Editor’s note: This story was written by a Birmingham-Southern student who attended talks by mayoral candidates.
In separate question and answer sessions with students of Birmingham-Southern College, two candidates for mayor — current Birmingham Mayor William Bell and Randall Woodfin, a school board member running for the seat — talked about urban revitalization and reconstruction in a lecture series for the college’s “Voices of Birmingham” course.
Woodfin spoke on March 14; Bell spoke on March 16. Questions they faced often involved the perception that downtown is getting revitalization, while some neighborhoods are not.
Bell defended his administration’s policies by describing Birmingham in terms of a house. “Now, you might have that bedroom or that one room in the back of the house — it’s a no-man’s or no-woman’s land that you don’t want anyone to see,” he said. “But you make sure your living room is nice when company comes. Our downtown for a number of years had been neglected… We had to start cleaning it up.
“The best way to get revenue,” Bell added, “is to create a city that attracts people to come for conferences and conventions. They bring dollars, they stay in hotels, they eat in the restaurants, and then they leave — but their money stays here.”
By contrast, Woodfin instead advocated for the city government to focus on restoring infrastructure over commercial business. “What people want in a neighborhood that doesn’t touch [the] city center — they don’t necessarily want people riding bikes… What they do want is their streets paved, walkable curbs and sidewalks, and for their neighborhoods to be healthy, just like Railroad Park,” he said.
“It’s not rocket science. They want the same things that we see in the growth of downtown, where you are receiving the same basic services.”
Both candidates responded to student questions about gentrification in Birmingham by expressing skepticism toward its actual impact. “Gentrification is interesting because [we] think of it as displacement — but in Birmingham, the growth hasn’t really displaced anybody,” Woodfin said. “I think the line [between gentrification and growth] is drawn at a point where people are displaced. We have not seen displacement in Birmingham based on people not being able to afford their rent or lease.”
“When you see these other cities like Atlanta, Washington D.C., or Nashville, you see the city center growing, and the historic neighborhoods touching the center are seeing growth too,” Woodfin continued. “That’s not necessarily happening in Birmingham. You see the city centers that touch downtown, like right down the street from BSC, they still look exactly the same or worse.”
Bell was dismissive of claims that gentrification had occurred in the downtown area. “As someone pointed out, ‘Gentrification is happening in downtown Birmingham,’” he said. “Well, yeah, because no one was living in downtown Birmingham. You aren’t displacing anyone.”
Bell said his planning division “is working right now to put in place resolutions and proposals for people who are already in a community… I’ve made a proposal to the council that, if they approve [it], we can have every street paved in the next five years. And we have technology to keep the streets safer and from deterioration over two to three years. We are in the process of changing out all of the lights in the city…from the old sodium vapor light to LED lights…it gives a brighter light, especially in the rain, and we save twice as much money.”
In regards to public transportation, the mayor said he has a commitment to “continue to modernize the fleet. For years we have had an inadequate [bus facility], and we have probably the worst train station in the Southeast.”
Woodfin suggested that the city would “have to do a better job” in regards to transit. “The transit situation is really important because, in the South, there is a culture of living in our cars,” he said. “We need sound public transportation for people who can’t afford cars. We have to get past this point where the state doesn’t fund transportation.”
Both candidates were questioned about the upcoming mayoral election and how they plan to differentiate themselves as candidates.
“Not to sound arrogant or paternalistic,” said Bell, “but I’ve done what [Woodfin] wants to do… When I took over the city, we had a $75 million deficit. We cleared that deficit up. We were stagnant in growth in many areas of the city, and we were able to turn that around.
“Working with the public and private sector to accomplish things for a partnership, I’ve done that,” he continued. “Building relationships with Montgomery… People like the governor, they know who I am. They know I am here to advocate for my city — same thing in Washington, D.C.”
Woodfin, on the other hand, characterized Birmingham as having “a leadership crisis,” saying, “I imagine there is a space where we can bring all of us together…. Whether it is transportation or homelessness, we can do anything we want. I think poverty is an example where, if we want to get it done, we can get it done. If that same attitude existed in transportation, we could solve these issues.”
Education, which is expected to be a major political issue during the campaign, was also addressed. Woodfin, who currently serves on the Birmingham Board of Education, shared his platform that “children need an outlet. If children are getting out of school at 3 [p.m.] and things aren’t necessarily cool at home, there is going to be a gap somewhere… I have always thought we should repurpose our recreation centers…They should be safe zones.”
One audience member asked Bell if he was satisfied with current state of Birmingham education and if his office has offered full resources to city schools. “To answer your question directly, no, we have not given the schools all the resources they need to thrive and work correctly,” Bell replied. “The number one thing holding us back is the Birmingham school system.
“I have done a number of things that oftentimes do not get publicized, because I don’t care about getting elected. I care about making a difference while I am in the office,” said Bell. “And yes, the mayor gets blamed for everything. You get blamed for crime, you get blamed for lack of economic growth, and you get blamed for all of these things. You have to be willing to take the criticism, as long as you know that you are doing what is right and trying to make a difference.”
Woodfin concluded by describing Birmingham as “a tale of two cities.”
“There is no other city that has this amount of altruism and giving… but poverty has increased at the exact same time,” he said. You have all this access to health care, but some of the unhealthiest people in America. We are seeing all this growth, but people’s property values are staying the same at the exact same time. Our city can’t continue to do this.”
The Birmingham mayoral election will be held on August 22, 2017.