By Tessa Burwood
How rescuing Digbeth's rich cultural heritage could help to build better cities across the UK.
Have you ever passed a demolition site, or a wasteland where once there were buildings, and wondered how long it would be before whatever once stood there was lost from memory, and only recorded in some dark archive miles from view? What effect does this have on the area's future, and that of the people who use it?
A team of researchers from the University of Birmingham are piloting a project that hopes to address this issue, and they have chosen Digbeth as their guinea pig. The project, called Rescue Geography, started as an experiment to combine walked interviews around Birmingham's Eastside with GPS mapping, and has now sparked the interest of city councils and developers alike.
Click here to see the Rescue Geography image gallery.
The Floodgate Tavern
Rescue Geography works along similar lines to rescue architecture, where sites about to be redeveloped are scoured by experts for artifacts of historical importance. The results of one such endeavour can be seen in the Bullring, where various pieces of the area's history were unearthed before the first bricks of the new shopping centre were laid.
Why Rescue Geography?
Dr Phil Jones from the Department of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, who heads the project, explains.
"Essentially we're trying to 'rescue' local people's understandings of an area before it is redeveloped, just as rescue archaeologists go into an area to record archaeological traces which are threatened by new building.
The Anchor, Digbeth(detail): Dan Burwood
"We're hoping that the techniques we're working on will help planners and developers use local knowledge to inform regeneration activity in an area, and maybe elsewhere."
Residents of Digbeth, past and present, and other individuals linked to it through work or cultural connections, including Ladywood MP Clare Short, talked to interviewer Jane Ricketts Hein about 'their Digbeth', whilst walking around the district.
With the aid of a GPS mapping device, the routes of these walks down memory lane were synchronised with the corresponding maps, so that the stories told can literally be followed around Digbeth's historic streets.
The 34 interviews, which can be followed on the Rescue Geography website, revealed a wealth of anecdotes which may otherwise have gone unrecorded.
"Birmingham's last music hall building"
"Pinch a pig!"
For instance, the interview with an ex resident of the Italian Quarter, Joseph Mattiello MBE, revealed much about the integration between Digbeth's diverse communities. He explained that the St. Michael's Church in Albert Street- a traditional place of worship for the area's Italian congragation, was also known as the Polish and the Irish Church. Mattiello added, "I like it to be known as it is- a Catholic Church."
Mattiello also recalled that as kids, he and his friends would joke as livestock was driven past their houses from the rail link on its way to slaughter: "Come on, pinch a pig!"
The canal off Curzon Street provoked another memory: "I remember I was down one dinner time, swimming. I used to have a swim and then go back to school. This copper come down from that gate and I jumped out, run up that way, climbed up in Curzon Street and got dressed in the street.
"I had to go all the way round and I was late for school. Got the cane didn't I! In them days the canal was used quite a lot and it was more oily. It's quite clean now."
The Rescue Geography interview team carried out both walked interviews around Digbeth, and sat interviews in a room at the university, providing interviewees with a map of the area. On average, the walked interviews were much longer and more detailed, showing how evocative the area was, compared to a map, for those who knew it.
“Some of the graffiti work is superb"
Click here to see all of the Rescue Geography walked interviews.
It may not be obvious these days, but Digbeth marks the site where, in the 7th century, the Anglo Saxon Beorma founded the first human settlement that would later become the city of Birmingham. This is now marked by a sculpture and inscription easily missed by commuters zooming along Belgrave Middleway.
Centuries later, Digbeth formed the first industrial heart of Birmingham, after Henry Bradford donated land there to anyone wishing to set up a business. It soon became of national importance, as a centre of production and trade at the height of the Industrial Revolution, with rail and canal links to the rest of the country. This in turn led to an influx of workers, both British and foreign, who made up Digbeth's once vibrant population.
Busy daylight hours led to equally busy nights, and the city's Irish community have long regarded Digbeth as their spiritual home, which now plays host to the country's largest St. Patrick's Day Parade.
The canal system at Digbeth's heart
Drum and bass
The brick lined streets and dark warehouses of Digbeth also became a hotbed for electronic music, from rave to drum and bass, and cult clubs like The Sanctuary had their heyday in the area.
The importance of this part of town is multilayered, and that's something Rescue Geography is trying to capture, before it changes beyond recognition, as Birmingham City Council's Eastside Project continues.
Dr. Jones feels there is much to salvage from this area, even if it is not immediately obvious: "Digbeth's a really interesting place, and we knew that it was going to radically change, so we wanted to capture people's understanding of the area before it disappeared.
"It's unique in Birmingham, because it retains all of that 19th Century architecture, which for some reason didn't get obliterated in the 1950s and 60s.
Lots of different communities are hidden away there- the Polish community, the Italian Quarter that used to be over at Millennium Point, the Irish community, the Chinese community; historically it held the Jewish Quarter as well. You've got working communities too, so it's not just about the residents.
Lunchtime Workers(detail): Dan Burwood
"There are lots of little things tucked away that you don't really know about. It's an industrial area, not a glamorous consumerist part of town. We're used to the idea now of a consumption city, where everything should be on show, but industry doesn't really work like that."
For this reason, the process of uncovering Digbeth's 'voice' proved harder than one might imagine, as Dr. Jones explains:
"Digbeth Eastside is controversial because people think the area's deserted. The Council has made quite a lot of effort to do consultation, because they are required to. It'd be nice to say, "We're angry, the Council are evil!" but they're not, they're very frustrated because they want to do right by the area, and they're struggling to balance these different things."
Over time, urban landscapes change and grow, sometimes preserving the architecture of a previous age, sometimes wiping the slate clean and starting completely from scratch.
Both of these approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, and this is played out in various undertakings across the UK. In the 1960s, urban planners adopted the 'tabula rasa' approach- as Dr. Jones puts it, "knocking down what were seen as failed landscapes, and sacrificing salvageable buildings in the midst of a comprehensive redevelopment."
There were once air raid shelters here
Controversy and concrete cows
In other areas, new towns like Milton Keynes attempted to simulate in the space of a few years what older cities had slowly grown into over centuries, to accommodate population overspills, with controversial results- Milton Keynes is more synonymous now with concrete cows and labyrinthine housing estates than architectural excellence.
More recently, the Grainger Town Project in Newcastle has been widely praised for reinvigorating a depressed area, without compromising its character.
So how can the constant impetus for change in our cityscapes be married with much needed cultural and historical perspective and sensitivity?
This is where Rescue Geography hopes to come into its own. The pilot in Digbeth is going to plan, and will culminate in an exhibition on at MADE in Fazeley Street.
The Italianate Church
The exhibition, which opens to the public on October 27th, will showcase portraits of the interviewees, which were taken by the project's photographer, Dan Burwood, along with maps of the walked interviews, and photographs of Digbeth. Dan Burwood has an established reputation as a documentary photographer, and his work for Rescue Geography developed from long term preoccupations with the relationship between place and personality, identity and location.
For Dan, the project will be the culmination of several years of work around the question of how to ensure the newest layer of a place sustainably improves it for the people who will use it. He hopes to address this question through "integration of artistic, scientific and architectural approaches to place."
Click here to see the Rescue Geography image gallery.
Rescue Geography has already attracted the interest of other local councils planning redevelopment in historical areas, and the team is currently in "pretty advanced conversations" concerning upcoming building work in Kidderminster.
Dr. Jones hopes that what began as an idle staffroom conversation will develop into a valuable tool that urban planners can employ to find out about a place as it is seen through the eyes of those who use it, which will, in turn, lead to more sensitive approaches to urban regeneration.
Click here to visit the Rescue Geography website.
Click here to find out more about the Rescue Geography exhibition, which is being held on Monday October 27th at MADE in Fazeley Street.
last updated: 07/10/2008 at 15:14