By 2016, more than 1.1m people lived in Birmingham. Thanks to sharp growth in its population since the millennium, the city is larger now than it was during the industrial heyday of the 1960s. In common with big cities all over Europe, this expansion is driven by migration. Some families came with the rush of commonwealth citizens after the war; many thousands more have arrived in the last 10 years. One in five of today’s Brummies was born overseas.
Jon Bloomfield’s excellent Our City tells the story of this change through interviews with 46 migrants to Birmingham—both first and second generation—from 13 different countries. These are the voices of a modern cosmopolitan city, and with each chapter they guide us through the institutions changed by newcomers: Birmingham’s schools and universities, its factory floors and charities, its places of worship.
We hear from Anita, a Polish care worker, whose first job in the UK was sorting potatoes in a factory on the outskirts of the city, standing “in water up to our ankles.” She quickly transferred to a job with better conditions, but the work remained tough and the wages poor.
Life is slightly easier for Rehman, a Pakistan-born newsagent, although he hasn’t had a holiday in 23 years. Yasin, a taxi-driver, hasn’t had proper time off in a decade. One entrepreneur, Wing, has grown rich from long hours running and then supplying Chinese restaurants. Some in the younger generation, though, are still resentful that their parents spent so little time at home with their families.
Bloomfield is blunt about the need to confront failures—especially regarding religious absolutism and “clan politics”—but his book is overwhelmingly optimistic. It celebrates Birmingham’s success in harnessing the drive of its migrant population. It can stand as an example, he argues, as “an open city at work and at ease with itself.”
Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham by Jon Bloomfield (Unbound, £18.99)