Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! Every few years I take a photographic snapshot of my local Stirchley High Street, Birmingham, to see how it has changed.
So here is Stirchley in 2018…
There is an empty space where the thriving gym and historic bowling alley used to be, demolished after Lidl supermarket pushed ahead with a presumptuous land purchase (they had their permission to build overturned). There is also a massive Tesco wasteland now boarding up a large percentage of north Stirchley. Let’s hope Seven Capital can do better, eh? Watch them closely. They were due to show at the Neighbourhood Forum meeting this Monday but have dropped out. It doesn’t bode well.
While the supermarkets and large developers try their frickin’ best to flip (thanks Kimmy Schmidt) with Stirchley, the independent scene is thriving (more on this in Viva Stirchley). Loving the fact that a spooncarver, fudge shop, martial arts supply store and houseplant shop are newcomers this year, increasing the bloody superb random nature of our high street. No homogeneity here, in 2018 at least. Pretty much all our chain stores are caged inside the Coop or shoved up the, ahem, business end of Stirchley.
Sad to hear Drums International, The (vegan) Pie Shop and Moso vintage clothing have closed and/or moved on. Drums International was one of my favourite does-what-it-says-on-the-sign storefront. The Belgian and Netherlands consulate is also a very sad loss, for quirkiness and international tourism alone. And Hairport – I miss that one for its punnage, although Iron Maidens laundrette is still the winner. There are other casualties – check the 2011 photos at the end of this post.
All the hardcore old-school Stirchley businesses are still here: P Browell tobacconist, Phull Watch Co, Mirror Image, Oulsnam (they’ll always be Laing to me), Stirchley Alterations & Dress Making, JJ’s Flooring (which has added a rooftop King Kong as you do), Maginnis opticians, Printigo (now snuggling in the bosom of the main high street), OJ Fallons plumbing supplies, Noct Offs, Wards, the British Oak – to name a few. Domestiks is still here but now sells appliances not ex-catalogue clothes, so that’s less useful (to me).
Alongside them and hoping for similar longevity are the hardcore ‘newbies’ creating most of the buzz: Loaf, Artefact, The Bike Foundry, Alicia’s Micro Bakehouse, The Wildcat Tap and other local breweries (no longer is Stirchley just a balti Mecca).
I have to give a special mention for the lovely Stirchley Wines & Spirits. Just because. #injoke #keepstirchleyshabby
Also Stirchley Library and Baths – important sources of community spirit, as well as free knowledge and tasty chocolate brownies at the monthly market.
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:
A few weeks ago Stirchley News discovered some old issues of Snooze aka Stirchley News zine from the mid 1980s in someone’s attic:
“My mother recently discovered a pile of these local interest newspapers in her loft. Mum helped on Snooze and was part of the Stirchley Community Action Group. I also helped a little on Snooze, occasionally, with typing and layout…”
Now, I also helped on Snooze – as a 15-year-old local Stirchley schoolgirl who had a vague idea of one day becoming a fancypants, hi-falutin’ journalist. My bezzie mate Tracey and I compiled the back page section. We called it Hot Gossip and basically filled it with immature jokes, droodles and general silliness.
But I’ve been waiting with some trepidation for the issue to come out with my first attempt at ‘serious journalism’ – or that’s the way I remember it. It involved going down Stirchley High Street and counting the number of different restaurant types, doing an interview and writing up a special report.
Well, finally the issue has been posted online but it’s hardly the in-depth article I remember.
After donating my teenage memory of ‘being flashed’ to the Secret Stirchley crew at the pop-up arts tearoom, this weekend my embarrassing memory became the stuff of a Stirchley promenade street theatre narrative.
Performed by three actors as part of the Inhabit programme of pop-up tearooms, the stories they had collected from Stirchley residents over the past five weeks were woven into a narrative, relived and professionally delivered by actors as we wandered around the local streets. In this environment, it was hard to tell who was part of the show and who was incidental.
We listened in on the story of a grandmother and her grand-daughter, as well as other characters who overlapped with their lives, from the ghost of a father who went to war and came back shellshocked…
to the grunge boyfriend met in the British Oak…
to a street mugger re-enacting a bag-snatching…
– and to a young girl who was once flashed by a man standing in the reeds of the River Rea, followed by the ensuing police visit asking for rather intimate details and distinguishing marks.
While I enjoyed the show, however, I’m not sure Stirchley is quite ready for such artiness – a feeling which was underlined by two events ahead of the opening Friday performance.
1. The neighbouring solicitor had apparently thrown quite a wobbly about a bit of chalk saying ‘Sweet shop’ on the pavement outside his shop (which was, you’ve guessed it, formerly a sweet shop).
He told them he was trying to conduct a ‘proper business’ and was insistent that they remove it, which they did despite this being a public pavement. His uncompromising reaction seemed unwarranted – especially since the passing promenade didn’t even raise the two front-room workers’ heads as we passed by. And yet his over-reaction forms another B30 tale as I had been to see them the day before and now feel quite disinclined to do business there. Stirchley may be strong in community spirit, but at the same time it has always had its bullies, though maybe that is too strong a word – perhaps he was just having a bad day.
2. The second incident happened when a passing young mum with a pushchair had to be reassured that the mugging wasn’t real, just in case she didn’t spot the unconcerned crowd and phoned the police.
But the show must go and after 40 minutes or so it circled back to the tearoom for the final scene, followed by tea and delicious cakes…
Personally, I think the show would have worked better for me as a direct documentary of Stirchley memories, flowing between characters but without the narrative hook. I suppose I wanted to focus on Stirchley and wanted to hear other people’s memories. I don’t think they needed the plot device, or perhaps I was slightly distracted by the fictionalised performance, which made the memories seem less real somehow.
Still, I have very much enjoyed the tearoom over the past few weeks and I think it will be missed in Stirchley, which is a high street of diverse businesses but none of which offer a particularly sociable stop-off or gathering place (unless you like to go to the pub in the daytime or the ‘Society Cafe’ in the Coop, that is).
The tea-room now moves to Hodge Hill. Lucky things. But I hope that it – or someone else with community spirit – moves into our empty shops soon.
If you want to catch a performance of Secret Stirchley, there is one day left to see it – at 1pm and 4pm tomorrow (Sunday 13th March). Performances are free and start at the shop, on the corner of Ivy Road and Pershore Road.
I took a photowalk down my local Stirchley High Street on Friday to log the growing diversity of shops I’d been noticing there of late, including a new pop-up tearoom…
There are lots of independents in Stirchley Village (as it now seems to be have been renamed), such as: P Browell Tobacconist, Wards greengrocers, Pandora’s Music Box, Skinnys Ink tattoo parlour, Music Exchange, Maginnis Opticians, Wolseley Sausage Company, The British Oak pub and others.
This is NOT a homogenous high street – and all the more interesting for it. For example, how many other Birmingham high streets can boast a European consulate?
There are quite a few clusters of businesses, too: hairdressers, hydroponics shops, carpet stores, junk shops, nail bars, balti restaurants, Chinese takeaways and a growing number of estate and letting agents – a sign that things are changing for Stirchley.
But the most interesting shop for me was the pop-up tearoom on the corner of Ivy Road. It’s only open for another month or so before it moves on like a magical moveable feast to Hodge Hill – but it’s a lovely little place to go and hangout for a bit.
There is free tea served in bone china cups, free biscuits, art, craft and storytelling projects, community conversation and someone to reminisce about Stirchley with – in my case a former lollipop lady, who summed up Stirchley as having it all – except for parking spaces.
The tearoom events progamme is here. Some evening events are also in the pipeline, possibly a film screening and more tea-tasting sessions with Karen (pictured top).
I intend to revisit Stirchley’s high street evolution in more detail in a future post, namely because I wrote my first ever published article on the breakdown of shops here. But for now here’s the slideshow, or see the full set on Flickr.