“Will you stop feeding her a load of bullshit! She’s not stupid!” a girl chides as her friends descend into giggles. “You’re not stupid, are you?” she asks me. It’s early evening and a warm wind carries a tangle of voices and the smell of weed across Piccadilly Gardens.
I’ve been adopted by a group of three girls in an area called The Strip, a section that backs on to the concrete pavilion, in the shadow of the hulking Mercure Hotel. It’s where you’ll find huddles of teenagers and young people messing around and drinking tepid ‘Fanta’ (“Stop lying! She was our age once!”) out of plastic cups. The benches are strewn with an assortment of fizzy drinks bottles that will soon be confiscated by the police.
Away from the sunbathers, the office workers eating their lunches on the grass and the children running through the fountain, The Strip is the part of the Gardens that feels layered with threat, particularly on a hot summer’s evening. Within a few minutes, a beer bottle sails over my head and explodes on the ground, showering glass everywhere. “What, are you mad?” someone shouts. A guy takes his shirt off and tries to spar with passers-by, but ends up shadowboxing empty air. Two men kick the pieces of glass as they walk through.
Yesterday Manchester City Council launched an international design competition that invites architects to submit their plans for revamping Piccadilly Gardens. There is £25 million on the table to cover construction costs, and the council’s leader Sir Richard Leese says he wants to create an “outstanding open space in the heart of Manchester, befitting the city’s international status.” The competition’s brief mandates potential architects to create clear sightlines across the Gardens and promote public safety in their designs — an attempt to end the chaos and anti-social behaviour that has come to characterise the city’s central transport hub and most natural gathering point.
It signals the end of the road for the era of Piccadilly Gardens that began 20 years ago when it was remodelled ahead of the Commonwealth Games, adding in the fountains and the controversial concrete pavilion by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. And if the council achieves its objective, it probably also signals the end for the weird mix of communities and subcultures that have made the gardens their home recently, including rough sleepers, drunks, immigrant delivery riders and the group I’ve especially come here to meet: teenagers who come to the gardens to flirt, fight and escape whatever it is they are escaping.
“We have the milky way on the crown of our heads,” a preacher with an e-scooter and a large black amplifier tells me as I stand in the centre on a patch of baked mud, where the grass has been scuffed away. I squint up at him. At any point during the day, you will be guaranteed to find someone here dispensing their strange wisdom. “The milky way,” he repeats. His name is Patrick, but he calls himself Raphael: “The angel on the tip of your tongue.”
On the far side, towards Market Street, a man sunbathes on a raw flowerbed, all crumbling topsoil and no greenery, his head wrapped in a red T-shirt to escape the glare of the sun, his arm flung over his face. Next to him two groups of men, clearly agitated, talk to each other in harsh starts. “I’ll take your fucking head off,” one of them says to another. The groups become one as a small scuffle ensues. Snatches of conversation drift in from elsewhere:
“It’s fucking hot mate, why you all blacked out? Fucking hell mate.”
“Why you being stupid man? I’m trying to help you because you’re drunk.”
“Do you know why everyone wants to be loved?”
I head back to The Strip, a distinct territory with its own groups but no discernable social hierarchy. At first it seems like everyone is part of one large congregation, but then I see there are smaller friendship groups that disperse and knot together again. A boy in a hoody and tracksuit bottoms saunters over to a group of girls and leans down to talk to one of them. “Nah, don’t even talk about me!” a girl tells him. Ignored, she wields an empty coke bottle and chases him off. “Don’t ever come near me again!”
The three girls I’m with introduce themselves Chelsea, Lily and Olivia, but this is a source of mirth (I’m unsure which of the names are real). I’m lucky I approached them first, they say. There are “wrong” crowds out here this evening — they point out a group sucking on balloons — which is why they’ve stuck by me, acting as intermediaries. “You’ll get people trying to take this off you,” Chelsea says about my camera. “If you aren’t known here, other people will take advantage of you.” They’re all sixteen, and are either on an apprenticeship or are in work. They come down to the gardens to hang out with their friends.
“The only thing you can say about here is... the young people you get round here, we’re all like one big family.” The majority of the people here are teenagers, but there are twenty-somethings too, who the girls reassure me are “sound.” The atmosphere is currently festive — a beach football is kicked around and a boom box plays in the background. My presence is a source of entertainment, and as word spreads that a journalist is in their midst, a cast of teenagers comes over to investigate.
“There are a lot of different characters,” Olivia says.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m HDMI2,” a boy tells me.
“BD,” another one says. “You tell them people in your article, ‘that BD guy, he’s a bad man,’ yeah?”
More faces crowd around us. I meet another lad, who tells me he’s twelve, but then the age changes to sixteen.
“He’s called Bob,” Chelsea tells me.
“No, he’s called George,” Lily giggles.
George tells me he’s out here riding “stolens” before switching to a fake Scouse accent.
“Over there is my main G, Flappy Feet,” he says, pointing to another girl. “She’s still rockin’ those nineties like it’s nineteen-ninety.” I assume he’s talking about shoes. He then asks me if I’ve ever heard of a pistol whip.
“It’s just crime and violence here,” someone else tells me.
In Manchester’s local Facebook groups, people like to share photos of how Picadilly Gardens looked in the mid-twentieth century, with neat sunken gardens and flowers in bloom, and rail against the council for “deforming” the site when it was remodelled at the turn of the millennium. “Why is it that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, that I know or speak to, wants Piccadilly Gardens back to the way they were 20/30 years ago?” one person comments in the We Grew Up in Manchester group. Another user says the gardens are now only fit for “scroats, druggies, tosses and tramps.”
Rewind a century and a similar debate was going on. It was one of the “black spots on Manchester’s municipal reputation,” the Manchester Guardian wrote in 1920. “It is now proposed to convert its depressing ugliness into a pleasant garden.” When the gardens opened to the public in September 1921, the transformation was declared “a miracle” and in 1935, the same newspaper reported that “In the green grass there are magnificent flower-beds and brown and yellow borders of wallflowers.” By the 1990s, the gardens were again considered a blight and a hotspot for crime, as they are today.
I meet Faria, 22, and her friend Ellise, 16. Faria is dressed in a puffy sleeveless jacket, and it’s clear she has a reputation as a jokester and entertainer — she tells me she’s a TikTok star.
“Hey, do you want to be in an article?” Olivia asks her.
“Yeah, put me up!”
“You’ve got to listen to this girl!” Chelsea says. “What’s your opinion of Piccadilly Gardens?”
“Violent,” Faria replies
Another girl says she comes down from Bradford.
“I’m gay and I come to Manchester to be myself. I can be free here,” she says. The choatic anonymity of the city and the gardens offers her something important, because “it’s difficult being gay where I’m from.”
“I’ve made loads of friends here,” she tells me. “They’re all like my family.”
As the shadows lengthen, the atmosphere shifts and I can see from the look on the girls’ faces that maybe my time is up. They tell me they usually leave before it gets dark, which during the summer is about nine o’clock. “I don’t think you should stick around here,” Olivia says. Someone I haven’t met pulls up next to us on a bike. “The best way to leave is over that bridge there,” he says. Chelsea makes a slicing motion across her neck — no, not that way.