Car vs Pedestrian – review by James Kennedy

A number of us gathered outside the Pershore Street car park for what was going to be our guided tour of Birmingham’s car parks and subways. It’s common knowledge that people don’t come to car parks in these numbers, and in fact, it had been said that some people I had spoken to had been rather incredulous about why this particular walk would be of any interest whatsoever. This particular walk would fit in excellently with Still Walking’s re-mit, a tour taking in areas of the city that don’t get explored, that are far away from the generic guided tours of Birmingham that are on offer. Here we were going to see hidden art, take in panoramic views, get some exercise, and observe the city around us. There would be exploration, and darkness and possible danger. The programme advised that this walk may not be suitable for those of a nervous disposition.

We went into the Pershore Street car park, walking up the stairwell to Level 9. The building on the outside reminded me of Madin’s Central Library, an angular tower of Brutalist concrete, however, going up the tight stairwell, with its stone steps and claustrophobic white walls, I was reminded of the stairwells within the Library of Birmingham. Getting a sense of Birmingham’s future and past. All the while the familiar car park smell of old urine, both sweet and sour choked us as we slowly made our way up to the top.

Going through Level 9 and into an expansive open air car park, towering above the city, we were treated to a fantastic panoramic view of the Birmingham skyline; incorporating on the left more Brutalist facades; the Wholesalers Market, the Meat Market and the Cold Storage, visions of concrete and corrugated iron. The car park had been used for off-site art work curated by the Ikon Gallery, in particular for Oliver Beer’s “The Resonance Project” (2011) working with Ex Cathedra to turn the car park into a giant architectural instrument.

We went back down the stone steps and were told to look at the poem on Level 2 that had been scrawled onto the wall in black biro by what could only be described as a spurned lover; the writing spidery however easy to decipher, the author sitting or perhaps even lying down to cram his plea in the space.

“Show me you love me. Stop the hurt and pain. Then my darling you may have my name. PS If not satisfied, try and try again?”
The poet unknown, but filling the space with dread and confusion. Trying to think at what time this what written in this cold and unfeeling space, in what condition and mind-set, and what happened to the poet afterwards. Where they went, whether in the early hours, lunchtime, tea-time, or the dead of night, the streets rendered lonely, unfeeling and threatening due to unrequited love.
Outside, I noticed a large advertising hoarding proclaiming the re-birth of TSB. Another hoarding advertised the latest instalment in the series of the psycho-geography classic ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ Buses drove past advertising forthcoming ‘Diana’ biopic and disappeared around corners and vanished into subways.

Onto Bromsgrove Street, we made our way to The Arcadian’s car park, billed as ‘award-winning’ on their website. A quick look at the information behind this shows that the car park is under the APCOA banner, APCOA being the ‘UK’s leading provider of tailored parking solutions.’ No perverse odours of urine or sights of empty weed bags and medical syringes here, instead, a powerful aroma of fresh tarmac and new car smell, up-to-the-minute strip lighting and exact low ceilings. Everything clean and sterile, bringing us out into the ever-changing frontages with rhyming names (Iguana Bar, Arca Bar, Bar Risa, Oceanna etc.)

We exited left past Reflex and onto Hurst Street, the Birmingham Hippodrome behind us. The entrance of the Hippodrome has now been copied for the roof to the entrance of the Library of Birmingham, gold shining stars on a black background, giving a sense of a glitzy glamour. As we made our way to Thorp Street behind the theatre, cars went screeching past blasting out young peoples music. Those screeching around would probably go home, fire up Grand Theft Auto, and drive around another city, this time possibly with a bit more money, possibly some whores and definitely some heavy duty weaponry.

Past Chung Ying Gardens and the Stageside Bar, we came to the car park on Thorp Street, designed by Euro Car Parks. An outdoor car park, being neither dark and dingy or utopian-futuristic, this was considered to be “a nice place to park”, with its surrounding brickwork painted white and pink, and with ivy hanging on lattice work. Leaving the relative tranquillity of the Thorp Street car park, we passed another one of Birmingham’s many strip-joints, Scarlets, and went onto Horsefair Parade, greeted by legal high shops and takeaways advertising ‘mighty buckets for one.’
We were now going via Holloway Circus (est 1966) and made our entrance via the Scala Subway, it’s urine smells alarmingly sweet. This subway was created for pedestrians outed in favour of the car, and gave those currently sitting in the public garden area a panoramic view of the inner ring road. Today, observing the gridlocked traffic in this area were a party of cyclists politely eating fruit. In the middle, a piece of public art, a Pagoda , gifted by Wing Yip Plc, with the intention of indicating to the passer-by that this area we were in signified the gateway to the Chinese Quarter. The area was also decorated with a mural by Kenneth Budd which depicted the 1911 horsefair. This place also had the honour of being known as the Cliff Richard subway, as it appears in his ‘Take Me High’ film (1973), which is a firm favourite amongst Birmingham folk.

We emerged from the subway up to Suffolk Street under the Radisson building, and another bus advertising the ‘Diana’ biopic disappeared. The walkway had previously been an extension of the subway underneath the ring road, and had now been filled in, landscaped, and was now a public square, festooned with multi-coloured lights. This had been put in place to get visitors into a ‘Mailbox state-of-mind’ – ready to engage with expensive boutiques and places to eat, which in this case would be known as ‘eateries.’ To our right was the Brunel Street car park, which had been constructed as a transparent red cage, which manipulated the visions of depth for the onlooker.

Walking through Suffolk Street, we got to Arena Central, charmingly named as an ‘Enterprise Zone’ (EZ) and an ‘Inspirational Public Realm’ (IPR) A ‘contemporary’ 14 storey Holiday Inn Express Hotel was scheduled to be built, adding to the towering skyscrapers – looking up at these modern monoliths, one, if gathering enough speed, could run up them like Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario and take off into the sky, nothing, in fact, that Grand Theft Auto could do. Exploring the car park below Arena Central, we found that it could really only be described as ‘Post-Apocalyptic’, with fenced off areas and structural issues. We saw what was behind this intriguing no-go-zone after a claustrophobic and tight climb up the stairwell which saw us under the shadow of Alpha Tower. As with Pershore Street car park, car parks and subways had been an influence on the Library of Birmingham, with what seemed to resemble a giant amphitheatre in the middle of the IPR – a would-be gladiatorial arena for those engaging with the EZ, for the while unused and littered with fag-ends and newspapers.

We continued along Fletchers Walk. Over the road we could see the infamous Snobs nightclub, a rites-of-passage for anybody living in Birmingham for an extended time, well-known for it’s 50p shots, sticky floors and excessively drunken drinkers, the name of the kebab shop next door, ‘Top Nosh’ grimly ironic. There was no pedestrian walkway to this glorious destination; however, a makeshift stepping stone had been placed next to the wall where pedestrians could engage in a quick game of ‘chicken’ to the other side to hopefully save their legs.
Past the back of the Birmingham Conservatoire, we saw a fine example of wild plant growth going up the side of the building. We were then led into a barely lit Concrete Zone (CZ), which would take us underneath Paradise Forum, into an arena which was described as being ‘an afterthought into where cars go’, a netherworld of skips, empty cages and hanging wires. A giggling couple ran across our party, possibly embarrassed that we had interrupted their potential lovemaking behind some bins. We came out behind College Subway, next to the back of Paradise Forum and the College of Food and Tourism. We stopped before the entrance to the yellow-tiled subway, where we could hear two people shouting in tongues. This subway was quite labyrinthine, with one exit cordoned off, and we were told that toilets had been up in subways when they were originally built to save people any embarrassment if they got lost and caught short. These toilets for some reason where all now sealed and out-of-bounds, the pervading smell suggesting that people were in fact still getting lost.

We went back on ourselves now, and walked up the steep steps to Paradise Place, an area with disused fountains and street drinkers in various states of disrepair. When the Birmingham Central Library is eventually demolished, it will be interesting to see what happens to this Forgotten Zone (FZ), seeing as it never was given chance to achieve its Full Potential. A logo for Birmingham City Council was stencilled onto an opposite wall, as we made our way behind the back of the old library onto Victoria Square, and onto Barwick Street, where we would be treated to a rare sight of a private car park.

This car park was used solely for the clients of the Royal Bank of Scotland, yet in all honesty, it was a far-cry from the award-winning APCOA car park, the walled hanging gardens of the Euro car park on Thorp Street or even the dystopia of the area under Arena Central. Instead, a simple concrete establishment, with yellow lines for spaces, neat and tidy, almost like a hotel for cars. Outside, two chefs looked at us baffled and confused.

To complete our journey, we walked straight down Livery Street, to get to the car park at Snow Hill. A short climb to just floor 3B, we arrived at our final superb view of the city, a bird-eye view of Hockley and the Jewellery Quarter in front of us, train tracks and an intricate maze of buildings peppered with graffiti. To our right, buildings in states of growth and half-built abandonment set against aloof glass super-structures. The car park here, we were told, should be seen as not just a practical space, but also having the potential for being a Creative Zone (CZ) – this tour underlining the fact that car park and subway design for the future will consider design and aesthetic, with considered access for events and creativity after the space has been used for its main purpose in the day. Of course, with the views of the city stretching out, the hoardings, the architecture, the graffiti, what we had in front of us was a great free museum and art gallery; and with the exploration of the hidden subways and Forgotten Zones, an interactive game for all pedestrians to play.

James Kennedy