You can travel ‘cross this entire land/There ain’t no place like Birmingham.
It’s nearly 40 years since Randy Newman hit the proverbial nail right on the head. Sure, he was poking some fun, but there was more to it than that. Newman always had a keen eye for the telling quirk and a gift for capturing the ephemeral qualities that define people, places and events. In his tribute to the erstwhile Magic City, he showed his grasp of the ironclad truth that Birmingham is a uniquely hard town. He hit the nail on the head, and it has stayed hit.
I wrote a book a few years back, looking at the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and its role in the history and development of Birmingham (yeah, I know, it sounds like a real page-turner). An acquaintance — born, raised, educated, employed, civically engaged and now nearing retirement in Birmingham — read it. He called me a few days after finishing the book and, after making some nice comments about the quality of the work, told me he wasn’t sure whether he liked it or not.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “But now I’m wondering if I’ve spent my entire life and career in the most fucked-up place on earth.”
“It’s possible,” I recall saying to him. For some reason, hearing that actually seemed to make him feel better.
I was thinking of neither my existentially distressed acquaintance nor the sardonic Mr. Newman a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself listening to a friend vent some civic frustration. He was angry with the county commission, the school board, the legislature, the transit authority, the city’s Design Review Committee and the BBA. He was angry about Cooper Green Hospital, the immigration law, the coal industry, the deterioration of county-maintained roads, the apparent impossibility of replacing the county occupational tax and its much-needed revenue.
“Where do we even start to get a foothold on fixing this stuff?” he asked.
“Look,” I told him. “I love Birmingham. But it will wear your ass out.”
(Parenthetically, I almost feel inclined here to apologize for what might be viewed as a surfeit of profanity in this week’s column. I’ll stop short of that, but will point out that both instances above are direct quotes — even if one is of myself — and neither is intended to be gratuitous in any way. Besides, as anyone who cares about this place can attest, Birmingham will, among other things, make you cuss. Like a…sailor.)
And therein lies the point. Birmingham is worth fixing, or at least worth the effort of trying. I believe that, and I’ve said that and other, similarly foolish things about this place for many years — said them, often enough, right out in public. At bottom, I believe that it is within the power of Birmingham to fix itself. The problem is that fixing requires cooperation, coordination and cohesion — a trifecta we’ve never come close to hitting.
There have, however, been times when Birmingham has moved the ball forward, times when systemic change has been effected and substantive progress has been made in one or more areas of our shared civic life. In each of those instances — the two most recent are 1963 and 1979 — the change came at the ballot box.
In that context, we’re long overdue for a shakeup. In 2013, there are elections for mayor, city council and board of education in the City of Birmingham. In 2014, the Jefferson County Commission will be up for election, along with all of the county’s seats in the Alabama Legislature. That’s 42 elected positions, meaning 42 opportunities to put — or keep — in place elected officials who are dedicated to the public trust and committed to an agenda for Birmingham’s progress. The possibilities are staggering.
Birmingham is worth fixing. Birmingham can be fixed. I believe that. I have called Birmingham home for more than three decades and I believe that now more than ever. If that doesn’t make me an optimist, I don’t know what does.
A quick note on an item that has been followed closely in this space: The fate of Birmingham’s application for $23 million in “TIGER IV” federal grant funds for the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System will be known soon. An announcement is expected from the U.S. Department of Transportation anytime between now and mid-June. Word from inside City Hall has it that officials are highly optimistic that the project will receive some, if not all, of the funds sought. This would be a huge win for Mayor Bell, the Freshwater Land Trust and the numerous other public and private sector partners that supported the grant application.
One last note, this one on the departure of Glenny Brock as editor-in-chief of Weld. It is on behalf of everyone here that I thank Glenny for her many and ongoing contributions to our enterprise. She has many fine qualities that have endeared her to many and stand her in good stead as an editor, a writer and a friend. Most of all, though, Glenny is just a good person. We all need all of those we can get.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write him at email@example.com.