Editor’s Note: In this issue of Weld, we debut a new column allowing reasoned voices from the community to be heard on important issues. You are invited to submit your commentary to email@example.com.
By Zac Henson
Residential segregation is the most pressing issue on metro Birmingham’s urban development agenda. And with Birmingham’s solution, its attempt to attract whites back to the city, the redevelopment of the city center is doomed to reproduce the mistakes of the past.
In the mid-1960s, the footsteps of civil rights activists marching through the streets of Birmingham sent the city’s urban white residents fleeing for the hills of Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, and Hoover. It left the city just as fractured and segregated along racial lines as ever.
Now, 50 years later, the footsteps and flurry of activity are returning to downtown Birmingham with the revitalization of the city’s urban center. But if Birmingham planners aren’t careful, the end result might be the same as it was in the 1960s: a segregated city.
While Birmingham legally solved its issue of being a segregated city and having segregated schools decades ago, the resulting de facto separation of black and whites geographically has plagued Birmingham’s progress and image ever since.
Unfortunately, Birmingham’s solution, an affluent remake of the city’s downtown, seems doomed to reproduce segregation. The city’s economic development plan will only deepen and sustain the geographic and economic segregation of Birmingham. It will simply rearrange the zip codes in which races live.
Birmingham’s economic development strategy, while not explicitly declaring so, implies that the solution to the city’s woes comes from the hills — wealthy whites returning to repopulate the city they forsook during the battles between the segregationists and the civil rights activists. It relies on gentrification.
In other words, the issue that caused the whites to leave is the same issue that is causing them to return: there are too many black people in downtown Birmingham.
Data bears this out. The harbingers of gentrification are clear. The percentage of black homeowners in the area has dropped 23 percentage points. Most of this is due to 400 percent increase in new housing, which has gone almost exclusively to whites. Blacks in the area have decreased by about 12 percent. Property values have increased by about 90 percent, pricing out low-income homebuyers. The demolition of Metropolitan Gardens resulted in a net loss of almost 600 low-income housing units and only about 60 of 2500 people from Metropolitan Gardens moved into Park Place. That’s a lot of displacement. Clearly, Birmingham’s economic development strategy is displacing a black neighborhood downtown and replacing it with a white one.
The late Neil Smith, geographer at City University of New York, argued that gentrification has become the conventional wisdom for urban development. While he worked almost exclusively in New York, other cities have undergone similar processes. Cities like Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, and many more have seen large neighborhoods of color displaced and replaced by whites — gentrification.
However, all hope is not lost, at least not yet. Birmingham can still pursue a different, better, more integrated vision for the city’s revitalization, one worthy of the much-vaunted and beloved Birmingham Pledge, a proper legacy to the vision of the Civil Rights Movement. The city should focus on cooperatives and community land ownership.
Cooperatives would offer bottom-up economic opportunities by creating businesses owned by workers. Community land ownership would do much the same by taking abandoned and blighted properties and putting them in the hands of the neighborhoods in which they exist. This, in fact, might be the most important step, given the city’s troubled history with segregation, past and present.
An integrated city is impossible without whites returning downtown. However, if the net result is simply displacement of blacks, as the data currently indicates, then we achieve nothing. A buttress against such gentrification is community land ownership and cooperative development.
It has worked elsewhere, notably Richmond, California. The profiles here are similar – more than 70 percent of both cities are people of color, both have poverty levels higher than 20 percent, and both are aging industrial cities. But the paths to revitalization couldn’t be more different. Birmingham is seeking high levels of capital investment to remake neighborhoods in an affluent, trendy fashion. In contrast, Richmond has adopted a bottom-up strategy by creating a network of worker-owned cooperatives and a community land trust. This has, in effect, placed control of economic development not in the hands of real estate magnates, business community advocates, city hall, and banks, but in the hands of regular, everyday people.
While gentrification in Birmingham is not a complete process, momentum is building. Now is the time for leaders, from the neighborhood level to city hall and beyond, to adopt a less conventional strategy for urban development, one that can capitalize on Birmingham’s unique strengths and address its — in some ways profound — weaknesses.
And, perhaps, then, Birmingham will finally complete the march civil rights activists started so many years ago. Perhaps then the city will finally be integrated.
Statistics are either from census tract data, from Charles Connerly’s book, The Most Segregated City in America, or were originally reported by The Birmingham News.
Zac Henson is a scholar and activist, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, and the President of Magic City Agriculture Project. Views expressed in My View do not necessarily reflect the views of Weld management or staff.