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A Mancunian appreciation of Birmingham Second City of the UK

There seems to be a lot of Brum-bashing going on, even amongst Brummies themselves. I've heard students say Birmingham's 'boring'. Birmingham is in the Midlands, therefore middle of the road, not far enough away from London to be a true counterweight to the capital. At the 2006 Labour conference in Manchester, there was talk of Manchester 'now' being the 'second city'. Recent BBC surveys suggest that a majority of people in the UK consider Manchester to be England's second city.

And of course, there's the infamous Bull Ring shopping centre and Birmingham New Street, and Digbeth Coach Station. I've experienced Digbeth Coach Station at 2 in the morning, and I've passed through Birmingham New Street, the UK's beigest and blandest main line railway station many times.

But if you go out of New Street station and onto the street after which it's named you find something different to the stereotype, a beautifully renovated and maintained street with tall facades, many Victorian that wouldn't look out of place in Paris. Others are more modern and interesting. And unlike Manchester's Market Street, New Street is still intact on both sides.

And as you walk down to the bottom end of New Street, near the station, you make another remarkable discovery. In place of the infamous and iconically awful Bull Ring shopping centre from the 1970s, a new and dazzling contemporary shopping district has been created. While the old one had a split level roundabout with brown pebbledash, the new one has a wide open elevated pedestrian area, with glass facades a striking view over the church and south of the city.

Here is the weird-looking Selfridges store, a totally unique structure and now a symbol of Birmingham, much more innovative than the building in Manchester that houses, Selfridges and M&S.

A futuristic response to the ills of the old Bull Ring
This futuristic shopping area with giant lamp poles shining red, green and blue light down onto the street, is Birmingham's contemporary response to the ills of the old Bull Ring centre.

Walking back up along the varied facades of New Street we come to Victoria Square, overlooked by Birmingham's magnificent municipal headquarters, the Council House.

Here, the old square - I've no idea what it looked like - was transformed by a water sculpture named The River, with a naked and very English looking river goddess at the top. The water flows down a series of waterfalls, with more sculptures, of strange looking creatures as well as a boy and girl like a young Adam and Eve.

This gigantic and eccentric creation is the work of Indian artist Dhruva Mistry. I'm proud to say he used my photo of Victoria Square in a presentation in India. For various reasons it could never have appeared in Manchester, which has a very mixed record on public art, to put it mildly.

On the far side of Victoria Square is the Town Hall, actually a hall for concerts and public meetings, one of the most impressive neo-classical style buildings in the UK. It is reopening in 2007 after extensive renovation.

Birmingham = Big City = Gro▀stadt
There are plenty of other things to see, including the cathedral, the Tony Hancock memorial, all the museums and other attractions, but what I've I've seen along New Street is enough to tell me that Birmingham is a great city.

After coming in from Wolverhampton, which has city status, the height of the buildings tells you that Birmingham is a true city i.e. big - in German Gro▀stadt. Birmingham, symbol of a median British city, as featured in old fashioned English language textbooks published in France. It's twinned with Leipzig, my adopted home city in Germany. Birmingham, close to the geographical centre of England, where all roads meet, has become a very multi-cultural city, even more so than Manchester or virtually anywhere else in the UK.

Manchester and Birmingham are parallel in many ways. Both maintain to be the second city, both are former industrial, now post-industrial capitals of their respective regions, both centres for railways and canals. I know Manchester very well, but hardly know Birmingham at all.

Second City? So what?
So which one is the second city? Personally I couldn't care less about second city status, who wants to be second? Birmingham and Manchester are similar but unique in their own way and different to London. Judgements tend to be subjective: Maybe this city has more five star restaurants and coffee bars, Lamborghini dealerships, and construction sites than that city, therefore this city is the second city. So what?

I once had a heated discussion in Saudi Arabia with a colleague from near Birmingham - my good friend EFL teacher Steve Singleton, husband of Christabel. He was adamant that Birmingham is the second city, and wouldn't accept my diplomatic, middle of the road view that both have a similar status, it's impossible to say which is second, and in any case, it's irrelevant.

And in one vitally important respect he is perfectly correct. The City of Birmingham municipal area has over 1 million people, compared to only 450,000 or so within the City of Manchester. It's true, the surrounding conurbations of both cities - Greater Manchester and the West Midlands - are each in the region of 3 million, but until Manchester addresses the problem of its under-sized municipal authority and creates a larger city authority, like Birmingham did many years ago, then the second city of England, indeed the second city of the UK, by population and land area, is, without a shadow of a doubt: Birmingham.

I hope to visit Birmingham again soon and expand my still very small Birmingham photo portfolio. I'm keen to make contact with knowledgeable people in Birmingham who can maybe discuss some of the issues, show me round and provide information on the photos I've taken. If you're interested, please contact.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-02-22

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