The fault…is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
— William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
What do we expect from our elected leaders? What should we expect?
The obvious answer, of course, is leadership. Ah, but that is an ephemeral quality, difficult to define and harder still to find. That’s especially true here in Birmingham, where the need has outstripped the supply pretty much since the first iron ore was taken out of the ground and sent to the forge.
Or perhaps it’s all a matter of perspective. Benjamin Disraeli, who served two highly contentious terms as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century, might have been onto something when he — whether in a moment of rhetorical genius or out of sheer exasperation, I do not know — mused that the proper role of a leader is to follow the people.
Actually, I quoted Disraeli’s sentiment in full (“I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”) in this space a couple of months back. I did so by way of setting the stage for a rhetorical query of my own — namely, whether William Bell wants to go down in the history of Birmingham as a great mayor. In consideration of that question, I wrote that one of the “true tests” for arriving at an answer would be the resolution of issues surrounding the proposed renovation and reconfiguration of Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham.
In the ensuing weeks, my opinion in that regard has only become stronger. What ultimately happens with I-20/59 will have tremendous impacts on the future of our city, not least in terms of indicating just how much power its citizens wield on issues of major import, and of the kind of leadership we have — or may need to find — to guide us through the immediate future and set our course for the next quarter-century.
Given both the opportunities and obstacles before us — all of which are encapsulated in the I-20/59 project and its several potential outcomes — that quarter-century will likely be the most important era in Birmingham’s history. We will emerge from it either as one of the vanguard of a new generation of great American cities, or having reverted yet again to our traditional role as an also-ran, a place of stunted vision, missed opportunity and squandered promise.
It is something like this sentiment that is driving the grassroots opposition to the I-20/59 plan proposed by the Alabama Department of Transportation. Far from simply standing against the ALDOT plan, for instance, the group Rethink 20/59 is pushing an online petition that expressly calls for tearing down the existing elevated highway and replacing it with “a street level grand boulevard through downtown that would encourage economic growth, strengthen community unity, and beautify Birmingham.”
Will the group get what they’re asking for? Probably not. But because they have the vision and the audacity to demand something different, they very well might be changing the conversation, in terms of the range of possibilities that ALDOT is willing to consider.
Another thing to be considered is that opposition to the ALDOT plan is growing, slowly but surely. It started with a few people in the Norwood neighborhood and some agitators in the Facebook group I Believe in Birmingham. It came to include the board of directors of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, at least 100 businesses in the Norwood Industrial District just south of I-20/59 and a group that began meeting on a weekly basis back in May and expanded into the Rethink 20/59 effort. Now, while not technically opposed at this stage, a small, informal group of influential business and civic leaders is quietly convening a meeting this week to “discuss…interests or concerns about [ALDOT’s] proposal or alternative plans.”
This is how democracy should work — and, I would ask, what better place for it than Birmingham, Alabama? Which brings us back to my opening question about the expectations we should place on our elected leaders — in this case, Mayor Bell. It’s an ill-kept secret that, had the city been on its toes when ALDOT initially came forward with its plans for I-20/59 — which at the time called only for repairing the downtown ramps and overpasses for safety reasons — the proposal that ultimately surfaced could very well have been much different from the one now causing such uproar.
Mayor Bell has an opportunity not only to rectify that mistake, but to use the considerable power of his office to push for a resolution that will redound to the economic and social benefit of the city, and to his own benefit politically. And he has the added benefit of doing so with the cover provided by those citizens, businesses, institutions and organizations that have raised reasonable objections to the ALDOT plan, while also taking the trouble to point the way toward potential solutions.
Up to now, the mayor has been largely silent on I-20/59, meeting in private with ALDOT officials on at least one occasion, but saying nothing to indicate that he understands the importance of this issue to the future of Birmingham. When I asked him directly about it back in May, he was evasive, seeming to accept ALDOT’s assertion at the time that no alternatives were workable, and offering vague assurances that he would “continue to seek avenues for compromise.”
With public interest in the future of I-20/59 growing, it’s high time for Mayor Bell to break his silence. This issue presents him with a golden opportunity to lead — if only he will follow the people.