The Asian district, Sparkhill, Birmingham

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"What's a ghetto?" asks Manesh Chhanya, 16. "Part of a city where lots of people from one ethnic background live," I improvise. "More or less ignored by everybody else." "Yes it is then. That's exactly what Sparkhill is like."

Sparkhill, on the south side of Birmingham, has been a mainly Asian neighbourhood since the 1950s. "You should go to Handsworth ," suggests an Asian girl I meet at the bus stop by the Bullring. "You'll find people of more different colours there. Sparkhill's a bit boring, really."

Neighbourhood centres stand on the Stratford Road, one of those arterial bus-routes that cuts straight through a city from its centre to its suburbs ("like Sunset Boulevard" according to one Sparkhill resident). Between Walford Road to the north and Sparkhill park to the south, the businesses which flank it are almost entirely Asian: Balti houses, food marts and fabric shops, a couple of Muslim bookshops and a cinema that shows only Hindi films.

Competition between shopkeepers is intense: "We have to be careful," explained the assistant in Sonny's dress-shop, when I asked her whether we could photograph her display. Bootlegging of dress-designs is rife. Sparkhill has one of the highest population densities in Britain, but there does not seem to be enough custom to keep all the businesses afloat.

Mushtaq's Diner, a fabulously shiny fast-food joint, has been open on Stratford Road for a couple of months. "The younger generation, they want burgers and pizzas, same as you might want to eat a curry," Bashir Ahmed, Mushtaq's proprietor, explains. The diner has an extract from the Koran picked out in tilework by the counter and a rack of Muslim literature on the wall. "They see the scripture, and they know our burgers are halal." Lunchtime on a Wednesday, however, and Mushtaq's is practically empty. The only customer is Nicholas, a white musician who whiles away the afternoon with half an eye on the TV - an odd scene in a place where most social contact happens at home.

The Balti houses fill up by night with outsiders, during the day, however, they are mostly closed. "If you are a good Muslim," Bashir Ahmed explains, "you will meet your friends at the mosque five times a day when you pray. I don't, because I pray here at work. But that's what we do instead of going to the pub." Women, meanwhile, gather at each other's houses. For the young, the centre for social life in Sparkhill is not the mosque, but the park: "Like most things, the mosques," says Bashir Ahmed, "are run by the older generation. They don't understand how life is changing for the young."

The park is where teenagers go to show off their new trainers, meet their friends and, most important, to smoke cigarettes. "If anybody sees you smoking,'' says one 21-year-old smoker who would rather not be named ``the news will get home before you do. If you're a young Asian, you just get used to living at least two separate lives."

A VISITOR'S GUIDE

LOCATION: Stratford Road, from the Walford Road junction down to Sparkhill Park.

PLACES: Mushtaq's Diner: 440 Stratford Road, B11 (0121-773 8882), 12noon- 5am (yes, really) daily. The Minar Balti House: 7 Walford Road, B11 (1021 773 5734) 6pm-12m't Mon-Sat, 6-11pm Sun. Sonny's dress shop: 375 Strafford Road, B11 (0121-773 8677) 10am-6.30pm Mon-Sat.

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