Throughout history people have devoted their lives to their city, from Tony Wilson sparking a cultural renaissance in his native Manchester to activists of the Austrian Socialist Party laying down their lives to protect their social houses from the fascist tide.
The city of Manchester was forever changed by the establishment in 1978 of Factory Records, the record company behind Manchester bands Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays, as well as the Haçienda, one of the clubs which brought acid house and rave culture to the UK during the Second Summer of Love. One man was integral to Factory’s founding: Tony Wilson. Born in Manchester, Wilson went to university in Cambridge but came back shortly after he finished, with an eye to bringing creating a new cultural situation in his hometown, which was at that time still reeling from the decline of traditional heavy industry.
Wilson had a big ego, but as the brilliant biopic 24-Hour Party People shows, he was never really in it for his own personal enrichment. The deals Factory struck with its bands were bad from a business point of view (50/50 split in profits, with the bands owning the rights to the songs) and his steadfast refusal to close the loss-making Haçienda in the years before rave caught on are testament to his priorities. Wilson died of a heart attack in 2007, well before his time, but the Mancunians who lined up to praise their native son proved he had already become more than worthy of the nickname “Mr Manchester”.
Ildenfons Cerdà’s radical urban plans
Wilson’s contribution to Manchester puts him alongside a long line of people who have devoted their lives to their city. Such commitment can take many forms. Take for instance Ildefons Cerdà, the radical urban planner who designed the Eixample neighbourhood, the 19th-century “extension” of Barcelona. Pioneering for its time, Cerdà’s plan was characterized by long straight streets, a strict grid pattern crossed by wide avenues, and square blocks, all of which remain hallmarks of the Barcelona so many people flock to today. Cerdà spent his whole life trying to push through his radical plan, and yet he died penniless, having never been paid for his massive contribution to his city.
Burghers of Calais
The same spirit of sacrifice can also be taken even further, with many people throughout history demonstrating their willingness to lay down their lives for their city. Perhaps the most famous instance of this is the burghers of Calais, six noblemen of the city of Calais who, in 1346, are said to have given themselves up in order to save the rest of the city from starvation, after the forces of Edward III of England had lain siege to the city. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin immortalised this apocryphal story in his “Burghers of Calais” sculpture. Completed in 1899, copies of the sculpture stand in twelve cities across the world as a symbol of civic pride and sacrifice.
Activists of the Austrian Socialist Party
A more recent expression of this can be found in Vienna in 1934, when activists of the Austrian Socialist Party died valiantly trying to defend the remarkable transformation their party had brought about in the city. Perhaps their biggest contribution in the years prior to the civil war was a massive house building programme, so it’s fitting that the activists used some of the most impressive and imposing housing blocks as defensive fortresses during the fighting, eventually making their last stand at the beautiful Reumann Hof, named after Vienna’s first socialist mayor Ernst Reumann. A plaque remains at the block to this day, commemorating the activists who died defending the revolution they had initiated in their city.
People’s loyalty to their city
A city’s success is always the product of a lot of other things that are outside any one citizen’s control. Manchester was primed for the kind of cultural renaissance it saw in the early 1980s, Barcelona actually benefitted from the fact that Cerdà’s rigid plans were never fully realised, the Burghers of Calais were probably out to save their own skin, and with or without their last stand, the houses in Vienna remained all the way through the period of fascism and are still standing to this day.
But still, it’s nice to hear about these moments of civic sacrifice, if only to realise how loyal people can be to their city.