To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle.
— Walker Percy
Birmingham needs a great mayor. This is nothing new, for Birmingham has needed a great mayor for the entirety of its history, but never has found a person who quite fit the bill. I bring it up now because, with all of the opportunities and all of the challenges currently laid out before us, the need is more acute than ever.
The closest we have come to greatness in a mayor was Richard Arrington. Objective truth is a scarce commodity, but Arrington’s primacy among a field that generally is less than stellar is about as well supported by empirical data and clearheaded historical analysis as any political postulation can be. It is a fact as manifest as the light from Vulcan’s torch on a cloudless night in fading summer.
Over the course of 20 years as Birmingham’s chief executive, Arrington got things done — and not just the easy things. Particularly during his first dozen or so years in office, he advanced substantive, forward-looking policies and initiatives, producing results that were the rootstock of much of Birmingham’s current abundance of accomplishment and acclaim. On balance, he changed Birmingham very much for the better and left the city in considerably better shape than he’d found it.
But Arrington was only a very good mayor, not a great one. He changed the face of his city, but he never made the critical leap to regional leader, and the region has suffered for it since. This failure on Arrington’s part was not his failure alone. For that matter, it was much less Arrington’s failure than a failure of Birmingham itself. Faced with an opportunity to emerge as a beacon of racial and economic progress, Birmingham instead retreated into itself and set busily about the business of re-segregating.
You can blame it on age-old divisions of race and class. You can note the proliferation of a suburban growth mentality that alternated between studied indifference and outright hostility toward the city. You can sift through the vestiges of paternalism and bemoan the persistence of a political culture that perpetuates corruption and suborns incompetence. But these and any other precipitating factors you’d care to name boil down to the same root cause, which is Birmingham’s apparently endemic aversion to essential change. This is our history: We want to be better, but we won’t let ourselves. We can’t get out of our own way.
“The changes in Birmingham in my lifetime have been nothing short of dramatic,” Arrington said to me several years ago. “And yet Birmingham is still such a status quo town. We don’t take much risk, and we pay the price for it.”
Now, I’m the first to say that the pace of change in Birmingham has accelerated since Arrington made those remarks. That is especially true of late, as our city has built up an enviable momentum of civic activity and accomplishment that seemingly has carried us to the border of an uncharted territory of prosperity and prominence.
Or has it? Will we avoid the familiar pitfalls and pratfalls? Will we learn that calculated risk is the coin with which lasting progress is purchased? Will we cease to sacrifice the ideal of community on the altar of competing interests? Will we become imbued with the urgency of now, the understanding that we cannot continue to defer the opportunity for Birmingham to become a great city?
The answer to each of these questions: In the absence of strong leadership from the Office of Mayor, no.
Which brings us to the newly re-elected William Bell, on whom the jury of greatness remains out. After spending most of the past four years in campaign mode — he was elected in 2009 to finish Larry Langford’s unexpired term, and in 2011 won a term of his own that was shortened to two years when the Alabama Legislature voted to sync the elections for Birmingham’s mayor, city council and school board — Bell finally contemplates four full years of open field running as mayor. Or let us so hope.
The opportunities are tremendous. It is no exaggeration to say that Bell begins his term positioned more favorably for success than any mayor of Birmingham ever has been. But to achieve greatness, he must move beyond the easy successes and provincial caution that has characterized his first four years in office and begin to stake out the boundaries of his legacy. He must fill the void of regional political leadership. He must take decisive steps on issues that have to be addressed and overcome if Birmingham is to move beyond the limitations we have always placed upon ourselves. He must change the culture of the status quo.
A great place for Mayor Bell to set the tone for these next four critical years would be by putting himself on the line to settle the future of Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham. I will return to this subject in full in this space next week, but as it relates to this particular column, I mention it now because there are rumblings that after conveniently ignoring or blithely glossing over the 20/59 issue — at least in public — throughout the campaign just ended, the mayor is beginning to think that taking the lead on seeing that Birmingham gets all it needs and more out of a project that will impact our city for generations to come just might be a means of beginning to build a legacy that will last.
That would be good for Mayor Bell, and good for Birmingham, where changes remain afoot, but where the question of greatness remains unanswered. We seem, at long last, to be embracing our past. We have ideas about the future. The question is, can we thread the needle of the present?