There are two Birminghams.
At least two.
The historical reason for our two Birminghams is known to most of us. Our history of racial segregation and economic colonialism is pretty widely known. The result of Birmingham operating under those conditions for nearly all of its first 100 years, has left people of good intentions trying to overcome a terrible legacy–a legacy of unprincipled abuse leads to a world of fear and doubt and mistrust.
How can any white man, in a suit, be trusted?
And, that was an undercurrent of the message that I heard at the open City Council meeting held March 17th on the issue of consideration of proposed changes to the Mayor-Council Act of 1955. The meeting was called to address the political question. The political question quickly devolved into one of racial politics pitting whites (always described as Republican plantation owners) against blacks (always, citizens of Birmingham). (Never mind that I and other white citizens of Birmingham were in attendance in support of the City Council.)
And, it got worse. Those who would support efforts to strip the City Council of its current authorities are reinstituting slavery—and if they are black folk doing so, they are Uncle Toms carrying the water for their white masters. It was said—with a straight face– that whites are moving back into Birmingham to take over the control of the City from African-Americans. (Never mind that even if there was a conspiracy to do just that, the numbers are so disproportionate that such could never happen in our lifetimes.) Inflammatory language was used that rivals any racist comments made anywhere and anytime—including a description of some whites who are moving back into the East Lake area being—“you know–not the kind of whites that are good for the area.”
I found this appalling. And what was also appalling is that I did not hear one (of the so many) pastor’s voice raised to decry the depiction of this being a racial issue as opposed to what it was—a raw political power play that should be defeated. Expecting rationality in the midst of this heated political issue though is probably irrational itself.
But, what was even more appalling than this? There was the utter lack of involvement and engagement of white business leadership of the City in attendance. To my eye, there was not one white so-called “business leader” nor one white non-profit leader in attendance. The message heard loud and clear by Birmingham’s black residents by the total absence of such white leadership, was “it’s not our problem” and “we don’t care.”
So, what is the legacy of two Birminghams?
The legacy of two Birminghams can be summed up simply as this: all of the development in the City Center, Lakeview and Avondale, including Regions Park, Railroad Park, new condominiums, new restaurants, do not directly address the need for help for the neighborhoods of Birmingham suffering economic decline. Such development only attracts white people to come to the City to play and in some cases to live.
Both the Council and the Mayor are between a rock and a hard place. The residents vote them into their jobs, and the residents want attention paid to their neighborhood infrastructure. But, the Council and the Mayor understand that the revenue to do anything meaningful in the neighborhoods is dependent upon the growth of the City Center and entertainment districts such as Avondale, Lakeview and Uptown. That is, the ad valorem tax base in the neighborhoods alone cannot sustain needed neighborhood improvements. (In FY 2015, the Revenues for the City were budgeted to be $390 million of which only $23 million [less than 6%] were to come from ad valorem property taxes). So, no growth in sales tax and license fees, means no money to fund neighborhood infrastructure improvement.
Regrettably, today when a politician tries to explain the economic facts of life, that politician becomes the enemy of those who live in needy neighborhoods.
The goal for 2017 should be to get voters to see the larger picture. Baking a bigger and better pie will drive revenues to the City Budget, so that the serious problems of blight, flooding and crime and schools can be tackled. Then, it is a matter of electing people—regardless of race– who don’t have a vested interest in the jobs and contracts to be let to do the work—but only have a vested interest in having the work truly, properly and meaningfully accomplished for the good of the City and the residents of Birmingham.
The answer to “There are two Birminghams” must be “We are all in this together.” We are going to succeed together or we are going to fail separately and miserably. My hope and prayer is that there are enough people of good will who will encourage our resident citizens to lay aside their mistrust and leave racism in the trash bin where it belongs.
Maury Shevin—passionate about the City of Birmingham–lives, works, thinks and plays on Birmingham’s Southside.
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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Maury Shevin. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.