Why walking through Piccadilly Gardens makes me want to move to another planet

After years of being promised this rotten eyesore of an area is going to be sorted out - it feels a bit like the joke is firmly on us.
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On a late spring evening this year, back when we were baking in intense 30 degree heat, I met a friend in the city centre who was visiting for the day.

After a meal out together, she decided to get her train, and I said I would walk up with her some of the way to the station before we parted, catching my tram home from Market Street - a stone's throw from Piccadilly Gardens.

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As we walked, I started to see the city through a visitor's eyes and felt a growing sense of embarrassment at how shoddy and run down the street stretching ahead of us looked. After saying goodbye to her as I reached my tram stop, outside the former Debenhams, now an empty, graffiti strewn shell in dire need of a good scrub - I felt something else too - an uncomfortable feeling of unease and a mild sense of fear.

Debenhams and the Market Street tram stop near Piccadilly GardensDebenhams and the Market Street tram stop near Piccadilly Gardens
Debenhams and the Market Street tram stop near Piccadilly Gardens

Around me, hooded gangs seemed to be filling every litter and cigarette butt strewn corner, one hunched young lad spitting on the floor in front of me as he passed, rough sleepers took up space in shop doorways and angry, drunk people looking completely out of it on alcohol or more likely Spice rushed past me towards Piccadilly Gardens, cans in hand and yelling obscenities.

There was just something nasty in the air and as the discomfort and depression at my surroundings took hold, I decided, despite the heat, to leave and do the sticky 10-minute walk to Victoria station to catch a tram from there instead - anything to escape.

As I headed there, the fire service were just arriving to put out a blazing bin, set alight close to the shopping crowds. And then a text came through from my friend - her train was delayed because someone had allegedly been stabbed at Piccadilly Station - I mean, it just wasn’t a good look.

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Later, I lamented to the same friend about the horror of it all - asking her if she remembered it being so bad years ago. “I used to aspire to move to Manchester”, I moaned to her, “I can’t remember finding that area so repulsive.” Had I just not noticed it or not cared because I was younger, was it being older that made me wince at it all so much?

But she agreed that during her trips to Manchester over the decades she had seen a solid deterioration, that it hadn’t just been our youth meaning all we cared about was good shops or a good night out and that cleanliness and crime had been off our radars, meaning we only remembered things through rose-tinted glasses.

Anytime I have to walk through Piccadilly Gardens and its immediate surrounding areas (a walk I would avoid like the plague at night) I feel my mood dampen and my senses shrivel in the same way they can lift during a stroll down pretty King Street.

The cool, urban vibe of The Northern Quarter can really help to get the creative juices flowing - but all a walk through Piccadilly Gardens or a stroll (read mad dash to get through it alive) down Market Street does is make me want to go home, stick a For Sale sign up outside my house and move to another city. In fact, another country. In actual fact, scrap that - another planet.

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I mean, where do I start? The grimy pavements, the eyesore of the ill-appointed bus station, the anti-social behaviour, the rough sleepers, The Wall. We have suffered a mud bath left behind from the dire grimness that was the Christmas Markets, (and on that note perhaps the forgetful German sausage seller would like to come back and retrieve the hut seemingly still abandoned there). Then there’s the gangs, the drugs, the crime....

Piccadilly Gardens Credit: Simon BinnsPiccadilly Gardens Credit: Simon Binns
Piccadilly Gardens Credit: Simon Binns

An ill-advised billboard for Magnum ice cream went up last last year stating: “The only thing to make lying down in Piccadilly Gardens even better” and was met with much ridicule from Mancunians. One smart Alec quipped on social media that the only time you lie down in Piccadilly Gardens is if you have been stabbed. Of course that raised a lot of laughs, but really, when you think about it - the joke really isn’t very funny.

In fact, after years of being promised this rotten eyesore of an area is going to be sorted out - it feels a bit like the joke is firmly on us.

In 2014 there was the farcical situation of a huge Ferris Wheel owner refusing to move it from the area, claiming the town hall owed him money.

The infamous Ferris Wheel rising high above Piccadilly Gardens back in 2014The infamous Ferris Wheel rising high above Piccadilly Gardens back in 2014
The infamous Ferris Wheel rising high above Piccadilly Gardens back in 2014

In 2017, we were promised an overhaul but nothing happened.

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In 2020 Council bosses hailed ‘the new beginning’ for Piccadilly Gardens after the hated ‘Berlin Wall’ was demolished - while unfortunately still preserving a big, ugly chunk of it.

It’s now 2023 and well......here we are.

It’s not like there aren’t other parts of Manchester that look super smart, or cool or swish so the fact that this is the first area any visitors see if they arrive by train at the nearby Piccadilly Station feels like a total travesty and an utter embarrassment. Nobody wants Piccadilly Gardens not only to shame the city, but to define it.

Ironically, shortly before writing this piece an email from Manchester City Council dropped into my inbox claiming a design team has been appointed to develop plans to create ‘a world class’ space in the area centred around Piccadilly Gardens.

The brief calls for a green space in the centre of the city, planting to encourage biodiversity and improve air quality, while ‘recognising that this needs to be carefully designed to support a flexible space which tens of thousands of people walk through every day.’

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Mark Graham, Manchester Studio Lead at LDA Design, who will be responsible for the transformation, said he is thrilled to be taking on the task.

He said: “The city deserves a beautiful public space that showcases all that is great about Manchester and brings the city together. We want the Gardens to feel strongly Mancunian, in a very special way that delivers a lasting legacy for the city. We can’t wait to work with the community to shape our ideas and hear what people think.”

Councillor Bev Craig says: “We know that people have strong views about Piccadilly Gardens and serious work is continuing to realise its potential as an outstanding, welcoming public space – somewhere people want to linger and enjoy, not just pass through. There’s still much more work to do and today is not about us announcing the plan but appointing the experts who will help produce one, taking the views of Mancunians very much into account.”

Piccadilly Gardens on the hottest day of 2018 - when it was the weather for a Magnum Piccadilly Gardens on the hottest day of 2018 - when it was the weather for a Magnum
Piccadilly Gardens on the hottest day of 2018 - when it was the weather for a Magnum

Hmmmm - there certainly is much, much work to do. But the thing is, like with friendships or marriages - once promises have been made and broken, it weakens trust and builds cynicism. I can’t help but think we have heard it all before. But, who knows - maybe in no time at all I will be lying down, injury free, in Piccadilly Gardens, savouring a Magnum and just revelling in how world class it all feels around me.

Maybe. Who knows. Here’s hoping.