Patrick Henry

April 14 2022

PSV Club (under one of its multiple names, 'The Lighthouse') 1995 (CC, Manchester Digital Music Archive)

“What do we not have that we need? What do we want or want to get? But prior to these, what do we have that we want to keep?” – Mississippi Freedom School questions

Questions of space

Do we have the community space that we need? At the level of neighbourhoods and localities, do we have public spaces in which we can come together with the people who live around us? What needs are served by such spaces? What capacities are formed – or left unformed – by them? 


Over recent months, I have been exploring these questions as part of a research project for Autonomy. In this piece, I propose a definition of good community space, and argue that such space can have a transformative potential. I go on to consider this definition in relation to a particular place, of which I offer a personal account. The PSV was a nightclub in Manchester, which I visited over a period of a few years in the late 1980s and early ’90s – the letters PSV stand for Public Service Vehicle.

Finding space

There is a consensus view that social cohesion is declining, and has been for many decades. Accounts of how and why this has happened diverge starkly, but the central story – of increasing fragmentation, atomisation, isolation – has wide currency. Public spaces in which communities physically come together play a key part in this story. They figure as vital organs of social cohesion, endangered pieces of social infrastructure that must be protected, recovered or strengthened. In recent years, reports from across the political spectrum have addressed this question. One that was recently signed off by a group of Conservative MPs observes that “a quarter of all pubs, a quarter of all post offices, and a fifth of all libraries have closed since the turn of the century. The much lamented decline of the high street, with the replacement of indigenous local retailers by chain stores, discount stores or empty shops, has further hollowed out the public spaces and gathering places of our communities”.


Community space can take many different forms. It can shape our experience and capacities in radically different ways. Some community spaces reinforce and reproduce social stratification, others diminish it. Good community space brings different parts of a local population together, working against the hierarchies, divisions and exclusions that fracture it, creating opportunities for learning, cooperation and the building of relationships. It moves us beyond a communitarian understanding of difference as locked into fixed, pre-existing identities – to be ‘tolerated’ or ‘celebrated’ – towards a cosmopolitan one, in which difference is recognised and accepted. Community space of this kind has transformative potential. It helps to form the basis for a creative, political process that involves what Jacques Rancière calls ‘dissensus’ – a disruption of the established order, a refusal to leave things in their assigned places. It builds a sense of commonality – of interests, purpose and identity – enabling people to “reconstruct a tissue of known solidarities and social conviviality“. It activates a process of composition – of new subjectivities and collectivities – without which real social change is not possible.


For the purposes of this article, I understand transformative community space in terms of three broad characteristics. First, that it is, to a significant degree, open – accessible and available to a wide range of people who live in a particular area. Second, that it brings those people into meaningful communication, or engagement, with one another. And third, that (in the context of the physical space itself) it gives its users a significant degree of freedom, or autonomy. This definition is inspired, in part, by the principles that underpin Ivan Illich’s concept of “conviviality”. Illich sees conviviality as the key to pushing back against manipulative and destructive institutional logics – logics that he regards as pervasive in modern society. These principles – of openness, communication and freedom – could, however, just as easily be drawn from widely-held, everyday understandings of community and the conditions under which it thrives. The more these criteria are fulfilled, the greater the transformative potential of any community space.


Researching community space for Autonomy, I have looked at various historical precedents and institutional models. These include the ‘houses of the people’ that were built by cooperative and labour movements in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Europe; ‘fun palaces’, which were imagined, but never realised, by Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price in the 1950s; the community centres that were a common feature of UK council estates from the 1950s onwards; and self-managed social centres, mostly with a broadly anarchist ethos, that spread across Europe in the 1980s and ’90s, often in squatted premises. 


One aim of this research is to develop a set of case studies in order to illuminate the conditions that make good community space possible. In my efforts to ground this work in my own experience, I keep returning to the PSV. I first went to the PSV at the end of the 1980s, and then maybe two or three times a year until about 1994. By that time, many clubs in Manchester were being adversely affected by gang-related violence, but the account below belongs to an earlier moment. It is intended as a snapshot of the PSV around the start of the 1990s, and is based on my own limited experience and understanding of the place. My aim is to figure out in practical terms what made it, in my eyes, such a successful community space. On that basis I hope to identify some replicable conditions that could inform the design and development of other such spaces.

'They wanted their own place to socialise in'

The PSV was launched in the early 1980s in the heart of Hulme, an area just south of Manchester city centre. Hulme is flanked by universities on one side and the working class suburbs of Moss Side and Old Trafford on the other. Margaret Thatcher was in her first term as Prime Minister, the economy was in deep recession and unemployment was sky-high. In 1981 there were mass protests and riots in cities across the UK, and some of the largest of them were in Moss Side. The PSV opened in the premises of what had previously been the Russell Club, a long-established live music venue. The club’s founders worked together at the council bus depot in Moss Side, hence the name PSV – Public Service Vehicle.

A group of bus drivers got together, cos obviously there was nowhere for them to go – they weren’t welcome in certain clubs in town etc. – they wanted their own place to socialise in, to do their own thing, in their own community, and some guys who had that heart for the community just got together and purchased what was then the PSV.

Pooling their resources, the new owners set up the PSV as a social club – for themselves, their workmates and the local Caribbean community. It quickly established itself as a pillar of Manchester’s reggae scene – which rivalled London’s – hosting local sound systems and live nights with major stars from the UK and Jamaica.

Flyer, PSV Club, 1985 (CC, Manchester Digital Music Archive)

Hulme, Manchester

The PSV was in the centre of Hulme. In the late 1960s and early ’70s a cluster of council housing estates had replaced Hulme’s dense Victorian slums. There were some towers, but most of the new housing was low or medium rise, system-built in concrete, connected by elevated walkways. As with many such large-scale housing projects of the time, the rhetoric surrounding Hulme’s ‘streets in the sky’ didn’t last. By the end of the 1970s, after years of neglect, the area was in a spiral of decline. In the media it became habitually linked with poverty, violence, crime and drugs. Regarding Hulme as a lost cause, the council stopped doing repairs and letting the flats out to people on their waiting lists; families were rehoused and vacant properties were boarded up.


From the mid-80s, for parts of Hulme, a new chapter opened. Squatters moved into empty flats, alongside the remaining council tenants, many of whom were older people who’d chosen to stay – or were unable to leave. It’s tempting to describe these new, younger, mostly white residents in picturesquely subcultural terms – punks, goths, indie-kids, hippies, crusties, new age travellers, ravers. And it’s fair to say that for some, Hulme became a self-consciously bohemian, counter-cultural destination. But most of the new ‘Hulmies’ were simply looking for somewhere cheap (or free) to live, somewhere close to the city centre and/or universities. For this new population Hulme’s flats, despite their many shortcomings, could, with a change of locks and a lick of paint, be good places to live.


It’s hard to believe now, but after a few months, the council would knock on the door and tell the squatters to leave or to start paying rent as council tenants – so that’s what many of them became. In the second half of the ’80s unemployment was falling and the local economy was improving. If you couldn’t find work you could sign on the dole and claim housing benefit. Higher education was free and means-tested maintenance grants were widely available. If you were self-employed – and many Hulmies were artists, or aspiring artists, of one kind or another – you could apply for Enterprise Allowance. So for some, Hulme was part of an infrastructure that made it possible to live cheaply and do whatever it was that you wanted to do. I moved to Hulme with a couple of friends in 1988, as a student, and stayed until 2003. Initially we squatted empty flats, then became council tenants. As well as cheap space, the area and its immediate surroundings offered a thriving social scene, revolving around pubs, clubs and parties. 

The Public Service Vehicle

From the outside, like the housing blocks around it, the PSV looked pretty inhospitable. It was windowless, with a garland of barbed wire above the entrance, red and grey bricks covered with graffiti and fly posters. On entering, you found yourself almost immediately in the main space – a dark cavernous room, usually packed with people dancing, talking or queuing at the long bar. The music depended on the specific night, but it was often very mixed – house, techno, ambient, soul, hip hop, rare groove. A proper soundsystem bass made the dancefloor, the building and everything in it vibrate. Downstairs had the stripped-back look of a live music venue, with stage blocks that could be moved around the room. Upstairs was a whole different world – a place to drink, smoke and chat. Low-ceilinged and carpeted, with soft seating, the atmosphere was more intimate than the ground floor. There was a small bar and a food counter serving patties and goat curry; older couples smooched to lovers’ rock on the dancefloor.


I have defined community space in terms of openness, communication and freedom. Who was the PSV open to? The majority of people there were locals – people who lived within walking distance, or a short bus ride. They included Hulme’s more recent arrivals – the Hulmies – in all varieties, a contingent of students and, by the early 1990s, an increasing number of ravers. Overall, the crowd was strikingly multicultural and ranged in age from teenagers to pensioners. The main spaces catered, primarily, for two different core groups: younger clubbers downstairs, older people from the local Caribbean communities upstairs. Halfway up the stairs, a third space – the pool room – was favoured by younger people, mostly black and mixed-race. Some would spend the whole night in one space, but the rooms were very mixed, and there was constant traffic between them, as people opted for a change of scene, or tempo, or went in search of friends. The PSV wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it seemed to me that everyone was welcome, and sometimes that everyone was, or might be, there. 


How was this openness achieved? For one thing, the PSV was right in the centre of Hulme – you couldn’t miss it. There was little or no queuing, no dress code, no door policy. Drinks were cheap and so was entry – maybe £2 or £3, depending on the night. A huge sign outside announced the ‘PSV Caribbean Club’ against a backdrop of palm trees, golden beaches and blue skies. Inside, the decor was plain and functional. My experience was of a neutrality, too, in the attitude of the people who worked there. The security and bar staff were polite but reserved, with the effect that, for my part, I felt entirely welcome but also, so to speak, like a guest in someone else’s house.


The PSV brought people together, into communication, in the broad and original sense of sharing. You would run into friends and acquaintances, and also see your neighbours. Whether or not you recognised or acknowledged one another, you would be rubbing shoulders with people whom you might otherwise experience as distant and unapproachable others. As with any good club (and many other social spaces) this communication – being together, enjoying being together – was the object of the exercise, a common project. In any busy social space, part of this project is a spontaneously choreographed cooperation – a conspiracy of attention, care, courtesy and good humour. The intimate sociability of the PSV made it easy to dance, talk and hang out with people you didn’t know – or hadn’t known on arrival. It enabled you to feel connected to the people around you. 


Importantly, in the PSV, there was no hierarchy of spaces. There were no exclusive areas. A row of large internal windows allowed you to see the space downstairs from above, and vice-versa. Downstairs, there was no podium or box for the DJs – their decks were on tables on the stage, but the stage itself was close to ground-level (so close that sometimes vibrations from the dancefloor would cause the needle to jump on a record). The stage, with its changing configurations, melted into the landscape of the room. People danced on it, leaned on it and sat on it, but it didn’t elevate anybody. 


What kinds of freedom were available to the PSV’s visitors? For some of the more serious clubbers, the PSV might have been the centrepiece of a big night out, but for most it was more of a local. Lots of people were there to dance, especially downstairs, but others spent the whole night talking, drinking, smoking or playing pool. You didn’t have to know people, look the part, adopt this or that attitude. There were regulars who came alone, danced alone and, as far as I could see, spent their whole time there alone. So you could come with friends, or be on your own – with others. It was big, so you weren’t subsumed – you could always find some space, move to the edge or escape to another room. Most people didn’t dress up, but some really went to town. You could look weird, and act pretty weird too, so long as you didn’t bother anyone else. 

Changing spaces

Over time, the PSV changed. It began the ’80s as a social club (upstairs) and venue for live reggae (downstairs). By the end of the decade it had opened its doors to waves of new Hulme residents and clubbers. By the early ’90s, it had become an important part of Manchester’s rave scene, an alternative to the increasingly commercialised city-centre club scene. By the mid ’90s, as rave gave way to drum and bass, things shifted again. I can’t claim to know how these changes were experienced in other parts of the club’s wide constituency, but from my perspective, at the moment of my snapshot (the start of the ’90s), the club’s ethos of openness had the capacity to accommodate them. For a while at least, the euphoric mood of early rave culture resonated with the distinctive sociality of the PSV – the one feeding and reinforcing the other. 


As the club’s name states with perfect clarity (as well as wry humour), the PSV was a public service vehicle – a community space. This ethos was reflected in every aspect of the operation. It was open. Exclusions, obstacles, divisions and boundaries were consistently minimised or effaced. It wasn’t marked or claimed as anybody’s exclusive territory, which meant that a wide range of people could and did go to the club. Difference was expected and accepted. There were no doubt limits to this, but the PSV’s openness to difference set it apart. It facilitated communication, bringing people together in what Margaret Kohn calls “egalitarian encounters“, enabling them to produce something together – in the first instance something as simple, ordinary and necessary as a night out. And you were free to come and go, and look and behave, as you chose. That freedom was of course limited and momentary, but it was still a kind of freedom. Another kind of freedom resided in the absence of external, instrumental agendas. You weren’t being used for someone else’s commercial gain (or at least that motive was manifestly not dominant). You weren’t part of someone else’s project.


As a community space, the PSV met people’s needs but also extended their capacities. It didn’t provide a programme of experiences ready for consumption. It offered an infrastructure – an open, dynamic framework – within which its users could meet their own needs. It operated, in other words, as a kind of commons. One way to understand the PSV is as an act of radical generosity. It recalls what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten call the “undercommons”, and Moten’s exhortation to “give your house away, constantly“, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Crucially, the ‘owners’ of the PSV, when they opened their doors, were doing something for themselves, not for others. The service, and gift, wasn’t instrumental. It was something, in the first instance, for themselves, their workmates, their own immediate communities. But it was then given away, shared, not (only) with various pre-existing communities but with a “fugitive public of strangers”.

Patrick Henry is an AHRC-funded researcher at Kingston University, writing a PhD about the relationship between art and politics, focusing on experimental approaches to curatorial and institutional organisation. He previously worked as a curator and/or director in visual arts festivals, galleries and museums. Patrick is working with Autonomy_Urban on the ‘Welfare state for the 21st century’ research strand, looking at creative and cultural infrastructures.