Tuesday, March 10, 2009
One and half hours by train from London, Birmingham is the second largest city in England and an old industrial center trying to find its place in a post-industrial world. When I first stepped off the train, I thought it was a pretty grim place. Travelers disembarking at Birmingham exit the train station to see a mall and dirty streets. We had to walk down a staircase that smelled of urine and cross under an elevated highway (they call it a Queensway, for some reason) to get to our hotel, which was located in a new development of shops set apart from the city center. Even though it was a chic boutique design hotel, the Malmaison, it was a bit frayed around the edges; clearly it was the best Birmingham had to offer, and a lot of people like us had stayed there.
But if you look past the grime and the awkward city planning, Birmingham actually has a lot to offer. The city is trying to reestablish itself through commerce, mainly shopping, so all of the development in the city is based on retail space. These spaces are quite interesting; our hotel was situated in the Mailbox, an open-air shopping area created out of an old mail sorting factory. In the heart of Birmingham is the Bullring, a huge mall with 2 wings that has every conceivable shop imaginable including a huge Selfridges.
Beyond shopping, the city has a lovely network of canals that have been restored and redeveloped into safe and clean walking paths that are well-lit and have excellent directional wayfinding. The Irishman and I spent most of our time walking along the canals to and from different areas of the city. In fact, the canals are such a part of Birmingham's heritage that the pedestrian bridges that cross them are echoed around the city with bridges that cross highways, other pedestrian paths, and connect buildings even when there isn't any water.
One of the nicest parts of Birmingham was the Jewellery Quarter, the largest working jewellery center in Europe (so they claim). Separated from the city center to the north by another Queensway (of course), the small, historic area is being redeveloped into a creative hub and new residential neighborhood. The area reminds me of Philadelphia; the architectural styles of the buildings look similar, and its' original growth was probably during roughly the same time period. The feel of the redevelopment and regeneration echoes that of Philly's newly trendy neighborhoods.
Finally Birmingham is famous for the balti, an Indian specialty that was invented in the notorious Balti Triangle area of South Birmingham. Of course the Irishman and I had to try it, and took a cab down to the Triangle to find a balti house. Unfortunately, we went on a Sunday and found a few curry houses but not as many as we were expecting. The food was good at Sameer's, but to be honest it tasted the same a regular curry. Maybe we totally missed the boat, but it was good anyway.
All in all, Birmingham won me over by the end. I think the city has a way to go in making itself over without the industry that once drove it, but it's on the right track. Hopefully it can weather the economic storms and emerge from the recession still growing and changing and getting better and better. Of course I took pictures of the place; they are here.