“So how do you get to Moss Side from Chorlton?”
“Just follow the sound of gun shots in the distance,” my friend responded in a half-joking, half-cautionary tone.
The only thing I really knew about Moss Side before I went there was that it was to be avoided at all costs. The first time I went my mum all but handed me a bulletproof vest. When I told her I might want to move there later in the year she asked if I might prefer to go sightseeing in Syria.
Every solid community has a story that binds it and the story we are told of Moss Side is one of violence and gang warfare. Moss Side is a culturally diverse inner city area of South Manchester. Back in the 80s and 90s, the hard drugs trade grew in Manchester and competition to take control of its sale led to gun violence, particularly between two main gangs in Moss Side; the Gooch Gang and the Pepperhill mob. In the mid-90s a truce was agreed and the violence calmed down, but it didn’t exactly disappear and some shootings continued into the noughties.
This community, however, seems to be re-telling the story to one of local resilience and peaceful social change. Since the beginning of November, I’ve been spending my Saturdays down at their community allotment and it’s probably my favourite part of the week. The allotment was established by local residents, providing the area with home-grown organic food and offering residents the opportunity to pick up the skills to grow their own. However, over the past six weeks or so this hasn’t been the main emphasis of their work. The next phase of this forward-thinking project is to build a community hub; a small building with kitchen and bathroom facilities to host skill-sharing sessions within the local community, from cookery and dance, to sustainable living; whatever the residents want to bring to the table.
So that’s what we’ve been doing; hammering, sawing and drilling. Anyone who knows me, knows that when it comes to this kind of stuff I’m as much use as an inflatable dartboard, but with some patient coaching, I’ve picked a few things up and so have many of the other participants. But that’s not really what this is all about. If left exclusively to a team of experts, it’d probably be up by now (even if they took as many tea breaks as we do) but the whole point of this entire project is that the community has a sense of ownership of what we’re building. I doubt it’s going to be a flawless innovation in architectural design when it’s up (I’ve definitely hammered in a few dodgy nails) but we’ll know that we built it together and in a society where people struggle to eat a proper meal together, that’s a remarkable achievement.
What is the secret to it’s success? Good old-fashioned fun! That’s it folks. Rather than spend our afternoons at the Trafford Centre (a shopping mall) we choose to spend it out in the cold, berating one another’s jokes and putting the world to right with lukewarm tea in hand! We muddy our boots and we splinter our fingers but we come away contented with the knowledge that we’re part of something really important. There’s something about creating something tangible and out-there-in-the-real-world which is so fulfilling, mostly because it facilitates the creation of something less tangible than a building and more nourishing than organic food; a community.
Here’s a video I helped to make interviewing Marc who comes to the allotment every week, to give you a bit of an idea: