By Simon Donohue
On a bench in Piccadilly Gardens sits a troubled soul with a dirty blue blanket draped over his head, a flimsy barrier between him and those people doing their best to ignore him. It is the middle of the day.
One woman does not pass by. She stoops on bended knees to talk to the wretched figure who continues to conceal his face beneath the blanket. She asks whether he has asked the council to support him with accommodation. I don’t wait around to hear the answer but it seems an earnest attempt to engage with one of the many lost and lonely people who gravitate towards Piccadilly Gardens every day.
“Unique in Manchester, possibly the world”
I’ve been working in an office overlooking Piccadilly Gardens for almost two years now and I’m convinced that there is nowhere else in the world quite like it. It’s certainly unique in Manchester. Thousands pass quickly through each day on their way somewhere else. It is home to the busiest bus interchange in the city and a cut through for those arriving in Manchester via Piccadilly railway station.
But there are familiar faces too: a crooked old lady in a black dress and scarf who holds out a curved hand for cash; a troubled 20-something young woman who busks with a guitar for cash; a friendly guy who sits near Greggs and asks politely for cash. Then there are mobile phone salesmen, chuggers, buskers and market stall operators selling exciting dishes from across the globe. It’s an eclectic mix.
A regular fixture among the street dwellers is a man of around 28 with a friendly face and demeanor. He’s happy to share his story. He was living with a girl in Wales but they split up and he ended up with nowhere to live. He’d love a job but he made mistakes as a child and ended up serving time for arson. Potential employers haven’t looked on him particularly kindly since. He doesn’t beg, instead selling poems which he sits and writes in an arched doorway overlooking the gardens. He’s always pleasant, never seems to be drunk or stoned, and seems fairly happy for someone with such a dreadful existence. He’s just one of many who have found a home in Piccadilly, arguably the epicentre of the UK’s second city but not one it should be particularly proud of.
Drink and drugs
The stench of cannabis is another constant in Piccadilly, one of the more obvious signs that handshake drugs are another commodity on sale. It’s hard to work out who is selling what to whom – and it appears that no one is making anything like a tidy profit – but there’s a constant stream of furtive conversations held by people who don’t appear to be going anywhere.
Then there are the drinkers: merry bands of brothers and sisters whose banter occasionally sours. They are certainly not shy about occupying a bus shelter, or their battered and weather-worn faces. There’s touching camaraderie. Saddest of all are those who appear desperate be part of this gang – those whose noses and eyes are still intact, clothes clean, but downward spiral all too easy to predict. People age quickly in Piccadilly.
One day I saw the corpse of a drinker bent awkwardly forward in a bus shelter while a seemingly unfazed police officer stood smiling nearby, presumably waiting for an ambulance to collect it.
“A brilliantly-observed freak scene…”
This great square is a melting pot of the good and the bad – a place occupied by all kinds of life and the closest most sane people will come to entering the asylum. Walk quickly enough and it can feel near normal. Loiter more than a few moments and it can feel like one of LS Lowry’s brilliantly observed freak scenes. It has some architectural merits but most are above street level, where some real gems are hidden in plain sight.
Piccadilly has become the de facto place for protestors – union activists one day, international human rights campaigners the next. In summer, they provide a sort of entertainment for the office picnickers who gather on the grass.
Within a few paces of one another there are mobile soup kitchens serving the homeless and down at heel, and trendy chain restaurants offering wraps for the best part of a tenner. Somehow these worlds do not collide, occupying the same space but on different plains. Well, most of the time…
Analysis of crime data by the Manchester Evening News found that Piccadilly is the most crime-ridden place in the whole of Manchester, and the fifth worst crime hot spot in the entire country. Statistically, you’re more likely to be mugged or sexually assaulted in Piccadilly than anywhere else in Manchester city centre. That’s arguably what happens when extremes co-exist in such a confined space but it presents a particular headache for the police and city council, not to mention those charged with marketing Manchester. What do you do when the gateway to your city is filled with detritus? Burying it under a dirty blue blanket is no answer.
More than 100 people have been arrested in Piccadilly in a two year period and anti-social behavior orders have been served. The council provides reassurance that it takes the problem seriously but there’s still has a vaguely lawless air about the place. A rebuild could help – the concrete ‘Berlin Wall’ has been hugely unpopular and development appears to have encroached unnecessarily on what was only recently one of the widest open areas of the city. It will take work to fix, but fixed it must be.
As famous as it is infamous, Piccadilly Gardens somehow encapsulates the cheek by jowl proximity of poverty with prosperity that is apparent in any major conurbation. To take a more optimistic perspective, perhaps Piccadilly could be the perfect place to test the policies which can improve life for all. For make no mistake, all life is definitely here.