Book review - Our City

Recently I read about a project in the Black Country offering medically qualified refugees and migrants English lessons and work experience in a clinical environment. The aim was to help the growing crisis in NHS staffing levels. To date, almost two hundred people have been recruited. The article, published in the Guardian, was written by Jon Bloomfied, historian, urban policy specialist, and author of Our City. It is exactly this kind of success story that Bloomfield highlights in his engaging and accessible study of Birmingham, the second largest city economy in Britain.

Bloomfield has lived and worked there for forty years. He is proud to be known as the man who brought the Frankfurt Christmas Market to Birmingham and fought to make it a success. Bloomfield is evidently keen to project his home city as progressive and outward looking, rather than riven by ethnic and cultural tensions. Based on conversations with various migrant communities (collected between autumn 2015 and summer 2016), his book demonstrates the positive impact of migration on the city and “the economic contribution that newcomers have made to the various sectors of the local economy.”

Birmingham became a world centre of manufacturing during the first Industrial Revolution. Like so many cities in Western Europe, the demographic changed dramatically after the Second World War. Desperate for labour, Britain looked to its colonies, encouraging people from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan to come and work in its major cities. Several of Bloomfield’s interviewees are the descendants of that initial wave of workers who settled in Birmingham. Then, as now, the NHS, acted as a beacon for overseas workers with experience in health care. The car industry also brought jobs and stability (although the recession of the early 1980s was to devastate productivity). Rehman’s family were one of many who came from Kashmir following the failure of the Mangla Dam – Britain, a guarantor for the irrigation project, offered work permits to the displaced.

Today 44 percent of Birmingham’s population have a migrant background; of these half were born abroad. In Our City, Bloomfield demonstrates, time and again, how migrants have enriched the city both economically and culturally. Flying in the face of popular misconception, Bloomfield observes that it was the “unrestricted working hours… that drew East Europeans to the UK – not welfare benefits.” Many ended up working in menial, low paid jobs that others just didn’t want to touch.

Bloomfield does not deny Birmingham’s tensions and challenges – “inequality continues to scar the city… With poverty comes alienation and a high use of drugs.”  However, he remains optimistic that the benefits of living in one of the most multi-ethnic cities in Europe, with a predominantly young population, far outweigh the negative.

Originally published by The Tablet

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