Back in the dawning years of this fast-fleeting century, I worked at Birmingham City Hall. For me, one of the most rewarding things about working in the public sector was the opportunity to interact with — and, hopefully, assist in some way — people from virtually every community in the city. Best of all was connecting with those who were engaged deeply at the neighborhood level, and whose backgrounds of knowledge and experience became an invaluable resource.
One of those people was the late Jno Berry, the longtime president of the Rising-West Princeton neighborhood. Roughly speaking, Rising-West Princeton lies north of Lomb Avenue and (mostly) west of Rickwood Field, anchored at the ends by the Princeton Baptist Medical Center complex and the eastern edge of the Crossplex property at Five Points West. Mr. Berry was a staunch advocate for his neighborhood, which, then as now, was demonstrably underserved by city government. He was also a keen and seasoned observer of the ways in which Birmingham works, as well as those in which it does not, and was not shy about sharing the fruits of his observations.
We had great conversations, Mr. Berry and I. Many of those took place with him at the wheel of his car, driving me around Rising-West Princeton to look at some project that was underway, some improvement the neighborhood wanted the city to fund, some need that was going unmet. And, in the course of driving around and talking about this or that project or pitch or complaint, Mr. Berry and I invariably would get to talking about Birmingham.
It was on one such day — right around this very time of year in 2002, as I recall, the trees green and full beneath cloudless blue sky — that it occurred to me to pose a particular question to Mr. Berry. I wondered if he had an opinion as to why it was that — unlike any number of other cities that, then as now, we could name by rote — Birmingham had never transcended the boundaries of race and class, or at least subsumed them to a broadly held notion of progress. Why didn’t Birmingham have such a notion? What was it that prevented the emergence here of a unifying vision of our past, an inclusive vision of our present, and a holistic vision of a future in which the fruits of our civic endeavor accrue from the bottom up and not the top down?
That’s what I was thinking on that day, or something very much like it. But that’s not the way I phrased my question to Mr. Berry. We’d been talking, in slightly different terms, about those very subjects of race and class, and about what I think it’s fair to say was a sense we shared that Birmingham’s essential problem was that it had never found the gumption to get over itself.
Which is what prompted my actual question to Jno Berry, asked and answered as he maneuvered us along the streets of his neighborhood.
“What is it with Birmingham, Mr. Berry? Why can’t we get it together?”
As you’ve probably gathered, this particular day I’m describing to you is one of those memories that, for reasons both obvious and not, remains vivid and detailed in whole-cloth fashion, 15 years after the fact of it. One of those details is my watching Mr. Berry chew for a few moments on the unlit cigar stub he habitually clenched in his teeth as he drove. Removing it with a thumb and forefinger, he offered a piece of perspective that instantly became something like an article of civic faith for me.
“There’s a lot of people in Birmingham who’d rather have all of nothing than half of something.”
He was silent for several seconds. Then, just before planting the cigar back between his teeth, he added a clarification.
“That’s white and black.”
I was thinking about Mr. Berry, and about that particular conversation, as I was wheeling solo about the city a couple of Sunday afternoons ago. I wasn’t in his old neighborhood, but rather in and around Ensley and Pratt City. But, conducting a looping windshield survey of these once-vibrant and long-neglected neighborhoods, the train of my thought traveled the same worn tracks as those conversations with Mr. Berry did 15 years ago. What’s more, it ended at the same old stop, the familiar all of nothing is better than half of something terminus.
That’s a little dismaying, if you want to know the truth. Here we are, a decade-and-a-half down the line — and it should be noted, more than a half-century after the defining events of our history — and the fairness and accuracy of Jno Berry’s statement has remained a relative constant. For any student of the city’s history, it is apparent that the greatest obstacle to Birmingham’s progress always has been Birmingham itself. And whether the current iteration of would-be civic greatness will be sufficient to break that historical chain remains an open question.
Now, I’m not claiming that Birmingham hasn’t made progress. Certainly, it has — even if not at nearly the pace of, nor in as spectacular a fashion as, such one-time regional subordinates as Charlotte and Jacksonville, and even Chattanooga. That’s to name just a few of the several Southern communities that, over the course of that same half-century, outperformed Birmingham substantially in economic terms, and caught and passed us in population and prestige.
The difference is this: Throughout its history, from the years just after its founding to the present day, Birmingham’s strides forward have come despite the prevailing economic and social dynamic, despite our collective proclivity for making Birmingham its own worst enemy, despite clinging for dear life to all of nothing. Those things, and the contradiction and conflict they engender, are encoded in our civic DNA, which is not an easy thing to overcome. That’s especially true if the division into “sides” — usually, but not always, beginning with the most superficial of divides, that of black from white — is as reflexive as it is in these parts.
Got a wife, got a family
Earn my living with my hands
I’m a roller in a steel mill
In downtown Birmingham….
Greatest city in Alabam’
You can travel ‘cross this entire land
There ain’t no place like Birmingham
That’s the opening verse and chorus of “Birmingham,” the gritty-if-lush little vignette of Southern parochialism that is the second track on Randy Newman’s seminal 1974 album, Good Old Boys. Though there is no specific identification of the working-class narrator’s race, the progression of the lyric makes it clear that he is white (right down to letting us know about the “big black dog” that lives in his backyard; we’re also informed that the dog’s name is “Dan,” and that he’s “the meanest dog in Alabam’,” just before our narrator issues the laconic command, “Get ‘em, Dan”).
Regardless, what Newman was really meditating on was not race, but the rigid social and economic structure of the South in general, and Birmingham in particular. It was (and is) a structure in which the people and entities with real — i.e., economic — power are demarcated and isolated from their fellow citizens (“white and black,” as Mr. Berry noted) who have neither power nor the ready access to it.
From that perspective, we begin to understand that being “the greatest city in Alabam’” is not necessarily, or even rightfully, a status in which undue pride should be invested. That becomes especially true when you add the prevailing local view of externally imposed markers of “progress” — for example, the desegregation of public facilities — that continue to come into conflict with longstanding cultural norms.
Up to now, Birmingham has had a tendency to resist change, to fall back to readily on old ways of doing things — the very ways that have kept us poor even as wealth is created here, and kept us politically and spiritually static, even in these times of highly visible growth and development downtown and in a few other select neighborhoods. The current boom in real estate is spurring the city to unprecedented heights of civic enthusiasm and positive recognition from external sources. But it’s also throwing into stark relief the same forces that continue to impede essential changes in the way Birmingham works for the majority of its citizens.
Rather than working to hasten the arrival of change that will transform Birmingham from the ground up, we are in danger of accepting a vision that is stunted and superficial and far short of inclusive. To my eyes and ears, that vision looks and sounds a lot less like garden-variety civic boosterism than like the same obdurate strain of narrow-minded self-regard that has kept us such a provincial place for so many generations.
Which, whether or not Newman had it mind when he penned the lyric — I honestly don’t know if he’d ever even been in Birmingham at the time — his assessment is wholly in keeping with another of our city’s defining traits. That would be the one that causes Birmingham to habitually (and, infuriatingly often, deliberately) choose the wrong things in which to invest its precious civic capital. If you want to put that in a more evocatively Southern way, you could say that Birmingham tends to select the wrong ground on which to take its stand.
At bottom, the “it” with which Birmingham is infested is the absence of that unifying vision that Jno Berry and I talked of years ago — and which people all over the city continue to speak of, and seek, and struggle for, and sometimes despair at its stubborn elusiveness, and occasionally pause to celebrate some small step along that road. It’s a perennially popular topic, but one that has never been resolved.
At no point in the existence of Birmingham has there been anything approaching a consensus on what a “resolution” of our dichotomies would even look like. We want to do the “right” thing, but we can’t even define what the right things are — not in any encompassing and all-inclusive way. Our city will be 150 years old in less than five years, and at no single moment during all of that time have sufficient numbers of citizens felt persuaded to sing off the same page of the civic hymnal.
Can that change? Is it, in fact, now in the process of changing? Will Birmingham define itself in its own terms — become a great city in its own right — or will it miss yet another opportunity to be more than it is?
As Birmingham looks to the future, those questions remain open.