In this space last week, I asked what might happen if Birmingham began to invest in its citizens. The proximate cause of this inquiry was the $5 million that Mayor William Bell and the Birmingham City Council — the “leaders” of a city that currently is operating under a $13 million budget deficit that is going to get worse before it gets better — agreed to spend in return for the privilege of hosting the Democratic National Convention in 2016.
The question I posed was largely rhetorical, intended to call to attention to any number of glaring disparities that have burdened Birmingham for generations. Even in the midst of an exhilarating and long overdue surge of civic pride — whipped to occasional frenzy status by the unprecedentedly positive attention Birmingham continues to receive from a broad sampling of national media outlets both credible and dubious — these disparities weigh on us as heavily as ever.
These are disparities of race and class, of opportunity, of access to the means for a better quality of life, of tangible and sustainable benefit from the expenditure of money and resources that belong to the public. Throughout the history of this community, the public interest has been betrayed so often and so carelessly and so thoroughly that betrayal has become a matter of routine — or worse still, something that is so inextricably ingrained in our manner of governing ourselves that it has become a part of us, as involuntarily natural as breathing — with the result that, collectively speaking, Birmingham is as poor as ever.
Unless and until that cycle is broken at last, Birmingham has no claim on being a great city. And that cycle is not going to be broken until we change the political culture of Birmingham and the surrounding region at large. And the only place I know of to do that is at the ballot box.
In posing my rhetorical question, then, I hoped to engage you in considering the larger question of whether our current elected leaders — as well as those who keep them in office with financial support, those who benefit financially from the expenditure of public dollars and, most especially, those who overlap the two categories — have foremost in their minds the interests of the public, or their own political and pecuniary interests. Actually, to be honest, I hoped to make you a little angry.
Apparently, it worked, at least to some extent. In the days since last week’s column posted on line and appeared in print, I have been approached by quite a number of people who collectively represent a pretty fair cross-section of the community at large. If not exactly angry — perturbed might be a better description — all of them were highly attuned to the idea that the people of Birmingham deserve a lot more utility than we’re getting from government in general, and from our city government in particular.
To be fair, opinions among these folks varied on the subject of the DNC and the cumulative benefit or detriment that ultimately will accrue to Birmingham if it is selected to host the convention. Even those who come down on the “benefit” side, however, agree that the sudden ability to “find” $5 million and the subsequent, headlong encumbrance of it by our cash-poor city government raises larger questions about our priorities — as Jefferson County’s most important city, and as part of the larger regional community.
Another compelling point of unanimity in these conversations was on the need — and the opportunity — to strike while the civic iron is hot. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting things,” one person said to me. “There are things we all want for Birmingham, or that anybody wants who really cares about the city. But I was taught that you take care of your needs before you start chasing your wants. A lot of energy in Birmingham is going toward the wants, and the needs are still stuck by the wayside. We need solutions, and we get distractions. Where are the solutions?”
Comments like that got me thinking, not just about the $5 million we’re willing to spend on the DNC, but about other major commitments of public dollars to projects — up to and including the $350 million or so that would (will?) be required to construct a domed stadium adjacent to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex — to projects whose public benefit is, at best, open to honest debate. It got me thinking about better and higher uses of human and financial resources of such magnitude.
What, for example, would be the impact of committing $350 million to early childhood education, enhanced college prep and vocational classes in high schools, and adult literacy? Would better education improve the quality of our workforce and hence our attractiveness to companies that bring good-paying jobs to our community? Would the children of Birmingham have better prospects for higher education and/or stable long-term employment? Would poverty in Birmingham decrease?
Of course, once you start indulging in this fantasy — and it is a fantasy at this point, because it’s not going to happen within the confines of the current political paradigm — the possibilities become almost endless. Scholarship funds. Training programs. Expanded incentives for entrepreneurs and other small businesses. Seed money (literally) for establishing and maintaining an organized network of neighborhood-based gardens and community-based farms. Building a great mass transit system, interconnected with a comprehensive public transportation network that includes walking, cycling and other forms of non-automobile alternatives. To name a few things off the top of my head that I would rather see happen in Birmingham than a domed stadium, the Democratic National Convention, or the Second Coming of Larry Langford.
Which gets me back to last week’s essential question: What if we invested that kind of money in the people of Birmingham?
We live in a nation that has come to be governed by hype and expedience and the shallow pursuit of superficial signifiers of “success.” That is true of cities as well as people, to the point that entire communities pin their self-image on such signifiers — to, and beyond, a point at which private gain outweighs public benefit in the use of taxpayer dollars.
Is that what we want for Birmingham? Is that the best we can do? Or can we choose to define prosperity in different terms — in terms of inclusion rather than exclusion, broad rather than narrow, deep rather than superficial, enduring rather than fleeting?
If we can accomplish that in Birmingham, it will really get people talking. More importantly, it will make us great — at last and forever.