When people are divided, the only solution is agreement.
— John Hume
I have a story about the Ramsay-McCormack Building, the dilapidated-but-historic 10-story structure in Ensley that has been in the news for the past week. In case you’ve missed it, it all started on Nov. 30, when — as Weld’s Cody Owens reported — Birmingham Mayor William Bell announced that the city would spend $40 million rehabilitating the 10-story building, which it owns, and which has been vacant for the better part of three decades.
Under the mayor’s proposal — which, for better or worse, is subject to approval by the Birmingham City Council — the renovated building will house the headquarters of Birmingham’s police and fire departments, as well as its municipal courts. In announcing the plan, Bell said that the project is intended to anchor the long-awaited revitalization of “downtown” Ensley. Once a thriving business and commercial center, the neighborhood has been mostly in decline since U.S. Steel ceased production at its massive Ensley Works in 1976.
The Ramsay-McCormack Building itself lost its last tenant a few years later, which brings me to my story. Though the building “officially” closed in 1986 — the city had taken ownership of it in 1983 — at least one civic group, the Ensley Rotary Club, continued to meet in the building’s basement for some years afterward. I know this because sometime late in 1988 or early in ‘89, a member of that group contacted me, in my capacity as director of public relations for the Birmingham Metropolitan Development Board (at the time the lead economic development organization for the five-county Birmingham metro area). This person wanted to know if MDB would provide a luncheon speaker for an upcoming Rotary meeting.
I replied that we’d be pleased to do so, and asked the chairman of our board, Fox DeFuniak — then the city president of AmSouth Bank — to do the honors. Fox agreed readily, and on the appointed day, he and I made the westward drive out I-20/59 to Ensley.
On our arrival in the basement of the tallest building in Ensley — and, for many years, the tallest building in Jefferson County, outside of downtown Birmingham — we found a gathering of 20 or so stalwart citizens. All were male, and excepting three or four youngish members, the average age of those in attendance was around 60. The other distinguishing characteristic of the group was that all were white, which I’ll admit that my 27-year-old self didn’t find remarkable. Not at first, anyway.
Over our lunch, Fox provided a nice overview of MDB. He talked about the organization’s mission of attracting new and expanding businesses to Birmingham, thus generating jobs, capital investment, and opportunity, and explained how MDB’s work tied into their collective concern about the present and future of Ensley. All of this was well received, and several among the group stayed around afterward to shake Fox’s hand and ask additional questions. One of those was a man who was 80 years old if he was a day, walking with the support of a cane.
“I enjoyed your talk,” the man told Fox. “But I just want to know one thing: What are y’all going to do about this nigger mayor?”
The reference, of course, was to Richard Arrington, Birmingham’s first black mayor, who at the time had been in office for nearly 10 years (he would serve another 10 before stepping down in 1999). Fox shot me a glance that indicated that he was as mortified as I, but deflected the question politely, talking about the importance of MDB’s partnership with the city of Birmingham — no exaggeration, as the city was the organization’s single largest source of funding, and Mayor Arrington an ex officio member of our board of directors.
In the car on the ride back downtown, Fox offered a succinct observation: “Well, I guess we’re not as far along as we like to think.”
Over the years, I’ve thought about that little encounter from time to time. I thought about it again last week, as reaction to Mayor Bell’s proposal for the Ramsay-McCormack Building began to filter out. In a very significant way, the old man’s attitude encapsulated the changes that were going on at the time in Ensley — black people moving in and white people moving out, leaving a diminishing cadre of longtime white residents who were increasingly bitter about the changes taking place around them, and who felt powerless to reverse the declining fortunes of a community that had been abandoned by the industry that had given birth to it.
In fact, it might be said that the same attitude encapsulates Birmingham’s social and political history in the half-century since integration: The flight of whites from the city, followed by the flight of many blacks who could afford to leave; the unchecked deterioration of Ensley and any number of other once-stable working-class neighborhoods across the city; the primacy of race in the equation of human relations and political engagement; the failure of leadership of any color to substantively and decisively address rampant poverty, persistent crime, and crumbling infrastructure; the absence of a transformative and unifying vision for forging an all-inclusive path to the greatness that Birmingham has always been denied (or, more correctly and most often, denied itself).
Without eliding, and certainly without excusing, the racism in the man’s question, I couldn’t then and cannot now discount the legitimacy of his frustration with Ensley’s decline. His community had been abandoned not only by U.S. Steel — and, first slowly and then increasingly, by neighborhood-based business and commercial concerns that had operated there for many years — but also, by and large, by the city government itself. Mayor Arrington did a great many good things for Birmingham during his time in office, but addressing the steady decline of Ensley was not among them.
Nor have the fortunes of Ensley improved under the administrations of three subsequent mayors — including the present occupant of the office, now entering his seventh year as the city’s chief executive — at least not appreciably, and not according to any consistently intentional attention from city government. Yes, there have been (and are) numerous individuals and businesses and organizations that have concerned themselves with doing everything in their power to gain and keep a foothold on economic progress. And yes, the city has provided (and continues to provide) some mostly ad hoc — and, often, almost coincidental — help. And yet, for 40 years and counting, Ensley has remained an afterthought, a place where perception generally equals reality.
Of the city of Birmingham’s benign neglect of Ensley, there is no more visible or apt symbol than the Ramsay-McCormack Building. Owing to its height, it always stood out in Ensley’s modest skyline; but that prominence only made the landmark’s gradual deterioration more noticeable and more poignant.
But now, at long last, Mayor Bell is proposing to save the building and put it to good use. Predictably, announcement of the project has been greeted in some quarters with great enthusiasm. Many view the $40 million restoration and the ancillary development that presumably will accompany it as just the shot in the arm that Ensley needs, and, coupled with the ongoing revitalization of downtown and neighborhoods like Avondale and Woodlawn, the latest evidence that perhaps Birmingham is turning the corner toward greatness at long last.
Also predictably, there are critics. And some of the questions they’ve raised deserve answers, most notably that of whether, if the city is going to spend $40 million in Ensley, the proposed restoration of a single building gives the community the most bang for the buck in the long haul, in terms of addressing poverty, crime and blight. There’s also the charge that Bell’s move is strictly political, a tacit admission of his neglect of neighborhood needs in favor of a disproportionate concentration of city resources on downtown development — and a nod to the realization that his path to re-election next year might not be as smooth as he and his supporters would like.
Most predictably of all, there is division over the project between Mayor Bell and the Birmingham City Council. Beyond asking the same questions that others have raised about the wisdom of the project and the mayor’s political motivations, Council President Johnathan Austin and some of his colleagues are perturbed that the announcement of the project was the first they had heard of it — strange behavior, they suggest, since the council has to approve the $40 million commitment before things can move forward.
For the record, a source close to Bell says the announcement was handled the way it was because the mayor has concluded that he’s in a “no-win situation” with the council. Pointing to “immediate, categorical” opposition from some council members to the recent announcement that the mayor’s office is negotiating to bring a Comfort Inn to the Birmingham Crossplex property at Five Points West — those opponents contend that a better hotel can be attracted to the site — the source contends that such opposition is itself “completely political, done with 2017 in mind.” That’s an accusation Austin denies, saying, “The council’s only concern in all cases is what’s best for the citizens of Birmingham, what constitutes the wisest commitment of the city’s resources.”
None of which would seem to bode particularly well for the idea of revitalizing Ensley. For one thing, it leaves residents caught in the middle of a dispute in which they have no part, other than hoping for the best possible resolution. For another, it casts a harsh light on the continuing lack of leadership from City Hall, the absence of a figure or figures who are willing to do what it takes to transcend political division and a sorry history of neighborhood neglect to offer Ensley a fighting chance for a better future.
As it relates to Birmingham as a whole, there is no ignoring or denying the progress — superficial as much of it is — that has taken place on numerous fronts, or the emergence of a new and refreshing spirit that bids fair to displace the longstanding civic inferiority complex from which the city has suffered for most of its history. At the same time, our progress, both real and perceived, is tempered by the persistence of the same problems, the same distractions, the same divisions that have historically held us back.
Has Birmingham come a long way? In some ways, of course it has. But as demonstrated by this latest dispute, by the atmosphere at City Hall in general, and by the fact that the citizens of Ensley remain as frustrated as ever, maybe we’re not as far along the path of progress as we like to think.