Last week, this space was devoted to a conversation I had with former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington Jr. regarding the current state of the city he led for 20 years before stepping down in 1999. Our chat was prompted by my recollection of a remark Arrington made to me back in 2005, observing that while “the changes in Birmingham in my lifetime have been nothing short of dramatic,” our city remained, at that time, “a status quo town.”
Today, with Birmingham in the midst of a period of civic good feeling springing from notable new developments that some have dubbed a “renaissance,” it seemed appropriate to ask Arrington if his decade-old assessment still applies. Given my native skepticism — and, if I may be permitted this immodesty, my knowledge of Birmingham’s social and political history — I was not surprised when he opined, with more than a trace of regret in his voice, that “I just don’t think it has changed very much.”
My own conclusion in last week’s column was that Birmingham “continues to experience change without really changing.” Without question, we have become more adept at presenting a new and improved civic face to the rest of the world and, accordingly, have been experiencing an unprecedented run of positive national attention. There is nothing wrong with that, certainly; but unless you believe that skillful public relations is its own reward, then surely Birmingham’s continuing lack of progress on what Arrington referred to as “the old issues that have held us back” — the stubborn persistence of Birmingham’s status quo — is a matter of concern to you.
What are these issues? Well, not to make a habit of this immodesty bit, but they are the issues that Weld has covered diligently since its inception, and which we have highlighted in our ongoing “Poverty in Birmingham” series. Education, mass transit, public health, affordable housing, job creation, race relations — on these fronts, our record of progress is halting and sadly checkered at best. At worst, it is nonexistent.
And then there is poverty itself, the “wicked problem” that overarches and connects virtually every obstacle to progress we face as a community. And, despite what some — pointing to the abundance of superficial signs of progress around us — would have us believe, that problem is getting worse, not better. When we began compiling information for our series on poverty early in 2014, the poverty rate in the city of Birmingham was 28.9 percent; according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, it now stands at 30.2 percent.
Tied to all of this — the seeming intractability of Birmingham’s age-old problems, and our seeming inability or unwillingness to address them in meaningful and substantive ways — is the question of leadership, both public and private. Look at the cities with which Birmingham competes, or at least fancies itself competing, and one of the differences you find is the presence in those places of a political culture where there is a much lower incidence of corruption and incompetence, combined with the presence of business leaders who go out of their way to set the tone for hands-on civic engagement and pave the way for transformation that manifests from the ground up.
In Birmingham, we talk about such things, but we don’t do much about them. In fact, I submit that if you want to get some idea of the extent to which our acceptance of the status quo is ingrained, then you need to start at the top, with our current mayor.
William Bell was first elected to the Birmingham City Council in the fall of 1979. In the ensuing three-and-a-half decades, Bell has held one office or another — including three months as interim mayor after Arrington’s voluntary early resignation in 1999 — for all but the four years he spent in the political wilderness after losing his council seat in 2001.
Bell won back the District 5 council seat in 2005, and then moved to the Jefferson County Commission in a 2008 special election to replace Larry Langford, who had been elected mayor of Birmingham. He was elected mayor in another special election in 2010, after Langford was removed from office following his conviction on corruption charges. Since then, owing to both his foreshortened first term and another election occasioned by a legislative act that aligned the four-year terms of Birmingham’s mayor and city council to run concurrently, he was reelected as mayor in 2011 and 2013. It’s also worth noting that he lost three previous bids for mayor — 1999, 2003 and 2007 — while holding his seat on the city council.
Now, I’m not about to suggest that every bad thing that has happened in Birmingham since 1979 is attributable to William Bell, any more than every good thing that has happened, since then or since 2010, is due to his diligence and hard work on behalf of the public. I will be the first to assert that mayors by and large get too much credit for things that are good, and too much blame when things that are bad — which, in turn, makes it absolutely fair for me to do what I’m doing here, which is using Bell’s long and largely undistinguished time in elective office as a surrogate for the status quo, for Birmingham’s collective acceptance that things are the way they because that’s the way they always have been.
With that in mind, let us consider that since Bell became a servant of the public all those years ago, the poverty rate in Birmingham has grown by 46.4 percent. During the same period, the median household income actually has declined by 11 percent in constant dollars, from $35,316 in 1979 to the current $31,445. Again, this is not an indictment of Bell personally — not necessarily, anyway — but rather a means of raising a rather simple question of a generation and more of presumptive leaders of our community.
That question is, Why? Why is it that Birmingham can change the face it shows to the rest of the world, but not its heart and soul? Why do we spend more time worrying about what the rest of the world thinks about us than on addressing the needs — and wants — of our own citizens? Why do we indulge ourselves in the delusion that as long as things are good for some of us, they are good for us all?
Why do we abide the status quo?
In his annual State of the City address last week, Mayor Bell showed some signs of understanding that these questions deserve answers — that he knows we can and must do better. He spoke of progress and partnerships, of new initiatives to enhance and improve the city’s neighborhoods, and of tackling big issues like mass transit and affordable housing.
But understanding is not doing. And pretty words don’t always lead to meaningful action. For most of you reading this, it goes without saying that I am a confirmed critic of the mayor, mostly because I look at his career and see very few instances in which the results have matched the rhetoric, and far too many where what is politically expedient for William Bell — and those who have benefited financially from his position of power and influence — has trumped what is good for the people of Birmingham.
But, critic though I may be, I remain hopeful, if sometimes only because I accept that, for the time being, William Bell is the mayor that we have. Birmingham needs, desperately, for him to succeed. That would be real change. That would go a long way toward smashing, once and for all, Birmingham’s servitude to the status quo.
Will it happen? History says it will not. I hope that we — and our leaders — will prove otherwise.