This morning I awoke to a headline in the Birmingham Post’s daily bulletin “Restaurants being ‘pushed out’ of Birmingham city centre by big chains” and of course it was the first thing I read (before coffee, rarely a good idea). And I wondered if I was living in another Birmingham.
Whenever I head to Manchester, I jump off the train, swing a right and make a bee line for the Northern Quarter and all its fab little indie hot spots; I’ve been to Bristol several times and yet to find any shops, but I know several streets with some great eateries; but Birmingham, we’re a bit messier than that.
We don’t have a maze of streets, a Northern Quarter or such ilk. In fact, I saw a similar discussion unfold about the city’s creative sector and where our ‘Northern Quarter’ was, because good lord to we like to compare ourselves to Manchester. But even then I pointed out that we don’t have a quarter, we have Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter and Moseley and Kings Heath. We don’t have a quarter, because our independent scene is a lot more scattered than that.
As I see it, independent venues are usually risk takers, leaders if you will, doing something a little bit different in the city. And without the purse of a large chain behind them, they opt to go on the outskirts where rent is cheap. Take John Bright St for example. For nearly five years there was nothing worth visiting there except The Victoria. It took years before Brewdog (its indie qualities debatable), followed by Cherry Reds and now the chains – Turtle Bay, The Stable (51% shares of the company belong to Fuller’s brewery), easyhotel is looking to build, rumours of a pub chain too. And Moseley seems to be going the same way.
Independents lead the way, more often than not the chains follow.
And that must be incredibly frustrating for some; just as an area is beginning to get a reputation for being worth going to, those chains with buying power can use their reputation and wallets to beat the places that made it worth going to in the first place.
So are Birmingham’s independents being pushed out of the city centre? I’d argue it was never really their playground to start with. I’ve never considered Birmingham city centre to be a haven for independents, but then again neither have I Bristol nor Manchester.
And I’m not belittling the need for more centrally located independent venues, because I don’t want Birmingham to become a homogeneous version of every other city centre. But I also don’t expect to see Grand Central Birmingham awash with them either (that said the excellent Yaki Nori, a Birmingham independent, is in there). Rents in the city centre are high, of course they are, they’re prime locations and as city on the up it’s hard to see this stopping. And landlords want the safe bet of a national chain they know will pay. It’s massively frustrating as someone that wants to sit in an Andy Low ‘n’ Slow or The Meatshack venue, but can’t because they can’t find space.
And it’s not all doom and gloom: Original Patty Men have managed to find a great location tucked around the corner from the Bullring; Nomad are right by New Street Station; the Jewellery Quarter is awash with places; suburbs like Moseley, Kings Heath and Harborne have got some great indie eateries; and of course we can’t forget the likes of Sparkhill and Sparkbrook where the majority of the Balti Belt in indie. Hell, get an Independent Birmingham card, show there is an appetite for independent venues in the city.
Don’t be fatalistic; demand better, support what we’ve got, and don’t give up.