Do not wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.
— Albert Camus
There are two kinds of people in Birmingham: Those who love it and those who do not.
Those in the former group believe that the city’s best days are ahead of it. Even in the midst of our present troubles — and in the face of others that have persisted for generations — these people point out the milestones of progress and continue to anticipate the long-awaited fulfillment of Birmingham’s perpetual promise, just past this crossroads and around the next bend. Birmingham still has the chance to define itself in a national context, to embrace its history as a — the — means of moving beyond it. We can make our own future.
Those in the latter group operate under the assumption that, to the extent that Birmingham ever had a heyday, that time is long gone and beyond recall. Rarely will they argue the point that this community is, on the whole, a pretty nice place to live; but beyond that, they are convinced that Birmingham is everything it’s ever going to be, which is what it always has been. Nothing special here, just a mid-sized metropolis of middling distinction that missed its opportunity to be something more — if in fact that opportunity ever existed at all. Our future has passed.
That’s it, then. Cut-and-dried (or, if you will, black and white, though not in the usual context of those words in our peculiar civic lexicon). You’re not hungry if you’re sated, not dirty if you’re clean. You either think Birmingham is going places or you don’t.
That’s it, except that it isn’t. It’s not that simple. There are other ways of looking at — and living in — Birmingham. Indeed, I would argue that most people who reside here neither love nor hate it. They are making a living, or not. They are raising children, or not, who are being educated, or not. They are being entertained, or not, enriched culturally, or not. What I really mean by all of this is that, with degrees of variability tied to their circumstances, outlook and proclivities, most people in Birmingham take the community at face value, based on what it has to offer them.
For many, Birmingham is nothing more or less than a place to live — not a bad thing necessarily, though less than ideal. Most people would like to see the community grow and prosper and are happy as they see signs of its doing so; but they are not engaged actively in making growth and progress happen — or, more correctly, they do not feel a sense of ownership in Birmingham and its future. They are residents rather than citizens.
This, really, is our great failure as a community. We have failed to engage people or, when we have managed to engage them, we have failed to keep them that way. That is our history — waves of progressive thought and action that never quite manage to crest in transformational ways. We have painted our community and its progress — or allowed it to be painted — in the starkest possible terms, according to the most superficial delineations of politics and economy and the narrowest possible definitions of forward and backward, good and bad, success and failure.
We in Birmingham are conditioned to see in black and white, and thereby we overlook the thousand shadings of gray in which the vast majority of human endeavor transpires. These are the interstices in which understandings are reached, in which common ground is discovered, in which opportunity flourishes.
Which brings us back to the moment — this moment, the crossroads we’re standin’ at, to sneak a Bob Dylan reference in here. Looking at the view from here, it seems that the real challenge for Birmingham is not improving our schools, or implementing a plan for more green space and walking trails, or getting a mass transit system that works, or even pulling ourselves out from under the crippling weight of the county’s financial debacle. Our greatest challenge is the transformation of residents into citizens, for from that will spring the means of addressing all of our problems. We have to get people engaged and keep them engaged.
How do we do that? By focusing on the opportunities. By conducting our civic dialogue in the language of possibility, rather than the patois of grievance. By defining ourselves in terms of the connections we make, rather than the grudges we maintain. By building bridges rather than burning them.
We live in a time of great uncertainty, in Birmingham and across the nation and world. And while there is a certain nihilistic appeal in embracing that uncertainty, a certain perverse security to be found in the fact that nobody knows exactly what is going to happen next, we’ll better serve ourselves and future citizens of our city by understanding that those cities that emerge as real centers of growth and prosperity over the next decade will be those that are best at retooling their local economies, leveraging local resources — human and financial — and activating indigenous leadership.
In that, perhaps the real opportunity for us is that of helping Birmingham to become, at last, itself. That’s going to take all kinds of people.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.