Perhaps the region in Birmingham that was hit hardest by the decline of the iron and steel industry lies to the west of I-65. The aftereffects of plant closures have molded the landscape and can still be seen in the form of abandoned lots, broken windows, decreasing populations and high unemployment rates.
The perception of the area is often focused on the street crime that has repeatedly crept into the media spotlight. A high-profile shooting that occurred on August 27 in Brighton only added fuel to those notions. While shootings have become an almost everyday occurrence in Birmingham’s blighted neighborhoods, this one was different, residents said.
The shooting occurred at a ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ event at the Brighton community center. Four people were shot, including a four-year-old, and one man, 32-year-old Antonio Hinkle, was killed.
While Brighton is not part of the city of Birmingham, there has been no shortage of criticism when it comes to city leadership not allocating enough resources — such as police officers — to the beleaguered neighborhoods to the west of Birmingham’s downtown area, which, in essence, has only served to perpetuate some of the issues revolving around high crime rates and neglected aesthetics.
But how do those perceptions match up with the realities of living in those communities? In a two-part series, Weld will be speaking with members of the community about life in the suburbs west of I-65. In this first installment, business owners and people who live in the area shared their stories. Below are their unabridged responses.
Brandon Dean, mayor-elect for the City of Brighton
At just 24 years old, Brandon Dean said the citizens of Brighton — which has a population of just under 3,000 people — took a risk by electing him mayor. He’s the second youngest mayor in Alabama history and one of the youngest in the country. What’s more impressive is that Dean was able to win the election without a runoff in a field of five candidates. He said it’s because his community is ready for a change.
On Labor Day, Dean, a graduate of Howard University and self-proclaimed political junkie, paused the HBO show Veep — a satirical interpretation of Washington politics — to discuss how he got the idea to run for mayor in a community that has seen its population decline 20 percent since 2000 — and, more importantly, what he plans to do about it.
Weld: The most obvious question to start with is what made you want to get into politics at the tender age of 23?
Brandon Dean: Three years ago I was having dinner with a friend, a political person in Birmingham. I had just graduated from Howard about six or eight months before. She told me that I should run for mayor. I looked at her and said “No.” I could never beat Barbara [Watkins, the incumbent] and Eddie [Cooper, a former mayor of Brighton who ran for reelection this year]. I knew the political culture and I had worked on their campaigns. I knew the ins and outs of it. And I did have my doubts about their ability to do the job. But I thought there was no way I could appeal to enough voters to beat them. But I did, handily. Ironic.
The only reason I did it was because I was worried. I was worried that if I hadn’t stepped up to do this and they were left to their devices, then there would be no future for the young people who have struggled to realize the power that they have. And there would be no opportunities for them to get ahead. And there would certainly be no security, especially for our senior citizens who just want to feel safe when they lay down at night.
Weld: So now that you’ve made it through a 16-month campaign, looking back, what was your thought process going into this?
Dean: I didn’t want to leave any of that to chance, any more than I wanted to put my professional career on hold or compromise my finances, which is a big part of the 16-month journey. I’m like most millennials. I don’t have a 401k or a huge savings account. My car isn’t paid for and I don’t own a house. I needed to go to work, but it just felt important enough for me to get out there and do this. I risked a lot. But the people in the community also risked a lot by giving me the opportunity to do this. But I think the message [is] I have allowed them to trust me with this responsibility. It was one about inclusion.
Weld: Let’s talk about that. What does your message of inclusion look like, specifically?
Dean: Everyone is a citizen whether you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing. It’s the role of the government leadership to bring people closer together and eliminate the barriers that stand between us. It’s certainly about empathy and life experiences and diversity in a community. The texture and vibrancy of our community is unlike any other place in the world. There is no place that is identical to Brighton, and those other communities. There has never been a time in my life when I truly felt unsafe about where I lived. I’ve never been concerned about my neighbors being a threat to me.
Aesthetically, I can see why people who aren’t familiar with Brighton and the people who live there — I can imagine they would be troubled by some of the aesthetics because they might be compelled to think that those aesthetics are paralleled to certain degrees of crime. We do have an issue [with] crime; violent crime, drug crime, domestic crimes. We do have a lot of work to do in that regard. But the true value of the community is that we have some of the hardest working, most committed and sincere people.
Weld: How did growing up in Brighton prepare you for the job in front of you now?
Dean: The matriarchal and patriarchal leaders in the community, everything I learned before going to Howard [came] from them. Growing up in Brighton allowed me to navigate a very complex environment. While there is a bad side and negative aspects to life in the community, we need to focus on the positive things that are going on here so they start to overshadow the bad. And of course media plays a big role in that. Empathy and sympathizing with people in the community will go a long way in getting the story right in places like Brighton.
Weld: Do you think the media coverage of the area has impacted people’s perception to a point where it may not reflect how life really is here?
Dean: WBRC did a story recently about voter fraud and one of the homes they went to, the woman didn’t have a windowpane in the front window and she didn’t have utilities or electricity. But she had lived for years under those conditions. Fortunately she had family in the area where she could go shower and things like that.
The reporter took that to mean that no one could possibly live here under these conditions. And then she also went to see when the last time they had paid property taxes was. It had been several years. Not recognizing that in conditions like that, when you have a majority of the population living right at the poverty line, property taxes not being paid, not having a driver’s license, not being able to afford utilities — that’s commonplace in a community like Brighton and it’s not something we condemn each other for. So yeah, I think you could say the media plays a role in that.
Weld: As mayor-elect, how can you help people with immediate needs like that?
Dean: If we can’t be of help, we provide the resources and opportunities they need. A county official jokingly told me recently, “I think more people in Brighton have free voter IDs than anywhere else in the county because of you.”
We took citizens out, young people, people with criminal records and with outstanding warrants to get voter IDs because they knew they couldn’t go stand in line at the DMV without risk of being accosted. There was one man who had needed an ID for many years and he was trying to apply for social security. Within a month of getting a free voter ID he had started to receive compensation.
Weld: Being a 24-year-old mayor, it must be a little strange to imagine the legacy you will leave in Brighton. But in what ways do you see yourself leaving a mark on the city?
Dean: It’s a funny thing to think about in this context. I recognize that I do need to have that type of perspective. I believe in my heart it doesn’t make sense for me to have this job for more than two terms. In realizing that, I have a sense of urgency for the things I want to accomplish. I hope to bring some stability and a sense of community to Brighton. I want to develop a competitive job market in and around our city. I want to grow our standing within the region — the county. I want Brighton to be a place where when people at Harvard or wherever talk about what’s working in small cities, I want Brighton to be central in those conversations.
Weld: How exactly do you go about accomplishing some of those goals?
Dean: I’ll spend a lot of time in the next few months looking at what happened here. It’s like observing a disaster that has imploded and all come apart and you come in as an individual who has been somewhat external to all of this. There are questions you have to raise. I plan on figuring it out so we don’t repeat those mistakes and bring those players back into what we’re trying to do. Along with doing that I’ll be talking to the community about job creation, education, what industry would be suited for this area and where can we get assistance where we aren’t already.
How do we better market the city? I think from that we can get industry in here. We can get jobs that actually pay a working wage.
Weld: How has the minimum wage — which many say is unlivable — impacted people living and working in Brighton? Is that an issue you are going to address as mayor?
Dean: One model that we haven’t followed in this state when it comes to creating jobs is creating jobs that pay people well enough where they don’t have to get another job and make extraordinary sacrifices just to get by. We have to start promoting home ownership and financial freedom among our most vulnerable citizens, which I don’t necessarily see as being the case. In what we’ve touted as job creation and healthcare expansion, I don’t think we’ve been progressive enough in those areas and that’s something I want to focus on.
Weld: You mentioned that there is too much of a focus on negativity in these communities. What are some positive things you’d like to highlight about Brighton?
Dean: One of the best things that I think have come about recently is that we’ve had record involvement and participation in this election. A lot of that participation is what put me over the top. We elected a brand new council. We had people who voted who had never voted before who helped decide this municipal election. That’s bigger than me. It’s people recognizing they have a say in the leadership here.
People are all motivated by one thing: progress. We have small business getting started. As Viola Davis said (during her 2015 Emmy acceptance speech), “What separates people of color or poor people from anyone else is opportunity.” I think that now we have new leadership who is energized to make that happen and help give people those opportunities they need to succeed.
Winifred Etheridge, owner of Etheridge Brothers Barber and Style Shop, in Green Acres
Anyone who has been around Birmingham has more than likely seen one of the Etheridge family businesses. From barbershops to car washes, the Etheridge Brothers brand has been a stalwart among Birmingham’s locally owned businesses since the 1970s.
Early on Tuesday, cars lined the Etheridge Brothers Barber and Style Shop parking lot — located in the neighborhood of Green Acres, which is within the Birmingham city limits — waiting on Winifred Etheridge to open up shop. It seemed unusually busy for a barbershop at 8 a.m. on a weekday. Etheridge said it’s just business as usual. The 30 or so chairs in the waiting area are a testament to the loyal customer base he has been able to build since he opened in 1994. But Etheridge says he doesn’t see them as customers, but rather old friends who might need a trim. Like most barbershops, he said, people just like to come and hang out.
Weld: How did you get involved with this business?
Winifred Etheridge: I’m the second generation of Etheridge barbers. My father and my uncles started our first shop down on Fifth Ave in 1970. Then we moved down to Third Ave where we got a shop now. We had a real big business and it was kind of overflowing so that’s when everyone decided to go out and build their own. I came out here in 1994 and have been here ever since. My son, he works here too. My sister and nephews work a car wash down the way as well.
Weld: What’s that like, to see your family have so much success in business here?
Etheridge: It comes from the hard work my father taught us when we were little. He taught us — on Saturdays when we would be playing and joking with the guys he brought us down to the shop — we would sweep floors and run errands and stuff like that. Eventually we shined shoes. When I got out of high school I went to Lawson State and got my barber’s license and that’s when I started officially. That was 1979.
Weld: There is a sort of mythos behind the barber shop and how it’s a place in the community where people come and talk. Do you see this as a place that offers more than a good haircut?
Etheridge: I see people who come in here on a regular basis and they have built relationships with the people they’ve met here. They get to be good friends and stuff like that. The main thing about my business is that we try to make it where you can bring anybody in here — old, young, we’re going to keep it on a professional level. I’m not saying rap music is bad but, you know, everybody don’t listen to that. We want to keep it a family atmosphere in here. We have a lot of parents who drop their kids off and they will feel safe with them here. We just want everyone to feel at home.
When I got here at 8 a.m. I had three people waiting on me. I open at 6 a.m. on Saturdays and I might have six people waiting in their cars out front. It’s a real blessing to see that happen.
Weld: Something we’ve talked to a lot of people about is the perception of communities west of downtown. What’s been your experience owning a business here and what do you make of perceptions people might have about the western suburbs being an unsafe place?
Etheridge: It’s been great out here. I used to live in the eastern section [of Birmingham]. I lived on the east side my whole life. I went to Banks High School. I moved out here two years ago. I live about two minutes from here now. It’s real nice. We don’t have any problems. People think the western side is the bad side. But everywhere is going to have its problems. I don’t have far to go to the grocery store or to get my car fixed, stuff like that. I love it here.
Weld: How would you characterize the city’s involvement and efforts in the neighborhoods west of I-65?
Etheridge: I think the city can do better. We got bad streets. They’re rough. I know you got the downtown area, but that’s a whole different ball game than what we got out here. I think they should focus a lot more on the western side as far as reducing crime. I know you can’t stop crime but just focus attention a little bit more. I come in contact with a lot of people. And they all the time are talking about how the city just does stuff downtown, making improvements and all that. But they’re not doing anything out here.
Weld: What do you like best about owning a business and living out here?
Etheridge: It’s a good quality of living here. But of course you got some bad sections. This is the Green Acres area. And I think this is one of the nicest areas to live in the western section. To me, it’s great if you just take care of your business and watch out for each other. You see stuff go on, you don’t let it keep going on.
People were breaking into cars and we got everyone together in the community and decided to do something about it. We made sure everyone started locking their doors and stuff like that. And people just watched out for each other. Since I got out here [in 1994] it was kind of slow. But now I’ve seen people opening up businesses and be successful. You can live and raise your family here and once I got involved I started to see that.
Jimmy Crane, owner Gilmer Drugs in Ensley
While he has owned and operated Gilmer Drugs since 1994, to label Jimmy Crane as a pharmacist is to miss the point. He is also an altruistic product of his environment, judging by his own views about his role in the community. As one of the only drug stores within a several-mile radius, Crane believes that his purpose runs deeper than prescriptions. He’s promoting a healthy way of life in the community that helped raise him, he said.
On Friday he greeted customers by their first name as they shuffled in and out of the heat. He showed a woman the fresh produce section while another stood at the counter testing different air fresheners. It’s a small town store in one of Birmingham’s oldest neighborhoods — and that’s just how Crane likes it.
Weld: What made you want to open a pharmacy in a neighborhood that might otherwise be overlooked by other entrepreneurs?
Jimmy Crane: I got involved with this business in 1994. I was born and raised in Fairfield, just down the road. I always wanted to own my own drug store growing up. After pharmacy school my father-in-law was a wholesale rep and I had a distant relative that owned the store but I didn’t really know him. He approached me and asked if I would be interested in the running the store because he was about to retire. I had a partner up until 2004 and then my wife and I started running it.
Weld: Since you’ve been growing up, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve witnessed here?
Crane: This store is 104 years old. At one time there were 13 drug stores within a six-block radius in this area. When I came on in 1994, there were four stores around. Probably in the early 1970s we started to really see a decline in the area because of the decline at US Steel. My wife and I, we love this community. She was raised in Minor just over the hill here. Customers are more like family and friends. It’s a family-friendly place. I have two employees; one’s been here 47 years; one’s been here 45 years.
We’re sort of in a transition right now. The older customers are dying off. The younger people with opportunities seem to be moving to other parts of town. Better schools for their kids, that type of thing. Who can blame them? That’s been going on since the late 1980s. It really picked up in the last seven to 10 years. We have a lot of kids and a lot of elderly people but not much in between.
Weld: So how do you reach out to that demographic?
Crane: My wife and I really prayed about that. We’re in the process now, and we’re going to begin a major renovation. We’re going to move the pharmacy up so we can be able to provide more services and hopefully reach that 30-to-50 age crowd. We collect utility bills for all the major utilities and cell phone companies. We have in-house charge accounts. We do it the old fashion way.
My wife and I had a really difficult time several years ago. We lost our son. It was tragic. But the community, our customers rallied around us. You wouldn’t believe how many people came to the funeral and came and prayed with us. While it’s hard, and I could probably make more money selling it and going to work for someone else, it’s just not in me to do this.
Weld: Just judging by the interactions I’ve seen with customers, you seem strongly tied to the community. Have you ever considered moving locations?
Crane: Friends of mine always ask me about moving the store. I say if I move the store it wouldn’t be Gilmer Drug anymore. We are part of this area. The closest drugstore now is Five Points West, about six miles away or seven miles the other way in Adamsville. West of 20/59, there’s just not a lot left. We’ve been working with the Jones Valley Urban Food Market and we’ve started selling a ton of fruits and vegetables. We just got signed up for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). We don’t want to sell junk. We want to promote fresh produce because this place really is a food desert. People don’t really have a choice. A lot of our customers don’t have access to transportation so for them to come four miles, that just shows you how important it is we be here.
Weld: A lot of people tend to think about Ensley as a place that is prone to crime and poverty. How do those perceptions measure up with the reality of living and working here?
Crane: I think 2 percent give the other 98 percent a bad name. It’s really the way it is. I feel as safe or safer here than I do going to the Galleria. I know my surroundings. Anything that happens in the western side of town from Green Acres to Bessemer, is called Ensley, so people’s perception is that it’s all crack houses and ghetto. It’s not. Look at Tuxedo Junction. It just got rebuilt. We have families. We have people here who want a better life, they just need someone to help them find it.
Perception is not always reality. Bad things can happen anywhere. I see this place as somewhere with incredible potential. This area is one of the oldest in the city of Birmingham. I can’t sit and stay the same; as the community changes I need to change with it. I’m not going to sell beer and cigarettes. We try and promote good health. I don’t see it as a profit making center but rather a place to help the community. Anything that helps the customers helps me.
Weld: What do you think can be done — if anything — on the city’s end to improve some of the conditions in Ensley?
Crane: I think there could be more city resources allocated to this area. The abandoned buildings [and] the vacant lots are unsafe for children who play in the neighborhoods. We had to really fight the city to get the abandoned building next to us torn down. We filed a lawsuit back in 2012 in order to get them to tear down a store that was standing in about 4 feet of water. We eventually won that lawsuit. But as you can see right now the weeds are growing in the empty lot. It’s been cut one time this summer. That creates a negative perception for the area.
The biggest change I’ve seen is when U.S. Steel went away and job opportunities left. Small businesses started to close as a result of not having customers. You got people now who have been on welfare since birth. I’d like to see children being given encouragement to pursue higher education or craft or a trade and not become another victim of the welfare state.
Weld’s September 22 issue will look at the history of the western suburbs and what lead to the current state of being left in the shadow of Birmingham’s more prosperous neighborhoods.