What you are must always displease you, if you would attain to that which you are not.
— St. Augustine
I moved to Birmingham in the summer of 1980. An earnest and dewy-eyed college freshman from a small northwest Alabama town, I had no particular attachment to our state’s largest city. The primary thing I knew about it growing up was that it was a steelmaking town, which was the explanation for why, when I visited once or twice a year with my parents or grandparents, we could smell the city long before we saw it.
In those days, roughly the late 1960s through the mid-’70s, we’d drive down to visit one of the two sets of relatives we had here — they lived on opposite sides of the city, one in the Roebuck/Huffman area, the other several blocks north of the Bessemer Superhighway, near Five Points West — or to look at the Christmas lights in Woodrow Wilson (now Linn) Park and perhaps stop in at the big Pizitz and Loveman’s department stores downtown; regarding the latter, I recall that, being small town boys, my brothers and I got a bigger kick out of riding the escalators than marveling over the elaborate holiday decorations or doing any actual shopping.
At that young age, I was also aware of the history of race relations in Birmingham, though only in an abstract sort of way. I do recall a particular instance on one of our trips here that stuck with me, and that in retrospect qualifies as a consciousness-raising moment on the subject.
I was maybe 11 years old. We were coming into town via U.S. 78, and were stopped by the traffic signal at the intersection of Arkadelphia Road and Finley Boulevard. Then as now, there were billboards at the intersection, facing the incoming traffic. Across the face of one, some enterprising racist had spray-painted the words Niggers get the hell out of Bham. I can still see the scrawled black letters in my mind, and hear my dad’s terse response when I pointed out the sign: “Son, there’s not a place in the world that doesn’t have plenty of idiots.”
That would have been about 1973, and the whole little episode made an impression that stayed with me. So much so, in fact, that I remembered it seven years later, when I was driving to school at Samford and found myself stopped at that same intersection. But in recalling that, I also knew that, less than a year before the sojourn that began my college career, Birmingham had elected its first black mayor. I lacked the knowledge and background to process the full meaning of that, but I knew that things were changing in the city where I’d be living for the following four years.
Not that it mattered very much to me then. Beyond those four years, I had no real thoughts about where I’d spend the rest of my life, other than to assume that it would not be in my native Alabama. Between the liberal political sensibilities that I’d been developing from an early age and the palpably conservative atmosphere that prevailed in Birmingham despite the undeniably remarkable changes that had taken place here since my birth in 1961 — not to mention the age-old conviction that the world is full of pastures much greener than those that are familiar to us — I just didn’t conceive of it as the place for me, the place I wanted to be.
And then something happened. Not in a bolt-from-the-blue, road-to-Damascus sort of way, but gradually. Beginning that very same summer of 1980, Birmingham grew on me. It grew on me, and by the time I had been here for a couple of years, I had come to love it with a depth and intensity that I would never have thought possible. I had come to think of Birmingham as my home — as my city.
And so it has been, for 35 years this month and counting. And my love has only grown.
Not that it was an easy town to love. Indeed, far too often, the only way to love Birmingham — if you didn’t count the richness of the history, the loveliness of the landscape (both natural and built), and the genuine Southern graciousness of (most of) the people — was in spite of itself. There was the vestigial racism, classism and paternalism, permeating the economic structure and social relations, and acting as the prime agent in the lack of communication, cooperation and cohesion between the city and its suburbs. There was the casual corruption and seemingly ingrained tendency toward mediocrity that made politics and government problematic at all levels. There was the want of visionary leadership in both the public and private sectors, manifested as a blind adherence to the long established status quo and a reflexive aversion to progressive reform and transformational change.
Perhaps above all, there was what can only be described as a civic inferiority complex of titanic proportions, one that both grew out of and perpetuated the characteristics I’ve mentioned above. By and large, people in Birmingham simply did not believe that the city could ever be much more than whatever it was, and if one said or wrote or attempted to present evidence that suggested otherwise, they either indulged you as a hopeless Pollyanna or dismissed you as some kind of nut.
Things are different now, of course. These days, speaking and writing critically about Birmingham can get you vilified, at least in some quarters. Refusal to fall in line with the popular narrative of the Birmingham Renaissance — a construct I don’t care for, as it implies that there was a previous period where the city was a thriving oasis of growth and progress and goodwill — can get you branded as a naysayer, a “hater,” and worse. There are those who, from all appearances, believe that if you don’t see things exactly as they do then you don’t love Birmingham.
This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a patently narrow-minded and ultimately destructive stance, as bad in its way as the “Birmingham will never amount to anything” mentality. On the other, it is perhaps a natural outgrowth of the emergence of genuine civic pride in the undeniably remarkable changes that have taken place in our city over the past few years, and which continue to accrue even as I write these words.
In between — on the ground where the hard work of citizenship is done — are those who understand that love for one’s city does not preclude critical thinking and substantive action. Every day, I hear from and talk to people from every corner of Birmingham who are both ecstatic about the changes taking place before their eyes and concerned that we’re going to blow this once-in-a-lifetime chance to make our city truly great, truly a place of opportunity for all of our citizens. Their worry is founded on the fact that, despite all of the signs of progress, we have not eradicated the issues that kept that progress in check for so long. We are treating the symptoms, but the disease remains.
For my own part, I have no problem saying that Birmingham is better than it has ever been. But — both as part of my responsibility as a writer and journalist, and because of my enduring and undying love for this city and its people — I am compelled to remind myself and every person who cares to read what I write that it could be so much better.