Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.
I will begin by stipulating that Birmingham is a hard town. It is fractured and fractious. It is conservative by nature and insular by disposition, enamored of the status quo and religiously averse to innovation and risk. It is segregated spiritually, in ways that have both everything and nothing at all to do with race relations. It is a riddle for which a satisfactory answer has yet to be found.
I will stipulate these things — but in fairness, I will ask you to stipulate the following: Birmingham is a damn fine place to live, work and play. Rich in history, with a landscape that is lovely to the eye and a populace that is almost uniformly cordial to strangers (it’s just ourselves we can’t seem to stand, more about which in a moment), our city is an intriguing work in progress, negotiating the open territory between becoming and being. It is a place that, each and every day, offers those who are attuned to its rhythms with living, breathing proof that the journey is more important — and probably more interesting — than the destination.
Now that we have established our terms, here’s the real point about Birmingham: We are better than we think we are. Indeed, among the fair share of faults we exhibit, the most overlooked and perhaps the most damaging as well, is our lack of aptitude for celebrating ourselves and our civic accomplishments. I wonder if there is another city on earth that holds itself in such low regard. Is there another community like Birmingham, where there is such reticence toward the idea that, not only can growth and progress take place, but that it is taking place?
Did I say “reticence”? In some cases, it’s outright hostility toward civic aspiration, a premature disappointment in every effort that holds promise and knee-jerk disparagement of every substantive sign of progress. In this view, Birmingham is bad — always has been, always will be. According to this lazy, fearful, self-loathing line of thought, the sins of the fathers are the sins of the sons. We get what we deserve, though why we deserve it depends upon whom you listen to — it’s the fault of the whites, the blacks, the elite, the labor unions, the self-interested speculators, the absentee owners of our major industries. Plenty of blame to go around; lots of fire, but no light.
This is not a new phenomenon. Back in February of 1961, Sidney Smyer — the president of Birmingham Realty Company and the most influential local businessman of a couple of generations — made a speech to a joint meeting of the downtown Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. This was just about the time that Smyer privately approached the Birmingham Bar Association to request that it undertake a study of the structure and operations of city government, including recommendations for changes to be approved by voters — the beginning of the process by which Birmingham rid itself of Bull Connor (hey, there’s an accomplishment to be proud of; if we can get rid of Bull, what else might we be able to do for ourselves?).
But that was still in the future when Smyer stood up and gave the assembled business leadership of Birmingham what for, as the old folks used to say. He demanded decisive action, and put forward a plan for moving Birmingham toward “a new and shining destiny.” He fired a warning shot across the bow of any who would stand in the way of progress or talk down Birmingham’s chances for improving itself.
“We must stop sitting on our hands, or else wringing them in self-pity,” Smyer declared. “I am sick and tired of the po’ mouth talk I hear everywhere I go.”
I thought of that a week or so ago, when I met a young woman who was in Birmingham to interview for a job. Born in Mobile, she has spent much of her life in Louisiana, earning a degree from LSU and then taking her first job in New Orleans. Eager to be on her own and get her adult life and career established in earnest, she began looking for a city to move to. After several visits with friends from Mobile who now live here, she settled on Birmingham.
“I think it’s a very cool place,” she replied when asked what made Birmingham attractive. “There’s so much going on. You have all of these parks and trails, people living downtown, what seems to be a good music scene. Whenever I tell people in New Orleans that I’m moving to Birmingham, I hear the same thing: ‘It’s a really nice city. You’re going to love living there.’”
And so, this young woman starts work at Weld the first week of October. Another recruit in the growing army of people who love this city and are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel of progress. And a new perspective on the kind of place we already are, and on the many things we have to celebrate and build upon.
Actually, isn’t that what we’ve been doing all along, and especially for the last breathless half-century? Building? And 51 years after Sidney Smyer’s call to action, if you don’t believe that Birmingham is a better place, you are denigrating a lot of people who put a lot of time into bringing us to this enviable point on our journey. Maybe you should stop kicking and pick up a hammer. We’ve got ourselves a barn to finish, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write him at email@example.com