While the thought of metropolitan government in Birmingham is a pipe dream unlikely to be realized during the lifetime of anyone reading this column, we have lately begun to show signs of developing the type of metropolitan perspective that other communities have proved essential to sustained economic growth and continued social progress. From the newly proposed regional transit system, to nascent discussions of shared public services, to the panel presently studying the feasibility of a domed sports stadium, there is evidence that Birmingham is at last ready to move toward full maturity.
I wrote that.
For those who know me — or those who just read my column regularly, for which please accept my sincerest thanks — there is no cause for surprise in being presented with a passage wherein I extol the possibilities of Birmingham and call for finding ways in which the various and sundry municipal and county governments that comprise our metropolitan region can work together to assure a prosperous future for us all. I do that kind of thing often, whenever I’m not using my soapbox to beat up on poor Mayor Bell, or promote the notion that that the Alabama Department of Transportation’s plan for expanding Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham is a perpetuation of our state government’s racist history, or wonder how Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley can sleep at night when people are dying as the result of his firm refusal to expand Alabama’s Medicaid system.
I’ve written these kinds of things — you know; things that make people feel happy with themselves and good about their community — for years. I’ve written them because I thought, and continue to think, that Birmingham has always been short of the sort of editorial exhortation that, like metropolitan government, is a common characteristic of communities that have grown and prospered and thrived while ours has not.
And therein lies the problem: I wrote the paragraph cited above in May of 1997, in a column for the city paper Black & White that ran under the headline “Growing Pains.”
The need for regional communication, cooperation and coordination, including shared municipal services. The prospect of improvements in our mass transit system. The feasibility of a domed stadium. I was writing about those things 18 years ago last month — and, judging by the fact that Birmingham is still talking about them, I might well have been writing 18 minutes ago. Not to belabor the point, but here are a few other excerpts from that same column, for which the subhead was, “The Five Most Important Issues Birmingham Will Face in the Next Five Years”:
[V]oter turnout in city council elections has degenerated from borderline shameful to nothing short of atrocious….
It is difficult to overstate the importance of education to the economic and social life of a community. Of course, you’d be hard pressed to prove it by the state of the Birmingham City Schools or that of any number of other elementary and secondary systems around Jefferson County and the metropolitan area. As a unit, the Birmingham MSA is among regional leaders in per-pupil expenditures — and near the bottom in pupil performance as measured by standardized test scores. Decaying facilities, declining standards, misplaced priorities, and the misuse of already tight budget dollars have many systems in near-crisis mode at present.
Over the past couple of decades, Birmingham’s efforts to attract new industry have not only lagged behind those of the South’s acknowledged economic leaders — Atlanta, Charlotte, Orlando — but our city has also been caught and passed by such competitors as Nashville, Jacksonville, Raleigh/Durham, and even Greenville, South Carolina.
The more things change, huh? Oh, and just for good measure, here’s one more little nugget from that 1997 column: As for UAB, don’t be surprised if you begin to hear renewed talk of the university declaring its independence from the U of A system.
Well, okay, so that last one actually took the full 18 years to become a full-fledged topic of conversation. It did so, of course, when UAB president Ray Watts discontinued the school’s football program, thus causing thousands of people in Birmingham to recall that the university had a football program — and that, furthermore, lo and behold and saints preserve us, said program is indispensable to the wellbeing of UAB, the city and all of its citizens.
Amid the circus of bad public relations moves that took place between Blazer football’s termination in December and its reinstatement, as announced June 1, legitimate questions were raised regarding UAB’s representation on the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, and the BOT’s disposition toward UAB and its future (as well as about Watts’s fitness for the job he currently holds). That talk continues to include calls for UAB to bolt the UA system, though that seems an unlikely outcome, given the necessity of going through the Alabama Legislature to make it happen.
As for those other blasts from my — and Birmingham’s — past? Well, those we have never stopped talking about. And talking. And talking. And talking some more. But not much has happened. Quick, answer these questions (to save you a little time, I’ll tip you off that for each of them, the correct answer is “No”):
Does Birmingham have a well-funded, comprehensive mass transit system that is fully integrated with alternative modes of non-automobile transportation?
Is the Birmingham City Council more responsive to the needs of citizens than it was in 1997?
As a whole, is our regional educational complex meeting the instructional and developmental needs of students and families and providing local employers with a world-class workforce?
Is Birmingham attracting the kind of jobs that help people lift themselves out of poverty? Does our current rate of job growth compare favorably with those of the Southeast’s leading growth centers?
So, a lot of “No’s. But, by golly, we’re still talking. About the same problems, the same challenges, the same obstacles to growth and progress that touch all corners of our community.
Which also is fine. Except, it seems, if you want to take a point of view that runs counter to the popular narrative of Birmingham’s ongoing “renaissance.” When Bob Dylan was touring the world in 1966 after angering his folk music fan base by “going electric,” he was backed by a group that later would become The Band — except for drummer/vocalist Levon Helm, who quit after the tour’s American dates rather than listen any more to the cascade of boos and jeers that rained onto the stage night after night. Years later, Helm recalled the scene he fled with a characteristic tinge of irony.
“Man,” Helm said, “them beatniks was tough.”
Well, so are them folks who believe in Birmingham, if the barbs being thrown at Al.com columnist Chuck Dean are any indication. Over last weekend, Dean had the temerity to write a column that took the position that Birmingham is not a “destination” city for tourists and other folks looking to entertain or edify themselves. It was right there in his first sentence: “Birmingham is not a destination city.” And from there, Dean went on to rope everybody from Bull Connor to Bear Bryant into the conclusion that, despite the increasing number of nice things we have in Birmingham, the only real “destination” we have is UAB Hospital, to which people from all over the world come for medical care and treatment.
Now, I’m not taking Dean’s side here; in fact, I disagree substantially with his conclusion, though I would point out that it’s hard to argue with the facts that he presents on the way there. More to my point here, though, is the fact that I frankly worry infinitely less over whether Birmingham is a destination city than whether it is the best city it can be for the people who live here.
I don’t mean to suggest that those two things can’t — or shouldn’t — go hand-in-hand. I have loved — or, if you prefer, believed in — Birmingham for a long time. I’m proud of my city, warts and all, and pleased when people who don’t live here have good things to say about it. But, having taken the time to look back, and to find that I have been writing about the same problems for two decades — and to know that they existed for decades before that, makes me wonder if we’ll ever have the fortitude it takes to get Birmingham over the hump.
Part of developing that fortitude is the ability to take criticism — and to criticize ourselves. One of the things that have kept Birmingham from developing a strong sense of civic identity is our collective unwillingness to engage in the kind of self-reflection that is necessary for growth.
Chuck Dean has been a respected journalist for more years than most of the people who are taking his criticism so personally have been alive. Like me, he has seen Birmingham positioned to make a great leap forward on any number of occasions, only to discover time and again that nobody ever went broke betting that Birmingham would shoot itself in the foot.
That doesn’t mean that Dean doesn’t love Birmingham, or that he’s rooting against its getting over the hump at last. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that perhaps his intent was to stir the pot by challenging readers with a dose of reality — to encourage us that, as we consider where we want Birmingham to be and to go, we maintain a realistic view of where have been and where we are at this moment.
In Birmingham, of all places, we should be tolerant of that.