction to this; the bars that embrace the tourists and the bars that don’t. Those that do tend to be filled with anyone and everyone, with probably less than 50% gay people inside, while those that don’t have strict door policies and a group of straight people would never be able to enter. Is this discriminatory? Possibly, but allowing everyone to come and watch the gays in their own habitat treats us a bit like caged animals in a zoo, which negates the point of gay bars in the first place; spaces in which gay people can meet other gay people, socialise and feel completely comfortable with themselves.
For the last few years, The Village as a whole has obviously been heavily hit by the recession. My drinking habits have changed, just as they have for a lot of other people. I very rarely choose to drink in bars before a night out, solely because I can’t afford to drink at those prices all night and I’d rather spend my money once I’ve got to a club. Gay men also seem to, in general, start their night a lot later than straight people. Drive through town on a Saturday night at 1am and you’ll see a lot of drunk people holding kebabs and staggering home; these are not gays as the gays will only just be getting going. When the news filtered down that there was a proposed curfew being discussing by the Council in an attempt to prevent the levels of crime in and around The Village it truly felt like the idea was being discussed by people who did not understand the gay community at all. To them, a 3am curfew may have sounded reasonable, like it would allow for a long night out, but when was the last time I left a club before 3am on a Saturday night? I probably haven’t in the last five years. Gay men are gearing more and more toward clubbing than nights out in bars nowadays, and to propose a curfew in complete opposition showed just how the Council was completely out of step with The Village, its people and its needs. Thankfully, the curfew didn’t pass.
For years, Essential was the place to go on a night out. It strode far beyond its competition, giving Manchester’s gay scene a high-end London-esque nightspot where the cool people went and it was cool to be. It was a victim of its own success though, overpricing itself out of the market, just as the country was sliding into recession. When it closed its doors, The Village was left with much more downmarket alternatives. The other nightclubs serve their function; they are packed with gays on the weekends, they play chart music and have a moderate door policy… Except everywhere that does this is basically exactly the same. At least in the days of Essential there was some variation between a night there, a night in Poptastic and a night in Cruz 101. And with the closure of Legends in the last year, Manchester has been sorely without an alternative to the standard “let’s-get-drunk-and-dance-to-remixed-pop-songs” that Cruz and Pop offer.
The move of the gay masses away from the village began when bars began to spring up on the surrounding streets. TriBeCa had always been a trendy alternative to Canal Street, but with the initial (but short-lived) opening of Parlour, Richmond Street soon saw the arrival of The Molly House, The Lodge and The Richmond Tearooms, while The Eagle swept in on Bloom Street to plug the gap in the market left by Legends’ departure. These bars cater for, shock horror, gay men who don’t want to spend every weekend blowing whistles and wearing bunny-ears. And while lots of gay men LOVE a night out, the pre-club crowd have G-A-Y and Thompsons to cater for them. And while we’re on the subject, why oh why has Thompsons (a scummy and sticky youth-club of a bar) succeeded in keeping its gay crowd while Churchills and The New Union haven’t? That will be because of its door policy (yes I know it has cheap doubles and the music’s actually quite good, but I stand by this claim).
Queer has clearly jumped a sinking ship. The Village itself isn’t in trouble, but as a large conglomeration of bars and businesses, it’s evolving and adapting to the changes in the world at large. Queer as we knew it was no longer a viable business; it was succeeding with nights like Mornin’ Glory and Boyz, but situated where it was, if it wanted to maintain its dance-bar brand, it needed to move. And so it’s followed the trend and moved off-street. And it certainly tempted me back through the doors; I went to Mornin’ Glory for only the second time in my life two weeks ago and, in my drunken haze, it felt JUST like Essential in its glory days… Except much later in the night. Queer has been a brand that had become increasingly irrelevant in The Village, but I have a sneaking suspicion that might be about to change. Remember the Essential drumming parade down Canal Street every Saturday? Remember the sheer spectacle of its floats in the Pride parade? I’d like some of that back please. Thanks.
I used to feel proud of The Village as an example of how gay people could embrace the area they had acquired and turned it into something fabulous. I don’t feel that way anymore. In the centre of all the good things about The Village sits Canal Street, the majority of which is becoming run-down and fetid. While I respect Queer for keeping its doors open but taking its doors elsewhere, I wonder what it means for the rest of the street at large. It will depend on what now comes to fill that venue; will we see another Wetherspoons-esque View, or something new and different? I’m expecting the former, but please let it be the latter! The building itself is fantastic, so why not fill it with something exciting? I want dancing midgets and fire-eaters and drinks served in tiny Tupperware boxes and Chinese dragons and indoor trees and puppet shows and MAGIC! I want all or none of the above, but mostly I’d like to stop being bored with what The Village has to offer. If they’re not careful Queer Alt will pull the rug out from under The Village entirely… Or maybe that’s what we need? Queer Alt to actually take the space as their permanent home? Just a thought…