Paradise in Lockdown | A Portrait of Birmingham
Regular readers could be forgiven for thinking I have a melancholy mind. I keep a notebook which I fill with observations from my everyday life in and around my city of Birmingham. From time to time, I share snippets from my notebook here on my personal blog. This year, my observations have been bleak. My latest, a postcard from the end of the world, especially so. My hope is that after seeing these photos, you will see that I am not dressing things up, or rather down, but rather aiming for a truthful portrayal of Birmingham. I love my adopted home town, but it has seen better days.
This afternoon Ed and I went to the vegetable market in the city centre. We do this most Saturdays as we live in the city centre and so we can walk there. Despite the drizzle, I took my camera with me paired with a 35mm lens. I wanted to capture the city streets on the final weekend of England’s second lockdown. Four weeks before Christmas, Birmingham city centre would ordinarily be extremely busy. For all of the years I have called Birmingham home there has been a Christmas Market on New Street, and each year it has grown in size and now extends into both Victoria Square and Chamberlain Square. From early November through until the new year, Ed and I usually avoid the main city streets and take to the warren of side streets and the canal network to get across town to the station. It’s simply too busy to move with the crowds, and neither of us are the biggest fans of Christmas or Christmas crowds.
The market was cancelled this year because of the pandemic, and all ‘non-essential’ shops as well as restaurants and cafés have been closed for the month of November as part of England’s second lockdown. The shops reopen on Wednesday 2nd December, though the restaurants and cafés shall remain takeaway only for the foreseeable future. The crowds will shortly return and next Saturday will look much more normal in terms of footfall. Still, there are many shops and hospitality businesses that will not survive the economic downturn we are currently living through. Some of the units in these pictures have been empty for large parts of the last decade, since the 2008 recession pulled a scythe through the British high street.
The Bullring is Birmingham’s main shopping centre. It opened in September 2003 and has two anchor stores; Debenhams at one end, and Selfridges at the other. The Bullring is connected by a covered walkway to a second shopping centre, opened after a long period of redevelopment in 2015, which sits over the top of the city’s main railway station and has John Lewis as the anchor store. Both Debenhams and John Lewis have entered administration this year. Topshop is owned by the Arcadia group, which at the time of writing is on the brink of collapse. If Debenhams and Topshop go bust, then this end of the Bullring will quickly empty out.
New Street is a long street which stretches the length of the pedestrianised shopping district. There are many empty units.
Odeon reopened their cinemas after the first lockdown was eased, but reduced their opening hours to weekends only as footfall was so low. It has been closed throughout the month of November as a result of England’s second lockdown, and it remains to be seen if they can stay open now that Birmingham is about to enter the highest tier of restrictions. The major studios are also holding back major releases until they can guarantee an audience and box office success, which causes further problems for the industry.
The black metal infrastructure in the centre of the frame is anti-terror infrastructure. It went up at the end of 2016 to protect the Christmas crowds and market from vehicular attack, but is now a permanent part of the city’s streets.
When I first moved to Birmingham back in 2004, this unit housed a fair trade shop selling cards, furniture, candles, and alternative gifts. It didn’t survive the 2008 recession, and sat empty for a few years. Around five years ago, Morrisons attempted to compete with Tesco on New Street by putting their own convenience store in, but it was short lived and closed after just a few months. The unit has been empty ever since, as has much of this end of New Street.
Victoria Square is one of Birmingham’s two main squares. It is usually home to fairground rides and an outdoor covered beer garden at this time of year, and busy with German Market crowds. I’m not the biggest fan of the German Market as it’s too big these days and the crowds make getting from A to B as a city centre resident a nuisance, but I am still saddened to see it cancelled and the square sat empty.
In happier news, Birmingham City Council is currently in the process of refurbishing the fountain which has been filled with plants for five years after the maintenance budget ran out. The Commonwealth Games budget is covering the repair work, though I’ve no idea what the long term plan is for future maintenance and upkeep as Birmingham City Council won’t be able to cover it.
Another view of Victoria Square. The building shrouded in fog is a brand new office block, one of the highest buildings in Birmingham. With many office workers working from home for the foreseeable future, I wonder whether the office units will be let any time soon.
Now we arrive in Paradise. This is the site of the original library, which was demolished several years ago. The new buildings behind the sunken church monument house office space and restaurants, but completion coincided with the start of the pandemic and so there has been no grand opening.
At least Birmingham has a sense of humour. I have always found it funny that this area is called Paradise, and that city planners have chosen to keep the name through the ten year redevelopment. At least the new Paradise is brighter and more open than the old Paradise.
Chamberlain Square reopened late last year. It has been completely repaved, and now houses a new fountain. The fountain area is weight bearing and if this were a normal year, would currently be covered by a giant wheel and temporary outdoor ice-rink. Symphony Hall is undergoing a face lift at the moment, they are having a new entrance fitted which will open out on to the new square. It will be nice once it’s all finished, but at the moment it’s a bit of a maze of hoardings and hazard tape what with construction work on Symphony Hall and nearby Broad Street with the tramlines. Broad Street was a mess before the pandemic, but it looks apocalyptic at the moment.
The Library of Birmingham is Birmingham’s central library. It was opened in September 2013 by Malala Yousafzai who is one of Birmingham’s most famous residents despite her young age. Sadly Birmingham City Council ran out of money as a result of an expensive gender equality settlement and ten years of austerity related cuts, and the library now operates on much reduced hours with a reduced budget for books. It is my local library, and I love visiting. I think it’s a wonderful building as it’s really bright and open inside, and you can go up on the roof terrace to look out over Birmingham’s skyline. However, like many of Birmingham’s public services, our libraries haven’t been given enough financial support by central government in recent years, and it is beginning to look a little shabby around the edges with broken lifts and scuffed paintwork that will not be repaired anytime soon.
Unlike Odeon, Cineworld has shut up shop for now. With no new films and physical distancing restrictions in place, their multiscreen business model is untenable. Not pictured in this series but of great concern to me is my favourite cinema, Birmingham’s art house Electric Cinema. It is the UK’s oldest working cinema dating back to 1909 and it has two screens. Ed and I watched a film there three days before the first lockdown was announced, and I worry that the cinema will now never reopen. The owner has cut the phone lines, website and utilities to save money, and has no plans to reopen at the time of writing.
The years ahead are full of uncertainty, and it saddens me to see my city so down on its luck. These photos are certainly not works of art. They are purely documentary, a portrait of Birmingham in the closing weeks of what has been the most difficult year since the 1940s.