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Welcome to Heartlands – a newcomer’s perspective by Will Jones

Welcome to Heartlands – a newcomer’s perspective by Will Jones

🕔13.Nov 2012

Birmingham has recently become my home, replacing Coventry which had filled that role for the previous twelve years. Moving from one part of the West Midlands to another, a high priority for me was to find my bearings. What I hadn’t counted on was how difficult that would be.

My initial goal was simply to identify the community into which I had moved and, then, to locate its heart and acquaint myself with its layout. Yet as I walked and drove around my new area I found, to my dismay, that no clear identity or structure emerged. Where did I now live? The harder I tried to answer this question, the more the answer seemed to elude me; the further I researched it, the more confused I became.

On the road into my new estate, for instance, I came across a sign welcoming me to “Heartlands”. So perhaps that is my community? And indeed, the not insubstantial Heartlands Academy sits proudly close by. Yet besides these signs and this school I could find no other indication of a Heartlands community, so that answer did not really satisfy.

I had picked up from somewhere that Birmingham City Council – largest lower tier authority in Europe – divides itself for functional purposes into constituency committees. Perhaps, then, the answer was to be found in the governance of my community? But again this did not satisfy, for it took some searching to discover that my new constituency goes by the name of Ladywood. And besides the constituency committee which, though I could see no sign of it I was assured existed, I could find no evidence around my neighbourhood of a community of Ladywood, not even a signpost.

Near to my house is the parish church of Nechells, and also a road called Nechells Parkway, and numerous signs declaring “Nechells and Proud”. At least then, I thought, I can be confident that I am in Nechells. Yet further research brought even this into question.

The community centre round the corner is that of Nechells Green – a part of Nechells, or a distinct community? More confusing is the nearby train station, named Duddeston. Google labels my area Vauxhall, locating Nechells some way to the north. Yet the community noticeboard near my house informs me that it serves the communities of North Nechells, Duddeston and Bloomsbury.

Perhaps, then, I have moved onto a border between a number of communities – something which would go some way to explain the bewildering multiplicity of local identities I have encountered. Getting into my car I went for a drive in search of these communities – landmarks, I hoped, that would help me to make some sense out of all these names. But again, I was to be disappointed.

On the other side of Nechells Parkway, in the area Google denotes Duddeston, I find the Nechells Green Sports Centre, near to the Bloomsbury Post Office and the Nechells Practice. Scattered here and about I find little groups of shops, but nothing that can be identified as a central high street, square or precinct – something which might give the neighbourhood a sense of itself.

A little internet-based historical research reveals that this area had once been part of the large Parish of Aston, the hinterland of the once proudly independent Manor of Aston – the latter having held out from annexation by Birmingham as late as 1911. Following annexation, however, Aston became a suburb through which the powers-that-be soon saw fit to drive a motorway, straight into Birmingham city centre.

The little places whose names I had found lingering in kaleidoscope fashion around my new neighbourhood were, it transpires, among the numerous Warwickshire villages and townships swallowed up by the explosive expansion of industrial Birmingham in the nineteenth century. Their names are all that is left of them now, it would seem, haunting their former home like disembodied spirits – a maze of expressways and parkways, fragments of communities in which names more evoke impressions of a semi-mythical past than delineate living, breathing communities.

It is dislocating to move from one city to another, even more so to move from one country to another, as many of my new neighbours have done (many of them first generation Somali immigrants). Yet such dislocation is surely only made worse when the place into which you move does not itself seem to know where or what it is – beyond, of course, an area near the centre of Birmingham, sandwiched somewhere between everywhere else.

Most parts of other cities, and indeed most parts of Birmingham, have retained, or subsequently created, an overarching sense of identity and community, which has helped to bind their inhabitants together in mutually rewarding relationships – social capital, if you like. That this area where I now live has never succeeded in doing so can only have contributed to its embedded poverty, which has persisted now for generations. Yet how could it have done, I wonder, set out as it is? Where would you begin?

As I settle into my new home, then, somewhere in the midst of Heartlands, Ladywood, Nechells, Duddeston, Vauxhall, Nechells Green, Bloomsbury… I find myself hoping that, in the absence of a community of place, I might find a community of people with whom I can connect. Glancing across to St Matthew’s church nearby, I begin to wonder whether that place of worship will, as so often, prove a good place to start.

  • Will Jones works as an administrator at the Diocese of Coventry. He undertook postgraduate study in philosophy, and continues to have a keen interest in the relation between philosophy and modern life.
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