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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, July 01, 2006
    The tree which is no longer there
     


    This is the story of a tree which is no longer there. A Black Poplar, it was known as The Birley Tree because for well over a century it stood in the middle of a green space in the built-up area at the south edge of Manchester city centre. The land the Birley Tree stood on - Birley Fields - used to contain the high school, and this tree, the oldest in Hulme, was a landmark feature visible from major roads, which occupied a fond place in the memories of residents who recalled it standing at the school gates.

    The Birley Tree is no longer there because Hulme was designated for development, and Birley Fields was earmarked for the construction of a hotel. Thus the story of The Birley Tree is a story about regeneration.

    I have been on an old red bus today, touring Manchester as a guest of the UHC Collective who for the past three and a half years have been working in various artistic forms, 'on the network of power relations currently shaping our local environment, as Manchester swings ever more into regeneration overdrive.' They've been exhibiting their work under the banner Incursions In The Knowledge Capital, Knowledge Capital being the concept with which the City Council has taken to rebranding Manchester.

    So much of what I saw and heard on the old red bus seemed familiar from Liverpool - the massive scale of new developments ripping into old established communities, the immense power of the market to dictate the way we use city space (silencing protest, clearing beggars off the streets), the 'thin veneer of democracy' which hardly disguises the huge inequalities of power between the business class - sanctioned and fully supported by city councillors, and the majority, ordinary people of the city - disenfranchised, unrepresented.

    Sitting in the bus in the car park of a giant Asda Wal-Mart complex I heard that this monolithic intrusion - for which generations of people were cleared - was called Hulme High Street, that it was built for ease of access for out-of-town motorists travelling on the Princess Road, and that pedestrians have to access the place by means of a side security gate. Looking up the road I saw the spiral steel cables of the Hulme Arch Bridge shining in the morning sun and heard that this 'gateway' to the city cost Manchester's people £4million, twice the amount first quoted.

    As the bus chugged up the road I heard the story of the Birley Tree - the protesters' two applications for a Tree Preservation Order, twice refused on the grounds that it was in decline, diseased, and hollow; the consultant and fellow of the Arboricultural Association who declared the tree to be healthy, an ‘important specimen’ with at least another 25 years life. The petitions, the campaign, the strength of local feeling to keep the tree - as a symbol, perhaps, of another way of valuing the city.

    It all came to nothing, of course, because the power-brokers got their land. However, as often happens, the planned-for hotel investment fell through. The tree went, nothing was built in its place, and the Fields fell into neglect.

    Last week I took part in a discussion in which a group of thoughtful clergy mostly agreed that the symbols of our faith were losing their relevance to the people of today. But looking across the scrubby, fallow wreck of Birley Fields today it was pointed out to me that someone had created a memorial to the Birley Tree in the place it once stood. Made out of slender lengths of new wood, rising high from the debris of this once public space, there it is, a silent and poignant witness to this story of regeneration - a cross.