Birmingham, Now and Then

We attended a business event in Birmingham on Friday and I have been reflecting on the huge changes since I was a student there an unspecified number of years ago.

Arriving from the south coast, I found Birmingham a bit of a shock. I had never seen an industrial city in the flesh and although, as an economics student, I was aware of the importance of heavy industry, I hadn't appreciated how it took over - some would say, created - entire cities. And there's no denying that it isn't always pretty.

I didn't see Birmingham at its best when I was a student. There was an economic recession and manufacturing industry was being particularly badly hit. There seemed to be depression and decay everywhere. Office blocks had been built before the recession but now nobody wanted them. Some displayed huge 'To Let' signs in their windows, some for the entire 3 years I was living there.

The post-war brutalist architecture didn't help. I recall my first encounter with the area at the top of New Street called 'Paradise'. It wasn't. There was the large, concrete library - the largest in Europe, they said - surrounded by a building site. The rest of the building work which later became Paradise Circus had halted, presumably for economic reasons. It didn't restart all the time I was living there. The Specials are from Coventry but they could just as well have been singing about Birmingham in 'Concrete Jungle'.
The concrete library in the late 1970s - but the rest of the Paradise development stalled for years
Today's city is vibrant and parts of it are unrecognisable. The hotel we stayed in is part of a new development called The Mailbox, built around the canal basin near Broad Street.
The view from our hotel room, across Gas Street basin
Until recently the canal ran almost secretly under Broad Street and was not attractive
One of the city's defining lumps of concrete was the 1960s Bull Ring shopping centre. By the time I was introduced to it, it was already fairly down at heel and the shops were definitely down-market.
A 1970s postcard showing the Rotunda and the now demolished 1960s Bull Ring
After a life of  about 40 years it was demolished and replaced with a new Bullring (now just one word, very 21st century) giving a much smarter retail experience, including a branch of Selfridges that seems to be made from giant bubble-wrap.
The new Bullring has nothing in common with the old Bull Ring, except for St Martin's church
A city of many architectures: the 31-storey Clydesdale Tower (1971),
St Martin in the Bullring church (1873) and ultra-modern Selfridges (2003)
We enjoyed our short stay in Birmingham. And it was good to stretch our legs around the new Bullring and mentally compare today's Birmingham with the version I lived in for 3 years. But it was even better to drive up the A38(M), join the M6 and head north!