A less than successful moving day in 2012.
Two years ago today I crammed my belongings into a car and headed 'North' to Birmingham. The car broke down just outside Coventry and I had to hide from the rain inside a Burger King until my gracious hosts, who had agreed to house me until I found my own place, turned up to help me complete the last leg of the journey. Since then, countless people have asked me what prompted the move to Birmingham, and while the answers I give are always true, they are often varied and incomplete. So, two years on, I wanted to shed a little more light on my decision to leave London and start PROVIDE.
Before moving here I had lived in London and New York; two of the most exciting and widely admired cities on the planet. Both of these places taught me to appreciate certain things that you don't tend to find in smaller towns and cities, many of which I miss immensely today. Things like having a disproportionate amount of the world's greatest artwork housed in galleries and museums all within walking distance of each other; being able to get any world cuisine at any time, day or night; wandering into your local food store and not recognising half of the items on sale there; attending unlicensed parties in the weirdest locations and not really knowing why you're there; discovering brands and products in neighbourhoods which are full of independent shops where the staff are passionate about what they sell; 'live/work spaces' which are essentially industrial buildings with the most basic modifications to make them just about habitable; and not needing to make plans because no matter where in the city you are, or who you're with, there's always something new and exciting to do. I'm sorry to say it, but Birmingham just doesn't match up.
Sunrise as seen from my bedroom in a live/work space in Brooklyn, 2007.
'Okay London boy, go back down South', I can hear some of you saying. But I love Birmingham, and I'm staying. Here's why...
Cities like London and New York have always been hubs for art, music, fashion, finance, media other other influential industries, but there inevitably comes a point of saturation when the city becomes a victim of its own success. Tourists and wealthy gentrifiers are good for, and essential to a city's development, but when they outnumber both the people whose families have been there for generations and the initial waves of countercultural and creative people who moved there due to affordable rents, the places become sterile. People have been saying this about New York for a while now, and honestly, I think it's just about time for London, too. We'll still see decades of people clinging on to what made these cities cool in the past, but instead of staying somewhere to ride its fraying coat tails, I'm excited to be in a city that doesn't already have it all, where people are surprised by something different and where I can afford to live close enough to the city centre to walk everywhere.
For me, Birmingham is just that place. When I moved here I knew a grand total of two people (thank you Emma and Jonathan for your kindness beyond measure), barely had a penny to my name, and had a half finished business plan for something called PROVIDE. Although I still wasn't entirely sure what the business was going to look like, I knew I wanted to create something truly independent, that honours Birmingham's heritage while taking risks to contribute to its future. Incredibly, people from all over the Midlands and further afield have got behind this idea, and every day I'm astounded that the little brand I dreamed up on the back of a paper carrier bag is still chugging along after almost two years at a time when even some of the biggest businesses are struggling to make ends meet.
I think this says a lot about the opportunities presented by smaller cities like Birmingham, and should serve as food for thought for anyone in London (or comparable cities around the world), who is feeling priced out of their current neighbourhood. Yes, I get frustrated when I can't step outside my flat and buy a pint of milk at 1am and I wish there were more boutiques offering a greater range of independent clothing brands, but I hope these are luxuries I'll one day enjoy in Birmingham, and I hope it'll be you and me behind those businesses. There is so much potential here, it just needs a critical mass of risk takers to follow in the foot steps of those who have already been paving the way (many years before PROVIDE was even imagined) across the city.
Finally, a word of caution; it's exciting when a new small business appears, but if you want it to survive, you have to spend money there regularly. As consumers we all have the power to make our cities more interesting, vibrant places by carefully choosing where we spend (and don't spend) our money. A business cannot pay rent on retweets and instgram shout outs alone, so if you find something you like in an independent shop, buy it there instead of trying to find it cheaper online. It may cost you a few pounds more in the moment, but the cultural cost of losing a great local business will be felt much further into the future.
If you're intruiged about the prospect of moving to Birmingham, hop on a train (we have great transport links to the whole country) and come down to the shop for a chat. Just be aware that it might be the start of a whole new adventure.
I was already planning to say something about my two years in Birmingham, but yesterday I read an article by Eddie Huang about why he's leaving New York which really struck a chord. This has been my response to that article, which you can (and should) read here.