Sometimes a smooth process heralds the approach of atrophy or death.
— Neil Young
One of the most incisive comments I’ve heard or read recently, on any topic, popped up in my Facebook newsfeed last week. I saw the comment because it was shared to the “I Believe in Birmingham” page by its originator, John Morse. A thoughtful and generally astute observer of the local milieu, Morse also is coincidentally (or perhaps not) the founder and curator of the website bhamwiki.com.
In the post that caught my eye last week, Morse raised a point about the ongoing redevelopment of the historic Avondale neighborhood as a dining and nightlife haven. Over the past several years, Avondale has come to be cited routinely as a beacon of Birmingham’s “renaissance” as an up-and-coming city. Without directly — or even necessarily — challenging that article of a certain brand of civic faith, Morse sounded a decidedly cautionary tone.
If you think Avondale was vacant before you moved in, wrote Morse, you’re mistaken. As much commercial activity as is going on there now, there was more business being done and more and bigger paychecks getting written from there 10 years ago. It just looked vacant because the businesses there were building things, not slinging drinks. The “Renaissance” in Avondale makes things look more active and healthy on the surface, and it has certainly boosted investor confidence…but in terms of actual good jobs, it’s a bit of a downgrade.
Like it or not — and there were some who did not, though not vehemently so — Morse has a point, one that applies both specifically to the Avondale experience and to the economic prospects of individual citizens in the city as a whole. To this reader — and on this point, let me stress that I am extrapolating from Morse’s comments, not quoting them — the larger point is that superficial signifiers of progress can obscure the perpetuation of the selfsame systemic inequities that have obstructed actual progress in Birmingham for generations.
I’ll put that another way: The real measure of progress in our community should not be how many people are getting rich in Birmingham, but, rather, how few are living poor.
By this measure, one might be forgiven for indulging in overabundances of caution when it comes to declaring victory in Birmingham’s quest for greatness. That reminds me of another observation I encountered on social media last week, this one from Zac Henson — founder of the nonprofit community development organization Magic City Agriculture Project and an online gadfly with a pronounced dislike of the agents of gentrification in Avondale and elsewhere — who wondered how it is that, in the swell of what statistics say is an economic recovery, the poverty rate in Birmingham continues to rise.
Which, indubitably, it does. A year ago, the city’s poverty rate was 28.9 percent. Today, it is 30.2 percent. Higher poverty, of course, means that Birmingham’s already appalling statistics on public health — we are among the nation’s “leaders” in factors such as heart disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and infant mortality — are only getting worse, despite our status as one of the world’s great medical centers.
Throw in the shortage of affordable housing, inequities in educational funding, inadequate public transportation, and the lack of regular communication and close coordination between the entities — public, private and nonprofit — whose full-on engagement is essential to reducing and eliminating poverty in Birmingham. Throw in these things, and the difficulty of fathoming the ways in which poverty consumes the lives of individuals and corrodes the fabric of community increases a hundredfold.
Throw in, too, the indispensable factor that was the object of John Morse’s admirably pointed comment: Jobs. And not only that — “job creation” in the abstract — but also the kinds of jobs that are predominant in any given case study of economic and community development. With respect to Avondale, that would be the jobs Morse characterized — broadly and ultimately correctly, if a bit undiplomatically — as “slinging drinks.”
But is that true only of Avondale? Think for a moment about the projects that have been — or currently are being — pitched as cornerstones of job growth and economic revitalization for Birmingham. The area surrounding Regions Park and Railroad Park; development of the Entertainment District north of I-20/59, adjacent to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex; new downtown hotels; expansion of the BJCC via construction of a domed multi-purpose facility.
What, by and large, are the “permanent” jobs that will be created as a result of these projects? Flipping burgers, waiting tables, washing dishes, cleaning floors, hustling luggage, driving airport shuttle vans, parking cars — and yes, slinging drinks.
This is to demean neither those jobs nor the businesses that provide them. Many people work such jobs by choice, and many who work such jobs go on to become prosperous. For many others, such jobs are necessary to survival, the difference between mere subsistence and a modicum of stability. Few, however, want to (or can) make a career of any one of them, and in no case are they the foundation for an upwardly mobile population or a community that aspires to sustainable progress and prosperity that extends to all of its citizens.
The difficulty of that task — the level of commitment required to achieve those ends — is made harder by the fact that we live in a time when the very definition of work is changing. I took note of this last fall, in the “Employment” installment of Weld’s ongoing Poverty in Birmingham series, writing that, “The very notion of long-term employment is becoming a thing of the past [while] the expanding concept of who constitutes the ‘working poor’ looms ever larger in our present and future.”
Birmingham, along with the rest of America, is in the process of redefining — or having redefined for us — what it means to be employed, I wrote. That means we’re also rethinking the meaning of terms like unemployed, underemployed and self-employed — as well as the definition of poverty itself. I also quoted from an Economic Policy Institute report on income inequality and changes in the nation’s economic structure over the past 40 years, which said that, “The decoupling of rising growth and falling poverty…means that Americans are working longer and harder but becoming poorer and less economically secure.”
On the one hand, some of the immediate impacts of economic changes at the national and local levels are disturbing. On the other, it creates opportunities at the local level, chances to harness the changing dynamics of employment to policies and programs born of vision, foresight and smart planning — an emphasis on creating jobs by promoting entrepreneurialism and supporting community-based economic development models.
In the face of both these exciting opportunities and the daunting mass of obstacles to its growth and development, Birmingham must do a better job — if, that is, the end to which we aspire is a better Birmingham, as opposed to just one with better restaurants, better beer, better entertainment and the proverbial “better class” of people to partake of them. If a better Birmingham — the best Birmingham — is indeed what we want, then the need for innovation, for reorienting old ways of thinking, for creating opportunities and not just jobs, and for making the tough choices and doing the hard work necessary to transform Birmingham’s culture of self-defeat, is paramount.
How do we make that happen? We do it ourselves. We demand it of others — our fellow citizens, our elected officials, educators, leaders of the corporate and nonprofit sectors. And we settle for nothing less.