“The changes in Birmingham in my lifetime have been nothing short of dramatic, and yet Birmingham is still such a status quo town.”
It was almost a decade ago when Richard Arrington Jr. — Birmingham’s first black mayor, its longest serving, and on balance, the closest our city yet has had to a great one — said that to me in an interview. It has come back to me periodically ever since, usually when Birmingham is in the midst, or on the cusp, of taking the seemingly obligatory one step back that has tended to follow on the heels of its every stride or two in the general direction of transformational progress.
Lately, Arrington’s words have been on my mind a lot.
Why? It took me a little while to figure this out, but here it is: I keep hearing, at least in some quarters, how our hardy little burg is stepping up in the world. And, to be fair, I see the suggestions of such in various locales about town as well as the next person. Indeed, a considerable number of the things that I see make me quite happy, if mostly in a superficial kind of way.
That aside, however, I don’t feel so good.
To that admission, let me be quick to append the statement that, having spent my entire adult life in Birmingham, I can appreciate all of the ways in which Birmingham has grown and improved and advanced during those three-plus decades. But having spent much of that time studying and writing about our community’s history, and observing and participating in its political and civic life, I also have a keen awareness of the things we have lost — and an even keener one of the things that remain, at the core, unchanged.
That’s the status quo that Arrington spoke of in 2005. The former mayor was talking about the essential economic, social and political dynamic that has been a bulwark against systemic change in Birmingham — change that would put the resources of the community to work in ways that create opportunities to both broaden and deepen the base of prosperity. Birmingham hasn’t changed in that way because, with the conspicuous exception of the Civil Rights Movement, Birmingham has not proved itself capable of making systemic change. Anyone who has lived in this town long enough to draw water has at least passing familiarity with this civic modus vivendi.
Still, given these perhaps unprecedented times of opportunity and peril — and the persistence of memory, and my nagging feelings — it seemed appropriate to ask Arrington to revisit his assessment of 10 years ago. So I did.
“I just don’t think it has changed very much,” said Arrington, who turned 80 years old last October. “We’re still dealing with a lot of the old issues that have held us back economically and socially, things that have kept us from competing effectively with other cities in the South and elsewhere.”
While acknowledging that Birmingham has “made some progress” over the past 10 years, Arrington said that “we still linger behind” presumptive competitors in terms of job creation and retention and expansion of the city’s tax base through the upward economic mobility of the average citizen. Until those core issues are addressed, he said, Birmingham’s ability to grow and prosper will remain limited.
“Compared to 10 years ago, I think the average citizen in Birmingham is just holding their own,” said Arrington. “On the whole, I don’t think we’ve moved backward — but our movement forward remains very slow.”
My conversation with Arrington took place at about the same time as Birmingham Mayor William Bell’s annual State of the City address to the Birmingham Kiwanis Club. In the speech, Bell highlighted numerous accomplishments of his administration, as well as touching on various plans and initiatives for the coming year. (Weld reporter Cody Owens’ account of the speech and the Mayor’s comments to the media afterward may be found here, and I will write more about it in this space next week.)
Noting the occasion of the State of the City speech, I asked Arrington to assign a grade to Bell’s performance as mayor. He demurred, declaring, “I’m not ready to do that.” Without elaborating, he allowed that Bell has “done well with some things.” But he also alluded to ongoing scrutiny and criticism in the news media and elsewhere of the travel expenses incurred by the mayor and members of his staff, to which Bell’s response has been that the trips are raising Birmingham’s national and international profile and laying the foundation for economic benefits that will flow from the relationships the mayor has established.
“The mayor has presented himself as one who tries to promote the city,” Arrington said. “It remains to be seen what will result from that. I look forward to finding out.”
In the meantime, Birmingham continues to experience change without really changing. The stakes are higher, the opportunities more substantial — and, to be fair to Mayor Bell, the positioning more strategic and sophisticated — than ever before in the history of this community.
And I don’t feel good. The status quo — more about which next week — remains the same.