Sunday, 4 January 2015

The 9th most exciting city in the world

If you're in charge of a crumbling post-industrial city, what do you do to add a bit of "vibrancy", "energy" and "creativity"? 

Here are some of the options!

•    build a new Leisure centre;

•    build something that looks a bit like a new Leisure centre, but is actually a Sports centre;

•    build something that isn’t a Leisure centre or a Sports centre, but which might just be an Arts centre; 

•    build something made out of glass;

•    organise a free ‘street party’ in summer, featuring a) bongos; b) a rock band who got into the top 40 in 2001; c) a radio presenter ‘celebrity’ who you’d quietly assumed had died; d) a nineteen year old girl with a poem and a drum; e) a stall handing out free styrofoam cups of orange squash; f) a dawning yet profound sense of the pointlessness of your existence on earth that gnaws at your soul like a nail-file applied to the spinal column; g) hot dogs; h) funny men on stilts dressed to look like the police; i) the police.

•    build a bridge; (you need to make sure there's some water there first)

•    commission a piece of “public art” that looks like a cube being assaulted by a beach ball;

•    build another Leisure centre;

•    encourage the large-scale privatisation of public space by handing over to a load of coffee chains and shadowy PFI financiers; 

•    build a “Cultural Quarter”;

•    commission another piece of “public art” that has everyone confused, but probably means something about diversity; 

•    if none of the above work, invest in local services like decent housing, education and public services. (Note: try everything else first). 

I mention this because this week Birmingham's just been announced by the Rough Guide as the ninth most exciting city on the planet - for “embracing its industrial heritage”. 

I once embraced Birmingham's industrial heritage, too, for a day, and I have to say the adjective that sprung to mind wasn't "exciting". It was quite a long way from "exciting", in fact. Among the must-see attractions like the "College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies", the "Academy of Birmingham Cosmetic Dentristy" as well as other enticing hotspots like the "Gas Street Basin" - which frankly sounded more like an industrial accident than a tourist attraction - I actually ended up spending most of my day in Birmingham in a Wetherspoons that seemed to have been hollowed out of a multi-storey car park. It was named Paradise. It wasn't.   

But so what? Cities shouldn't have to be exciting. They're supposed to be places for living in. The problem with branding a whole city with estate-agent propaganda ("creative", "vibrant", "dynamic") is that it promotes a twatscape of moneyed gentrifiers and buy-to-lets. Trying to market Birmingham as a tourist hotspot makes about as much sense as relocating the next Sundance Film Festival to Slough. Let Birmingham be itself. It comes first in that contest any day.