Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.
William Bell looks good.
Birmingham is by nature and history a fractious city. For various reasons, which we will touch upon in more detail in a few moments, our city has a tough time bridging certain divisions. Even in the presumed ascendancy of the present, consensus remains as mercurial as springtime weather.
Still and all, if there is a single proposition around which all of the citizens of Birmingham can rally in full accord, a single point at which the multifarious voices of our civic chorus might converge in perfect harmony, surely it is this: Our mayor looks good.
(To do any better than that, I’d have to steal directly from the late Kurt Vonnegut. He once proposed a similar thesis before an audience to which he was speaking on the fractured state of America at the dawn of the 21st century. Vonnegut’s rallying cry for the nation? “Sugar is sweet.”)
This suggestion is not intended as mere flattery. When I say that Mayor Bell “looks good,” I don’t mean merely that he is a handsome, well-groomed and impeccably attired man — though he is, indubitably, each and all of these things. My deeper observation is that his outward attributes and physical bearing are tremendously well suited to what undeniably is an important part of his role as mayor.
In short, Bell looks like a mayor. He wears the public and ceremonial tasks of the job like a bespoke suit of clothes, appearing at all times to have been conjured whole cloth by Hollywood casting to embody the aspect of the political mover and shaker and provide a presence that projects benevolent authority.
Bell does all of this very well. And in so doing, he represents Birmingham very well — not just those of us who are eligible to vote for him, but the entire fractious region that orbits the business and financial center of Alabama. Whether cutting a ribbon, speaking to a business or community group, appearing on national television, interacting with distinguished visitors from around the nation and world, or any of the hundred other official obligations that get shoehorned into the workday of a big-city mayor, William Bell is impressive.
The problem, as I have written before in this space, is that in the Bell Administration, the ratio of substance to glitz has been dismayingly low. Consider the number and cost of the self-aggrandizing parties, receptions and events the mayor’s office pays for with taxpayer dollars; the trips to Washington or New York or San Francisco or London or Tokyo taken by the mayor and his ever-capacious entourage; the disappointment in many quarters that last year’s star-spangled “50 Years Forward” observance of Birmingham’s Civil Rights history generated so little of lasting resonance for the vast majority of Birmingham’s residents; the unending flow of money from City Hall to people, firms and purposes with little connection to the public good; the fact that the city’s financial health is more tenuous than the mayor wants us to know.
For anyone interested in the effectiveness and efficiency of government, the accountability of elected officials and the magnitude of the work before us, consideration of these things is neither pleasant nor encouraging. For anyone who cares about the future of our community and not just its present, who wants Birmingham to be a place where the “coolness” factor is defined by the extent to which the benefits of coolness extend to the population at large, considering these things is like staring into an abyss.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned reasons for Birmingham’s long history of intractable dichotomy and civic stasis. Successive generations of progressive thinkers and doers have succeeded to varying degrees in moving the city forward incrementally. But each and every wave of progress has been broken by age-old divisions of race and class, by the unflagging persistence of glaring inequities and the perpetual want of a unifying vision for bringing to fruition the barely tapped stores of economic and human potential that reside in our community.
Meanwhile, Birmingham is as beset as ever by a host of glaring deficiencies — in education, in transportation, in public health, in economic opportunity and community development, in human and governmental relations — that revolve around the gigantically substantive reality that two of five residents of our city lives at or near poverty level. And meanwhile, Mayor Bell wants us to spend half-a-billion dollars on a domed stadium.
None of this is meant to suggest either that there is no value in those “accomplishments” of the mayor’s that I have termed as superficial, or that City Hall is devoid of substantive action on Bell’s watch. The problem is that there is no overarching strategy or sense of priority or purpose. In office for four-and-a-half years now, Bell has yet to betray any inclination to go deep, to do the hard work of providing transformational leadership, to make the hard choices that must be made to effect the kind of systemic change that must happen if Birmingham is to break permanently from its mold of underachievement and achieve sustainable improvements to the general quality of life.
Whether that happens or not — and whether it is Bell who can or will provide the leadership needed — is a proposition in which we, the people of Birmingham, have a voice, if we will but use it. Given the magnitude of both the opportunities before us and the obstacles that stand in our way, it is time that we ask more of ourselves and demand more of those who would lead us. If we really want to achieve lasting progress, we have to transform the way Birmingham works. This is an inescapable fact.
With this in mind, William Bell has a decision to make. He has to decide that looking good is not enough, that the old ways will not be sufficient to ensure a future of accomplishments that go beyond the superficial. If he truly wants Birmingham to be great, he has to change. Otherwise, soon enough, it will be up to the people of Birmingham to make a change on their own.