When Queen Victoria traveled through Birmingham in the 19th century, she always kept the window blinds shut. Birmingham was the hub of England’s industrial revolution. It was choked with pollution. It was a disquieting eyesore that the queen elected to ignore after writing in her journal, at age 13, that the place was “black,” with “engines flaming, coals in abundance, everywhere, smoking and burning coal heaps, intermingled with wretched huts and carts and little ragged children.”
In the 185 years since Victoria penned those damning words, Birmingham has been repeatedly called a “concrete jungle” and “industrial wasteland.” Its signature art form, heavy metal music, was born in the factories after Ozzy Osbourne and the rest of Black Sabbath built their sound on the grinding beat of the tilt hammers they heard in their youth while working on assembly lines. For snobbish Londoners, Birmingham, 120 miles northwest of the capital city, has always been a place to sidestep.
But the tide is turning, and travel magazines are heretically prescribing Birmingham over London. Europe’s largest public library, an architectural marvel, opened there in 2013. The city is blessed with five Michelin-starred restaurants, and there are plans to build a $28 billion high-speed rail line between Birmingham and London that will cut travel time between the cities to 49 minutes. Meanwhile, Birmingham is knee-deep in a push to reinvent its architectural heritage. Just recently, for example, Birmingham City University opened a $70 million conservatoire, for training in music and acting. It features five public performance spaces, including a 500-seat concert hall and a cozy jazz club.
Are we to surmise that “Brum,” as locals call the city, is determined to erase its industrial past?
Negatory. The new Birmingham draws its vitality and its soul from the hectic old city, the one that made Victoria squirm. It is at once gritty and visionary. Think Pittsburgh. Or imagine if a beleaguered Detroit suddenly blossomed, becoming a beacon of culture. Then throw in the strange fact that Birmingham has 35 miles of canals, more even than Venice. The canals — once used to transport raw materials into the city and finished goods out — are still there. There’s a tug of war at work in this town, an interplay between the new and the old, and I’ve come here for a few spring days to explore that tension.
The intrigue begins soon after I step off the train from the airport. Strolling through downtown, I pass a large bronze statue of Victoria wielding a scepter, then the Birmingham Town Hall, a looming gray neoclassical structure with, it seems, a million Corinthian columns. Soon, I see something glinting on the horizon.
The new Library of Birmingham is a flashy 10-story building, a bright splash of gold and aqua that you realize, only after a moment, is a stack of four rectangles dancing high above an expansive plaza and enmeshed in a fanciful metal skin. The cladding is fine and filigreed, a medley of delicate circles. It looks like jewelry, and the effect is intended, a historical tribute. In its industrial heyday, pre-World War II, Birmingham was more than a collection of smog-belching factories. It was also home to thousands of fine artisans: knife makers, button makers, scissor makers, and, most critically, jewelers who, 12 hours a day, bent over their work benches, squinting at metal. The library’s principal architect, Francine Houben, wanted to honor these ring makers. The building, she has said, is “an ode to the circle.”
When I venture inside, though, the place feels more like a paean to the book, especially after I begin climbing skyward, up through a central rotunda, on an endless series of escalators fringed with blue lights. Encircling the open cavity are thousands of volumes, their red, green, yellow, and more spines on display, backlit and sparkling. The vast reading rooms, which face the windows, are designed to change moods along with the weather and shadows. On the seventh floor, there’s the outdoor Secret Garden, a not-so-hidden terrace where dirt walkways wend through beds of herbs and vegetables and fruit.
Then at the very top of the building, you’re suddenly back in the past. The Shakespeare Memorial Room features three banks of ornately carved floor-to-ceiling cabinets, some 43,000 Shakespeare-related books, and a tasteful white bust of Willie Shakes.
Ten stories below, the canals flow through the city. One, the Birmingham Canal, twists like a snake, following the contours of the land. Laborers carved out its channel with shovels and picks in the 1770s. Forty years later, a Scottish engineer named Thomas Telford used gunpowder to blast a path that cuts through the canal like the slash through the curves in a dollar sign. His canal is straight. The other canals in the city are as well. They’re narrow, with worn footpaths, and they’re lined with stylish restaurants that have sprung up in ancient brick buildings that once housed shipping agents. On the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, for instance, Bistrot Pierre is a French eatery known for its toasted brioche with fricassee of mushrooms, while the Canalside Cafe brings a welcome light touch to traditional pub foods, serving vegetarian chili and salads. The beer is exquisite, the table beside the brick fireplace cozy and warm.
The towpath is paved with charismatic old bricks, and on a sunny Saturday afternoon it’s teeming with slow-strolling holidaymakers. Out on the water, weathered narrowboats, thin vessels designed to squeeze through the canals, float by, bringing a pirate-like spirit to the afternoon’s drama. These particular boats are residential and inhabited by a scruffy lot that tie their bicycles to their roofs and hang their laundry out to dry on the deck. At one point a boat glides by, blasting the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to the delight of nearby Chinese tourists.
Just a couple hundred yards southwest, though, the towpaths are deserted. Broken bottles lie in the weeds, and prime waterfront real estate is wholly ungentrified. I come upon a magnificent curving brick building. The Birmingham Roundhouse, which once stabled horses, is vacant, save for a day care, but a recent $3.2 million grant will enable refurbishing. Soon, the Roundhouse will likely be home to a cafe and shops offering kayak and bicycle rentals.
I’m enchanted with the waterfront in raw form, though. Often, striding the towpath, I feel as if I’ve time-traveled backward, into the world of an old black-and-white film. One evening, walking over cobbles, I come upon a man on a three-speed bike adorned with a vintage handlebar light that is powered by his pedaling. His light sparks and fades in the darkness, and as we intersect beneath a low bridge, I see that he’s bringing home fish and fresh vegetables — perhaps dinner — in his basket. Later, I find myself at the base of a canal lock a mile from the roundhouse, beside a giant pool loudly filling with water. The sound is somewhere between heavy rain and a waterfall. The effect is haunting. This could be an art installation in a museum, I think.
Like many fallen industrial cities, Birmingham is a blank canvas. It’s a magnet for daring artists and entrepreneurs, and nowhere is this more evident than at a place called the Custard Factory, an outre brick shopping mall and office complex that occupies part of what was, until 1964, the manufacturing home of Bird’s Custard, a famous egg-free instant powder created in Birmingham in 1837. The 100-foot-high smokestack that towers over the Custard Factory bears a graffiti-style image of an orange-faced gentleman wearing a prodigious walrus mustache and, it seems, thanks to the black chimney guard, a bowler hat.
Inside, on the ground level, there’s a craft beer shop, a fair trade coffeehouse, and a 100-seat theater, the Mockingbird Cinema, which shows vintage films (Mad Max, for example) and obscure new documentaries. On the streets nearby, in an old industrial neighborhood called Digbeth, nearly every vertical surface sings with bright graffiti murals: I see a bizarre version of Dr. Seuss’s lanky Cat, his head a skull with no skin, and a Native American wearing a giant headdress and stretching his gold-braceleted arms skyward. Then, on Saturday evening, I savor the Digbeth Dining Club, which every weekend, year-round, brings scores of artisan food carts out into the street, enabling gourmets to partake of, say, prize-winning “toastie” sandwiches made with local cheddar and organic rare-breed ham at the Jabberwocky, or lamb flatbread at Smoqued, a vendor of South American fare.
The carts are of a piece with Birmingham’s best brick-and-mortar restaurants, for they, too, revel in the novel. The Wilderness, for instance, is a hole-in-the-wall that seats 24 amid interiors sprouting live moss, columns entwined with vines and canopied with leaves. The 29-year-old chef, Alex Claridge, serves meticulous, locally sourced eight-course meals starring tiny, whimsical surprises — tarts of venison saddle, mushroom, and custard, for example, and desserts appointed with crunchy ants, for texture. “We’re not cooks,” he’s said. “We’re storytellers.”
When I dine the next evening at The Karczma, a Polish restaurant, the vibe is worlds apart. The benches are lined with sheepskins, the ceiling thatched, and the wall beside me festooned with the furry hide of a late, spread-eagled bear. My soup comes in a bread bowl, and my chicken is improbably baked into a jacket of potatoes, mushroom, and cheese. The portions are huge, and there is only one other diner, an aging London actor well in his cups, who sidles over to my table, unbidden, and sits down, dispensing his restaurant review. “This place is rather earthy, isn’t it?” he says. “You’ve been given two days’ dinner there, haven’t you?”
In time, he turns his attention to Birmingham: “When I was a lad, this place was a [expletive]. It was nothing. Now” — he takes a gulp of red wine — “it’s fantastic. It’s wonderful. Look at the restoration of the eighteenth-century trade buildings. Look what they’ve done to the little workers’ cottages. Of course, it’s not London, but it’s come an awfully long way.”
He continues, at length. When the waitress arrives, he declaims, “Another red wine, a large one!” Then he sweeps his arm for emphasis and his current glass, empty now, shatters. The waitress brings him his check.Bill Donahue is a freelance writer in New Hampshire. He has written for Outside, The Washington Post Magazine, and ESPN. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.