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15-12-2009

The Digbeth of the future?

Dave Woodhall’s been doing a spot of travelling. And he’s come up with an obvious solution to a fiercely-debated problem.

I dropped my car off at the showroom in Digbeth yesterday and, having an hour or so to kill, had a bit of a walk around.

There’s been talk on the Stirrer messageboard about the redevelopment of this unlovely part of the city and what’s already there for a long time so I thought I may as well have a look for myself.

What I saw on first impressions wasn’t particularly impressive. A few factory units, some warehouses, one or two grotty-looking pubs.

Railway arches, car repairers, signs warning that if you so much as think of slowing down you’re liable to get clamped, even if you’re walking. And a bloody great six lane road cutting though the middle of it all. Not very appealing.

But on second glance what I realised I was seeing was one of the last bits of old industrial Birmingham, Britain as it used to be. It wasn’t so much street theatre as street reality show.

Old Digbeth

There’s still industry in Digbeth. People make things, they repair them. They go out at dinner time to buy artery-hardening sandwiches from local shops. They go into one of the backstreet pubs after work. A lot of the money earned in these streets stays there.

I don’t know much about the night scene (Martin Mullaney might be able to tell me, or perhaps not) but there do seem a lot of venues catering for a wider cross-section of the city’s population than you get in any of the designated ‘entertainment quarters’ and none of it appeared to be owned by a faceless corporation.

I walked down to the Lamp on Barwick Street; I’d forgotten how good it is and how retro-seventies it’s remained. I expected to see Brew XI served in handled glasses.

The renovated coach station seems a massive improvement on its predecessor. There’s even a short-stay car park so you might not have to run the risk of wheel clampers if you’re waiting to meet someone.

I can see the problem with people moving into the area but surely there’s nothing wrong that couldn’t be put right with better sound insulation and a bit of common sense.

Ironically, the only place that seemed lifeless was the Custard Factory, with its empty shops and lack of, well, anything. The only creativity I could see was two kids outside with a skateboard and a signpost indicating the way to the ‘Custard Factory Quarter’. Now there’s specialisation.

I was left with the feeling that if a creative quarter is needed it should spring up naturally. After all, if they’re so creative the intended inhabitants will create one for themselves.

Bodywork shops and courier firms might not be as 21st century as IT consultants and filmmakers but there’s a better chance they’ll still be in business this time next year. We don’t HAVE to get rid of the old just because we like the look of the new. Hasn’t Birmingham already suffered enough from change for the sake of it?

I may be wrong, it may be teetering on the edge of an economic disaster, but to me Digbeth seems to be doing okay by itself. Can’t we just leave the place alone?

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