Birmingham (UK): Constructing and Contesting City Spaces
Rajinder Kumar Dudrah,
School of Social and Historical Studies,
University of Portsmouth,
The city has always been a point of research and discussion for sociological discourses generated by the debates with and around modernity, and more recently postmodernity. For instance, early modern social perspectives in theorising the city depict the shock and urgency of dealing with the growth and sprawl of urban cities with their numerous inhabitants (Booth 1889; Engels 1958: Park 1952). More recently, late modern studies of the city, addressing the cultural turn in the social sciences, have begun to analyse cities as plural in their formations whilst also consisting of a number of ongoing social inequalities (Westwood and Williams 1997; Jewson and McGregor 1997). These late modern studies also reveal the blurring of disciplinary boundaries brought to bear in the analysis of the city, namely those of sociology, cultural studies, and social geography, and can be seen to have initiated a revival of interest in studies of the city. For example the social sciences team at the Open University, have argued for more complex accounts of urban formations and their connections with local and global geographies (Allen et. al. 1999; Massey et. al. 1999). As the course team puts it in the preface to their publications:
In order to understand cities, we argue that it is necessary to rethink their geography ... It also involves using a geographical imagination to understand how cities are produced, on the one hand, in a context of social relations that stretch beyond the city, and on the other, by the intersection of social relations within the city. This argument has widespread implications for our understandings of cities ... for example, the ways in which cities bring people from different backgrounds into close proximity; how the juxtaposition of different people and activities in cities can change and alter social interactions; how these juxtapositions can result in, or result from, urban conflicts and tensions; how different parts of cities are connected to, or disconnected from, other cities; how people network within and between cities.
(Allen et. al. 1999:vii)
By opening up the discipline of Geography to cultural and social modes of inquiry a number of possibilities are presented in the studies of cities and some of the challenges they pose in our understandings of different human relations ranging from social conflict on the one hand to fluid social possibilities on the other.
This essay, located in cultural and sociological studies of the city, takes up issues of how dominant and conservative white versions of the city are produced and how they are challenged by the diversity of its Black(1) citizens. The article engages with Black popular cultures in the city of Birmingham (UK) as made sense of and used by its Black residents, and in particular by South Asian Brummies(2). It utilizes qualitative responses from 7 young South Asians unfolding their notions of belonging in Birmingham and in Britain, and the importance of Black popular cultures in their lives and in the city(3). Ward census data is also critically used to illustrate a sense of the actual numbers of Black settlement in the city.
Black Popular Culture and the Black Public Sphere
Dick Hebdige has defined a general sense of popular culture as incorporating ways of life, notions of creative meaning, questions of inequalities, commodification, and cultural texts and services available en masse: 'popular culture - e.g. a set of generally available artefacts: films, records, clothes, TV programmes, modes of transport etc.' (Hebdige 1988:47). By using the term ' Black popular culture' I also wish to invoke and unpack a similar sense of description as outlined by Hebdige but as used by Black people as a tool in the struggle towards definitions of belonging in contemporary urban Britain. In this respect, Black popular culture can be seen to develop a notion of the Black public sphere.
Scholarly work predominantly disseminated in the states has already initiated an introductory debate amongst international scholars and cultural practitioners as to what constitutes the Black public sphere and its importance for Black life in the West and its connections to global geographies (see Dent ed. 1992; Black Public Sphere Collective 1995). The Black public sphere is simply described as 'a critical social imaginary' which draws its energy from the vernacular practices of street talk, new musics, radio shows, church voices, entrepreneurship and circulation (Black Public Sphere Collective 1995:2-3). In contradistinction to bourgeois public spheres of earlier years (see Baker, Jr. 1995 for a critique of the work of the Frankfurt school and Jurgen Habermas) the Black public sphere entails a wider realm of critical practice and visionary politics in which intellectuals can join with the energies of the street, the school, the church, and the city to constitute a challenge to the exclusionary violence of much public space in the West.
The case of Birmingham is useful for making actual sense of the Black public sphere not only because it is Britain's second city in terms of geographical size, but also because of its large non-white populations who have struggled and re-made their lives and homes in the city. Birmingham as the second largest city in Britain, and with the country's largest non-white population outside of London, offers a wealth of empirical resources to begin to understand how different Black Britons are forging a distinct sense of the city in which the history of the great British nation is being challenged and renewed.
Birmingham: Two Versions of A Sense of Place
Having grown from a medieval market centre in the mid-12th century, and located in the heart of the British midlands, approximately 106 miles from the North-West of London, Birmingham serves a general population in excess of one million people. Nearly a quarter of that population is made up from non-white ethnic groups, originating from over 80 countries around the world but mostly from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean (Birmingham City Council 1996:1). The last Census carried out in 1991 shows the population of Great Britain to be nearly 54.9 million. Of these the non-white ethnic population is just over 3 million. Nearly half of this total is made up of people who classified themselves under the Asian (Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi) categories (Birmingham City Council 1996:6). Outside London, Birmingham is home to the largest number of people from non-white ethnic groups forming nearly 7 per cent of the national total of all non-white ethnic groups in Britain. In fact, walking through the city centre of Birmingham during the day, in any given week, one cannot but notice the diverse range of ethnicities (white ethnicities included too) that comprise the city's social fabric.
The city of Birmingham occupies a unique place in the imagination of its Black and white social groups, and throughout Britain more generally. Two distinct versions of Birmingham which are often conjured up in the popular imagination in relation to its Black residents are those of it as a major centre of Britain's race relations, and more recently since the late eighties as a multicultural city.
i) A Centre of Britain's Race Relations
In the first version areas of Birmingham have become synonymous with Black migration and settlement since the immediate post-war period and the city has often been cited in academic and popular media discourses as one of the main centres of Britain's race relations (see Foot 1965; Rex and Moore 1967; Rex and Tomlinson 1979; Solomos and Back 1995 for a discussion of the history and impact of post-war race relations in Birmingham). As Rex and Tomlinson in their study of Handsworth in the seventies put it:
Handsworth... is a symbol of areas of black, and particularly West Indian settlement in Birmingham and possibly of black immigrant settlement in Britain as a whole... Certainly one could say that outside of London, Handsworth is one of Britain's race relations capitals.
(Rex and Tomlinson 1979:70)
The race relations problematic was often about dealing with the arrival of immigrant groups into Britain in terms of the perceived threat posed by Black people in particular by sections of the white populace, and the transformation of metropolitan localities through social conflict and urban unrest. At its best the race relations problematic was able to illustrate the racism suffered by Black people in terms of access to employment, housing, and the welfare state. At its worst race relations paid little or no attention to the agency of Black people in countering racial discrimination thereby constrcucting a notion of the passive victim, and also enforced racial stereotypes of different Black groups. As the following quote from Rex and Tomlinson reveals:
But there are also crucial differences. If the West Indian is plagued by self-doubt induced by white education, and seeks a culture which will give him a sense of identity, the Asians have religions and cultures and languages of which they are proud and which may prove surprisingly adaptive and suited to the demands of a modern industrial society.
(Rex and Tomlinson 1979:237)
By focusing on the supposed problems of Black people entering Britain in the post-war period the race relations problematic also implied an unquestioned idea of Britain as a white nation. However, the factual presence of Black Britons and their successive generations challenges and reformulates the suggestion of Britain as a white nation.
For instance the Black presence in urban centres was not just as a consequence of the often cited post-war migration, but also as a result of the uncharted histories of pre-war migration as well (Fryer 1984: Visram 1986). As a case in point, a recent publication produced by Birmingham Central Library reveals that Black people have been living in Birmingham since at least the eighteenth century. Drawing on primary references held in the city archives and the local studies and history section of the library the pre-war histories of Black people in the city begin to surface. For instance the Church of England Parish records include entries of the burial of Black people dated from February 1774 and onwards (Birmingham City Archives 1998:1). However, the pamphlet goes onto reveal that even with the mass arrival of Black communities in the post-war period 'archival sources for the history of black people in the city are ... neither abundant nor easy to find' (ibid). Interestingly, there is no comprehensive secondary work on the history of Birmingham's Black communities. Furthermore, searching the city's archives one finds that there is a lack of records of the migration of Black people to Birmingham which have been produced by Black communities themselves.
Placing immigration in a much wider context also helps us to rethink the idea of Britain as a predominantly "white nation". In this respect, it is interesting to note that since the beginning of recorded time in the West (i.e. before AD), Britain was constituted as a result of the immigration of peoples from the Mediterranean and the Near East, followed by the Celts, the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians all during the first millennium (Commission For Racial Equality 1997:1-7). This was followed by the immigration of Irish and Jewish people at the start of the nineteenth century (Solomos 1989:41-44; Anwar 1996:3-4). Focusing on a historiography which illustrates migration from the very beginning of Britain's history suggests that everyone who lives in Britain is probably an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant
ii) A Multicultural City
The second version includes Birmingham as a celebration of a post-industrial city with a functional multi-racial and multi-cultural component which can be readily packaged for consumption. Such instances can be found in glossy city council brochures which set out to celebrate diversity through a populist reading of the city. They can be seen as being part of new place-marketing initiatives to sell Birmingham nationally and internationally to the service sectors, visitors, and local consumers as a response to the decline in the industrial and manufacturing regions. At the forefront of place-marketing initiatives are city planners and thinkers who are competing for capital at a transnational level. Birmingham in particular has been signaled as 'Europe's Meeting Place' to stake its claim in the new global economic order (McGuinness 1996; Hinchcliffe 1998). By way of example consider the following account by Dr. Carl Chinn - Brummie historian, radio show host, community journalist, and local personality - who in a retrospective 1950s anniversary of Birmingham describes the cultural activities of different British ethnic communities in the city:
Take a walk down the Ladypool Road, the Soho Road, the Alum Rock Road and use your senses. Hear the medley of languages and accents which compete for attention: the broad, brash cries of English butchers; the gentle urgings of Sikh and Hindu traders; the rapidly-spoken patois of Jamaicans; the soft speech of folk from the West of Ireland; the flatter tones of Dubliners; and the lilt of the Welsh from the valleys.
Taste food from across the world: the strong curries and succulent tandooris of Bangladeshi restaurateurs; the tantalizing doner kebabs of Greek Cypriot fish and chip shop owners; the subtle, spicy attractions of Kashmiri and Punjabi Baltis; and the beckoning variety of dishes offered by cooks from Hong Kong.
Smell the pot-pouri of aromas from Europe, South Asia, the Caribbean and East Asia. Look at the multitude of colours which reflect the diversity of Brummies: the red, green and yellow of Rastafarians; the vivid, rich purples and pinks of glowing saris; the green which betoken both Irish pubs and Pakistani taxi drivers; and the stark, imposing black coats and hats of Hassidim Jews.
In a way that few other towns and cities in Britain are or can be, Birmingham is a multi-cultural city.
(Chinn 1996: 12)
Clearly, Chinn's account can be read in a number of ways. Most predominantly reading at the level of a "sincere" attempt to describe a multicultural city with its varied bricolage is possible. However, what sustains the "multiculturalness" of the account on first reading is the explicit manipulation of local knowledge by way of common sense stereotyping of different people by a local white reporter. Contrasted are the 'languages and accents' of people with different ethnic origins for the examination of white English audiences. Moreover, the account with its white middle-class English overtones - its invitation to take a walk through the innercity and sample different flavours of the world, and where the white English working classes are romanticized to 'the broad, brash cries of English butchers' - illustrates a language of city tourism attempting to make safe zones of the innercity in the white middle-class imaginary. The representations evoked through the specific description of the languages and accents are those associated with consumption and service for the white English, whereby the "multiculturalness" of Birmingham becomes safe through a limited production of common sense knowledge. For example, the importance of the medley of languages and accents for each of the "ethnic" communities is invisible and therefore incomprehensible. The cultural reductionism offered of Birmingham's diversity highlights the problems of Chinn's account which purports to be multicultural, but at its very best simplifies in its ignorance and at worst plays on neo-colonial constructions of race and ethnicity. As Cross and Keith point out:
Ethnicity is acceptable, or even celebrated, in the collage of the exotic cultural pick-and-mix, while race remains a taboo vestige of colonial and neocolonial exploitation which was, and is, anything but playful. But like all taboos, it remains ever present, even in the systematic silences and exclusions. What appears at first glance to be missing, the centrality of race to the configuration of the postmodern city, turns out on closer inspection not to be missing at all, only unspoken.
(Cross and Keith 1993:8)
Ethnicity as commodity fetish insidiously masks overt references to race and belonging, and notions of space in the city become marked out through palatable differences for white consumers. Black areas of settlement in the inner cities become fashionable (balti quarters, saree shops, exotic sweet centres, African and Caribbean bakeries, bindi and bangle stalls...), and at the same time continually ghettoised as Britain's underbelly where the ills of racialized urban living continue to flourish. In versions of the city as cited above, multiculturalism is conceived, at best, as a display of "other" cultures and artifacts on the periphery of white British culture and not as a serious politics of dialogue and engagement with diversity and difference (Hesse 1993 and 1999; Modood and Werbner 1997).
The two versions of Birmingham, then, certainly depict a multi-ethnic city but in which its Black and other minority groups are, at best, ambiguously placed as bonafide citizens. A refocusing of attention which begins to take into account the settlement of Black groups in the city by and for themselves, rather than exclusively on behalf of them, might assist us in our drawing of contemporary geographies of the city and their attendant understandings of notions of place, belonging, and the remaking of late modern day Britain. The following sections attempt such a venture through contemporary examples of exclusion and belonging in the cityscapes of Birmingham.
Black Settlement in Inner Areas of Birmingham
Birmingham's sense of place as made and re-made by and for its Black residents was recognised as an important constituent in terms of defining the city as a place of belonging for my respondents. The inner areas of the city with their predominant number of Black people were particularly described through a discourse of familiarity which respondents could call their own. Babs and Kully unfold how the inner city as a place of residence is invested with meaning for them:
RK: What about Birmingham as a city, is it important to you in terms of South Asians living here?
RK: In what ways?
Babs: Because you feel you fit in, because there's other people like you that live here.
Kully: Your families are here.
Babs: Yeah. And if you went out somewhere like I don't know where there's all white people you wouldn't really feel as though you could walk down the street and feel at home. Like whereas in Birmingham there's about twenty odd other people like you walking around at the same time.
Kully: There's like quite a lot of Asians here so it's like a safe environment ain't it? It's like one big family.
RK: So do you think Asians and other black groups have made Birmingham for themselves?
In contrast to race relations versions of Birmingham which blamed the presence of large number of Black people for the ills of social decay my respondents drew comfort from the fact that a quarter of the city's population was comprised of Black people. The settlement of different Black communities in the city has meant there exists a visible notion of "safety in numbers" which allowed my respondents to feel at ease and a sense of belonging in the cityscape. This is particularly the case in the inner wards of the city where post-war Black migrants settled and made their invaluable contributions as workers most notably in the manufacturing sectors, the public transport services, and in the National Health Service.
Much of the following information is a summary of data made available on 'ethnic origin' in the 1991 Census specific to the city of Birmingham (Birmingham City Council 1996)(4). The National Census which has been carried out every ten years since its inception in 1801 documents important demographic information of the British population. However, not until 1991 was the question of ethnic origin to define one's ethnicity introduced in the Census(5) and as a result it reveals important information on Black settlement in Birmingham which provides for an opportunity to think through cultural and social formations of the city according to Ward constituencies. By outlining Ward level data one is able to grasp a sense of dwelling and the social group make-up of particular districts. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that the illustration which emerges is one of an overview and is unable to capture the differences between, and idiosyncrasies of, particular and localised areas of residence within Ward constituencies. The social dynamics of which can often be ascertained at the level of specific streets as I shall show later.
In terms of South Asian settlement within Birmingham there are nearly twice as many South Asians as African and Caribbean groups and the Pakistanis form the largest single ethnic group in Birmingham (Birmingham City Council ibid:13)(6). Interestingly, South Asian settlement immediately outside of Birmingham and as part of the wider West Midlands county conurbation (made up of the 7 districts of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, and Wolverhampton) illustrates the spatial concentration of South Asians in the following districts: The number of Indians amongst the total population was the highest in Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Coventry. In contrast, the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are most strongly represented in Birmingham (Birmingham City Council ibid:10). These areas of settlement became prominent for South Asians since the postwar period in terms of their manufacturing and industrial histories, and also later in the seventies and eighties as some sections of South Asians were able to afford, and chose, to move outwards away from the inner cities of these districts, thereby expanding the areas of settlement.
The spatial concentration of South Asians settled in and around traditional industrial regions of the West Midlands is also represented at the local level within Birmingham. Over half of Birmingham's non-white ethnic minority population is to be found in 7 of the city's 39 Wards. These are Handsworth, Soho, Sparkbrook, Sparkhill, Small Heath, Sandwell, and Aston. These seven wards have more than 50 percent of their population made up of people from South Asian, African, Caribbean and other non-white ethnic groups. Nearly half of the African and Caribbean population lives in 6 Wards - Handsworth, Soho, Aston, Ladywood, Sandwell and, Sparkbrook, while just over 70 percent of South Asians live in 8 Wards - Aston, Handsworth, Sandwell, Small Heath, Soho, Sparkbrook, Sparkhill and Washwood Heath.
Focusing further, the 1991 Census reveals that Indians have their highest concentrations in Sandwell, Soho and Handsworth. In contrast, although there are large numbers of Pakistanis in Handsworth, the Pakistani group is more heavily concentrated in Small Heath, Sparkbrook, Sparkhill and Nechells. The highest proportion of Bangladeshis is in Aston and Sparkbrook (Birmingham City Council ibid:13-20).
Drawing on Ward information in Birmingham it is possible to imagine the visible presence Black groups have in the city. Visibility of numerous Black people enables my respondents to call central areas of Birmingham their "home" made over years of settlement incorporating struggle and negotiation with white Britain. A sense of familiarity is achieved in the inner city due to the arrival of Black migrant labourers, the sending for, and establishing of families, the building of communities and public spheres and more contemporarily with the emergence of second and third generation Black Britons.
However, being able to claim a sense of place and feeling 'safe' on one's own terms in the inner city was always in relation to a wider understanding of how inner city spaces were constantly being constructed through white discourses, which included state structures. As Manjit recalls from two of his experiences of living in the inner city. One in his encounter with a white driver passing through an inner area of the city, and the other with policing in his area of residence:
Manjit: Areas like where we live, the ghetto [he laughs], are thought of as scary places, and that the people who live there must be bad and dangerous too.
RK: Who thinks this?
Manjit: White folk, the media, even people who've moved out. Like just a while back I was waiting to cross at the traffic lights and this white man in his car who had to let me pass started to wind up his window and look at me as if I was going to try and jack him.
RK: For the tape [we both laugh], what do you mean by "jack him"?
Manjit: You know steal his car from him or something ... And just a while back [winter 1998] two women, both Asian, had argued over something and apparently one pushed or slapped the other. The police were called and the woman who was slapped wanted to press charges. Everyone in the street knew that it was pointless as the two women knew each other from time and they would be friends again like nothing happened, but three police cars turned up, all men, and all white. There were no women officers. This one copper started to forcefully push the Asian woman into the car to take her to the station because she refused the other woman's allegations. He was over six feet tall and the woman was much smaller. When people found out what was happening they started to come out of their houses and began to protest at the police handling of the situation. Within minutes another two cars turned up and a riot van starts patrolling the street until things calmed down.
RK: What did you do about it afterwards?
Manjit: Oh we all complained, spoke to the councillors who were very polite and apologetic, but it just makes you mad. The police think they can just come in and run riot in your backyard, on your own doorstep, when you've done nothing wrong and they treat you how they want.
Two instances of white urban governance are revealed. The first takes the form of constructed knowledges about the inner city as no-go areas in the white imagination. These work symbolically and insidiously to construct Black people as pollutants of urban spaces even when white people are residents of the same areas (on the inner city as discourse see Fraser 1996; Cohen 1997; Farrar 1997. See Nayak 1993 for further examples of racist discourses in inner Birmingham).
In the second and more overt example the brutality of policing in inner city areas is uncovered. The treatment of the Asian woman mentioned in Manjit's recollection is just one example of the abuse suffered by Black people at the hands of the police in large cities such as Birmingham (see Bhattacharyya 1998:14-25 for an account of police brutality towards Black men). Interestingly, recent reports of the criminal justice system in Britain have illustrated that police stop and search figures show five times more Black people than whites being stopped, and Black people who offend are more likely to end up in prison than comparable white offenders ('One in 4 say Police Racist', The Guardian, 9/2/99:1).
The unemployment rates of Birmingham as revealed in the 1991 Census are also telling as an indicator of the ongoing social inequalities in the city. The visible presence of Black ethnic minorities who collectively form the largest social groups in the inner city is a source of strength but the material realities of these groups depicts another more alarming picture. For instance, according to the Census the average unemployment rate for the city as a whole is 14.3%. The unemployment rates for white men and women is 14.9% and 8.2% respectively. In contrast, unemployment amongst African, Caribbean and South Asian men is nearly double the rate for white men. Unemployment amongst African, Caribbean, and Chinese women is almost twice, and among South Asian women more than thrice the rate for white women. The highest rates of unemployment are amongst the Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, with the women of each of these groups as over represented in unemployment figures (see Birmingham City Council 1996:25-29).
Rather than simply promote the city as a celebration of "mutliculturalism at work" such accounts as offered by my respondents and unemployment figures reveal the articulation of hope and struggle as part of the daily momentum of inner city life.
Outer City Areas: The Suburbs
Whereas the inner city was a place of belonging created over years of settlement and continual struggle, outer city areas or the suburbs with their populations constituted predominantly by white ethnic groups were cited as a more ambiguous place of belonging for my respondents. Jatinder lives in Great Barr, a predominantly white suburb in the north of the city. His experiences of racism in this suburb illustrate a disturbing picture:
RK: What about where you live Jatinder, Great Barr, what are your experiences of living there?
Jatinder: Pure racism there. It's almost like you got the Klu Klux Klan there. You got some dodgy white groups that are situated just locally in the area. When we moved up there I got into a fight because of racism. I ain't comfortable there.
RK: What kinds of racism do you mean?
Jatinder: Name calling, the way you're looked at, racist graffiti, to outright confrontation.
RK: Is that like an everyday occurrence the racism you face where you live?
Jatinder: Yeah almost.
Evidently, direct forms of racism have not gone away and indirect racism is rife. Even in Birmingham, a city often celebrated for its multi-racial population, Jatinder describes the existence of extreme right-wing groups who although may be less visible in terms of their overt presence in the seventies and eighties continue to act as unofficial guardians of constructed white territories, and hence the nation. Black people are still seen as "invaders" of this space. The conversation between Kully, Babs and Jatinder goes onto reveal a spatial sense of inclusion within the inner city and a sense of distance and exclusion in the outer suburbs:
RK: [To Babs and Kully] What areas do you two live in?
RK: Would you say that it was different to the way Jatinder has described where he lives?
Kully: Yeah it's different. Quite a lot of Asians and blacks.
Jatinder: I am from Handsworth originally, so there's a big difference between Handsworth and Great Barr. My parents saved up and moved out there [to Great Barr] for a more peaceful place to live, thinking it'd be better for us to grow up there. But it isn't like that. A bit of a shock really.
All three respondents recognised the inner city as a place they could reclaim as their own. White outer city areas proved to be part of the established white order of things where notions of "the good life" were not guaranteed for its Black residents. Different localities, then, are articulated in the processes of racist exclusion and the struggles towards belonging in the local, regional, and national identities of Britain. In racist constructions of space and territory attempts are made to ostracize non-white "others" and close off residential areas as a white preserve. Contemporary spatial forms in the city testify the configuration of space in racial terms laced with colonial and neo-colonial ideas of nation. In other words, notions of race and ethnicity intertwine with myths of territory, neighbourhood, locality and identity to produce mythologies about the role of spatially defined "others". As David Theo Goldberg sums up:
Racisms become institutionally normalised in and through spatial configuration, just as social space is made to seem natural, a given, by being conceived and defined in racial terms.
(Goldberg 1993: 185)
However, the very presence and settlement of Black "selves" argues for a re-imagination of race and space which dispels any claims to exclusivity. The ongoing contestation around a sense of belonging and presence in the urban city has been asserted through a variety of means incorporating numerous cultural, economic, political, and social trials. In particular the audio and visual presence of Black popular cultures in the city has been a sign of the staying power of ethnic minorities who have become the cultural majorities most notably in the inner cities.
The following section takes up the articulation of South Asian popular culture in particular as it is interwoven into the fabric of the inner city and how it manifests a sense of belonging and presence in the city for my respondents.
Popular Cultures in the City
The ward constituency profiles cited earlier in the chapter gives us a sense of the general presence of Black people in the city and an idea of the concomitant areas of residencies they might entail. Indeed each of the 7 prominent wards of Black settlement in Birmingham (Aston, Handsworth, Soho, Sparkbrook, Sparkhill, Small Heath, and Sandwell) can be described through similar, though not identical, patterns and rhythms. For example, each ward can be seen to be comprised of areas which incorporate different places of worship (gurudwaras, mosques, mandirs, temples, and black and Asian churches), food and clothes shops, restaurants, arts and crafts outlets, barber shops, audio and video outlets, travel agencies, overseas banks, solicitors, insurers, jewelers, community organisations and so forth.
Each ward is also produced through similar urban sounds, styles, aromas, and a closeness of activity. This includes: a range of eclectic music which vyes for your attention from the sound systems in cars of predominantly young South Asian, African and Caribbean men: music also plays loud from the Asian record and video stores: there is a movement of different people out and about on the main shopping streets buying their general groceries ranging from corn flakes to fresh spices and vegetables from around the world: the shopping areas are especially busy on a Friday afternoon and during Saturday as people are generally off from work preparing for their weekend, and also as people from neighbouring towns are in the area visiting: the latest Asian dress materials and jewelry are on display in the windows: aromas of Caribbean bakers and Asian sweet shops is brought to the senses: people often stop to greet each other in a number of ways - 'Kiddha, Whagwaan, Sat Sri Akal, Asailaam Wale Ghum, Hello' - and to catch up on local gossip, "news from back home", and also to reminisce about the British weather.
Stopping short of offering a list akin to that of Carl Chinn cited earlier in the essay, it is important to elaborate how such signs and activities might fit into the lives of its people and how they are invested with meaning. For example, such symbols mark out the inner city as a haven for everyday Black British life and cultural production internally amongst different social groups that inhabit the city and against racist and conservative projections from the outside. It is the predominance of the activity of Black public life in central areas of Birmingham that invest the inner city with a substantial Black geography. A geography that has been historically formulated, most notably since the post-war period, and is constantly renewed in the contemporary present. The range of cultural institutions and the daily momentum of popular cultures in the city operate to perform what Paul Gilroy has called an 'alternative public sphere' (1987:223) incorporating definitions of social constituency and the resources to mobilise cultural and political action. An enriched public sphere with access to resources can go some way towards the well being of its residents in terms of how they are able to partake, and invest meaning, in their areas of dwelling.
It is also important to stress that the "comings and goings" of urban Black city life can, and often do, vary considerably from area to area, and at different times throughout the year. Paying attention to the micro level of street geography in the inner city can be telling in this respect, as often Black public life is generated through the unique formations of particular areas which can be seen most vividly from the idiosyncrasies of particular streets. In this vein Michael Keith theorises the street as revealing a number of sites of urban social relations:
The street is both a state of consciousness and a locus of meaning, a way of thinking about the world and a semiotic source of dramaturgical keys and cues. As such it is an exemplary case of the sites of the urban, a particularly powerful illustration of the manner in which a vocabulary of the city renders the social visible.
The street, then, can illuminate social specificities whilst also contributing to an overall picture of common experiences shared between different localities and areas. However, it is important to recognise that Black areas of settlement are not homogenous by any means wherever they may be located. For example, in Birmingham, Soho Road in Handsworth boasts the largest Sikh gurudwara in continental Europe, and Sparkhill is home to the Birmingham Central Mosque on the Belgrave Road. Both buildings with their large marbled domes have become prominent features of the city skyline. Obviously at times of different religious occasions such as Vaisakhi and Eid respectively, each of these areas will be prone to festivities and activity which will adorn the rhythms of these streets and areas in unique ways. Whilst the air of celebration may be similar in essence there are notable differences. The set call to prayer of five times a day for the Muslims, and the more continuous flow of visits to the gurudwara will accentuate the patterns of people and traffic accordingly. The mosque will be attended predominantly by men, and the gurudwara will see both genders attending throughout the day. The surrounding restaurants, grocery stores, and Asian sweet shops will be visited in abundance in both areas. Interestingly, during the religious festivals notions of Western time and capitalist modes of function are momentarily suspended as contemplation is encouraged of temporal time and space through peoples personal visits to, and collective instances of prayer in, the places of worship.
In the evenings on both religious festivals the streets in Handsworth and Sparkhill and surrounding areas become further alive with the sounds of music from cars, horns blowing, and flags flying of South Asian countries as young men group together and drive up and down the main high streets of these areas, "cruising around". On Vaisakhi the flags of India and symbols from Sikhism predominate, and on Eid the flag of Pakistan and Arabic verses from the Quaran are mostly embellished. Cruising consists of state of the art heavy bassed in-car entertainment systems, kitted up in gleaming cars, where "boys and toys" are unleashed playing the latest sounds and classic tunes, fashioning their masculinities by exhibiting urban street styles through their dress sense and attitude, and displaying affiliations to their countries of origin. A reclaiming of urban spaces occurs through the act of driving and an unfolding of masculinities takes place which shout out against racist discourses of the inner city, including some of the derisory practices of police stop and search procedures, and the popular perception of Asians as passive. Also in the act of cruising, boys will be watching girls, and girls will be watching boys, as well as the possibilities for gazes to be exchanged beyond the confines of normative heterosexuality(7).
The aforementioned list of examples, then, gives one a sense of the close proximity of different Black popular cultures in the city illustrating at once a sense of similarity to Black public life in general, and also some of the social and cultural specificities which make different areas in Birmingham unique. The co-existence of both the general and particular cues and signs of Black Britain tell a number of stories about the residents and their areas of dwelling.
The Popular Cultures of South Asian Brummies in the British Asian Diaspora
My respondents further described aspects of South Asian popular culture as they are entwined with the motions and meanings of the inner city areas of Birmingham for them. Nahid and Madhuri, two undergraduate female students in their early twenties who have been living in central areas of Birmingham over the past two years, observed:
RK: You both come from Bradford and have been living in Birmingham for the past two and a half years, do you think Birmingham is a special place for Asians?
Nahid: Yeah. It's got more to offer Asians. You've got your Asian cinemas which you haven't got as much as in Bradford. If they do put an Indian film on it'll be at the Pictureville [in Bradford] which is run by white people, and then you got a lot more Asian restaurants in Birmingham.
Madhuri: You've got certain areas which are mostly Asian over here.
Nahid: Yeah, it makes you feel like you're in Pakistan. You've got your clothes shops, and the Asian shops are set out like they are in Pakistan and abroad. You've got a place where you can sit down and open your cloth or whatever and can show it to the customers which is really good, and it certainly appeals to me. In Bradford you got restaurants scattered here and there and not really together in places like in Birmingham. It's not as welcoming as it is here.
Nahid: Also my dad took us down Southall and that was just brilliant. They've got music really loud on the street. [Excitedly] It's like, where have I come?!
RK: Why do you think that's important for Asians, places like Southall and areas of Birmingham in the way you just described it?
Nahid: It's for their identity I think. It just makes them feel as if they are at home, and back home in India and Pakistan.
A number of ideas can be pulled out from the above conversation which enables one to think about re-inventions of Britain and British identities from inside its urban centres. First is the idea of the range of goods and services which are readily available for, commodified, and operated by, South Asians. Within central areas of Birmingham the greater choice of different retail outlets and leisure pursuits such as Asian cinemas marks out Birmingham as distinct to other provincial cities with comparable South Asian settlements.
Second, a spatial "feel" for South Asian Birmingham is signalled which is invoked through the numerous shops, businesses and services collated together in close proximity. As outlined by Nahid, the clothes shops in particular are marked through a personal style of service which is derivative of local and global retail and consumer practices transported from South Asia and across the routes of its diaspora. This consists of the way shops are laid out which cater for its consumers in culturally nuanced ways. South Asian clothes shops are also renowned for their quality loose materials, ready-made imported garments, and fashion accessories at some of the lowest prices in the country. The prices are often prone to further reduction through seasonal sales, such as at Vaisakhi and Eid, as well as in the national New Year sales, and through the skillful bartering by mainly female customers. Nahid's shopping trip for dress material in the city is made more complete in relation to the other services on offer, all within a walking distance from each other. The audible sounds of the latest Bollywood(8) movies or Bhangra tracks playing from the shops and out onto the street announce a presence and create an ambience to the shopping experience. In this way "South Asian presence" is not only visible but can also be heard allowing my respondents to announce their sense of space and to fashion their cultural identities in the context of geographical spaces in Britain with values, attributes, and consumer durables from across South Asia and other parts of the world.
Thirdly, the citing of Birmingham alongside other centres of South Asian settlement, namely Bradford and Southall(9), invokes a mental sketch of Britain which illustrates a webbed connection of the British South Asian diaspora up and down the country. This is a sketch that can be characterised as woven from the ongoing making and remaking of identities invested with meanings of "home" straddling the different parts of British South Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. An ongoing oscillation takes place between the different sites of these connections. The oscillations become important in terms of defining notions of belonging in Britain and in terms of attachments to elsewhere across the routes of diaspora. The oscillations are imagined as they take shape through perceptions about the different geographies of settlement, but they are also actual occurring through personal visits made to different parts of the country. The actual oscillation within the British South Asian diaspora reveals the movement of people through competitive cultural economies which have become distinguishing features of Black areas of settlement. For instance, Soho Road in Handsworth is home to a number of express coach companies run by South Asian entrepreneurs which run daily services between regional areas of British South Asian settlement. In the case of Bharat Coaches, one of these transport companies, its vehicles now occupy the former Flight Link coaches' depot. From here, coaches leave daily for Wolverhampton, Coventry, Slough, and Southall; and to Gravesend in England's south-east. A mixture of people, mostly South Asian, can be seen queuing up to get on their bus, or waiting to receive friends and family at the coach station. The fares on these coaches are amongst the most competitive in the country, and Bollywood movies and songs are played along the journeys for the entertainment of the passengers. The Bharat Coach company like other commercial and community services in Handsworth illustrates the remaking of areas of settlement by Black Britons, taking off where white Britons left.
For my respondents, then, Birmingham is cited and made sense of through its distinctiveness, and relationship, with other centres of South Asian migration. The geographies of Birmingham, Bradford, Southall, have each been made, and continue to be made, after years of urban struggle (see for instance Samad 1997 on Bradford; and Baumann 1996 on Southall). They are important centres of South Asian and other Black public life which incorporate similar cultural resources but which are offered in the context of different trajectories of location, settlement, and Black civic histories allowing each to have a unique identity of its own. As Madhuri and Nahid describe Birmingham and Bradford:
Madhuri: Birmingham is a special place. There's some differences between Bradford and Birmingham, especially in terms of the different people living there. Bradford is probably known more for the Pakistanis living there.
Nahid: Yeah. My cousins and I are always joking to each other that parts of Bradford is like a mini version of Pakistan.
Summary and Some Cautionary Notes
Paying attention to Black popular cultures and the Black public sphere in inner areas of Birmingham helps to illustrate a picture of a thriving and vibrant cultural scene in which Black identities and fluid social possibilities can occur. Black popular culture, in particular, is part and parcel of the everyday citizenry and renewal of Black life in Birmingham.
However, as outlined at the outset of this paper, popular culture consists of inequalities as well as creative meanings. One must avoid a "celebration" of the makings and remakings of cultural forms and identities without reflection on the unequal processes that impinge upon their formations. In this vein it is important to note the precarious nature of some of the businesses and services which are in danger of being reduced in numbers through closure. In the case of services rendered by small South Asian businesses, most notably Indian restaurants and corner shops, it is important not to over stress the entrepreneurial spirit of their operation without paying attention to the long working hours of its owners and employees, short profit margins, intense competition between similar businesses and from upmarket restaurants and larger stores, and a tendency by second and third generation British Asians not to enter into these areas of self-employment (Metcalf et.al; 1996). Such factors have been cited as responsible for the demise of small Asian businesses in Britain, and in the case of Indian restaurants these are said to be closing down at an estimated rate of three a week ('Curry in Crisis', India Today, 21/6/99:24h). Calls have been made by a number of academic studies and by sections of Black businesses (see Ram et. al; forthcoming) for the need to develop strategies to lobby for governmental grants and support to assist with business development and training if small businesses are to remain a prominent feature of the Black public sphere. Such services not only mark out a cultural presence but are also the life line of the economies in Black areas of residence(10).
My respondents also recognised the importance of Black public life in areas of Birmingham as contributing to an engagement with everyday meanings of the city for them, whilst avoiding an uncritical air of celebration:
RK: Do you think there's more for Asians to do in areas of Birmingham?
Reshmo: Yeah. In certain places definitely. Like Soho Road is one of the main roads where people can get together and do shopping and things. But not everyone wants to shop on Soho Road to be honest. I think that for some people it's okay but not for all. Like there's Alum Rock Road where people can go as well but if you think about it beside these areas there's not much really. But Birmingham is special for me.
Paying attention to Black areas of settlement in large cities such as Birmingham reveals not only disturbing accounts of exclusion and discrimination experienced by Black people but also the formation of alternative public spheres of life and resistance. By drawing on South Asian and other Black popular cultural formations in Birmingham it is possible to offer a version of the city in which dominant constructions of white urban spaces are continually contested and renewed by its Black residents arguing for multiple definitions of social constituency and belonging. Popular cultures in the city act as an important cue into the lives of its numerous residents illustrating how different people use and move through the city.
(1)The use of the term 'Black' throughout this essay refers to the anti-racist category that represents the common experiences of colonialism and contemporary racism for African, Caribbean, and South Asian communities in Britain. However, the article also recognises the debates that have occurred in contemporary Black British political identities. For instance, some academic commentators have called for the assertion of the political term Asian over Black (see Modood 1988; 1994). The debate engendered by such commentators entails whether it is feasible to categorize people of South Asian and African and Caribbean descent within an inclusive Black definition due to the complexities in geographical, cultural, and social affiliations. Others have commented that it is by no means clear that people who are designated Black by political activists and academics consider themselves in these politicized frames of reference (Mercer 1994:Chapter 4). Thus, whilst acknowledging the shifts that have occurred of late in debates over Black Britishness, this paper contends the importance for a continual of Black political identities as opened up by new forms of identification, arguing for simultaneous and multifaceted positions which are Asian, Black, and British in the cultural and political fields. Rather than simply replace British Asian over Black British struggles, in an easy culturalist and ethnic absolutist sense, it is argued that the struggles of different non-white people in staking a claim of belonging and advancement in Britain are far from exclusive: often they are one and of the same. Throughout this essay, then, the use of the term 'Black' (with a capital B) connotes a political colour of resistance. The terms 'black', 'Asian/South Asian' are used to connote specificities in terms of ethnic origin, region, and cultural practices, and are illustrated throughout the paper.
(2) Brummie - the moniker affectionately given to residents of Birmingham.
(3) Extended interviews were conducted as part of a larger doctoral thesis research entitled 'British South Asian Identities and the Popular Cultures of British Bhangra Music, Bollywood Films, and Zee TV in Birmingham', Dept. of Cultural Studies and Sociology, School of Social Sciences, University of Birmingham. In total twenty-three extended interviews were conducted with 14 - 26 year old British South Asians for this thesis. Interviews were conducted after the use of an initial questionnaire survey which was used in a conscious attempt to identify respondents who wished to be interviewed further. Methods such as qualitative extended interviews are useful in the uncovering of marginalised voices. This proved especially helpful in the case of the thesis where meanings of popular cultures were sought after.
The seven interviews used in this essay were conducted during December 1997 and February 1998. The respondents, under pseudonyms of their own choice, are:
Babs - 17 years old, female, A-levels student.
Madhuri - 21, female, undergraduate student.
Jatinder - 19, male, A-Levels student.
Kully - 20, male, BTECH student.
Manjit - 22, male, bank clerk.
Reshmo - 17, female, A-levels student.
Nahid - 21, female, undergraduate student.
(4) It has been some nine years since the completion of the 1991 Census and clearly fluctuations of ethnic populations and settlement should be borne in mind. See Anwar (1996) for an example of estimated projections made in relation to the growth of the British Pakistani community into the year 2000.
(5) The question of ethnic group was one of a number of new questions included in the 1991 Census after consultation and responses to the earlier Census Test carried out by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys.
(6) The 1991 Census reveals that the total number of South Asians in Birmingham was 129,899. The total number of African and Caribbeans was 56,376.
(7) I am alluding here to the social formation of sexualities in urban spaces, unfortunately beyond the remit of this essay.
(8) Bollywood - the moniker given to India's popular Hindi cinema.
(9) Bradford is a provincial city in the north of England, part of the West Yorkshire county conurbation. Southall is a suburban town in west London, near to Heathrow airport.
(10) The different ways in which the Black public sphere is utilised and experienced by different sections of Black social groups would be another useful line of critical inquiry to develop. It is suggested here that a whole host of factors and identities ranging from age, disability, ethnicity, gender, generation, languages, sexualities and so forth are important in terms of defining meanings and uses of spaces in the city.
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