We wait for the magical moment — sometime in the future — when everything will be as we want it to be.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
One year ago this week, the inaugural print edition of Weld hit the streets. On its cover was Vulcan, his rapt heavenward gaze directed not at the freshly forged spear he holds triumphantly aloft on his pedestal atop Red Mountain, but rather at a placard that heralded “17 Big Ideas for Making Birmingham Better.”
Admittedly, there was some discussion in our office over whether featuring the Big Iron Guy so prominently would be clichéd, or an appropriate and highly purposeful embrace of the enduring symbol of our city. Thankfully, civic pride prevailed. Unanimously.
In all frankness though, the placement of our “Big Ideas” placard could be counted as the latest in a long line of indignities visited upon the upthrust right arm of the Roman god of the forge. The original spear he held was lost in transit when the statue was disassembled and sent home in pieces from its debut at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Once back in Birmingham, the pieces were relegated to rusting behind an outbuilding at the Alabama State Fairgrounds. The torso, head and arms were reassembled in 1906 as an attraction at that year’s State Fair — with the right arm attached backward.
And thus it remained for some months thereafter, as Vulcan functioned, even legless, as the world’s largest cast-iron billboard, lifting skyward all manner of sundries, from ice cream to pickles to Coca-Cola. When the novelty of that wore off, the pieces were taken apart again. Three decades would pass before the statue was reassembled fully in its current location.
Then came the torch. Resembling nothing so much as a giant Popsicle, the torch that replaced Vulcan’s spear in 1946 — when it was installed “temporarily” to help promote a traffic safety campaign — stayed there until the statue was taken down for restoration in 1999. Another mistake that went uncorrected for decades — boy, Vulcan really is a great symbol for Birmingham — and probably would have gone on for a few more except that the world’s largest cast-iron statue began coming apart at the seams. The deterioration had become so severe that Vulcan’s right arm actually was in danger of falling off — or worse, that the entire structure might give way and come crumbling right off the pedestal.
All of which is a long way of saying that maybe Weld and its 17 Big Ideas isn’t the worst thing that Vulcan ever involuntarily endorsed. To the contrary, we think it might be the best.
Sticking to the Template
This is a good time to point out that these were not Weld’s ideas. They came from 17 local citizens, each of whom we invited to share an idea for “helping Birmingham fulfill its long-lived potential at last.” The group responded with a range of thoughts that, according to that first cover story, “constitute a template for improving and enhancing our community.”
In revisiting the Big Ideas one year later, two things are striking. First is the progress — or at least movement in progressive directions — that has been made in some of the areas identified by our correspondents. Second is that several key successes have made impacts that touch on any number of the ideas provided by our correspondents.
Case in point: The $10 million TIGER grant the city of Birmingham received from the U.S. Department of Transportation in June. The grant is helping to repair tornado-damaged roads in Pratt City and facilitate implementation of the 33.6-mile Red Rock Ridge and Valley greenway and trail system that ultimately will span Jefferson County. The success of the city’s application was the result of many months work involving a coalition of public, private and nonprofit entities. That coalition included the municipalities of Fairfield, Homewood and Midfield, in addition to Birmingham; it also included Alabama’s two United States senators and Birmingham’s two representatives in Congress.
Passably concise as it is, that description of the TIGER grant process contains elements of at least 10 of the 17 Big Ideas. Take the observation from Freshwater Land Trust executive director Wendy Jackson that “greenways will not only create health benefits, but will also generate more economic development opportunities.” Or the exhortation from then-Jefferson County Health Officer Michael Fleenor’s exhortation to “get healthy.” Or the several overlapping ideas about investing in education, becoming civically engaged, identifying opportunities for effective community action and just plain being a good neighbor.
The same is true of numerous other issues and opportunities Birmingham faces at present and in the years just ahead. Public interest in the Birmingham City Schools has not been so widespread or intense for many years prior to 2012. Now, thanks to the sustained actions of several loosely affiliated groups of parents, educators and other concerned citizens — not to mention the intervention of the state of Alabama — the public school system of Alabama’s largest city is receiving the attention it needs and deserves if it is going to be expected to fulfill its critical educational mission.
“What Birmingham needs more than anything is a collective understanding of the importance of educating the city’s youth,” wrote Mia Watkins, then a graduate journalism student, now a reporter for the Birmingham News. That was the most direct expression of the connection between education and making Birmingham better, but the connection was also apparent in more than a handful of other ideas, from Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper’s strategy for reducing juvenile crime, to the call from Greater Birmingham Ministries executive director Scott Douglas to abandon the silos of race and class that have held the city back, to strategic management guru Colin Coyne’s advice that the people of Birmingham “step up and be the architects of our destiny.”
The Future is Now — But It Won’t Be for Long
Something is happening in Birmingham. Amid the usual cacophony of naysaying and negativism, of dreams deferred, promise perpetuated and prophesies of failure self-fulfilled, there is a rising chorus of good feeling. For some reason, a growing number of people seem to be optimistic about our community and its future.
Written a year ago by way of introducing the “17 Big Ideas,” that paragraph rings as true today, because the sense of optimism has not diminished. What’s more, it is becoming manifest in a growing variety of ways. The fresh food movement and the flourishing of the food culture in general; the remarkable urban renewals afoot in Avondale and Woodlawn; the new downtown baseball park; a growing environmental consciousness; the continually evolving local beer culture; genuine grassroots efforts to organize communities for economic and social change; clubs for runners, walkers, bicyclers, canoeists, gardeners, beekeepers, you name it — if these things are not, ultimately, expressions and outgrowths of optimism, then what are they? The last gasps of a dying city?
Not to say that Birmingham doesn’t have its problems. The people who provided the Big Ideas acknowledged that, even as they envisioned a better city. Deficiencies in public health — in a place that is one of the world’s great centers for medicine and scientific research — were noted. Poverty, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, obesity, heart disease. All were mentioned as obstacles to progress, as were political corruption and its lingering economic impacts, the fragmented system of governance in the Birmingham region and the persistence of race and class as the fault lines of civic identity.
In terms of their effect on the collective tone of the Big Ideas, such considerations lent an undertone of urgency to the general optimism. This is the time, our correspondents seemed to say. The stars are aligning and there will never be a better chance for Birmingham to become itself than right now.
To which might be added the suggestion that the process of becoming — as evidenced by all of the developments listed or alluded to here and many more — is proceeding apace. Indeed, maybe we shouldn’t think of it in terms of becoming better, but rather make it our goal and purpose to be a better Birmingham every day. Sharrif Simmons, the spoken word artist who founded the BAAM arts and music festival, captured this notion in suggesting that the solution to Birmingham’s problems and the path to optimizing its opportunities is not in “outside stimulus or promotional gimmicks,” but through looking within to build civic self-esteem. He even provided a mantra.
“I love myself and I love my city,” Simmons wrote. “The past does not define me; my future is what I choose to make it.”
Businessman Solomon Kimerling also urged that Birmingham look inward for answers. Becoming the community we want to be, Kimerling insisted, means embracing innovation, taking positive action, making fundamental changes in the way Birmingham operates.
“It requires that we develop a new civic DNA that prompts us to remove barriers to business development, fully educate our workforce and construct a matrix for improving governance and the welfare of our citizens,” wrote Kimerling.
The Tide of Change
As Weld enters its second year of existence, the momentum of progress continues to build. But it bears remembering that Birmingham has been here before, on the cusp of transformation, only to have the wave of progressive action fail to crest, crashing instead against the bulkhead of status quo thinking. This community has yet to overcome the inclination of certain segments of the community to bemoan problems without proposing solutions — or, in some cases, to perpetuate problems in the service of narrow political agendas or heedless self-interest. But we’re headed in the right direction.
That the present — right now, today, this moment — might be Birmingham’s last best chance to harness the tide of change is a conviction that has taken root throughout the community. That conviction, along with acknowledgement of the hard work that is required of those who would lend their time and efforts to making Birmingham better, was part and parcel of the 17 Big Ideas — and will remain at the core of Weld’s community mission. That first cover story, a year ago, captured the attitude that will be necessary to “build a positive civic identity and a sense of shared purpose that will carry our community to new heights.”
In both their optimism and their practicality, the story said, these committed citizens of Birmingham exemplify a key foundational premise of Weld. Like them, we do not subscribe to the notion that critical examination of Birmingham’s problems and positive thought and action about its future are mutually exclusive.
Now there’s a thought that’s worthy of Vulcan’s regard.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.