Who's Your City?, by Richard Florida
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Birmingham: The Schizoid City


I live in a converted pre-war (WWII) department store. Birmingham is an absolutely stunning, beautiful city, and is very much a part of the Appalachian foothills. We have amazing architecture from the 1910’s, 1920’s & 1930’s, and some impressive postmodern and contemporary structures, too. We’ve converted bottling plants and steel mills into museums and design centers, and “industrial chic” stands side-by-side with Tudor & Colonial styles. Several neighborhoods have whole districts of classic Ranches & Mediterranean houses to rival any in Hollywood or Bel Air (coal, steel & rail used to buy fanciness).

The topography here is rugged and craggy, and it’s green 9 months out of the year due to lots of rain (more than Seattle) and high humidity. Winter is limited to about 5 weeks in late January and early February. Snow is a mystifying air phenomenon. The University of Alabama at Birmingham is the city, region & state largest single employer outside of official government, and the Medical Center is constantly expanding. Recently, it was announced UAB is establishing a National Center for Stem Cell Research, and a few years ago consolidated its Biomedical Research departments into one tower. We lead the country in AIDS research, and also in Diabetes & Arthritis research as well. Children’s Hospital of Alabama is located here, and is embarking on a million expansion program.

Housing prices are stable, appreciating at a comfortable pace, and there are many outdoor activities to participate in. The only Porsche training/driving facility in North America is here, the city is converting a huge swath of abandoned land in the city center into a major park (the Railroad Reservation Park- along the railroad tracks that split the city in half), Mercedes & Honda both manufacture automobiles in the metro, and our suburbs rank nationally in education, low crime, quality of life, beauty and comfort. The area enjoys one of the top libraries and library systems in the U.S. by every measure, the arts and especially theatre & foodie culture are booming and becoming nationally ranked, and the creative community is trying to forge an identity and work together. We have the largest urban nature preserve in the U.S., and the largest urban state park, too. Southside continues to be the counter-culture epicenter of Alabama, Mississippi and portions of surrounding states, and we have a fairly large and open GTBL community.

We have 4 major interstates and half of a beltway, and Norfolk/Southern just announced they’re building a massive cargo container facility here. Steel and cast iron products are manufactured here (unlike Pittsburgh), and manufacturing accounts for about 14-16% of the total workforce. Now that’s not creative class, but it IS stable jobs for unskilled & skilled laborers. We’re still a major banking & insurance center (we were 4th in the nation just a few years ago), and we recently had 6 Fortune 500 companies (that’s both good & bad). There’s a whole list of truly positive attributes about our community.

However…The city of Birmingham itself is another story. The most charitable way to Describe Birmingham is as a cross between South Central L.A., Detroit & Flint. While the downtown is coming along with upscale restaurants, upscale condos, upscale office towers and upscale boutique shopping, the neighborhoods continue to bloodlet population. We have the highest commute times in the South- equal to Atlanta and second only to L.A.- and the exurbs continue to gr! ow unimp eded. Our mayor faces 97 Federal indictment charges, our city council is more interested in giving shout outs to neighborhood bake sales and making grand birthday proclamations to centenarians than they are to addressing the complete loss of retail & two major medical centers to outlying areas. The county faces a 3 BILLION dollar default/collapse (brought on by the cronyism and graft of past commssioners, ponzi schemes using tax proceeds & complicated junk bond swaps), and the rural-oriented county commissioners are refusing to address the catastrophe they’ve created & inherited. Recently, two county commissioners refused to grant Wal-Mart a permit to build a supercenter in a tragically distressed “South Bronx”-style neighborhood, because they felt is was an insult to the community, and started actively courting Neiman-Marcus to locate there instead. …. What is there to say?

Also, cities in Alabama don’t have home rule, and county home rule is very limited. Everything is governed from the state capitol in Montgomery. Seriously, if Jefferson County (home to Birmingham) needed a new dog catcher, that vote would HAVE to go before the ENTIRE state (constitutional requirement), and, since the vast majority of Alabamians loathe Birmingham and Jefferson County, you can see where not much gets accomplished in short order. Birmingham has 70% or more of the medical/research jobs in Alabama (we have 20 hospitals in the 1.1 million metro, but those medical centers serve the whole state)- yet the state placed the biotechnology center in Huntsville- which has two working hospitals on a good day. The Thyssen Krupp steel center went to Mobile (no history of industrial might there) and the Retirement System of Alabama built a 745 ft. tall speculative office tower (the state’s tallest) there, too- even though metropolitan Mobile has 400,000 people and a plantation mentality business elite that would make Mississippi envious. Our mayor has decided that Birmingham’s salvation is going to be a 0 million dom! ed stadi um/convention center expansion, and is trying to get that pushed through before he goes to court. Funny thing is: THE COMMUNITY OVERWHELMINGLY DOESN’T WANT IT. Everybody agrees the convention complex needs expansion and upgrade, but most folks want to see something appropriate for Alabama, i.e. a place state high school championships & college tournaments can be played. We don’t have the means to support professional teams of any stripe, nor is there the interest. We like Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville & Dallas teams, and we’re extremely parochial when it comes to enthusiastic support for athletics.

I am an artist in my early fourties. In the last 3 years I’ve experienced just about every loss & major life event upheaval one can imagine. This past Fall, we lost four of the best, most cutting-edge galleries, and yet the ones exclusively featuring banal landscapes of Provence’ & Tuscany by dilitante’ wealthy housewives continue to thrive. Serious artists trying to make a living typically resort to teaching at the elementary school level (with no budgeted resources), stay perpetual college students or switch their style to “whimsical”. Most of us just work in restaurants or retail.So, I’m ready for a total change of venue. I’m tired of being a pioneer here, even though I know for a fact I give hope and inspiration to dozens and dozens of like-minded individuals. But, it’s too taxing and nerve-wracking for me. I’m approaching burn-out, ennui, skepticism and jadedness. Now that I no longer have ties, or roots, I hear the siren call of the Great Sorting.

Sent by Todd from Birmingham, Alabama

One Response to “Birmingham: The Schizoid City”

  1. Libby Says:

    Talk about a love-hate relationship. It’s tough to see a place you love that truly has promise falling prey to the powers that be. What cities are you exploring as your next potential home?

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