Where’s the oldest part of Birmingham?

A detail from the 1731 Westley map of Birmingham. North is left. Image: public domain.

Continuing our occasional series of working out where major cities actually started.

Birmingham, if you like that sort of thing or frankly even if you don’t, is pretty big these days. The city council covers an area stretching for over 15 miles, from Four Oaks in the North to Longbridge in the South. But the built up area bleeds into neighbouring councils, in Solihull and the Black Country, and the conurbation as a whole is closer to 25 miles from north west to south east.

The central business district is a lot smaller than that, of course, but even that is a couple of miles across.

Central Birmingham today. Image: Google Maps.

Not all of that would have been part of Ye Olde Brumme, though. So where was the original Birmingham?

Infuriatingly, since this is only the second time I’ve bothered writing one of these, nobody seems to know. The city’s name comes from the Old English “Beormingaham”, meaning the home of Beorma’s People, although the identity of Beorma is similarly shrouded in mystery. At any rate, a settlement by this name predates the Domesday Book, and might even date back as far as the 7th century.

Where it was, though, we’re not entirely sure. The traditional theory was that it was a village next to a crossing of the River Rea at Deritend, slightly to the east of the city centre today. But remarkably little evidence for such a settlement has been found.

Local historians have proposed other possible sites: Old Square, just behind Snow Hill station; or to the west, on Broad Street, or even in the Jewellery Quarter. It’s even possible the name didn’t even refer to a single settlement, but was a label for a collection of farms, spread across a relatively wide area. The point is, we don’t know.

Possible sites of Anglo-Saxon Birmingham. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

The first definite appearance of a settlement called Birmingham (“Bermingeham”) is, as so often, in the Domesday Book of 1086. At that point, it was tiny, smaller than a number of other local villages including Aston, Sutton (today Sutton Coldfield), Erdington and Edgbaston.

The town appears in the record again in 1166, when the local lord, Peter de Birmingham, got himself a royal charter to hold a market there. Actually, it’s likely the market pre-dated the charter:  lawsuits later in the Middle Ages suggested the market had run continuously since before the Norman Conquest.

Nonetheless, Peter’s charter regularised things and turned a tiny settlement into the local market town, a regional centre of commerce. The market took place on a triangular open space in front of the new parish church of St Martin in the Bull Ring.

So, until someone finds Anglo-Saxon Beormingaham, that seems to be our answer. The original Birmingham lay here:

Huzzah! Image: Google Maps.

Birmingham continued to mostly be a Warwickshire market town for several centuries after that. By the 14th century it was the third largest town in the county, behind only the county town of Warwick itself and Coventry (which, slightly surprisingly from a modern point of view, was one of the great cities of Medieval England).

It was one of the country’s earliest industrial hubs, beginning its boom as early as the 1680s, until by the late 18th century it was bigger than any English city except Bristol and London. Then the canals arrived, and then the railways, so whatever competitive advantage had caused Birmingham to boom was locked in: a couple of centuries later, it’s still at the centre of the Midlands economy today.

The full Westley map of Birmingham in 1731. North, confusingly, is on the left. Image: public domain.

The Bull Ring is still at the heart of Birmingham life, too, only now it’s a great big shopping centre. St Martin’s Church is still there, too. Here they are together, looking lovely:

Image: Andy G/Wikimedia Commons.

If you’d like us to investigate the historic roots of your city, get in touch.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.