Birmingham is on the rise.
The city’s unusually large – and perhaps unprecedented – amount of positive national publicity in 2013 began on New Year’s Day, when Kate Maxwell of Jetsetter.com listed Birmingham among the top tourist destinations in the world during a spot on The Today Show. Earlier this month, Associated Press reporter Jay Reeves extolled the “renaissance” in Birmingham, writing that “It feels like Birmingham finally is emerging from the shadows cast by the ugly racial violence of 1963.” Most recently, Birmingham was named a 2013 All-America City, earning that designation for the first time since 1971.
As Reeves alluded to, the success of a number of Civil Rights commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Birmingham’s civic annus horribilis, 1963, seems to indicate that Birmingham has finally come to terms with its difficult, stratifying history. Culturally, Birmingham’s culinary scene is among the finest in the nation, and its burgeoning beer and cocktail industries are beginning to thrive. And once again, the Barons are back in Birmingham, selling out games at a lovely new stadium whose classic signage evokes the glories of days gone by.
In a time of apparent progress, in a city so long beaten down by negativity and mismanagement, it seems incongruous to put a damper on the excitement. But amid the long-delayed pats on the back, an important question arises in the Magic City: is the city revitalizing, or is it gentrifying?
A quiet controversy
One of the reasons gentrification is rarely bandied about amid the designated renaissance of the Magic City is that it’s a subtle issue to define, and a subtler one to find and isolate in Birmingham. In short, gentrification is the transformation of a neighborhood, usually in a lower-income area, into something different through the influx of new money, new populations and new tastes.
According to the traditional model, rising property values and better schools mean increases in rent and property taxes that the established populations of those neighborhoods can’t keep up with. The result is the displacement of people with long, meaningful histories in an area scattered to places they can afford by this avalanche of new factors.
This model takes on some uncomfortable resonances in Birmingham that any longtime resident should be familiar with. Birmingham’s largest population migrations took place in the “White Flight” of the ‘50s and ‘60s, as much of Birmingham’s affluent white population beat a hasty retreat to such suburbs as Hoover and Vestavia Hills. The people currently spearheading the revitalization – or gentrification – of Birmingham 50 years later are the (largely white) descendants of that exodus.
In Birmingham particularly, the specter of gentrification also raises some difficult questions. For instance, in the midst of our city’s much-touted renaissance, how do we account for the fact that Birmingham was yet again rated one of the 10 most dangerous cities in America? In a June 13 article at 24/7WallSt.com, Birmingham was ranked seventh-worst, sitting between New Haven, Connecticut, and Stockton, California, with 1,517.8 violent crimes per 100,000 citizens and a poverty rate of 32 percent. A June 21 piece from the same site noted that nearly a third of the foreclosed homes in the greater Birmingham area have been abandoned, good for fourth-worst in the country.
Even within the revitalization process, Birmingham hasn’t been able to avoid controversy. The Hope VI program, for example, is a government plan to heal urban blight by replacing old projects with mixed-income housing, a well-intentioned policy with the potential for unforeseen consequences. Birmingham’s first Hope VI project, Park Place, replaced the old Metropolitan Gardens public housing in 2004.
Despite the incorporation of low-income housing to Park Place, only 60 of Metropolitan Gardens’ 2,500 residents returned to the new projects. Even though the overall quality of life might have materially improved downtown, 2,440 residents left the area in the process. As Dr. Zac Henson, an advocate for social and economic justice in Birmingham, argued in an essay for Weld, perhaps this process of revitalization is just segregation by another name, one that “will simply rearrange the zip codes in which races live.”*
For a city in the midst of a revival, there are clearly some major problems still plaguing Birmingham. Whether you call it revitalization or gentrification, concerns that call to mind thoughts of race, class and even the taint of segregation are still present amid the optimism.
In defense of progress
David Fleming, the CEO of REV Birmingham, a nonprofit that spurs on economic and community development in the city, was quick to defend the direction of the city’s civic planning.
“I always want to understand what people really say when they talk about gentrification,” Fleming told Weld in an interview. “People see neighborhoods and houses that are run-down and they talk about that as a terrible thing and decry it. And then, when people start to move back into those neighborhoods, another group will say, ‘Oh, what a terrible thing to have new people in these neighborhoods.’ I sort of feel like we can’t have it both ways. We either want strong, stable neighborhoods in the city, or we don’t.”
Fleming’s background in community and economic development stretches back 15 years, including work with both of REV’s precursors, Operation New Birmingham and Main Street Birmingham, as well as orchestrating their merger last year. A Crestwood resident, Fleming says his commitment to Birmingham’s redevelopment outside of merely the city center is genuine, “Or else I wouldn’t be doing the job I’m doing.”
Fleming looks at the history of the neighborhoods REV renovates with respect, rather than with callous disregard or a glib, sentimental appreciation of their charms. “Physically, we want to see areas build off the history that’s there – the historical buildings and assets that are there – because we don’t believe it makes economic sense to have a policy of destruction,” Fleming said. “You can’t just knock everything down and rebuild…it makes a lot more sense to try and adapt and reuse neighborhoods as they are. It’s also what makes them unique, and we think that uniqueness is an asset, not a liability.”
Like Brant Beene, whose Birmingham Landmarks nonprofit is currently renovating the Lyric Theatre, Fleming understands that Birmingham’s unique character is what makes it special, not a potential for growth after the fashion of Atlanta. Nor does he look at REV’s work as somehow rescuing neighborhoods. “We don’t see our job as to come in from outside and do some things we think are best,” Fleming said. “We try to build from the grassroots up, and that’s a long, slow, hard process.”
Fleming was also quick to defend the necessity of targeting civic planning, investment and advertising to attract immigration from the suburbs. “This is a city that has been hemorrhaging population for at least 20 years, if not more,” Fleming said. “Even with some great pockets downtown, or in Avondale, or even starting to happen in Woodlawn, this city is still a long way from turning around its population decline.” Although he acknowledges that property values have risen sharply in the core of downtown, Fleming feels that high levels of displacement for low-income residents haven’t really happened in Birmingham.
At the same time, Fleming asserts the need for vigilance when it comes to potential displacement. Citing the widespread displacement of poor residents in eastern Atlanta during its gentrification, he spoke of the value of a holistic approach to revitalizing neighborhoods, one in which community leaders and entrepreneurs would not only direct investment, but also safeguard against displacement.
“A just society is always going to make sure that if gentrification happens, it happens with justice,” Fleming said. “It’s going to make sure that there’s always an affordable housing net for people that need it.”
In an arena dominated by market forces, Fleming and REV are forced to make pragmatic choices with their investment, looking at the mission of revitalization strategically rather than idealistically. “In every major city you go into, you’ll find areas of vibrancy and growth and potential, and you’ll find areas where there are not,” Fleming said. “You’ve got to build out from areas of strength.”
While downtown prospers and trendy places like Avondale continue to attract Southern Living editorials along with new residents, much of Birmingham is still waiting for the benefits to arrive.
The Gentrification Series
In a city whose history is so dominated by clear-cut black and white issues, it’s somewhat ironic that its latest challenge is fundamentally gray and difficult to define. More than a question of good or evil, gentrification is a concerning issue, one that requires a great deal of honesty, cooperation and time to even begin to unravel.
With that in mind, Weld is starting a new Gentrification Series, beginning with this brief preamble. As we weave together oral histories, news stories, case studies and more, we’ll focus on the central questions that make gentrification such a thorny topic:
- What’s the difference between gentrification and revitalization?
- Who does gentrification help and who does it hurt?
- How does the process actually happen?
- Where is it happening in Birmingham?
- Which places have resisted it, and why?
- And if gentrification really is only segregation by another name, what’s a better, realistic alternative?
The great wit and journalist H.L. Mencken once wrote that “For every complex problem there is an answer that is simple, clear and wrong.” The temptation toward quick, monochromatic answers is strong on either side of this issue. But a complex problem demands complex answers.
*UPDATE: Copy corrected at 8:25 p.m. to reflect that Zac Henson is a doctor, not a student.