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Birmingham Hosts Economic Summit

May 15, 1998

BIRMINGHAM, England (AP) _ A ``city of 1,000 trades,″ Birmingham has an enduring image of smokestacks, concrete and ugly architecture, making it the butt of 1,000 jokes that city leaders would like to silence.

The city has completed a makeover and rolled out a slick advertising campaign to instill some civic pride and encourage all ``Brummies,″ as the city’s 1 million inhabitants are known, to spiff things up for their high-ranking Group of Eight guests.

All over town, posters were hung featuring a smoothly coiffed, retired office worker _ local resident Margaret Potter _ and the headline: ``Get your hair done, Marge. Bill Clinton’s coming to town.″

But this glossy new Birmingham is not all that it seems, much like the posters now on display. Just ask Mrs. Potter, 67, an instant folk hero whose identity was tweaked for the ads.

``My name’s Margaret, but they said, `Would you mind being called Marge?′ ″ Mrs. Potter said. ``They thought it sounded better.″

With no rivers, port or good farmland, Birmingham, in England’s heartland about equal distance from Liverpool and London, has had to make its fortunes through human endeavors in trade and manufacturing. Some residents, proud of their blue-collar heritage, are unimpressed by all the civic preening for eight world leaders.

``They’re painting everything, brushing, polishing,″ grumbled Jack Jones, a retired bricklayer. ``I think it’s a waste of money.″

``The tourist trade is good for the image of Birmingham, but it doesn’t filter down to us,″ said Cary Sutton, who sells flowers from a century-old, family-run stall at the old Bull Ring market, where grubby walls and sidewalks are conspicuously untouched by city’s facelift.

What about the ads showing Marge’s new hairdo?

``It’s really ridiculous,″ Sutton said. ``It’s atrocious. I’m proud to be Birmingham.″

Carl Chinn, a University of Birmingham historian, said the city is victimized by stereotypical views toward Brummies, who make everything from cars to buttons worn by the royal guards.

``There is a snobbish attitude in England,″ Chinn said. ``People think you can be an artist if you put your hands on a canvas, but not if you work with metal.″

Things were never easy for Birmingham, or ``Brum,″ as the Brummies affectionately call it. Local legend says the sight of Birmingham’s 19th century industrial grime so appalled Queen Victoria that she lowered the window shades in her rail carriage when passing through town.

``It’s a myth,″ Chinn insists. But the tale has been told and printed so often that many Brummies believe it.

German air raids targeted the factories in World War II. But some critics say city planners did even worse damage as they rebuilt over the next two decades.

They gutted the Victorian town center, built drab high-rise housing and surrounded the heart of the city with a circular road infamously dubbed ``the concrete collar.″ To get in, pedestrians were forced to walk through filthy underground tunnels full of muggers.

``They are dirty and dangerous,″ Chinn concedes.

Then came a recession during the late 1970s and early 1980s that cost Birmingham 200,000 jobs _ but started a renaissance by prompting the city to bulldoze some of its inglorious past.

Local officials had traffic rerouted to allow pedestrians to skip the tunnels and cross above ground into a spruced-up center that now features new restaurants, hotels, pubs and one of Europe’s best symphony halls.

Service-sector jobs and the convention industry flourished, lifting the city’s economy, although unemployment stubbornly persists above national levels.

With the summit taken care of, Birmingham’s next goal is to try to sell itself as a business center ready to compete in the global economy. That pleases Vic Dangerfield, who sells bread and pork at the Bull Ring market.

``It’s about time we had some people coming in to attract people to Birmingham,″ Dangerfield said.

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