Some weeks are easy, at least in terms of topics about which to write, and so it is with this one. As I sit down to turn out this column, there is an item that more or less demands whatever attention I can devote to it here.
This particular item is the hottest thing going on Birmingham social media for the past couple of days, namely the article by longtime Associated Press reporter Jay Reeves that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times. Under the headline “Once Dying, Birmingham Is Suddenly Hot,” Reeves’s piece extolled what he variously referred to as the “revival,” the “renaissance,” and a “hot spot for residents and visitors alike.”
It feels like Birmingham finally is emerging from the shadows cast by the ugly racial violence of 1963, Reeves wrote. Long haunted by black-and-white newsreel footage of the fire hoses and police dogs city leaders turned on blacks demonstrating for civil rights, the city has a new vibe that’s generating buzz all its own 50 years later.
The article highlighted numerous recent and ongoing occurrences and initiatives like our food and craft beer scenes, the rise of downtown residential living and the happy juxtaposition of Railroad Park and Regions Field. In the same breath, Reeves mentioned the beautiful and historic Alabama Theatre and the cutting-edge Sidewalk Film Festival. He also took note of the growing number of young professionals flocking to Birmingham, certainly a key component of both the spirit of optimism currently afoot here and the buzz that has developed around the publication of Reeves’ article.
The upshot of it all was that Birmingham has changed, and that the transformation is little short of miraculous. Not quite on the level of Lazarus, perhaps, but a wondrous recovery from a decline that once seemed irreversible to all but the most optimistic among us.
On this last point, by the way, I am with this very sentence losing my fight to remain modestly quiet about things I have been writing for most of the past two decades, extolling the many virtues of our community as I waited with varying degrees of patience for Birmingham to begin coming into its own. Birmingham has been a great place to live for a long time, and from my view, the wonderful thing about this wave of momentum that has propelled us into the national spotlight — in addition to the Times, recent months have brought positive stories from Forbes magazine, National Geographic Traveler, USA Today and NBC, to name just those mentioned in Reeves’s story — is that it underscores the fact that we are, at long last, and in spite of the many demons that continue to bedevil us, becoming a great city.
Of course, there are those who will say that all of this attention is so much fluff — that those outsiders writing good things about Birmingham are looking at trees and missing the forest, that their emphasis is on the window dressing and not the back rooms in which too much of our community’s business continues to be conducted. And, to be honest, as one who has never been enamored of the notion that we should base our views of ourselves or our community on the opinions of outsiders, I have to give some credence to this notion. Further, I have to point out that such dogged contrarianism is forge in which our sense of ourselves is tempered, the whetstone against which our self-image is sharpened and brought into clear focus.
Another way of saying this is that we need to enjoy sweet while remaining always cognizant of the bitter. The kind of attention we’re getting now casts into sharp relief that fact that, of all of the things that Birmingham has lacked over the years, the essential one has been a sense of civic identity, a unifying vision of who we are and what we can be.
Our collective reaction to all of the recent publicity, culminating rather spectacularly with the Reeves article, reveals a burgeoning civic pride that suggests we are at last coming to the view that our community is ready for every opportunity and every challenge and that Birmingham, for the first time in its history, is taking full possession of its own destiny. Having taken said possession, the only questions are in what direction we will steer ourselves, and how we will rise to the occasions presented by both the opportunities before us and the many challenges we must confront if we are to achieve our full and undeniable potential.
If I have a quibble with the coverage accorded us by the Times, it is in the story’s headline. Specifically, it is the notion that any of this happened “suddenly.” The renaissance of Birmingham has been a long time in the making and has involved a lot of people — some of whom are not with us to enjoy this moment — whose longstanding and unstinting commitment to Birmingham and contributions to its progress constitute the foundation on which our “sudden” revival is rising.
Ours is an overnight success story that has been 50 years in the making — and of which the ending has yet to be written. We are at a critical moment in the history of our city, the ultimate resolution of which is completely in our hands.
Let’s not let ourselves down.