Once a sociologist’s paradise of bleak tower blocks and desolate underpasses, Birmingham was commonly regarded as a concrete wilderness. Yet lately, something strange and wonderful has happened here. The city of a thousand trades’, as those virtuous Victorians called it, has become the city of a thousand start-ups. Improbably, boring old Brum has become chic.
So what’s changed? The skyline, for one thing. First the Bullring, the city’s biggest eyesore, got a much-needed makeover. Now it’s home to Selfridges, the most recognisable building. Even the Rotunda, one of the ugliest skyscrapers in town, has been revamped by hip designers Urban Splash. But the biggest change has been at street level. Carved up by motorways, Brum used to be a no-go zone for pedestrians. The flyovers are still here, but today you can actually walk around. And there’s reason to dawdle, the city centre has come alive. The Dickensian canal is a pleasant place to stroll, and the grim thoroughfares I recall from my student days are filled with people having fun.
If one building sums up Birmingham’s renaissance, it’s the new library. The structure is stunning, like an enormous Christmas present wrapped up in gold and silver foil, but the best bit is what’s inside. Part reading room, part rendezvous, it’s an energetic mishmash of highbrow and lowbrow – a lot like Birmingham. When it opened in 2013, replacing a brutalist hulk across the road, the library instantly became a symbol of this rejuvenated city – and the view from the top floor is breathtaking.
Yet this revival isn’t merely a matter of town planning. There’s something in the air that wasn’t here before. Brum now has one of the youngest populations of any city in Europe (almost 40 per cent of its citizens are under 25) and districts such as Hockley and Digbeth are full of creative twenty-somethings making things happen on their own terms. You could say the wheel has come full circle. Birmingham was built on hard graft and enterprise – all those earnest industrialists who turned this modest market town into the workshop of the world. Today’s resourceful Brummies are reinventing an old tradition, turning derelict factories into funky shops and studios. Innovative, eccentric and endearingly self-deprecating, Birmingham is constantly evolving, a metropolis on the up and up.
KEEP IT SWEET: Built by Sir Alfred Bird, whose father invented instant custard, The Custard Factory churned out oceans of the stuff until Bird’s moved to more modern premises in 1964. The site stood empty until 1993, when it reopened as Birmingham’s answer to London s Covent Garden. However, unlike Covent Garden, it never lost its rebellious vibe. The City is a Work of Art’ reads a slogan painted on the wall. Daubed in dazzling dayglo, adorned with murals and massive sculptures, this is the way all shopping destinations ought to be. Highlights include several vintage boutiques and a splendid little record shop. Left for Dead.
NATIONAL TREASURES: The historic Jewellery Quarter still produces nearly half of the jewellery made in the UK, but nowadays it’s also a lively cultural hub. Housed in an old factory, Symon Bland’s St Pauls Gallery sells limited-edition prints by British artists, including Peter Blake and David Hockney, but his speciality is album-cover art, particularly the distinctive LP sleeves of Pink Floyd designer Storm Thorgerson. For a really unusual ring or necklace, visit young jeweller James Newman in his stylish shop and workshop. His modern pieces are unlike anything else I’ve seen.
IN THE FRAME: Birmingham’s contemporary art gallery. Ikon, was 50 years old last year, and its Ikon 50 programme, which runs until early 2015, is a greatest hits of its first half century. The shop sells all sorts of aesthetic trinkets, from arty stationery to button badges. The cafe serves British comfort food: boiled egg and soldiers; bangers and mash. Run by charismatic director Jonathan Watkins, the space is avant-garde and challenging. If your tastes are more traditional, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has the biggest Pre-Raphaelite collection in the world.