“You need to watch out”
“Be careful down there”
These are a couple of the snippets of advice I was given from friends and family when I told them I was going to do a street photography project based in Sparkhill. I pointed out that this is still Birmingham and that I wasn’t exactly venturing bravely into the favelas of Rio but it didn’t seem to make much difference.
Their reactions told me that there’s something of a stigma attached to certain inner city areas of the city. Whether that’s because they’re less affluent than the likes of Moseley or it’s because their ethnic diversity puts people off visiting, I don’t know. There weren’t many other white guys in shorts carrying cameras so I did stick out a bit, getting the occasional odd look of either curiosity or confusion. By the second or third time I visited though I felt at peace as the people and businesses became more familiar and I was a little less conscious of having a camera attached to my hand.
I wanted to explore the changing nature of the high street and how a place like Sparkhill has been affected, for better or worse. The convenience of ordering products from the internet and rise of service industries such as coffee shops or tattoo parlours has had a dramatic effect on the way high streets in the UK look in the 21st century compared to 20 or 30 years ago. The collapse of Woolworths was perhaps the most notable example while the spectre of administration mercilessly hangs over many other well-known brands. It seems every Christmas there are dour news stories telling us about familiar local businesses who are struggling to make ends meet.
Making my way up a vibrant Stratford Road, I wondered if Sparkhill was was immune to this depressing phenomenon. The street was always busy. There was a palpable sense of community where people seemed to know each other. The colours, from the clothes stores to grocery shops, were relentless. Every place was independent. All the food smelled great. It might sound clichéd but the neighbourhood felt alive.
It wasn’t all good news though. The desolate husk of The Bear pub cut a forlorn scene across the street from Sparkhill Park. It closed its doors for the last time in January and I got a sense of the macabre walking past. It doesn’t belong here anymore. I’m as liberal as they come but I still had a feeling of melancholy at seeing a staple of the high street not long after life support had finally been turned off.
There’s a chaotic side to Sparkhill too. Stores spill out onto the street, exotic languages are spoken and the drone of the traffic is unrelenting. All of this could make the area a difficult place to love for those who prefer peace and order when they head to the shops.
Decide for yourself what a high street should look like. This is what I found: