About eight and a half years ago, the organization then known as the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce published a book called A Powerful Presence. I wrote the book, which while fulfilling its ostensible purpose of providing a critical assessment of the Chamber’s highly influential role in the history and development of Birmingham, also opened (and walked through) the door to deeper examination of the economic and political history of Birmingham and the surrounding region.
I’m happy to recollect that the book was well-received by professional historians in Birmingham and Alabama. One of them, the eminent Leah Rawls Atkins, called it “the best narrative history we have…of the city and region,” which came as quite a relief to a person who, as a student at Samford in the early 1980s, had mostly goofed his way through Dr. Atkins’ course on local history.
Anyway, enough of that. My real reason for mentioning the book is because I was thumbing through it the other day — as I do occasionally, looking for some point of reference or another — and I ran across a story that I find to be instructive as to our present civic circumstances. (History often is, of course, especially here in Birmingham; but trying to convince some people of that is a fool’s errand of epic proportions.)
The story is of the January 1978 meeting of the Chamber’s board of directors (at that time, the organization was known as the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce). More specifically, it is of the discussion sparked by a report from the Environmental Economics Committee, a Chamber initiative that had become a separately funded and quasi-independent lobbying organization operating under the Chamber umbrella.
The report itself was fairly routine. But it was routine in a way that reflected the overall view of and approach to issues related to the environment that prevailed among the local business leadership of the time.
Particularly after President Richard Nixon’s creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency late in 1970, the Birmingham Chamber had become increasingly involved in environmental issues, as an unabashed advocate of business concerns over the prospect of what Birmingham’s elite businesses were quick to portray as regulatory overreach. Its first real venture into the fray had come in 1976, when, as I wrote in A Powerful Presence:
…[the Chamber] successfully lobbied the Alabama Legislature against what board minutes referred to as “the so-called Act to Save the Cahaba,” which the Chamber opposed “because of its highly restrictive nature.”
The Environmental Economics Committee was created later that same year. Its declared purpose was to promote “a proper balance between a quality environment and sound economic growth.” Over the years to come, the committee’s activities would include the following, again as presented in my history of the Chamber:
Monitoring the formulation of EPA’s environmental impact study; lobbying against federal legislation to place two Cahaba [River] minnows on the [federal] list of endangered species, and in favor of development-friendly amendments to the Endangered Species Act; pushing for expansion of U.S. 280 and completion of I-459; opposing groups seeking federal designation of the Cahaba as a “wild and scenic” river; exercising considerable influence on a land-use plan developed by the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission…
Again, the committee report itself, made on that January day nearly 40 years ago, was of a piece with the committee’s work toward keeping the environmental protection versus economic growth scale “balanced.” It even included updates on two of the focus areas mentioned above, namely land-use planning and fighting the designation of endangered species in the Cahaba. There was praise for the committee’s work, along with acknowledgement of the “disastrous” impact on the local economy the committee had helped avert by opposing efforts aimed at limiting or prohibiting certain types of development in areas that were sensitive or otherwise significant from an environmental standpoint.
Writing about this, I commented that “the board meeting did not get really interesting” until the report — delivered by attorney William Satterfield, the chair of the Environmental Economics Committee — was completed and the ensuing discussion began. That discussion was compelling for several reasons, including its content and tone, as well as the sheer volume of community influence represented individually and collectively by its participants.
Just among those whose comments are quoted or referenced in my account of the meeting were the presidents of Alabama Power Company, the First National Bank of Birmingham (later AmSouth Bank), South Central Bell, Birmingham-Southern College, and a major downtown department store. Collectively, these were the people who made things happen in Birmingham — or, as those with whom they clashed (and generally bested) would have it, the people who too often kept things from happening in Birmingham. Collectively, they were the Establishment.
Individually — and this is important — these men (and they were all men; but hey, aren’t they still today?) and their fellow board members comprised what I called a “cross-section of opinions and interests” that often demonstrated the ability and willingness to “tolerate substantial differences of opinions within its ranks.” Individually, while very few of them qualified as liberals, there was in much of Birmingham’s corporate leadership of the time a social consciousness — whether it was viewed as opportunity or obligation varied from person to person — that translated into corporate efforts (some successful and some not) to play a broader role in the life of the community as a whole.
In what must have been a span of 15 minutes or less, the boardroom discussion became a microcosm of the challenges — many of them self-induced — that have always confronted Birmingham. It started with a full-throated criticism of “the way the EPA works,” then shifted back to the Environmental Economics Committee’s status as “one of the Chamber’s most important areas of involvement since decisions being made by various governmental regulatory agencies will ultimately affect every person within the Birmingham metropolitan area, business and otherwise.”
From there, the discussion shifted to a letter that had been published in an unidentified local newspaper (for you youngsters, Birmingham had two daily ones back then, along with several others that collectively were read and circulated widely). The letter, from a person affiliated with a local environmental protection group, criticized the Chamber’s actions relative to protection of the Cahaba watershed, and called for better communication between the committee and local environmental advocates (there were protestations that the committee was communicating just fine, and that, in fact, members of the committee had met with the letter writer personally “on one occasion”).
In response to this, some concern was expressed over the “incorrect” portrayal of the Chamber as “being just developer-oriented” — an impression that might be modified, it was suggested, if the Chamber did more to “boost urban development.” That goal had been met, a reply came, through the Chamber’s public support for Birmingham’s recent, successful municipal bond referendum. Besides, came another retort, the Chamber’s method of supporting such development traditionally had been “behind the scenes and…seldom noted publicly.”
Speaking of urban…, one can almost visualize the cerebral connections being made, as the discussion concluded with “concerns about ‘various store closings’ and ‘lack of adequate police protection’ in downtown Birmingham.” City government had to take its share of responsibility, one downtown business owner declared, adding that “keeping businesses in the city is not a one-way street, and [then-Mayor David Vann] could and must do something” to retain them, especially at a time when more and more businesses that had been based in the city for years were being presented choices “between a city and suburban location.”
Reviewing all of this, brooding over and writing about it (at least somewhat) afresh, I am struck by a couple of things.
First, just think for a moment about the issues at play 40 years ago (here again, I am grateful for the labor-saving device of having already written on this topic):
The challenges of multi-jurisdictional land use and transportation planning; the inherent conflict of economic growth and environmental protection; maintaining a vital central city; grappling with suburban sprawl; experimenting with the concept of regionalism…
Boy, looking at that list, what else is there to do but thank the Good Lord that we knocked those out of the park and moved on to Making Our Community Great.
I’m going to ask you at this point to mentally rate Birmingham’s progress, over 40 years, on each of the items identified, starting each with the question, Has there been any? In some cases, the answer is “yes” — but rarely are the answers anywhere near as cut-and-dried as we who have loved Birmingham and wanted the best for it for such a long time might have hoped for, especially by this late date. Phrased as a question, this might read, If we’re still fighting over the same things we were fighting over 40 years ago, has Birmingham really made any progress at all?
The second thing that strikes me is a critical difference between the Birmingham business community then and the Birmingham business community of today. The business leaders of that era were vested in Birmingham in a way that has become increasingly rare.
Think about it: At the time, every one of the companies mentioned or referenced above was headquartered in Birmingham. Today, very few of our major companies are locally based. If you don’t think that makes a difference in the ways that corporate citizenship plays out — socially as well as economically — just look around the country, at the number of thriving cities where progress has been fueled and sustained and made transformational by people and companies and organizations with committed local ownership and strong community ties.
That doesn’t mean we can’t make progress in Birmingham. But it does make it more difficult. It challenges us to find ways to support local business, to foster the kind of growth that strengthens our local economy, creates local jobs, encourages locally-based ownership and locally-oriented growth opportunities. It gives us the opportunity to build a better Birmingham from the ground up.
It positions us, at long last, to take full advantage of our opportunities and banish once and for all the ghosts of our past.