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The Encroachment of Modernity




One of the first things I noted upon first visiting Birmingham, was how its architecture was a confusing, wonderful mixture of old and new all squished into what often feels even now like a very tiny space. Standing astride foundations that are sometimes one hundred years old, our great expanses of glass and steel monstrosities loom large against the skyline, dominating over our ancestors’ work, as we forge ahead in time. Whilst the homes and workshops of our ancestors are left to decay, we build new tracks, and plunge ahead, unbeknownst of the history we destroy as our desire for progress eats away at the stories of the brave men, women and even children who were the first to push Birmingham into the city we recognise it as today.


Walking around the jewellery quarter I expected to find a series of upmarket shops. Artisans. gourmet restaurants. Organic grocers. These were the atypical experiences I had had of places dedicated purely to a craft such as jewellery, however, when I arrived, I found instead only decay, and the sense of industry slowly falling into disrepair.


Though there were indeed many lovely jewellery shops to be seen, dripping in diamonds, sapphires and emeralds, the buildings were tired and dirty. The off-white cream of the paint peeled away from its crumbling brickwork, and within the cracks where water and time had eroded holes into the street’s façade, vines and weeds grew, neglected by their owners, and unseen by many passers-by. Cars whizzed by, their choking fumes clouding the blue sky, and people rushed past, their faces hidden inside their coats, wishing themselves away from this place, and away from the gaze of the world around them. This was not the jewellery quarter I had imagined.


Hidden deep behind the glitter of gold and silver, an emptying ghost town of factories, terraces and workshops awaited. As we wondered aimlessly through the back streets, we came to discover the true nature of this place- behind the glamour, there lay the truth- the jewellery quarter was falling behind. Buildings slowly were rotting to bits, and in places, builders dressed in neon coats, plucked away at the fading bricks of history. Aimlessly trying to restore what had been lost, the spines of the buildings spiked through, their metallic rust jarring with the warmth of the golden sun upon the umber of the aged bricks. In the air, motes of concrete and dust floated, perpetuated by the crunch of a digger, as it broke down the last wall, ready to make way for the continuation of a concrete jungle.


Behind, the skyline of Birmingham awaited, the rings of the library gleaming new in the early morning sun. As I investigated the doors of the building site, the maw of modernity gaped wide- a ravenous, roaming wolf, set upon one destination- the heritage of Birmingham.


We have forgotten where Birmingham began. From fields of arable land, there came the roar of industry, and as sheaves of corn were cut away, bricks and mortar became the norm. men, with sweat heavy upon their brows, bashed and clashed at metal and wood, the hiss of steam dampening their shirts, as they forged their niche into the edifice of time. We think we are moving forward but instead we are moving back. We seek to revive the old, yet we are willing to destroy the ancient, for the sake of a fresh beginning. If we are to learn from where we came, how can we, when the walls in which protected this people’s stories, are being broken and melted down, to make way for the encroachment of modernity?