If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.
— Lao Tzu
If you picked up last week’s print edition of Weld, or else visited weldbham.com or followed someone’s link to it, you might have read my short profile and interview of Thom Gossom Jr. A Birmingham native, the Florida-based actor/producer/businessman/ writer/consultant/raconteur also happens to be a longtime friend of mine, whose observations and opinions about the hometown he left nearly two decades ago — but continues to consider home — remain informed and astute.
I’ve known Thom since 1985. In the years afterward, I had the opportunity to work with him on a few projects — most recently in 2005, when Thom narrated an audio walking tour of Kelly Ingram Park that I wrote and co-produced in association with the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (that audio was in use for several years, until the park tour was updated in conjunction with the 50th anniversary observance of Birmingham’s role in the pivotal Civil Rights events of 1963).
For the past decade, as tends to happen with all but the very closest of friends, my contact with Thom has not been as frequent (I hope I’m not being presumptuous here) as either of us would like. Whenever I see or talk with Thom, I’m always appreciative of the perspective he brings to Birmingham-related matters. Because of both the history spanned by his 63 years and the relative objectivity afforded by physical distance, he has a nuanced understanding of our city.
This was evident in a couple of remarks that I quoted in the piece last week. Thom spoke with evident pride in acknowledging that Birmingham “has come a long way” — but he also talked about his “love-hate relationship” with the city, and his disappointment that Birmingham has not been “more progressive, especially in finding ways to get past some of the issues that have always divided us.”
I interviewed Thom a few days before Christmas, and then got busy finalizing holiday plans with family and close friends. Coming out the other side during the strange half-week most of us put in with New Year’s Eve and January 1 falling on Thursday and Friday, I found bits and pieces of my conversation with Thom — the bits and pieces relative to Birmingham — replaying in my mind. Looking back at my notes, I realized that talk of the city’s past, present and future took up at least half of the 30-plus minutes we’d spent on the phone.
In other words, there was a lot there that didn’t make it into the profile of Thom — which, in my view, was too bad. Then, as I often do, I found myself reflecting on how fortunate I am, in these strange and tumultuous times, to have a newspaper column of my very own, where I am free to share things that I believe are worth sharing. A lot of what my friend Thom had to say about Birmingham falls into the that category, and should be of interest to any and all who aspire to help make our city, at long last, a great one.
“I remember when I first started going to LA for acting jobs,” Thom told me. “I’d meet people, and I’d start the conversation with, ‘I’m from Birmingham.’ That usually prompted a deeper conversation. Just the word Birmingham provoked a kind of curiosity about this place that most people only knew about for one reason.
“The interesting thing,” he added, “is that people who have been to Birmingham have a different reaction. I run into so many people who go to Birmingham and come away talking about what a great experience they had when they were there.”
Like any number of other observers, Thom notes that Birmingham emerged from the turbulent 1960s with an “inferiority complex.” At a time when other Southern communities — I can name eight or 10 off the top of my head, and I’m guessing that you can, too — were positioning themselves to emerge as leading growth centers, Birmingham was shackled by (mostly) self-inflicted wounds. It has been our lot to play catch-up.
“For the most part,” said Thom, “Birmingham’s issues are the same issues you see in every city. But there are some issues that are unique to Birmingham, at least in the way they get played out. That has hurt us. We just have never been able to find ways to talk at the metro level, to work through issues that affect the whole community and go after opportunities that would benefit everybody.”
Thom is enthusiastic about the superficial signs of growth — and the less superficial ones of perhaps growing up — that have begun to abound in these parts over the past few years. But he’s also been around long enough to have seen it before, the Birmingham phenomenon that I once likened to ocean waves that break short of the shore, their energy dissipated and spent, leaving us only to wait and hope for the next wave to be the one that delivers us the ride of our lives — the one that takes Birmingham where it needs to go.
“I lived here during the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Thom said. “There were things going on at that time that were very progressive, but we just didn’t quite get over the hump. I do think that a lot of what is going on now grew out of ideas that people began to talk about back then, 30 years ago.”
The challenge for Birmingham has always been how to accelerate progressive things — how to transform the very definition of progress, and make it all-inclusive and self-sustaining. Having accrued some positive momentum, now may be the best opportunity Birmingham has ever had — or is likely to have again — to project a progressive identity and direction as a cosmopolitan city of the 21st century. The only questions, Thom seemed to suggest, are whether Birmingham will do what is necessary to achieve that, and whether it wants to.
“Can we decide who we are?” he asked. “Can we decide who we are, and be satisfied with that, and do what it takes to embrace that identity and build on it?” If the answer to all of those questions is Yes, Thom said, “We’re going to see real progress.”
“We know there’s still some things we’ve got to do,” he allowed. “But we’ve got to get past just talking about it.”
On the whole, Thom’s visits home over the past few years seem to have made him, if not entirely optimistic, then at least highly encouraged by the energy he encounters here. A great deal of that energy, he pointed out, is emanating from young professionals, a group growing in number and perhaps only beginning to understand the influential roles they can play in the city’s politics and civic life.
“I see it a lot with the younger people I talk to,” Thom said. “They want to live in a great city, and they seem to be making that commitment that is going to be necessary to be a part of that, to help make it happen.
“That’s how Birmingham is going to be great. Good people have to get involved. Good people have to get out there and speak up.”