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Symphony Hall, International Convention Centre, Birmingham, UK  [ photos ]   [ quotes ]   [ press ]

Britain's No. 2 City Gets Respect (After All These Years)

by Warren Hoge / The New York Times (December 4, 2003)

BIRMINGHAM, England - It has long been fashionable to scorn Birmingham, the second city of Britain.

"One has no great hopes of Birmingham," comments the snobbish Mrs. Elton in Jane Austen's "Emma." "I always say there is something direful in the sound."

Prince Charles disdained Birmingham's blighted downtown as having "no charm, no human scale, no character except arrogance."

The common joke has been that Britain's much maligned No. 2 city was so unsightly that its downtown tangle of freeways, known as Spaghetti Junction, had more lanes taking you out of the city than in.

"When I was at Oxford and I'd say I was from Birmingham," said Benedict Fisher, 23, a public relations executive, "people would always have a sarcastic reaction like, `Well, someone has to be,' or `Isn't it nice that someone actually lives in that grim, drab, industrial waste?' "

Through the centuries the locals, known as "Brummies," stoically endured their countrymen's abuse. "Brummies have low expectations," said Mary Lodge, a retired Birmingham teacher. "They expect to get kicked."

Her husband, the writer David Lodge, has lived here since coming to teach in 1960, but his novels that are set in Birmingham do not treat the place much better than outsiders do. "Brummies are ruthlessly ironic, laconic and inherently nonchauvinistic," he said over lunch at their house in the leafy university district. "My satirizing of Birmingham was taken with great good humor by the locals."

Now the city's reputation as a rustbelt cripple and its residents' wry resignation at being the laughingstock of the country may be coming to an end, and other Britons, for a change, are taking positive notice.

The reason for the turnaround is a world-class architectural showplace in the city's center, substituting Birmingham's old symbols of sooty foundries and lumpen, Eastern-bloc-style apartment towers with the alluring sight of a curvy undulating structure with a glittering surface of 15,000 reflective aluminum discs on a sheer cobalt blue skin.

Designed by the London architects Future Systems, the $65 million building houses the popular retailer Selfridges and aims to bring style and dash to the old market area known as the Bull Ring, the very part of Birmingham that earned the city its reputation for strangling life and commerce in a collar of brutalist concrete.

London critics, who rarely came to Birmingham - and then only to slam the city's latest effort at regeneration - this time went away impressed. "Astonishing," opined The Guardian. The Daily Telegraph said the showcase structure gave people a reason to say they were proud to live in Birmingham.

Lucia van der Post, whose "Luxury With Lucia" column in The Times of London seldom devotes time to the Midlands area of England, said the new Selfridges could do for Birmingham what Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum did for Bilbao in Spain. "All in all," she wrote, "it makes a trip to Birmingham seem like the must-have treat of the year."

Now that it has a marketable visual signifier, Birmingham has some other things to boast about.
Though it is one of the world's original industrial cities, Birmingham has more parks than any other city in Britain, a country where urban green spaces abound.

It has over the past decades built walkways and plazas in a downtown famous for being inhospitable to pedestrians and created Symphony Hall, a classical musicians' favorite as one of Europe's finest acoustical spaces.

It also has more canals than Venice, but no one took notice because they were filled with rusting bicycles and baby carriages and the towpaths were litter-strewn escape routes for street criminals. Today the waterways are clean and navigable, and the shore is lined with bankside cafes and moorings for upscale urban houseboats.

Birmingham is also the most culturally diverse city in Britain, with nearly a third of its 976,000 citizens from ethnic minorities. The largest of them is Asian, and one of Birmingham's draws is the Balti Triangle, a largely Pakistani area where more than 70 restaurants specialize in the aromatic curry speciality that gets its name from the wide-mouthed sizzling hot balti dishes it is cooked and served in.

Perhaps most promising for Birmingham's future is the new stand-up spirit of a citizenry accustomed to taking knocks lying down.

Andy Munro, the operations chief in the the city's restored jewelry quarter, pointed out the factory where the whistles for the Titanic were manufactured. "The Titanic was built in Belfast and it sank," he said cheerfully. "But the whistles were made in Birmingham, and they worked."

Farther down the street was the place where he said celluloid had been invented. "Look at it this way," he said. "If there hadn't been a Birmingham, there wouldn't have been a Hollywood."


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