Let’s get this out of the way right up front: I like living in Birmingham. I moved here from New Zealand with a job to return to, phoned them after 6 months and said “sorry – I’m not coming back”. That was nearly eight years ago.
But I am sick of this city competing for greatness.
Any time Birmingham has the opportunity to enter something in which we might emerge being considered ‘the best’, we’ll spend millions on our bid for selection. And guess what? Those other people we’re in competition with like their home town too. We pin so much on winning, and we fool ourselves into thinking that the outcome is anything other than arbitrary.
The empty rhetoric of ‘Birmingham is amazing’, ‘Birmingham is full of inspiring people’ and ‘Look how great Birmingham is’ is worse than unhelpful. It places us in a pointless competition with other places and centres our sense of self-worth around, on the one hand, what others think of us and, on the other, a series of vacuous mantras that if we repeat often enough, perhaps we’ll come to believe.
Meanwhile, our leaders are considered to be our champions and representatives to the outside world, rather than in charge of making things better. If there’s anything that Birmingham is the most amazing at, it’s putting faith in marketing as the solution to all things.
The website currently run by Jon Bounds (but up for sale) Birmingham It’s Not Shit focuses on the good things about our city – but also celebrates its ordinariness and quite often exposes its weaknesses in a way that demands that the people whose job it is to make things right actually do what is required of them.
The kind of empty-headed cheerleading that recently set the local Twittersphere abuzz for criticising the use of the words Birmingham and Shit in the same title are endemic. You will encounter it in every corner of public life in this city and it’s both saccharine and sickening.
“No – don’t say that! Birmingham’s awesome! Stay on message!”
Again – I like Birmingham a lot. I like the things that are great about it. I like the things that are ordinary about it. I am not, however, interested in whether it’s the best. Or even how good or bad it is as a city, judged on a range of different arbitrary metrics.
Birmingham is a perfectly good city. But let’s face it, other cities would have to decline right across the board on all sorts of fronts in order for it to be measurably better in any way.
We have, unarguably, our fair share of unpleasant, bureaucratic, miserable, selfish, obstacle-raising, incompetent, stupid, greedy, self-obsessed, ignorant and bad-tempered people in this city – just like pretty much anywhere else. We also have some incredibly lovely, talented, intelligent, giving, caring and dependable people – just like pretty much anywhere else.
And yet, we have adopted a PR approach to asserting Birmingham’s exceptionalism. It’s about employing superlatives, asserting dominance, comparing ourselves to others, focusing on the accomplishments of individuals and ignoring the actual day to day realities of living in Birmingham.
And the problem with a PR approach is that it directs people’s attention to the positive rather than addresses the negative. And it also directs time, money and resources in the same manner.
You want people to say that Birmingham’s amazing? Make it amazing.
You want it to be a safe city that’s easy to get around? Pedestrianise something. Give us light rail. Make it safe for cyclists.
You want it to be a healthy city? Do something about food in schools, encouraging local produce, organics, home gardening – all that stuff.
You want it to be a clean city? Do something about the litter epidemic and the widespread culture of just dropping shit on the ground.
You want it to be a nice place to live? Don’t just tell us about all the pretty – do something about all the ugly.
You want it to be a smart city? Support innovative educational initiatives that improve things for everyone.
You want it to be a fun city? Stop turning a blind eye to noise insulation regulation infringements when approving inner city housing construction while giving draconian noise abatement orders to live venues.
You want it to be an innovative city? Reward good ideas.
You want it to be a digital city? Install ubiquitous wifi and make public services that are ACTUALLY USABLE on the internet. Help people get online. Teach them how to make stuff and share it.
Want it to be a colourful and vibrant city? Legitimise and encourage street art and graffiti.
You want it to be a caring city? Address homelessness and poverty.
You want it to be a musical city? Focus on participation rather than popstars.
You want it to be a culturally exciting and artistic city? Find people who are already doing great stuff and support them to do more of it. Note – I didn’t say “champion them”. I said “support them”. That is to say – give them money to do more of what they do well, and then get out of the way.
They do not need an ad campaign so other people can be jealous of what we have.
Don’t say it can’t be done – because other places do all of these things successfully. But don’t just assert those things to be true, because even in those instances where they might be, it’s absurd to think that we achieved all we can. Saying “Birmingham is great” and doing nothing to make it so is like saying “I have no further ambition for Birmingham – it has achieved to its peak”.
I understand that there might not be the budget to do all the things I would like to have happen in this city. Things that would make it a better place than it is.
I also understand cultural tourism. I understand the need for promotional campaigns to bring people to the city and spend money on stuff. But the city is not reducible to a tourist attraction nor as a place to set up new businesses.
It’s already a place where a million people live. Getting people excited about what a handful of them have accomplished is not as important as making things better for the rest of them. Because the thing is – it’s just a city. This is the place where we find ourselves, and these are the people that we have ended up with. That’s community.
Living in Birmingham isn’t a prize that we’ve won, and regardless of how many cool and interesting people happen to live or come from here, there’s nothing exceptional about Birmingham that makes it better than other places – or some people better than other people.
The idea that “we’re better than them” is about as toxic a public sentiment as it’s possible to muster.
I don’t know whether or not we’re going to end up with an elected mayor. I’ll certainly be voting in favour of having one. But I don’t want our elected mayor to be Birmingham’s champion. We might as well just spend the money on a TV ad campaign.
Birmingham isn’t shit. But wouldn’t it be great if our city’s leaders decided to act as if it was, and that it was their responsibility to fix that?
Then you might see some amazing worth talking about.