Britain’s boomtown: New, improved Birmingham
With its sweeping disco lights, low-slung leather sofas and 1970s funk booming out of the speakers, Digbeth Dining Club could almost be any hip club in the UK in the last 40 years – but for one thing.
And that is a row of food stalls located just around the corner from the bar, past the barman handing out cans of craft beer. There’s Canoodle, with a mixture of Thai and Cambodian dishes and there’s Habanero, piling rice, beans, and salsa into burritos. There are many more. The smell of frying onions mixes with Eastern spices to give the dark, post-industrial décor a more exotic air.
For all its impeccably cool music and stylishly distressed industrial ambience, Digbeth Dining Club is more about dining than clubbing. You can dance, of course, but you’d be in some danger of getting chipotle all down your favorite Saturday Night Fever-styled shirt.
The club was named the UK’s Best Street Food Event in 2013 and 2014, which must have surprised a few of its older rivals 160km south down the M1 motorway in London. Birmingham is said to be many things – cheap, cheerful, friendly – but up until now it has never, ever had a reputation for being cool.
The city has made undisputed contributions to the world’s culture, that’s for sure. Heavy metal was arguably invented by Birmingham locals Black Sabbath. And one of the biggest 1980s pop groups, Duran Duran, hail from there, as did Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, but they were never embraced by the hipsters.
In recent years, though, Digbeth, a superficially uninspiring suburb of Birmingham, once best known for its Irish community and having the oldest pub in the city, the Old Crown, has been staking a claim to be one of the coolest areas in the UK.
“Digbeth is the creative hub of the city, similar to the East End of London or the cooler areas of Manchester,” says Digbeth Dining Club founder Jack Brabant. “We’re starting to see the same phenomenon that happened to places like [London’s ultra-hip] Shoreditch now happening here.
“Now we’ve got successful bands like Peace and Swim Deep, who came from here, and there are tech companies and gaming companies moving into Digbeth,” he adds.
‘There’s enthusiasm and passion in Birmingham now’
Psychedelic, upbeat indie band Swim Deep found its groove in places like the Rainbow, a handsome old Victorian pub of exposed brickwork and enormous windows in Digbeth. Far away from the media haunts of London, they had time and space to make mistakes and to learn.
Birmingham’s impact on Britain’s cultural life is also emerging from the youthful energy of the inner suburbs such as the area around Moseley. And Sparkhill, in the south of the city, long known as the Balti Triangle for its “Indian” restaurants (mainly run by families of Bangladeshi origin) serving balti curries, has been fuelling the city for a generation.
Just north of the center is the Jewellery Quarter, which still has an upscale jewelry industry but is also now home to many start-ups, media businesses, and the bars and pubs where they hatch their plans.
One of the most important figures in the city’s social scene is Matt Scriven, a former accountant whose cool, independent hangouts dominate the center and the suburbs. He opened his first bar, the Island, in 2006 and now runs seven of the best bars and restaurants in the city.
“When I first came here 13 years ago I was disappointed,” he tells Scandinavian Traveler at the Jekyll and Hyde pub in the Gunsmiths Quarter, a Victorian-style gin parlor of carved oak paneling and discreet elegance.
“The bar scene was all about chains and big brands,” he says. “Now there are far more independents and quirky little bars, shops, and restaurants. There’s enthusiasm and passion in Birmingham now, which you didn’t get so much 10 years ago.”
The city’s artistic life for the last 25 years has gradually been moving into a sprawling complex called the Custard Factory, back in Digbeth. This was where Alfred Bird, an enterprising chemist, invented egg-free custard in 1837. After many years of being derelict, it was redeveloped in 1992 into an alternative shopping hub and art center.
It consists of a mixture of mysterious artworks, such as a tree carved into a woodland god and a giant lizard scooting up one of the old office blocks, and shops selling everything from vintage clothes to high-end DJ equipment.
It’s like being in the cooler areas of London, like Hoxton and Shoreditch, 20 years ago, before gentrification had set in and all the artists had been priced out.
Birmingham has the youngest population of any major city in Europe, and at its artistic hub it’s easy to predict a great future for the city.
“You can do what you want,” Swim Deep frontman Austin William says. “You don’t feel like anybody’s watching you or that you’re under anybody’s thumb. There’s a freedom in Birmingham.”
A different kind of freedom can be found at the top of the Rotunda, a cylindrical tower that thrusts its way up from the top of the Bullring Shopping Centre like a cheery raised thumb. Staying Cool, a group of serviced apartments, now occupies the top floors.
On a Saturday morning, the views across the city take in the pedestrianized High Street starting to be dotted by early bird shoppers, the new buildings of Aston University, and the Gunsmiths Quarter, one of many old industrial centers in this city.
The Bullring shopping center itself used to be a symbol of everything that was wrong with Birmingham. It was the epitome of bad 1970s architecture and city planning that prioritized malls, and the cars that serviced them, over people. In recent years, though, it’s been turned into a slick, ultramodern mall of soundless elevators and sparkling white walls. Outside on the street there’s more energy, partly provided by energetic street artists.
Around the corner is the New Street Train Station, once voted the worst station in Britain. In recent years the local authorities have spent over a billion euros turning it into one of the most spectacular stations in the country. It looks as if a mirrored spaceship has crashed on the roof, while the interior is flooded with light from a state-of-the art transparent plastic dome.
Equally striking is the Selfridges department store on the other side of the Bullring, made up of great gleaming metal discs that give it an otherworldly air.
The most magnificent of the city’s big-ticket architectural statements, though, is the library, which was Birmingham’s Christmas present to itself in 2013. Wrapped up in an elaborate pattern of what looks like colored wire, the library has become a major visitor attraction.
In Birmingham these days, even the library is cool.
By Trevor Baker Photo: Verity Milligan
Published: May 17, 2016