Birmingham AL is best known to most outsiders as one of two things: either as a historic hub for the industrial south or as the culmination of the darkest moments of the Civil Rights Movement. But standing in downtown today, the overwhelming sensation is one of abandonment. In many ways, downtown Birmingham is as much a battlefield memorial as it is a city center. It is a place where the evident activity and epic events of the past stand in eerie contrast to the calm and emptiness of the present. Buildings and storefronts are a stark mix of the derelict and dignified. Since the racial confrontations of the 1960’s the city has been hemorrhaging both population and economic wealth to frivolous greenfield development on the other side of a mountain.
Despite a remarkable infrastructure, an enviable location, and any number of other potential boons, the city has found it nearly impossible to render itself as a functional, respectable urban core. Such a malaise is more than simple economic decline and suburban sprawl; rather, it is symptomatic of a deeper existential confusion. This confusion has led to a disconnect between metropolitan residents and the physical artifacts of its urban history; more pointedly, it’s led to a city which can no longer recognize itself. In this project, we employ the idea of narrative to look at Birmingham, it’s current dysfunction, and possible means of recovery. The solution to what ails Birmingham will require reconciliation with its history, a new found self-awareness of its identity as a southern city, and a realization of the connection between its inherited resources and its future trajectory.
Asked to identify ourselves, we will at some point resort to storytelling about where we went to school, who our parents are, what our core beliefs are, moments that were of particular importance in shaping us, etc. We use these background facts and memories to organize the past, the present and the future as well as to identify the events and beliefs that are essential in distinguishing our self-identity. These are critical functions for any development of a sense of self. Without this narrative, decision-making becomes an aimless, fruitless series of loosely strung together events rather than a purposive process.
Amnesia with Pavement: Sidewalk lights from Birmingham’s days as the theater capital of the South.
Extending this idea, individual and collective narratives perform critical functions for cities. Collective narratives allow cities to recognize strengths, address weaknesses, and foster the sense of place and uniqueness that spur interest and use of the city. Individual narratives that tap into the spatial characteristics of events bind the person to those locations, transforming non-descript cityscapes into specific places that encourage community investment and civic engagement.
Street Life: The top picture shows an active street life near the Watts Tower downtown; the lower demonstrates the paradox of downtown today: walkable with no walking.
Birmingham’s narrative as a city and as a place was remarkably cohesive and strong from its beginnings to the 1940’s. During that period, Birmingham was an industrial city built on iron ore, railroads, and a social order inherited from its Southern milieu. For Birmingham, this social order meant cheap labor, generally from black workers. These workers and their families were packed into settlements known as company towns due to their close proximity to and financial dependence on local industry. Fairfield and Ensley are modern-day incarnations of these early company towns. This was in contrast to the upper-class white residents who lived in neighborhoods such as Mountain Brook, Norwood, and working-class white neighborhoods like Smithfield. In Birmingham’s earlier days, racial segregation was protected through cultural reinforcement as well as legal provisions. Birmingham even went so far as to codify its social policies in zoning maps which delineated white and black neighborhoods.
Birmingham’s social order and its narrative were dependent on a specific, purposive use of space. Space became a means of organizing society by assigning social values to different neighborhoods and people within them. Due to the density and compactness of the original city of Birmingham, strict zoning policies were required to maintain the desired racial and economic separation.
However, as Birmingham changed during and following the civil rights campaign of the 1950’s-1960’s, it became unable to maintain this narrative about itself as a civic body. Changes in the national economy (such as the importation of Venezuelan iron and the shift to a service economy) rendered the industrial-era model of both industry and urban development untenable. Similarly, shifts in the national consciousness about the role that race could play in the social order threatened the stability of Birmingham, along with the rest of the South. Birmingham quickly found itself in an identity crisis, which fractured the narrative that had guided Birmingham’s original growth. The events of the latter half of the 20th century are the consequence of that identity crisis and Birmingham’s attempts to reinvent its identity.
The most significant trend in this reinvention has been the rise of the suburbs surrounding the original city itself. By the 1960’s, many white residents were leaving the social instability of Birmingham for suburbs like Vestavia and Hoover. Although intended to link the ailing downtown core of the city to the new commuter suburbs, the completion of I-65 and Red Mountain Expressway (Hwy 31) ramped up the depopulation of the city.
The white flight accelerator (Red Mountain Expressway cut c. 1970)
The exodus was so severe that by 1970, the racial distribution of the city had reversed itself. To be sure, Birmingham’s previous narrative was inextricably corrupted by racism and bigotry. There’s no doubt that we improve as a society to the degree that we remove such forces from our minds and our lives. The tragedy in Birmingham is not that the social order broke down (indeed, it needed to); it’s that the replacement had nothing to do with Birmingham.
Instead, residents took to the model of suburban development that was sweeping the rest of the country. The city no longer grew in response to its local industries, heritage or topography. Instead, standard issue auto-oriented suburbs allowed residents to put off integration and distance themselves from the tumultuous changes of the civil rights movement. Protected by a red clay wall, the affluent suburbs of Birmingham have been able to exist as though the troubles of the first half of the century never occurred.
Fifty years later, the Birmingham of today is predominantly either a loosely associated series of strip malls, shopping complexes, and sprawling subdivisions or the aging bungalows, empty storefronts, and industrial entrails that characterize Birmingham proper. Both fall victim to the fractured narrative of Birmingham’s past. In their zeal to flee the problems of Birmingham, Over the Mountain communities have lost touch with the unique and distinguishing aspects of Birmingham, creating bland and aimless places with little that marks them as different than the suburbs of Phoenix, Charlotte, or Boise. Similarly, the defining features of Birmingham’s narrative, rail, industry, and a unique cultural landscape, have mutated into an inept transit system, the void left by defunct furnaces, and a cultural landscape defined as much by crime and dilapidation as by Southern identity and heritage.
Therein is the fractured narrative of Birmingham. On the one hand, Birmingham is a city which claims to have lived down its demons. It is a city that claims it has found ways of moving past the civil rights iniquities, beyond its industrial history. And yet, what does one find when surveying the streets where MLK and Shuttlesworth battled with Bull Connor? What of the diversified economy, the integrated society that the city now claims?
What one finds is a region that, in its haste to escape a troubling past, also abandoned the physical space in which that past occurred. Each side has withdrawn to it’s respective side of the region, leaving a vacuum in the middle in which corruption & incompetence have flourished and the sort of engagement and enthusiasm which earned the city it’s namesake have flatlined. Fixing downtown Birmingham won’t happen with cosmetics like a park or a dome or new pavement on the streets.
It will happen when the void created by 50 years of “run for the hills!” is replaced by a critical re-engagement and thoughtful return to the physical and emotive space abandoned so long ago. As long as Shelby County farmland is paved and new office parks created while an already built city with abundant infrastructure remains empty and unused, as long as racial distribution and economic wealth matches the patterns of segregationism, as long as the suburbs divest themselves of accountability or acknowledgment for the problems of the city that made their very existence possible, can we really claim the city has healed?Tags: identity, narrative, suburbs, white flight