The normally pulsating heartbeat of Birmingham’s entertainment district is nothing but a murmur as the quietest Christmas ever rapidly approaches.
Most of the sounds you can hear are of the generators powering the emergency lighting systems that keep the few pedestrians safe on the pavement sides of the security fences.
High-spirited revellers? Right now, they’re so 2019.
All along what used to be the city’s “golden mile” lie hospitality businesses that are, at best, in hibernation.
At worst, they could be in danger of collapsing for good after being hit by the March 20 and November 5 hospitality lockdowns followed by Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions.
Down in Gas Street basin you can’t even walk from Gas Street to Bridge Street any more because the narrowboat residents have locked the gates to try to keep the invisible enemy of Covid-19 at bay.
Curiously, amid this spell of nothingness, comes a kind of sixth sense that if businesses can only survive the restrictive measures currently being used to try to control the coronavirus pandemic, you can imagine that Broad Street could really be rocking this time next year.
Or, indeed, whenever things get back towards some semblance of normality.
Its own life began as a footpath from Easy Row to Five Ways before being widened in 1780, so it has already survived two World Wars and the Spanish Flu pandemic, never mind countless slumps in economic fortunes.
Softening this currently harsh environment of heavy machinery, fences, holes, barriers, cones and more is the uplifting presence of Mother Nature, thanks in no small measure to the people who built the original Broad Street certainly knowing a thing or two about natural light.
As the setting sun leaves the thoroughfare and the new buildings in Arena Central all aglow in the mid-December, late afternoon twilight, it’s impossible not to be excited by the prospect of life being re-energised throughout the decade ahead.
Crikey… if you have a couple of pints here next Christmas, step out into the cold air and look up… you might well be forgiven for thinking you are on Broadway in New York, not Broad Street in Brum.
Now that really would be a whole, new, Westside story.
Pause for thought
Nobody knows what makes Broad Street tick better than Westside BID’s manager Mike Olley.
He’s been doing his specific type of job for longer than anyone in the country.
The straight-talking former city councillor was appointed in 2005 to run what was then the country’s 17th “business improvement district”.
Mike figured he’d give the job a couple of years to see how it went.
A decade-and-a-half later, he still feels like he hasn’t gone anywhere near full term.
Looking even further ahead, Mike says: “We can already see how Broad Street’s new pavements are wider and how, in turn, that will give us scope for extending hospitality down the side streets once the tram line is completed.
“The way ahead is our vibrant night time economy.
“And, with the way working patterns are changing, I think we’ll see more of an early evening economy developing, too, whereby once people are back in town they will stay around for longer.
“People won’t go back to work (in offices) like they used to do, but once they are in town they might then fancy going out on a Friday night.
“Yes… it’s going to look quite neat on Broad Street, a street that has been changing all the while.
“Sheep would be fed on Sheepcote Street before being taken further into town to the Bull Ring Market.
“Then we had the warehouses nearby in the 70s and 80s – it’s always been a major route into the city.”
Created during the 1990s on the back of the ICC opening in June, 1991, Brindleyplace remains the best post-war redevelopment in the city.
Classy, timeless and vibrant, it’s sandwiched in between the city’s 18th century canal network and the rather different buzz of the 21st century’s Broad Street and its under-appreciated mix of architectural styles
There’s everything from the quite gorgeous brick walls of one of the city’s oldest pubs, the Brasshouse – named after its industrial origins in 1781 – to the concrete sculpture on the outside of Quayside Tower, created by renowned post-war sculptor William George Mitchell whose best known works include the doors of Liverpool Cathedral.
If the deep purple exterior of Popworld is a touch too dark for your tastes and you couldn’t care less it was formerly JR Botham’s 1848-49 Church of Christ Scientist, try the pink, three-storey Reflex building, a late 18th century hostelry formerly known as the Crown Inn and The Crown Public House.
On the opposite side of Broad Street from here is the 1860 Venetian Gothic terrace that’s now home to businesses like Walkabout and O Bar.
Further up Broad Street towards Cineworld, but on the opposite side of the road, is Zara’s bar, grill and club.
This fine brick building is even older – it dates back more than 200 years to 1814 but still looks perfectly suited to its environment.
“In the future I think we’ll have even more impressive buildings down here,” says Mike.
“And you will see Broad Street developing a level of sophistication that never used to be there.
“Yes, other places have been developing a night-time economy to rival Broad Street, but this area has always had critical mass.
“It was the first, and it’s the people’s favourite – and you can see where future developments will be to make it even better.”
Going up in the world
The imagination of Birmingham schoolboy JRR Tolkien gave the world the Two Towers in The Lord of the Rings.
And until 9/11 in 2001, New York itself had the Twin Towers which gave you the best view of The Empire State Building.
But stand on the Novotel corner of Sheepcote Street and look up you will see not one, not two but Three Towers reaching towards the sky.
On the right are the two Bank towers which almost seem to grow out of the top of the former Left Bank restaurant which hosted the G8 Leaders’ wives during the summit of May, 1998.
To the left, The Mercian, the still-rising Moda Living tower next to the Lee Longlands’ famous furniture store.
If they are all lit up in years to come, and the weather is just perfect at twilight in December, then this is going to be a truly spectacular vantage point.
Similarly, if you stand in the middle of Broad Street closer to Bishopsgate Street and turn towards the city, you will see the Three Towers from a different perspective, all leading the eye down towards Symphony Hall and the gold-topped Library of Birmingham.
It seems to have taken forever and would have stretched many local businesses to the limit even without the restrictions of Covid-19.
But all of the tram lines have now finally been laid by the Midland Metro Alliance with just a short stretch still to be bedded in with concrete in the run-up to Christmas.
By early in the New Year much of the current fencing on Broad Street will finally have been removed and the protective wrappers taken off the stainless steel litter bins.
Visitors then will see how the tram line stretches all the way from Centenary Square to Hagley Road and how the pavements are not only wider but, at last, better paved.
Much of next year’s work to make the West Midlands Metro line a reality in time for Christmas 2021 will be going on overhead – will the cabling end up detracting from the current view which, by contrast, is cluttered at ground level fencing!
At long last, the years of digging holes to realign underground services – some of which have inadvertently caused floods – appear to be over.
It’s been quite a slog – work to build just 0.4 miles of line from Grand Central began on June 12, 2017 and took 912 days just to get services running as far as Centenary Square from December 11, 2019 at a cost of £65.8 million.
The 0.8 mile stretch from Centenary Square to 54 Hagley Road is costing £83.4 million.
The total cost of the line from Grand Central / Stephenson Street to Hagley Road is £149 million for 1.2 miles and will have taken four and a half years by the time the work has been completed.
Towards the top end of Broad Street, two of the biggest businesses lie silent.
In the age of face masks and social distancing, you can understand that Pryzm nightclub looks set to be closed for a good while yet, hence its decision to look for investors.
But the 12-screen Cineworld multiplex where the seating can be expressly booked in a socially distanced way?
One hopes a solid pre-Oscar season of films can get it up and running before too long, government restrictions permitting.
The bars and restaurants elsewhere will heavily depend on which tier the city remains in over a period.
With the furlough scheme extended until March and with many hospitality staff having been made redundant, it’s unlikely there will be much activity on that front until after winter gives way to Spring.
With Good Friday beginning the Easter holiday period unusually early on April 2, that might be one way of focusing minds on the future revival of the area.
And then we can all drink to that.