• 'Birmingham is a city with civic anemia.'

    The above is a quote from a commenter at The Heaviest Corner, a blog that gives a great deal of insight into what makes the Magic City what it is today.

    This is the city of Birmingham, Alabama.

    It originated as a company town, methodically planned out by men of industry and vast wealth, situated on a number of coal seams that made coal mining and steel production a no-brainer. Located smack dab in the middle of a county staring down the biggest bankruptcy this side of Orange County, CA, the population is currently at 212,000 and falling. It was hit hard by the loss of the steel industry, with a high number of the plants and foundries closing shop around the 1970s, only to reinvent itself as a medical research mecca of sorts, with the University of Alabama at Birmingham at the forefront. With high crime rates, deteriorating city sectors, a laughably corrupt government and a people still divided by racial and urban/suburban strife, this city is hurting. Big time. But there is hope.

    The most recent news of progress is the planned baseball stadium for the "AA" minor league Birmingham Barons, near the recently-developed Railroad Park. The current stadium is located in Hoover, a suburb that's a rather long and inconvenient drive for most people near the city center, and the current attendance numbers reflect that.

    And then there's Railroad Park itself. Located along the rail lines that divide the north and south ends of downtown Birmingham, it's a 19-acre oasis of greenery among an otherwise urban backdrop. And by all accounts, people love it. It's also proof positive of how a little urban redevelopment can help revitalize a dying city.

    But as the quote suggests, this city still has a lot of problems to deal with. More of that after the jump.

    One big problem seems to be a lack of trust between the people and the politicians.

    Alabamians in general hold a deep distrust of politicians, save for their local favorites. The general assumption seems to be that these fellows in office are all corrupt and that any attempt by any of these "scoundrels" to ask for more money to do anything with should be met with absolute suspicion. Unless, of course, it happens to benefit them in a rather direct manner which they can see for themselves. Reason being these "scoundrels" are quick to siphon funds into their own personal accounts and those of their friends in high places.

    So how does that relate to Birmingham, per se? Just hold on.

    Another big problem is the antagonistic racial/ethnic relations between blacks and whites that has made Birmingham famous, and in a bad way. In fact, I don't think I even have to tell anyone reading this why, since it's so well known internationally. A rather fucked-up byproduct of all this is the belief among some whites that the blacks "won" or "conquered" Birmingham, causing a lot of whites to not only flee towards the relative "safety" of the suburbs beyond Red Mountain, but also to not have anything to do with the city. In fact, a lot of people have made their stock in watching the city collapse, presumably so they can show proof positive of the city's ineptitude under Negro management. You can see this backwater collapse fetishism combined with racial animosity on display at AL.com whenever black criminals, the city of Birmingham or black criminals in the city of Birmingham comes up as subject matter.

    Most of these people on the website hail from the formerly rural yet nowadays suburban Shelby County, one which experienced the most gains from Birmingham's "mostly-white flight". These people are, for the most part, in the proverbial peanut gallery, tossing peanuts at civic leaders and people who exemplify the "bad Birmingham" they rail against. There's also a lot of underlying racial animosity lurking under the surface that shows itself every so often when a story such as the completion of the Birmingham Metro CrossPlex in Five Points West, a largely black and somewhat economically depressed area, comes up. Problems that happen in or around the metro area are largely ridiculed and not taken seriously. And cooperation between communities is scant. Every city, from Mountain Brook to Gardendale, is its own island, and those cities would rather die than be forced to cooperate within a unified metro government.

    And then you have the corruption among city officials. For starters, there's former Birmingham mayor (and former Fairfield mayor, and former county commissioner) Larry Langford, currently serving a 15-year sentence in a federal penitentiary on 60 counts, some of those including conspiracy, bribery, fraud and money laundering. Many of his accomplices managed much shorter 5-year terms, at the most. Current mayor William Bell is being called into question for forestalling the cleanup of the tornado-ravaged Pratt City area, thanks to not accepting a deal by the Army Corps of Engineers to clean up the area at next to no cost, while instead preferring to subcontract the task to a number of private firms under the auspices of generating more "minority involvement". Not that there's much wrong with those intentions, but many a road to a hot place was paved with those. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

    And then there's the money. Currently, the city of Birmingham is running on a tight budget, while Jefferson County is some $3.2 billion dollars in the hole thanks to a series of loans made to pay for the EPA-mandated upgrade of the county's sewer facilities, and the untold millions of dollars in penalties stemming from an interest-swap gone horrifically wrong. Sales tax rates within the county can vary between 8% up to 10%. And the county's just lost their Occupational Tax, a way of recouping lost tax dollars from people who live in Shelby County, yet work in Jefferson County.

    The city's public transportation is constantly in doubt. And like many southern states, the state of Alabama reserves its transportation funds solely for roads, which is why the Northern Beltline project holds a larger priority than doing anything to improve the current state of public transportation.  That, and the personal views and stereotypes that some hold of those who take or are most likely to take the bus.

    Combined with the liberal Democrat affiliation of a majority of the politicians involved in Birmingham's civic matters and you have a case where a city could benefit from a unified metropolitan government, but instead deals with an urban core that requires more investment and a broader tax base to revitalize, a largely suburban populace that not only wants nothing to do with the city, but also seeks to strangle it by denying it and the county any raises in tax revenue.

    Last but not least is something that finally ties in to the quoted title. Birmingham has a noticeable lack of self-confidence that other metro areas seem to have. People in places such as Charlotte, Nashville, Chattanooga and Atlanta are fiercely proud of their cities -- it's something that you don't see a lot of from most Birmingham residents. It's a "get-up" "can-do" spirit that the city seems to lack, and that lack has bitten Birmingham in the ass on several occasions. The city has had countless opportunities, from being the major southern hub of Delta Air Lines to having their own major pro-football franchises. There are a number of reasons why those fell through, but the general feeling is that the city somehow didn't deserve any of those things. A feeling of civic inferiority buttressed by a racially motivated 'I-told-ya-so's and an overwhelming desire among some to see the city just dry up and blow away, as has happened to much of Detroit, now that countless square blocks are being reconverted into pastoral land.

    Meanwhile, Atlanta took these opportunities and became the city that was "Too Busy To Hate", while Birmingham largely atrophied from a population of over 300,000 in the 1960s to its current population today.

    Go to the Heaviest Corner and read the 1960 Metropolitan Audit. I'll be back to offer some insight on how the city may be able to gain some confidence and bounce back.

    Panorama of Birmingham, Alabama from Red Mountain (2002).
    Photograph by John Morse, November 2002.