If you’ve traveled around the country, you may be familiar with the Keep Austin Weird slogan and its offshoots in Louisville, Portland and other cities. On the surface, these campaigns are intended to promote small, local businesses, but they also hint at something more fundamental about these cities, about the attitudes and culture that make them unique.
Portland, Louisville and Austin are all very different cities, but they share certain things in common: the large presence of colleges and universities, a thriving arts scene, an active interest in local businesses, downtowns built along major rivers, and distinct identities that might be described as weird, in the sense of being different, unique or special in an appealing way.
Now, Manchester isn’t as prominent or as weird as any of those cities, but it does have a growing student population (among the largest in northern New England), an increasingly visible arts community, a vibrant downtown that has yet to tap the full potential of the Merrimack River, an increased interest in local businesses and restaurants, and if you know where to look, there’s even a certain weirdness lurking under the surface. After all, where else do candidates like Vermin Supreme get invited to a presidential candidate forum while a piggy bank rolls through the city center?
Like Louisville and Portland, Manchester was built as a heavily industrial city, and its past as one of the preeminent American mill cities defines its identity and form even today. Even as the financial and business capital of the state, Manchester retains a certain grittiness that more polished cities lack. That’s part of its character and charm, and part of what makes the city special, but it’s a mostly underutilized resource. Sure, the Millyard has become one of the centers of high tech industry in the country, but even that seems to be a bit under the radar in the Queen City. The local arts scene, which has grown exponentially in recent years along with the growth of NHIA, is even lesser known throughout the city and the region. But it’s exactly these sort of things, and the creative people behind them, that make Manchester different, and that could make it weird. And if the city did more to promote them, it’s these sort of people, activities and organizations that would make the city more vibrant and interesting, and make it stand out more to outsiders.
If you scratch just below the surface in Manchester, you might find yourself falling down a surprisingly deep rabbit hole of musicians, bands, diners, shops, artists and community groups that are at the heart of the city’s hidden, nascent weirdness. That weirdness is just one of the many faces worn by a diverse city that includes a James Beard-nominated restaurant, neighborhood joints keeping traditional local fare alive, a regionally acclaimed art museum, major tech companies, professional sports teams, and an abundance of outdoor activities. But too many outsiders–and frankly, too many natives and residents–never see these aspects of Manchester, and so to them the city doesn’t seem all that special, all that weird, or all that much like a place they want to live or visit.
The Millyard and downtown core are fairly full, but with better zoning and a concerted effort, grittier areas like the Gaslight District, already the home of Studio 550, and the area around the intersection of Elm and Valley streets could be a prime location for artist studios, craftworkers, small shops, cafes and bars, and breweries, coffee roasters and food producers. Manchester could certainly do more to attract the sort of businesses and energy that you currently find more often in Portsmouth (not to mention Portland, Louisville and Austin), like downtown brewery taprooms, seasonal (and even transitory) outdoor restaurants, quirky and innovative shops, neighborhood coffee shops, and sophisticated but not-too-serious nightlife. No doubt Manchester has some of those things; and with the recent addition of coffee shops, chocolate makers, record stores and more downtown, the city is definitely moving in the right direction. But Manchester does not have enough of them yet to compete with Portsmouth when it comes to being the epicenter of weirdness in New Hampshire.
An even bigger part of the problem, though, is that Manchester doesn’t do enough to promote and encourage the cool, interesting and weird businesses, people, organizations and activities that are already here. A “Buy Local” campaign like those in the Seacoast and Concord areas would be a good start, but there’s also a need to promote homegrown talent, to make the arts and creative community part of the public face of Manchester, and to show that there’s already more to Manchester than the banks and law offices (which are also an important aspect of the city) that fill the city’s tallest buildings. Down at the street level, there’s a whole lot about that city that exudes weird, but you have to know where to look to find it.
In the future, Manchester could be considered a more interesting place to live and visit, a more vibrant city to study or work in, and just a cooler, weirder place to be. It can attract more of the creative energy that the Seacoast currently has a hold on, but first it has to embrace the weird side of itself that already exists. More people need to support local artists and musicians, to buy locally produced food and drinks, and to participate in more local events and activities. It will take individual and community effort, and the city and civic groups need to do a lot more to promote Manchester’s weird side–from its artists to its tech workers, from its small merchants to its locally produced goods–and to create a zoning and regulatory climate where they can thrive. Before we can keep Manchester weird, we have to make Manchester weird.