By ALAN FREEMAN
Globe and Mail Update
Friday, December 13, 2002
I went on a personal pilgrimage to this old industrial city recently to mark a centenary that will never appear on a stamp or a bronze plaque.
On Dec. 8, 1902, my father was born in Cheetham Hill, near central Manchester, the first son of a young couple of Russian Jewish immigrants. Soon after, my grandparents left for Montreal, joining the massive wave of immigration that washed on the shores of North America in the early 20th century.
Aside from my right to a British passport, that short Mancunian interlude in my family history left only a few quirky vestiges. I can remember my father, who died several years ago in his 90s, using the word "muffler" for scarf and insisting that a certain Latin American country was really called "the Argentine."
But since moving to London as The Globe and Mail's correspondent, I've become more interested in my British roots, renewing relations with several long-lost cousins. So the idea of heading to Manchester for that 100th anniversary proved suddenly appealing.
After what seems like decades of decline, mirroring the collapse of the English cotton and textile trade, Manchester is suddenly on the up. It's the ultimate victory of the service economy. Manchester doesn't make much of anything anymore but it is the home of the Manchester United football team, TV's Coronation Street, several universities, a big airport and lots of bars and restaurants. Many of the long-abandoned brick warehouses and textile mills have been turned into swish loft-style apartments and offices.
With pots of money from the government and the national lottery, the city now boasts a new branch of the Imperial War Museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, and The Lowry, a performing-arts centre and museum named after L.S. Lowry, a local artist who spent his life painting working-class Salford.
Last summer, Manchester hosted a highly successful Commonwealth Games, housed in shiny new sports venues.
As locals are quick to mention, they're also curiously grateful to the Irish Republican Army for helping the revival of downtown Manchester. The IRA exploded a huge bomb in the centre of the shopping district in 1997, destroying the local Marks & Spencer store and much that surrounded it. Fortunately, nobody died. The bland architecture of the destroyed buildings has now been replaced with an airy shopping mall that now includes a branch of the upscale Selfridge's department store and has touched off a veritable building boom.
I met up with my cousin Jack at the local art gallery. Jack, a retired businessman and philanthropist is an active member of the museum's board of directors and a big Manchester booster.
"For the first time since I began working here 40 years ago, I feel I'm no longer living in a city in decline," said Jack, as he proudly guided us through the newly renovated museum, which boasts an impressive collection of 18th and 19th century art, accumulated when Manchester was still a wealthy industrial city.
The next morning, Jack was there again when we visited the Manchester Jewish Museum, housed in the city's former Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. A charming Moorish-inspired brick structure with glorious stained-glass windows, the synagogue was completed in 1874 and became a museum in the 1980s. The museum lies on Cheetham Hill Road, the equivalent of what Toronto's Spadina Ave. or Montreal's St. Lawrence Blvd. were to Canadian Jews.
But Cheetham Hill Road today is in a sorry state, with much of the once-thriving neighbourhood now derelict. Another former synagogue is now home to a clothing importer. The nearby Great Synagogue was abandoned and finally demolished in 1986.
As in many other cities, Manchester's Jews moved on as they became more affluent and though they still number almost 30,000 and form a thriving community, the old neighbourhood withered. My attempt to find 85 Stanley Street, where my father was born, proved fruitless. The terraced houses have long since been demolished, replaced by dreary single-storey warehouses and factories. But the museum did finally unearth for me a curious corner of my family history.
My grandparents' marriage certificate had described my grandfather as a "drapery traveller," which meant that he was a door-to-door textile salesman. My grandmother's trade was always more of a mystery. She was described as a waterproofer, which sounded vaguely nautical. When I mentioned that to a guide at the museum, she remarked, "Oh, she was a schmearer!" and pointed me to a corner of the museum dedicated to the waterproofing trade. There stood a bench with a canvas raincoat stretched out on it along with a variety of tools and a tin of liquid rubber. As a teenager, my grandmother, along with much of Manchester's immigrant Jewish community, was part of the burgeoning rainwear industry. She would "schmear" the coat with rubber, making it resistant to the persistent English rain.
Perhaps it helps explain, how my grandfather later became a manufacturer of ladies' coats when he landed in Montreal.
So, my grandmother was a "schmearer." Perhaps not as romantic as being a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. But it's my own corner of English history and I'm still proud of it.