The 14th edition of the Congressional Quarterly’s “City Crime Rankings” ranked Birmingham as the sixth most dangerous city in the United States. On the Google map of Birmingham’s homicides, many of Birmingham’s homicides are, predictably, located near the interstate corridors and can be traced along a roughly east-west axis. Without getting into the urban sociology of why this is, suffice it to say that Birmingham often lacks the basic civilizing influences that make cities habitable and encourage outsiders to visit or move here. Forget gun control: I’ve seen signs outside of pawn shops in the West End advertising assault rifles for sale. Below, I’ve taken the liberty of posting some of Al.com’s comments pertaining to the Sundown Town nature of Birmingham. These are the same types of people who, in general, go into a home in Southside and think it is old and shabby because it doesn’t have carpet on the floors or there’s not enough street parking for their oversized SUV. Birmingham’s popular image as a Sundown Town is largely perceived, not actual. The downtown core is mostly a ghost town at night, with a few exceptions centering around a few restaurants and lofts. But the recent flurry of renovations downtown has stirred up the gun-toting, reactionary crazies into lambasting anyone intrepid enough to venture downtown day or night. Quoted directly from ABC’s coverage of the new Pizitz renovation:
“I bet they get robbed at least three times before they have been open a month if not more. Why do you think they all closed for. It is not safe and I would be dam*ed before I put myself or my wife in harms way just to buy groceries. You can’t park in any hospital parking deck without the risk of getting mugged or killed right now so how is the police going to protect shoppers down town. I’m sick of all the businessmen downtown that want to put others in danger and they would not be caught dead in a store downtown after 7:00PM. ”
“I have friends who live in the newly revitalized district and they’ve had their car broken into twice, have been accosted in the deck at Harbert Center and their purse stolen while visiting at Children’s. Crime IS a problem downtown, but due to the fact that most everyone leaves and the sidewalks are rolled up at sunset, it’s nowhere near as bad as it could be. The first thing that ran through my head when I read this piece, especially about having the produce at the storefront on the street, was how are they going to control theft? It won’t last long in terms of the outside produce. The store will probably do ok for a little while because they’re targeting the district where people who have money, work. These are the same people that shop at V. Richards at Forest Park and Whole Foods. They don’t have to look at the prices either. Trust me, if you don’t have a high wage, you can’t afford to shop at V. Richards. This store will cater to those with disposable income who want the convenience factor while at their executive office location, and it won’t be open at night, you can bet on that. While the owner might state other reasons, the “non-night”hours will be for the very fact that he knows the risk of downtown after dark. There will be no real customer base once the office towers close down for the day. I give it one year, max. Boutique stores like this don’t do well in place like metro Birmingham. If they did, you’d see more of them in business. ”
“I keep saying that the “cancer” is spreading and to get out of Jefferson County as quickly as you can. All you people in Pinson, Trussville, and Gardendale, look out, it is coming to a city near you. That “fine” new imbecillic cross you have there on I-65 will be spray painted with gang grafitti before long. With Obama in office and Birmingham structured the way it is, then it is not if, but when.”
My personal favorite bit of invective from al.com:
“I called it yesterday! The white figures on the map will begin to get very crowded along the I-20/59 corridor from Bessemer, Ensley, to East Point, and don’t forget about a few on 65 just North of the Junction.. Maybe 1-2 in the Trussville area, 4-5 in Hoover, 2-3 in Vestavia Hills/Homewood area, 2-3 in North Shelby/Inverness..Everyone that is able, get your CCW permit and carry at all times, if you don’t know what CCW means, then you don’t need one.. Stay inside with the doors locked..Bring out the Bham Homicide map, the weather is getting warmer and the shooters are coming out!!”
Here’s yet another gem:
“and most people( the ones that have been dumbed down by liberal, progressive government/policies) still don’t get it why real, normal people DO NOT want to live, work, play or shop in BIRMINGHAM. the sooner you bozos figure that out, then you will be able to correct it, if that’s what you really want! WAKE UP PEOPLE!!!”
This is precisely the attitude that will turn Birmingham into a scene from the Coehn Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men” or a sanguinary scene from the television show “The Wired.” These comments are entirely anecdotal, based more on paranoia and the anti-urban sentiment that is so typical of many Southern suburbanites. I don’t think these individuals are outliers or statistical anomalies either, though perhaps they are more vocal about expressing their rancor for cities, for I’ve met many, even in my own family, who share such sentiments, even though they have no empirical evidence to make such claims. But it is true that Birmingham has a long and dark history of violence, so maybe there is an iota of truth in what they say.
In his letters to his wife (which I have photocopies of thanks to the archive at U. of Alabama, Tuscaloosa), William Ely, a federal land agent from Connecticut who later helped to establish Elyton, tells how he did not go out of doors without a sidearm. That was in the early nineteenth century, long before Birmingham was even founded. When the city was founded, it was as an urban industrial center surrounded by what basically amounted to Third World Country, which might have produced a siege mentality. In 1909, the coroner’s books record 142 homicides, or more than one killing every three days. In 1992, one of the worst years for homicides in Birmingham’s recent history, 141 homicides were recorded. After 1900, highway robbery was commonplace. On November 24, 1883, a Negro imprisoned on rape charges was released from jail and lynched. Mob violence was so common that the state militia was regularly called in to restore a similitude of uneasy peace. In 1895, an officer shot and killed a thirteen year old Negro girl who was picking up coal at a coal car. Then the infamous Hawes murder riot of 1889 in which ten died after a mob stormed the city jail. The Wild West atmosphere was picked up in the newspaper headlines: “Race riot at Brookside. Pitched battle between 100 white men and 40 Negroes. Sheriff of Birmingham and 24 men sent.” Competition for jobs might explain some of this violence, but it does not explain why the epidemic violence continues today. A letter to the editor of “The Iron Age” reported that there were two saloons for every church in Birmingham, which sounds like a modest number. By 1907, the city directory lists 121 registered saloons. One half of all arrests were made for public intoxication. Between 1898-1908, thirty percent of the city’s population was arrested, according to statistics. In 1902, among a survey of ten American cities, Birmingham led with 9,626 arrests, although such statistics can misrepresent the gravity of Birmingham’s crime, since the city’s police jurisdiction was quite large and, because of the fee system in Jefferson County, these arrests could have been for the most inconsequential of offenses. The more arrests that were made, the more cheap labor was available for street work and the mines. After 1,500 arrests were made in one month of 1910, the Chief of Police finally intervened, declaring that the city police department was for the protection of its citizens and not for the collection or production of revenues.
Martha Carolyn Mitchell speculates in her 1946 PhD dissertation for the University of Chicago, “Birmingham: Biography of a City of the New South,” about the causes of such rampant lawlessness: “the rural-Southern tendency toward violence plus the almost universal practice of carrying concealed weapons. Then it was practically impossible to get a conviction in cases of homicide” (104). After reading this book, one is left with the impression that early Birmingham was as a Thomas Hobbes described life itself: “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Unless you were white and affluent. One minister spoke out against the lawlessness of Birmingham: “We have no criminal law in this country for white men, our criminal law is all for negroes, shackled gangs clean streets for minor misdemeanors while homicides go free.” It doesn’t have to be reiterated that Negro life was held in low esteem. But the city expanded so exponentially that police services could not keep up. Moreover, Birmingham was also used as a labor camp for many of the state’s convicts who were sent to work in the mines and when they finished their time they were released back into the communities of Jefferson County. Recidivism was high. Birmingham’s history would seem to corroborate the position that it is and has always been a Sundown Town. There never was, they say, any magic in the Magic City, because the magic was a commodity and veneer produced by civic boosterism, the Chamber of Commerce and real estate speculators to attract outsiders. Despite that moniker, as the aforementioned comments from AL.com demonstrate, Birmingham still has trouble attracting outsiders.