Here is the short documentary film that set me off on a tangent to write a long post about my local community today. It’s a wonderful 15 minutes about the people who play on two tennis tables in New York’s Bryant Park, recommended in last week’s Noticing by Kottke. This may be the start of a series of community-related posts.
Stirchley is cool right now. I would even say it’s at its peak. So what does that mean? I’ve been thinking about my home neighbourhood of Stirchley, B30, not necessarily coherently but I need to write about it because, well, I’m a writer and occasional local reporter and I was actually born and bred here, so there.
So here I am on a Saturday afternoon, thinking about how Stirchley is at that point of pre-gentrification while tottering at the edge of becoming something far less likable in future years. Such pronouncements of coolness are kind of ridiculous and subjective, but there is still a sense of it being true in the way that old travellers remember with nostalgia how this or that place ‘was so much better and less touristy back in [year]’ and ‘you should have been there back then’. Except in this case, back then is right now.
I think I’m saying this because there is a definite Stirchley ‘scene’ going on. It’s not exactly Liverpool in the ’60s or Bromley in the late ’70s but something is happening and there is an excitement and feeling of connectedness in the air. For years, there was little reason to go to Stirchley high street, unless you wanted an antiques shop treasure or a hydroponics set-up or a Saturday-night balti. Now it’s like a private members club whose playground is a shopping parade of weirdness unlike any other local high street. Everyone knows everyone and strangers are welcomed – if they fit (the criteria is kind of loose but there, judgmental in that you should be non-judgmental and open to joining in). Or maybe this is just the view from my seat.
A lot of positive change is happening. In fact, I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the UK right now (that isn’t on the coast or in the mountains) because what is happening is a rare, beautiful and organic thing of a community coming together in interesting ways. In a way, this is my love letter to Stirchley – a place I left at 19 and never thought I’d return to because, to be honest, it was rough as guts in my childhood.
Now there are micropubs and breweries, a community bakery and cooking school, a community market, a bike foundry, coops, cafés, a houseplant shop, vintage clothing, record and music shops, art spaces, even a spoon-carving, clog-making wood crafter, plus other odd independents creating a miscellany of shops on the main strip. There is a mini version of Birmingham’s famous King-Kong gorilla, who sits above the carpet shop and get’s lit up with festive lights at Christmas (who needs a local BID and a budget for fairy lights – we make our own fun). Online, multiple Twitter accounts organise and extol. There is a hashtag: #vivastirchley, which started as a pisstake and has now been adopted. Unicyclists and alpine horn players have been spotted.
Artefact is a big part of this shift from people being visiting consumers to active community members. This art café space, together with Stirchley Baths, Stirchley Library and other community spaces host so many interesting events and groups that there is little need for the Stirchillian to venture beyond B30 for her social entertainments.
I’ve even stepped up and put on my own events (cybersec sessions, Interrogang discussion group, Glass Room pop-up), something I couldn’t imagine doing in a more commercial, less community-oriented high street. Artefact made it more than easy to start something up, actively welcoming and encouraging participation. Word must be spreading – they’ve had both an Edinburgh Fringe comedian hire the space and a secret gig booked by well-known band.
My own favourite Artefact nights FWIW are the Felt Tip Bender, the crazy rambling What is a Watt? quiz with Johnny’s live art news round, Stirchley Collage Club, the regular art show launches and our co-founded Interrogang discussion group talking about the opportunities and dangers of the data economy.
This is the good stuff. But I’m also starting to worry about the dangers of gentrification and local development planning. Some crazy planning applications have gone in – one recent one was for 40 student flats in a tiny corner-shop bit of real estate. Another by Lidl UK ended up razing the popular Fitness First gym and bowling alley to the ground, and has stalled because of ‘reasons’. Then there is a rash of new housing being built at the old Arvin Merritor site, which could bring new customers to the high street but also swamp it with traffic. More development is expected at the vast Seven Capital wasteland that Tesco sold off after sitting on the land for 17 years.
Who will these new residents be – and will they want a homogenous high street of big money chains like Boots and Greggs over the strange but unique collection of shops we already have? Will Birmingham City Council factor in or ignore the impact on Stirchley’s changing character and community and independent businesses when more developer applications come in, or will they fold in the face of big money?
At present, Stirchley is still fairly downmarket in feel and a bit dowdy of look, and the West Midlands Police helicopter circles overhead regularly late at night to catch the drug dealers and car thieves. That people are calling Stirchley ‘cool’ is amusing in many ways. And it’s odd to hear friends talking about moving out of their beloved Moseley to supercool Stirchley, discussing the property prices and availability while bemoaning our terraces with their lack of driveways and on-street parking. Stirchley is not the new Moseley; you don’t move here for the real estate. Here, we only joke about where is best to live: the Riviera or the Marina end.
How Stirchley develops is at a turning point. The large empty spaces offer potential for greater community cohesion but I fear this will not be realised because, so far, no supermarket developer has done anything more than offer token efforts at working together with the community and what we value. For them it is a money exercise; our views and petitions don’t really matter.
For me, the close sense of community and the independent/cooperative rebirth has almost been born out of a reaction to the greed of large commercial interests, which have tried to gobble up Stirchley’s tiny shopping strand for themselves and instead mobilised a grass-roots alternative to the endless planning fuckups and resulting wastelands.
At the moment, this couple of hundred metres of high street and its hinterlands has a new sense of identity that is the strongest I’ve ever seen it. I really hope we can hold onto that.
Some Stirchley community, coop and independent business accounts to follow on Twitter:
- @marylockelabour (local councillor)
I’m using my Mozilla Open Leadership Project to find activists, artists, data researchers and other collaborators in Birmingham, UK, to connect and kick-start activity around online privacy and security issues. The aim is to build a collaborative community offering citizens greater digital literacy so they can take charge of their online lives.
I’m working open so that the project can develop in new ways, scale and be sustainable. End documentation will guide other regions how to kick-start their own hubs of activity.
I’m also asking for help and subscribers. Update: project is now up and running here: Observed.City.
Mass data collection is a reality that many are not aware of. Through our daily digital interactions, information is being collected about us, stored, sold and used to profile us in an increasingly ‘quantified’ world. Humans and machines are making decisions about us based on this data – some benign, some dangerous. The details of what information is collected is buried in the small print of terms and conditions and gained through our ‘consent’. Our connections with the internet feel less open and healthy than they did.
What this means for us as individuals and as a society, both now and in the future, and what we can do about it isn’t always clear. For most people, it isn’t even a topic of conversation.
I’m an editor, not a technologist, but my own experiences with data privacy and cybersecurity projects over the past year have taught me that, for the average person, cybersecurity is at least on the ‘to do’ list, while data privacy feels like much less defined with less obvious impacts and, consequently, it is easier to push aside.
I’ve heard people say things like ‘I’m not important enough to be surveilled’, ‘I don’t want to live in paranoia’ or ‘I don’t care if they read my emails and serve me some targeted ads’. At least these people are having a conversation about it.
I’ve also seen fantastic debates buried in Facebook comment threads – ‘why do people willingly install commercial surveillance equipment in their houses?’ and ‘is it ok for parents to post pictures of their kids on Facebook without their permission?’ and ‘why does the Parkmobile app need my full name, gender, DOB and full address as well as my licence plate and payment card details?’ – and I wonder how can we bring these discussions out into the open where more people can join in?
Raising awareness is a massive hurdle. Everyone is busy. Everyone is shouting. Everyone wants your attention. As well as the ‘I don’t have time’ response, there is also the ‘I don’t care’ factor. Data privacy needs to be a lot more engaging and a lot less overwhelming.
Much of this work is London-based with many free or funded talks, projects and exhibitions available for people to attend, and large privacy groups, such as Privacy International, Liberty and Big Brother Watch, based there.
In the Midlands, we have 2.5 milion population – 1.1 million in Birmingham alone – who would benefit from knowing how they are affected by the data economy and how to navigate it. There is some great work going on by the Open Rights Group and others but the topic is huge and outreach is hard for reasons already stated. How can we engage more people and build on this in the second city?
These are the questions that I’ve been thinking about since my training and experience working in The Glass Room London last October. Curated by Tactical Tech and produced by Mozilla, The Glass Room was a three-week pop-up store on the Charing Cross Road with a data privacy twist. It hosted over 40 objects in a gleaming white high-tech store, with an accompanying programme of talks, workshops, film screenings and tours attended by nearly 19,000 visitors. Physical and interactive exhibits let people come to the topic on their own terms and draw their own conclusions. It had people queuing to get in the door and look into their online lives more deeply, while most of the free talks and workshops ‘sold out’.
That level of engagement was a real eye-opener.
The experience made me realise that people DO care about their data privacy – if suitably engaged – and that there needs to be WAY more opportunities to have a conversation about this stuff and its implications.
So… I applied to Mozilla’s Open Leadership Project with the idea of trying to find other collaborators, connect the dots and maybe try some new things in my home city. Two weeks ago, I was amazed to read an email saying I’d got a place on the programme.
I’m not a campaigner or an activist. I’m a communicator who is fairly average internet user and who just wants to ask the dumb questions about this stuff and hopefully, as a result, make better choices in my own online life.
To do this, my initial plan is simply to start gathering information and events around data, arts, tech and activism in the city, and collate them in some way, most likely as a regular email out to an online community. (UPDATE: the first issue has now gone out – see Observed.City for details] This will involve building connections with people who are working in this space and from there I hope ideas and collaborations may start to bloom and grow.
One project has started already through discussions with music academic Dr Craig Hamilton – a data reading group called The Interrogang is starting at Artefact Cafe in Stirchley next Tuesday 27 February from 7.30-9pm. The next one will be held on 28 March, and at six-weekly intervals after that, each covering a different data-relevant theme. The reading for next week will be around the use of our data in advertising by services such as Netflix and Spotify – and has been posted up on the group’s Twitter: @theinterrogang
And if you are interested in the Mozilla project an new data privacy newsletter, this is now up and running. Info and subscribe details below:
Sign up for the ObservedCity newsletter
Finally, in the Spirit of #WOLO (work open, lead open), perhaps you are interested in helping the project develop. This is the first week of a 14-week project so it is at an early stage but if you want to be involved, I envision needing some editorial help and people willing to attend and write up events. I’ll also be collecting listings of data-related events in the city from April/May onwards so if you are involved in running an event, workshops, talk or other activity, please get in touch via Observed.city.
Mass data collection and surveillance is one of the biggest issues of our age – the least we can do as its key human products is have a conversation about it.