That Birmingham should boast, of all things, the national sealife centre, designed by Norman Foster, is perhaps the most pleasingly bizarre surprise for anyone who visits the city expecting a wasteland of dire Sixties architecture and post-industrial gloom. Add to this the series of new public spaces and grand buildings as urbane as anything you'll find in, say, Barcelona, Frankfurt or Berne, as well as a healthy crop of smart shops, bars and cafes, and surprise turns to mild shock. But for anyone like myself, who quit the city in the Eighties and whose first sight of native Brummies consisted of a group standing in thick snow, huddled around a brazier chomping on steaming Mr Porky pork rolls, mild shock gives way to bewilderment. Birmingham, what on earth have you been taking?
Actually, pounds 200m of European Union development cash. For decades, the city was a British media joke - Dumb Brum. The accent shorthand for dim-wittedness; the lack of cultural life seen as a symptom of, well, a lack of culture. Then, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, came Spaghetti Junction and its mesh of grim "expressways". Intended to whoosh car drivers to and from a brave new city centre founded on faith in the redeeming power of reinforced concrete, the roads were excellent places - in fact the only places, as pedestrians had been forced underground - from which to watch the high-rise offices and flats mushroom.
But why the jibes about the accent? "There's an innate, upper-middle- class dislike of manufacturing and people connected with it," says Carl Chinn, a historian at Birmingham University and Brummiephile Supreme. "Brummies are always being portrayed in bad ways. It's just the same thing as the Liverpool 'Scallywag', the Cockney 'cheeky chappie', the drunk Glaswegian."
The Eighties recessions killed off most of the large Birmingham factories that had managed to survive the Seventies. The erstwhile "City of a Thousand Trades" peered into the abyss and decided that what was needed was not so much a face-lift, as open-heart surgery. The man wielding the scalpel was Dick Knowles, leader of Birmingham council for much of the Eighties. Knowles quickly evolved into a kind of Midlands Mitterrand, placing emphasis on a series of grands projets - new conference and exhibition spaces, Symphony Hall - that would pave the way for a resurgence based on service industries and their essential condiment, good PR. And huge grants from the EU. In 1993, Knowles was succeeded as council leader by Theresa Stewart, a veteran left-winger who didn't share her predecessor's taste for scaffolding. Since coming to office, Stewart has directed council funds away from building schemes, towards education.
Birmingham's problems were not unique in Eighties Britain, but the city enjoyed two huge advantages over its rivals: it was largely free from the bitter political strife that tore other cities apart, and it enjoyed a high degree of social cohesion. It is, more or less, a happy place. On New Street, once a clog of fumes and noise, but, since it was pedestrianised, a clean, wide, safe place to shop and stroll, a children's morris dance troupe clonked sticks for charity, while, further along on Victoria Square, small groups of tourists drifted from public art work to public art work, pausing for a while to ponder the giant, leaning, rusty Iron Man statue. ("No eyes, no face, no arms, no feet, not mooch of a man if yow ask me," opined one bemused pensioner.)
Yet in New Street and Victoria Square, some kind of new philosophy, a fresh and not entirely English approach to people, becomes apparent. The Iron Man, the woman-in-a-fountain - or "Floozie in a Jacuzzi", as it has been dubbed - the excellent museum, art gallery, library - all of it does indeed point to a European way of life. The impression of Euro-harmony was greatly enhanced last week by foreign tourists, and film crews, scuttling around to seek soundbites on the Eurovision Song Contest, being held at the nearby, of course new, National Indoor Arena. "Is very nice place, very nice," said Victor Hernandez, 25, who had come from Madrid to look for a job as a waiter. "Yes, very nice here," said a reporter from German TV. Others were more forthcoming, among them Anne Cook, who was born in Germany but has lived in the city since 1949. "It's lovely in Birmingham. Here, we have made everything," she said, slapping a Victorian railing. "I got upset about the old buildings being torn down, but it is lovely! People here cling together." Commercialism, culture, private investment, public interest, pools, fountains - this could well be the acceptable face of populism.
"Part of Birmingham's great success lies in the fact that it was never dominated by a great lord of the manor," says Dr Chinn, "and until this century we never even had a bishop. It has always been a free town, nonconformist. In the 19th century, many of the city's great industrialists were Unitarian or Quakers. It's always been a place for peoples to come to - there's been an Italian quarter here and they worked as craftsmen, Jews came here and became tailors, the Birmingham Post was founded in 1857 by an Irishman, even the Chamberlains moved to Birmingham from London."
It's a view echoed by Christopher Game, senior lecturer in local government studies at Birmingham University. "In Birmingham politics, there is a tendency to go back to the times of Joseph Chamberlain, to trace a political lineage to work together for civic pride," says Mr Game. "The big schemes have taken place on something of a cross-party basis. There is strong civic pride that extends across Birmingham. If you lived through the Seventies and Eighties here, maybe you could say that that pride was based on coming through adversity." Dissent, and independence of both established church and London sensibilities, created a city-state mentality among city fathers in the 18th and 19th centuries and engendered a classical model of democratic society that actually worked. By the 1880s Birmingham was known as the "best-governed city in the world". It was a triumph for municipal socialism.
More than a century on, the place is prettier, and cleaner, but is it still Birmingham? "It's not a heritage city," says the writer Jim Crace, a Londoner who moved up in the Seventies. "It didn't get its self-esteem from being a metal-bashing city. It didn't have a good-looking city centre. In fact, Birmingham started because of its physical inadequacy - the land it's built on was bad for agriculture, but was surrounded by good farming land. So a market started.
"It annoys me when people say 'Birmingham is great now you've got Symphony Hall', as if to say the city wasn't great when we didn't have Symphony Hall, when we were an industrial city. The council has spent much time and effort transforming the city, but the truth of the matter is that we were truly vibrant before the building started. What it lacks? What God, if there was a God, should have done was to have given Birmingham a river or something to say 'This is why this city is here'."
But not only does it lack a topographical tag. Soccer, TV dramas, rock music, clubbing have helped "rebrand" Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester. Birmingham is without a unifying concept, or, rather, it is rich in one that has been greatly devalued in the age of service industries.
"We still are a manufacturing city," says Dr Chinn, eyes ablaze with a vision of civic glory that, perhaps, only a true Brummie can fully comprehend. "We are proud of Broad Street, and all the developments, but that's only one aspect of the city. So much industry was lost in the Eighties, but we're still the UK's top manufacturing city. Thirty per cent of Brummies are employed making things. We have twice as many people in manufacturing as Leeds, our nearest rival. But the London media establishment has a problem with us."
Perhaps what it doesn't see is that, as Crace says, "the future of Britain is being played out here. All the problems that Britain is facing are exemplified in Birmingham. This is a Commonwealth city - Yemeni, Indian, Pakistani, West Indian faces - these are some of the relationships that the world has. Yes, pollution, race, unemployment - but all this makes the city vibrant for me."
Vibrant it is. Yet it's probably not quite as go-ahead as the city's advertising copywriters would have us believe. Not yet, anyway. Down at the Bull Ring, five minutes' walk from the cappuccino bars, market- stall holders shuffle their carrots decidedly unimpressed by the imminent arrival in their city of some of the most powerful politicians in the world. "Well, I can't see Clinton coming here to buy some of me strawberries, can yow?" grinned Mick Byrne from behind his fruit and veg stall. "I mean, G8 won't mean anything for traders, will it? Only for hoteliers. The city centre has improved a lot, but round here it's run-down. There's only half the business here there used to be."
Within the next three or four years, the Bull Ring market will be demolished to make way for a pounds 14m new market development. The inner ring-road "concrete collar" will be breached, bringing to a close the current phase of large- scale redevelopment. Only the Rotunda - that once-maligned, but now apparently loved, office "tub" that rises from the old Bull Ring - will be left to laugh at. If you dare.