The stories of a couchsurfer

Birmingham: Fighting a losing battle

St. Martin’s Square

Ask a foreigner (of Britain) to list of some cities of England and the responses usually follow a pretty typical trend – London, Manchester and Liverpool. Perhaps they’ll name Newcastle, Leeds or Portsmouth. Then they may name some more of the famous English smaller towns – Oxford and Cambridge for example.

Then perhaps they’ll name Birmingham.

Perhaps.

And if they do, it’s usually pretty late on in the recount of English cities as if to be only stirred up by something they had heard from a friend of a friend or read about years earlier.

Which is somewhat surprising because Birmingham actually happens to be the second largest city not only in England, but (accepting the metropolitan population) of the entire United Kingdom.

Yet go back only six or so months earlier and even your esteemed blogger himself didn’t know this fairly elementary fact.

So why is it that Birmingham hasn’t developed a reputation for itself that rivals that of its much smaller companions such as Manchester, Glasgow or Liverpool?

If one takes the bus there, they’ll arrive at a pretty non-distinct bus station – certainly not something that suggests a near four million large population city. The station itself is central enough, but not without requiring you to walk another ten or fifteen minutes to get to the true centre of Birmingham which, coming from the bus station, is the Bull Ring centre.

The Bull Ring centre is actually a very fitting place to start off an adventure in Birmingham, because in many ways it seems to symbolise the city so well. Essentially it is simply a shopping mall, but one with more history than one would notice on first glance.

That’s because today it’s hard to really see or appreciate that history due to the recent renovation of the complex that opened in 2003. Now, the historic site attempts to peek into the future with a uniquely designed building where the walls bulge and give way to produce a wave-like effect with curves and no definitive, sharp edges.

It’s face is tiled with a series of round, silver stones that make it resemble one of those pin-beds that you push your hand into to create a mould.

This monochrome behemoth of a structure thus achieves the rare feat of obtaining a certain exoticness to it whilst retaining just as much mundaneness. The shopping mall half encircles the St. Martin’s Church which has become a bit of a centrepiece and postcard icon for Birmingham as a contrast between the historic Birmingham of the church and the new age Birmingham of the Bull Ring behind it.

In reality, though, it would be a postcard you’d prefer to receive in black and white, because the silver building mixing with the stale brown church, compounded with the typically dark grey skies above would be a depressing card to receive.

Then again, it would be a tough job being a photographer in Birmingham because there’s not a lot of postcard worthy alternatives to be found. Other British cities may fall on the often valid excuse that the dreary weather prevents the scenery from being as beautiful as it could.

Not Birmingham. Not even a blue sky can save this. They only have themselves to blame.

As a result, they have only the Bull Ring to fall back on and the city remains very proud of it, citing it as the place to be in Birmingham. The saddest part is that it’s probably the truth, not so much due to it’s prowess, but more so due to it’s lack of competition. Yes, the Bull Ring often ranks in the UK’s top three busiest shopping centres, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a great one – I’ve been to many better than it could offer – it only serves as a true indication of ones options while in Birmingham and therefore what the people here spend their time doing.

If a city is promoting its shopping mall as its primary attraction, it’s a pretty sure bet that it’s not going to be in any of my top ten lists.

This can be said with some confidence because there was, in fact, quite a bit of exploration around in an attempt to find what brings people to Birmingham. They must be doing something right here – the population increase in the area in the last ten years was more than any other British region – but whatever it was, it wasn’t obvious.

One venture led to the Peace Gardens – a garden with a series of monuments promoting peace. It must have been significant because it was one of the few “attractions” that had road signs pointing the way. Upon arrival, the gardens looked tired, forgotten and unmaintained. The concrete was dirty and cracked, and it didn’t appear to be having too many visitors. It didn’t provide the most exciting adventure.

The Birmingham Cathedral is a central figure and is impressive enough, without breaking any trends and excelling above its peers. This is, however, one of the more picturesque parts of town and it’s surrounded by a series of classically styled, business buildings and provides a nice green space to enjoy.

The next step was a trip to the Birmingham Think Tank, a science centre that also receives quite a bit of publicity around town. After the roughly twenty minute walk to get there I was greeted by a large, modern yet near empty building housing the think tank. This greeting was followed by another that asked me to pay near twenty quid to enter the building that by now had become apparent that it was themed mostly towards children. I didn’t bother paying the going rate to find out for myself.

So the quest to find something worthy of a Birmingham visit continued around town. Eventually it lead to Victoria Square – a large, open space in the centre of the city that played host to probably Birmingham’s most beautiful building, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Finally, here at Victoria Square, the city started to take on a life form and provide something unique and memorable to itself.

Just around the corner from here is Chamberlain Square – another nice square (albeit smaller than it’s Victorian counterpart) that features a series of monuments dedicated to some of Birmingham’s notable residents throughout its history.

Continue a few blocks further and you’ll reach Centenary Square, which is becoming most famous for hosting the newly completed Library of Birmingham. This building follows in the trend of the Bull Ring complex, attempting to peer into the future but missing the mark dreadfully and achieving only to become something that the residents will surely regret the design of in twenty years’ time.

Despite its lack of pleasing appearance, the library is a testament to the British culture of learning and sharing knowledge. One of the greatest things of the UK is that almost all museums are free for entry and there are a lot of funds invested into libraries across the land. These libraries are some of the most accomplished and well maintained in all of the world and the newly constructed Library of Birmingham is of no exception. It is the largest public library in the UK and the largest regional library in all of Europe.

The final area of noteworthiness is not far away, where one of Birmingham’s many canals run through the city. Birmingham actually has quite a few of these canals run through it and while Birmingham can’t always be applauded for its development of land, they have managed to utilise the canals well to provide high class real estate where there could just have easily been an unmanaged eyesore.

New apartment complexes line the canals, as well as running and cycling tracks for the active. As they progress nearer to the centre of Birmingham cafes, restaurants and bars begin to spring up that overlook the canals.

It’s a positive move by the City of Birmingham but it doesn’t seem to be paying off.

Much like the developments seen in Bristol, these cafes, restaurants and bars seemed to be lifeless and lacked any interest from the public. To be fair however, this was visited during the week, but given it’s proximity to many offices, there could (and should) have been more people supporting it.

This lead us to an interesting comparison between the aforementioned Bristol and Birmingham.

Bristol seemed to have invested a lot of time, money and effort into developing the city without getting much support. While there were some focal points of this development (the @Bristol being one such setting), these developments were generally pretty evenly spread around the city.

What this means is that the risk had been spread, and while the current state didn’t seem to indicate any great resurgence, there was definitely reason for hope and a sense of optimism.

Birmingham, on the other hand, seemed to neglect a lot of its city, except for three or four instances. Of these, it’s clear that the Bull Ring took priority and was intended to be the saviour of the towns dwindling reputation.

This is a shame on two levels.

The first is that the city has completely failed in its prioritisation. A shopping mall should never be the central point of any city, let alone the second largest city in the United Kingdom. While the area covered by the Victoria, Chamberlain and Centenary squares was nice, it could have certainly used some development to take it from the level of good to the level of great.

Yes, the Bull Ring complex may have been modern and impressive, but a traveler is not going to return to Birmingham or advise any of their friends to visit Birmingham because of a shopping centre that exists in the middle of the place.

The second level of shame that falls upon Birmingham is its lack of support by the people. This is a similar issue faced by Bristol but in contrast to Bristol, there is some sympathy toward the people of Birmingham. It’s almost as if this inactivity is in protest against the decision makers of the city that the decisions they have made haven’t been up to scratch.

It all meant that Birmingham wasn’t memorable in any way, and this is probably why many people fail to mention it early in a list of British cities despite it being the second largest of them.

Birmingham cops a lot of flack from other Brits, and rightfully so.

The greatest moments of traveling is when you find yourself in a place that provides you with a sense of disbelief that it even exists. That leaves you sitting and wondering if there could possibly be anywhere else in the world that matches the standards set by it.

Incredible scenes like those witnessed at the Plaza de España, Nôtre Dame de Paris or Monaco. Or even less incredible but still powerful places like the Grand Place in Lille or the Cardiff Castle.

Birmingham had nothing that even came close to being lumped into these categories.

It may sound harsh, but in a word, Birmingham is best described as forgetful.

Perhaps I’m sorely wrong, and the people of Birmingham are happy and proud of their hometown, and that the city will thrive and once again become a truly well known and respected word cultural centre.

I hope Birmingham and its people can prove me wrong. Birmingham has an incredible history that deserves to have put it in good stead.

Still, I can’t help but feel that it’s days of non-recognition are not coming to an end anytime soon.

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