Thursday, June 22, 2017

Devaluing the Pink Pound

Living on a canal barge I'm aware that 'pound' has two meanings, currency for sure but also a stretch of canal between two locks. A Trans woman, my home isn't on dry land, it floats.  Its location, New Islington Marina is close to Manchester's bustling city centre. It is home not only to my blogging self and husband, but also for thirty seven other families. It lies in the pound between lock 82 on Great Ancoats Street and Butler Lane Locks.  In a way it is a Pink Pound: The marina community is home to every letter in the LGBT alphabet. There is an important reason for this.

The Millenium Community of New Islington grew up around what is now the Marina. It lies between two historic canals; the Ashton and the Rochdale.  Historically a heavily industrial area, New Islington later became the site of the Cardroom Estate, a social housing community completed in the 1970's.  By the 90's the estate had become impoverished reputedly one of the worst in the UK.  The canals had become little more than an aqueous rubbish dump. Fresh moves were then made to regenerate the area.  An ambitious project to create over a thousand new homes was put forward, displacing residents and proposing an array of properties from new builds to residential conversions of old mill buildings. By the time the recession hit, less than 200 homes had been built and the project went into stagnation. In an attempt to regain control of developments, Manchester City Council clawed back control after the area had initially been leased to developers for 250 years.

As so often happens with regenerated waterside locations, gentrification began.  Creative young professionals moved in and among them many families from Manchester's LGBT community.  In neighbouring Ancoats, the quaintly named General Store carries Attitude Magazine, Diva and Gay Times as well as an amazing selection of designer teas.  It is easy to stereotype our community, but such a product range signals a fairly affluent new community with money to spend. This includes that all important pink pound.

Paul Allen, a Gay friend recalled to me a trip made to Boston in 2009.  He found himself sitting next to a man from Philadelphia returning to the U.S. He relates "

The passenger and I started a conversation, during which he told me about his business trip to Manchester. He was from a State planning committee on an investigation to see how Manchester City Council had used the Pink Pound/LGBT communities to regenerate the city centre.  He was so impressed with how successful this had been he was going to encourage the same process for American cities".

It was an inspired move.  The LGBT community are a demographic increasingly used by developers and advertisers It taps into the sizeable income some LGBT families seem to enjoy. However the stereotype of the affluent Gay couple with a cute dog and lots of money are a gloss.  In reality the LGBT community is diverse, some sections of it being very poor indeed.  We do not all work in design consultancies or bespoke interior design studios. Trans individuals like myself can suffer an huge drop in income when they come out.  A qualified and talented Early Years teacher I found it impossible to get paid work after beginning transition. I was instead forced to work as a teaching assistant on a minimal wage.  My bi-gender partner has fared little better. I lived in a narrow minded and puritanical North Wales town, suffering transphobia, workplace discrimination and harassment. Moving to Manchester became a flight to a place of refuge, not a stepping stone to assured affluence.

I have never owned my own flat and never had a place that felt like home.  To me, home means a place to feel safe, a haven of acceptance and belonging; omewhere you can sleep at night without worrying about passing, being outed or hated. New Islington Marina, a harbour for up to 40 inland craft became that haven when I moved here in July 2015.  Both myself and my husband found an incredibly accepting, close knit community: One we could finally call home.  Moving from rented accommodation to a canal barge, we bought our first home from a lesbian couple who were moving to Skye. I've spoken about it in earlier blogs.  It also provided the starting point for a new business, Northern Grind.  Aware of Manchester's reputation as a street food capital we set up a mobile barista service, trading in local markets and Manchester's many LGBT events.  It was a decision we haven't regretted.  The response has been amazing and our business is beginning to flourish. For me, the Pink Pound is both my home and my livelihood. I am part of Manchester's Hospitality Industry and contribute to local wealth generation.  This is something I want to hang on to dearly.

As we made friends, we began to realise how many fellow LGBT community members live here, each with their own reasons for choosing the Marina as home. I interviewed two of them for this blog and include their stories here.

If you're lesbian and single, your lot isn't necessarily a luxury apartment in a converted mill. Grace came to live here two years ago.  A chef at Manchester's Cottonopolis, she told me how she had always loved boats and desperately wanted to live on one.  Like ourselves Grace is no stranger to homophobia, something that is particularly worriesome if you're a single girl living alone on a boat.  Like myself, she isn't rolling on a bed of pink pound coins: the catering industry doesn't pay megabucks. When she saw her current boat and fell in love with it she was concerned about how she might afford the £10k price tag. Negotiating with the then owner, she came to a part ownership arrangement, paying for her home in small instalments so that she could own it outright. 

Grace lives with her endearingly amiable dog Rolo. A Staffy/Sharpei cross, he is Grace's constant companion and ready friend to any resident who might have a little food. Originally, moored to the canal towpath above Droylesden, she never felt safe. She was on the waiting list for a marina berth for six long months and was granted a permanent mooring 2 years ago. I asked if it was a relief and she replied "100%". Now, even though she lives alone, Grace values the strong sense of community, mutual help, neighbourliness and friendship, something she observes has vanished from modern life. Her boat Luna has mains electricity provided on the pontoon and a fresh water tap to fill the on board tank.  These are luxuries unknown to boaters forced to live 'on the cut'. There you might have to travel some distance to a water point and rely on batteries and engine for electricity. As well as safety, Grace also values the peace and tranquility of Cottonfield Park. The Marina lies at its centre.  She talks about the almost rural calm you get in the city centre only a short distance from Manchester's main streets.

Becky, a single lesbian woman, lives aboard her 'banana boat'. The pale yellow superstructure of her home describes a gentle upward curve toward the prow.  Like most of the water craft here it is distinctive and different, I pass it everyday as I walk along the pontoon from my own boat. A half open window on one side allows her cat to get in and out.  "I have to have the usual cat", she quips. "I decided to name her Token". Token is adventurous but shy.  Late last night, on a hot summer night I had the bedroom windows open.  Token peeped in with a tentative miaow, looked around and then went on her way.

Like Grace, Becky talks of her need for a safe accepting place and her relief at finding a home here 3 years ago.  Like Grace and myself, Becky works in Manchester's busy hospitality industry. She is a host for Premier Inn.  When Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi targeted Ariana Grande's concert the hotel where she works offered shelter to those displaced by the blast and its resulting chaos. She works long unsocial hours and night shifts. Being on a Marina in the city centre, Becky values being able to cycle back within minutes, something essential when you're doing it at 2am!  She is able to let herself in to the locked compound with her boater's key, a thing all of us have and value.  Security and peace of mind mean much in a city centre location, especially if you're a single woman. 

"My boat is called 'Life of Riley'", she explains. "It was up in Hyde and where it was it did not feel like a safe place to be out. It was unsecured and down a dark and muddy pathway."

Becky reports that she is saving hard to renovate and improve her boat.  When she took it on, it did not have a working engine. Even the smaller narrow boats can weigh between 10 and 12 tons.  To get her boat to its chosen home in New Islington wasn't easy. "I got a tow about half way and then pulled it the rest of the way, took a day, with help to get here and it was the best thing I've ever done!!!!"

Becky, Grace and myself represent only two of the LGBT letters here in New Islington Marina.  We are however representative of a community that doesn't find acceptance elsewhere.  Like other marginalised individuals we don't get an easy ride if we live out in unaccepting rural or suburban areas. Combine that with living a lonely life out on the cut you become doubly sensitive to hatred, homophobia or transpohobia.  Finding a home within an accepting community like New Islington Marina is much more than a idyllic waterborne lifestyle.  It represents a safe space with others on hand to help if necessary.  The life is far from idyllic in Winter.  Becky is looking for a refurbished log burner to keep her and Token cosy during the freezing winter months. The neighbourliness and friendship however is always warm.

Successful as the Pink Pound has been in regenerating Manchester's rust belt, there are alarming signs of corrosion. This month saw an unexpected turn of events for all 38 of New Islington Marina's residents. We all received letters from Manchester City Council informing us that repairs to the Marina would mean eviction at the end of August. It was made clear that there would be no guaranteed return even after a 12 to 18 month closure period.  A once safe, secure and supportive community is now facing displacement and disintegration.  It seems like the Pink Pound, invaluable in pioneering the area's renaissance, is now no longer good currency with the City Council.  Intent on handing the Marina over to a faceless, commercial management company the authority now risk the jobs, homes and security of a whole community.

For me as a Trans woman, I face the very real possibility of a forced return to Stealth.  I risk losing my newly founded Transgender catering business and my home in the city that sustains it. Nights are sleepless sometimes. I've been through some tough periods but this time I'm really scared. Scared but still proud.

The Marina residents are pledged to fight this decision which imperils their very livelihood and safety.  Our Residents Association: NIMRA is working hard to change it so that the community can remain. Their slogan 'Divided we Sink, United we Float' sums up how strong the feeling is and how devastating the loss of their homes would be. We have to float.

You can find out more about the campaign and how to help here:

Please sign the petition to save the Marina community here:

Donate to fund our campaign to save the Marina community here:

HUGGS, Jane xx

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