The house is of post-World War II vintage, a nice-sized structure rising from a tall foundation of rough fieldstone. The foundation is the most distinctive feature, increasing in height with the upward slope of the lot, culminating in a pair of square 12-foot columns that form the gateway of a tall carport; inside, it walls in a large, unfinished basement.
Atop the foundation the house itself is a mishmash of additions and renovations undertaken at various times over the years and with varying degrees of skill. Despite these numerous compromises of the builder’s aesthetic vision, it’s easy to see that at one time the house was quite handsome in its eccentric way and to imagine how pleased someone once must have been to call it home.
But that was some time ago. Now the house’s interior is gutted, its brown brick exterior blackened around the window casings by the blaze that raged from within. A haphazard assembly of plywood and particleboard blocks a picture window from which can be seen to the south parts of downtown Birmingham and the Lakeview and Avondale districts beyond. At the corner nearest this window vines rooted somewhere inside the structure have extended themselves up to and over the exposed timbers of the roof and now creep their way across and down the brick to mingle and entwine with others that descend from higher along the outside wall or climb from the ground below.
It’s a sight, as my paternal grandmother used to say of things that provoke consternation and rue — or of things that simply defy visual logic. That house is a sight.
Unfortunately, it is a sight that is all too common in the city of Birmingham. Native Dubliner James Joyce once had a character of his muse on the presumptive impossibility of crossing that city without passing a pub. Today, one would encounter similar difficulty in making one’s way from one boundary of the newly-styled (Ain’t No) Magic City to the other without passing the charred remains of a burned-out house.
For that matter, try to do it without passing through at least one neighborhood where burned-out or otherwise abandoned houses are not to be found around every corner — and two streets over, and on the next block. Try it, and you will come to the realization that the majority of people in our city live in a neighborhood that receives less than its fair share of services from city government. For many, if not most, of our citizens abandoned houses — and overgrown lots, and potholed streets, and broken sidewalks, and trash-choked alleys and weed-ridden rights-of-way — are an everyday fact of life in their community.
This community — Fountain Heights, north of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex — is one of those. The houses adjacent to the burned and boarded one I’m poking around — one is separated by a vacant lot with weeds that come up to my waist; I can see the vague outline of where a house used to be — are occupied, though one has a couple of broken windows that I can see and the other a small yard with grass that hasn’t been cut in months.
Of course, Birmingham’s neighborhoods, most particularly those where residents who are poor and black predominate, have been deteriorating for decades. That’s nothing new — unless apparently you’re a member of the Birmingham City Council, which with its collective half-century-plus of council membership has just this week decided collectively that making the problem of abandoned houses, overgrown lots and the like a priority in the city budget might help to foster the impression that our city government is responsive to the needs of its citizens.
But I digress. Besides which, Lord knows I don’t want to discourage the council by seeming to criticize them for stumbling their way into doing what is right, even if they’re doing it mostly, 1) to spite Mayor Bell in general, and 2) as retribution for what they perceive (with some substantial justification) as being given the proverbial high-hat by Bell and his staff in the negotiations that took place after the mayor submitted his proposed budget in May.
My interest in the particular house of my story has to do with its particular location. As the crow flies, the house is not much farther from Birmingham City Hall than is, say, Regions Field or Railroad Park — or, for that matter, the offices of Weld or the Thomas Jefferson Hotel.
All of these things, if I may be so presumptuous, are emblematic of a growing and changing community. All of these things are aspirational in nature. Individually and collectively, they speak to a shared desire to say and do and be a part of — and, yes, lead — the process of building a great city.
And yet, these things exist within figurative sight of this eccentrically handsome little house in Fountain Heights. I take that fact to be both an undeniable indicator of past failure — the repeated failure of Birmingham to make itself great, the endemic failure to tie our very concept of greatness to a vision that touches the life of every citizen of our community in meaningful ways — and a challenge to make the future all it can be, for Birmingham and everyone who lives here.
I have written before of my concern with our tendency — that of human beings in general, and of folks in Birmingham in particular — to focus on the superficial, to be distracted by bread and circuses into absolving our leaders of the need for accountability. That is part of what I’m thinking about as I look at this house, but only part. I’m also thinking that the logical conclusion of our distraction is going to be that we’ll have two Birminghams.
One Birmingham will be for people who can afford the growing number of “good things” our city has to offer. The other will be for those who cannot, and who as a result continue to become increasingly resentful at being left out of the city’s supposed “progress.”
It’s a delicate balance, this challenge of creating new opportunity while addressing age-old needs. Birmingham is entering an era where both opportunity and catastrophe are in play, where the choices we make are ones we are going to have to live with for a generation and more to come. If we make the wrong ones — if we fail to achieve that delicate balance — our future is not going to be the one that any one wants who loves Birmingham and believes in its possibilities.
In his critique of Walker Percy’s novel, Love in the Ruins — published in 1971, the book was a wryly satirical look at a not-too-distant future — Gary M. Ciuba wrote of the novelist’s creation of a world where “institutions and individuals [have] become divided into pairs of absolute and incompatible extremes.” That division, Ciuba wrote, ends in “anarchy” that “causes a polarization of the country’s political, social, religious and psychic life.” Or, as Percy himself had his protagonist tell us:
[O]ur beloved old U.S.A. is in a bad way. Americans have turned against each other; race against race, right against left, believer against heathen….
The center did not hold.
And there it is, I’m thinking as I make my way the short distance back downtown from Fountain Heights. That’s my fear for Birmingham — that we will, as ever, turn against each other, become divided (even more than we already are) into factions whose competing visions of Birmingham’s greatness cannot be reconciled.
The choices before us are becoming clearer than ever. So are the consequences of making the wrong ones — not least because of the sheer magnitude of evidence, like that little house in Fountain Heights and the hundreds upon hundreds more in neighborhoods across Birmingham — and so are the rewards of making the right ones.
What will Birmingham do?