A century ago — that will do as a general frame of reference, though I could just as easily write 1916, or ’04 or ’10 or ‘25 — Birmingham was on the move. An extended period of growth occupied most of the three decades that ushered in that now-ancient period we call the 20th century. It was a period that recalled and eclipsed Birmingham’s original “Magic City” glory days of the late 1870s and early 1880s.
In 1900, fewer than 39,000 people made their homes in Birmingham. Over the course of a few years, with a national construction boom driving demand for structural steel, the city emerged as one of America’s prime production centers. That reputation only grew after 1907, when U.S. Steel arrived as the predominant economic power — a position it would hold for roughly three-quarters of a century — and Birmingham soon after became known as “The Pittsburgh of the South.”
By 1910, progressive elements in the city — “boosters,” they called them in those days — had made several attempts to persuade the Alabama Legislature to allow Birmingham to expand its boundaries by consolidating with several adjacent suburbs. On each occasion, their efforts were opposed by, shall we say, less progressive elements in the city and state, elements with individual and collective stakes in restricting Birmingham’s ability to chart its own course economically, socially, politically, civically.
That included the big steelmakers, by the way. They had purposefully sited their headquarters and production facilities outside Birmingham’s city limits, lest they be subjected to the indignity of paying municipal taxes, and they resented the idea that what was good for them might not necessarily redound to the good of the general order.
Consequently, by hook or by crook, shall we say, the move to create what proponents called Greater Birmingham was an uphill battle. On one occasion, a consolidation bill passed both the legislature and the required public referendum, only to have the Alabama Supreme Court declare the referendum invalid.
(Can you imagine such a thing? The Alabama Supreme Court issuing a ruling that upheld and perpetuated the economic status quo that, even as Birmingham grew, earned the city perpetual status as one of the most poverty-stricken in America? Can you imagine what a fix we’d be in today if the Alabama Supreme Court routinely acted in the worst interests of the people of Birmingham and Alabama as a whole?)
In any case, none of the consolidation efforts succeeded.
That’s when an intensive lobbying effort by proponents got a bill that did not require voter approval through the legislature and signed by Gov. Braxton Bragg Comer. Comer signed reluctantly, perhaps only after being reminded that one of Greater Birmingham’s greatest proponents, the Birmingham Commercial Club — the forerunner of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and, by extension, today’s Birmingham Business Alliance — had invested $150,000 in the textile mill the governor owned here (for those keeping score, that’s in the neighborhood of $4 million in current dollars).
Under the new legislation, eight surrounding cities — Avondale, East Lake, Ensley, North Birmingham, Pratt City, West End, Woodlawn and Wylam — became part of Birmingham. The unincorporated communities of Clifton, East Birmingham, Elyton, Gate City, Kingston, Lewisburg, Smithfield and Thomas were also merged with the city.
Greater Birmingham was born.
When the new municipal boundaries took effect on January 1, 1910, Birmingham’s land area was more than quadrupled. More important to Birmingham’s boosters, consolidation increased the city’s population to nearly 133,000. Suddenly, among Southern cities, only New Orleans (339,000), Louisville (224,000) and Atlanta (155,000) had more people.
By 1920, the population was nearing 180,000. By 1930, it was just under 260,000.
I’m going to interrupt myself here to address directly any reader who’s thinking that I’m telling this story by way of endorsing the idea of municipal consolidation as something on which our community should be expending precious civic energy in this day and time:
I am not going to endorse any such thing. First of all, I’m not going to endorse it on the simple grounds that the window of opportunity on that one closed a long time ago. Beyond that, even if the window remains, however slightly, cracked at this late date, that civic energy would be much better expended on achieving objectives that will have the same general effects as consolidation — and with only a fraction of the political duress. And even in the unlikely event that a consolidation drive succeeded, it would be an implementation nightmare, certain of complication by reams of litigation involving disgruntled residents and businesses.
Of course, as the more cynically inclined among us might say, that’s in keeping with our heritage. Which gets me back to the topic at hand.
Right up until the Great Depression hit Birmingham — this city was already feeling the pinch a full two years before the stock market crashed in October 1929 — Birmingham experienced the longest period of steady growth in its history. Steel might have been predominant, but by the 1920s, more than 1,600 types of articles and commodities were produced here, from rail cars to radiators, bicycles to bricks. Small factories, offices, warehouses, merchants, wholesalers — all flourished.
Birmingham’s growing population of people and businesses was reflected in the transformation of the downtown skyline. The four towers that formed “The Heaviest Corner on Earth” — now that’s boosterism! — at First Avenue and 20th Street North were built between 1902 and 1912. The building known today as Jemison Flats was completed in 1909; among its early tenants was the Chamber of Commerce, which placed atop the building a 20-foot-tall sign with the slogan, “Trade in Birmingham.”
All told, well over a dozen landmark office buildings went up in Birmingham from 1903 through 1928. Activity peaked in 1925, with five new towers opening that year.
Meanwhile, and notwithstanding the superficial indicators of prosperity, Birmingham was one of the poorest cities in America. The unbridled “factory town” mentality that had spurred the growth of the city had also created severe economic inequities and exploited social and racial tensions in ways that affected every aspect of Birmingham’s undeniably unique existence — and which continue to affect our city right up to this very same moment.
What I’m attempting to do here is to draw for you some parallels between Birmingham in the early part of the 20th century and Birmingham in the dawning decades of the one in which you and I now reside. If you are discerning these, thank you and congratulations for staying with me, at least up to this point.
And speaking of points, this is where we get to the real one of the cautionary history lesson I’ve been attempting to present.
Birmingham has been here before — “here” meaning where we are now, with all of our shiny new growth and cool new places; our heady-but-unfocused civic ambition and our emergent understanding of the need for meaningful political engagement; our newly burning desire to divest ourselves forever of the perpetuity of our promise and embark finally and irrevocably on its realization.
What’s more, Birmingham has been here before, before. We were here in the years after World War II, which had converted the factories shuttered by the Depression to wartime production and left behind an industrial infrastructure ready to welcome returning GIs with unprecedented job and educational opportunities. That one got derailed by the assertion that black children — many of whose fathers were veterans of the aforementioned war— should be allowed to attend schools with white children, and the subsequent local reaction to the Civil Rights Movement in general.
Birmingham was here in the early 1970s. The University of Alabama at Birmingham had been chartered in 1966 and was already growing in prominence (it would become the city’s largest employer in 1976). Banking, insurance, engineering and communications were supplanting steel heavy manufacturing as the linchpins of the local economy.
Meanwhile, an effort to merge most of Jefferson County — 26 municipalities and 47 other “urbanized areas” — into Birmingham to form “One Great City” was gaining traction, with polls showing that voters would approve the proposal if it appeared on a ballot. And the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce led an effort that resulted in the creation of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, which was intended to rescue the city’s bus system from years of decline.
In the interim, of course, UAB has only continued to grow — otherwise, let’s be honest, Birmingham essentially would have become Gary, Indiana, after the collapse of the steel industry in the late 1970s and the recession of the early 1980s. The city also continued to develop as a banking and business hub, at one time having five Fortune 500 companies headquartered here (we’ve been down to one for some years now).
Unfortunately, voters never got a chance to vote for One Great City, as the enabling bill — say it with me — died in the Alabama Legislature, mostly because U.S. Steel opposed it. And we all know the ongoing saga of the BJCTA, which took little more than a decade to become what it is today: an embarrassment of a bus system that serves noone well and is rife with corruption and cronyism.
Birmingham has been here before.
And now, here we are again, approaching the crossroads of opportunity and continued status quo with some significant momentum accumulated. The opportunity is great, but the same obstacles that have derailed Birmingham in the past — the persistence of high poverty, the perpetuation of racial and class divisions, the absence of a unifying political vision and officeholders committed to its fruition — are the obstacles that face us now.
What will happen this time?