This semester I’m working as a research assistant for a former professor. It’s a very low key job that only requires some back and forth shuffling between Columbia’s many libraries and the professor’s office over at Knox, on W 122th Street and Broadway.
I love the job, mostly because the professor is incredible and played a huge role in shaping my sophomore year experience. Considering how content I am with my position, I was surprised by a quiet nagging sensation that hit me two weeks into the semester. It felt like someone was tapping me on the shoulder and pointing to something I couldn’t quite make out; like someone was trying to make me aware that I was glossing over something that I shouldn’t ignore. I knew it couldn’t be from the job — my tasks were too chill to pose a problem — so I let it fester for a while.
After a few weeks, the problem became too much to ignore. I had to figure out what it was trying to tell me so I walked to Knox from my dorm on 114th, looking around to see what had caught my attention. When I got to 120th, I stopped. I focused on the East side of the street, specifically on Teachers College and Joe Coffee. This spot is what the feeling was gesturing towards, this is what I needed to notice.
Teachers College immediately reminded me of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, specifically the part about an industrial town turned art/culture hub. It’s a little dirty, a little aged, lightly covered in soot. It reminded of me of a more formal Williamsburg, a Victorian Atlantic Avenue. Although clearly an institution, something about TC reminded me of lofts — you know, apartments that were formerly factories? It’s a bit vintage, I like it.
I turned to Joe Coffee. Joe, above all, is millennial. It’s a 2015 hipster paradise. It’s all sleek glass, all modern and minimalist. It’s white, very white, both in terms of the people you’ll find there and the physical aesthetic of the space. It’s a good study spot, a good place to sit and listen to Bon Iver and Lewis Watson. I like it, it’s swank as hell.
So what is it about these two buildings that demands my attention? What is it about these two different aesthetics, placed so closely together that I need to notice? It finally hits me: it’s Manchester. This intersection reminds me of Manchester, England.
I spent four weeks in Manchester this past summer, living with a madrileña named Andrea. She had been in Manchester for a year, studying English and busing tables at Nando’s. We got along exceptionally well, probably because we were both acutely aware of the fact that Manchester is not the most magnificent or posh place to be. We both agreed that it kinda (read: really) sucked to be there in the middle of summer.
The apartment was nice — just nice. It was off Oxford Road, near Gorilla and the Ritz. The bathroom was huge and I had my own room. The kitchen, dining, and living room were in one open space, lit nicely by huge windows that looked down to Lower Ormond Street. It was sleek, calm, and quiet like Joe and perfect for relaxing and reflecting.
The apartment didn’t have wifi, so whenever I needed to send emails or call my mom, I’d pack a bag and head over to one of many Caffé Neros that dot central Manchester. On my way to the cafe, I stepped over the small black puddles of muck and made sure to appreciate the castle-like buildings, just as old but a little dirtier than TC.
Manchester is not beautiful. It is quite grimy and quite gross: the buildings are covered by marks of industrial smoke, of factory soot. It feels gritty, like I’d imagine New York in the 60s did, except without as much crime and without the city’s hustle. Manchester is also very poor. Every day I passed at least one homeless man on the street and each time I was startled by how young the guy was, by the realization that he could be my brother, my best friend, my coworker. Under different circumstances, he could be me and vice versa.
At the same time Manchester is beautiful. Mancunians took a while to open up to me, but once they did, it was great. Their stereotypical sarcastic/dead pan humor came out in full force and it was marvelous. Once I realized that the constant stream of insults was actually a sign of acceptance — a welcome into the community — it was marvelous.
Manchester does not sparkle or shine but it is worthwhile. I spent my four weeks there only half willing to explore the city, frequently thinking about how alone I felt. I wasn’t until I stopped and looked at TC and Joe that I really thought about my time in Manchester. I realized that all that glitters is not gold and all that doesn’t isn’t dirt.
Don’t let that be you. Sure the city is weighed down by a certain dreary gloom but that atmosphere created a hub for artistic energy and intense creative reflection. The products are everywhere: Go to the Whitworth. Check out the music scene at Picadilly Records. Find out when One Mic Stand is preforming and go. Make your way over to the People’s History Museum (and then tell me how it is, since I never got the chance to check it out). Manchester is worthwhile. Go to Manchester, visit Manchester. You will not regret it.
 Don’t you love this word? Soot. Who would have thought I would be using the word soot in 2015?
EDIT: I do not mean to insinuate that because Manchester is poor it cannot be beautiful. By saying “Manchester is also very poor,” I hope it is clear that poverty and lack of beauty are separate things. I’m working on finding better language to describe this.