It’s my last day as managing editor, so I decided to write whatever the hell I want. The following proposals, I believe, could dramatically improve this city of my birth, this city that I love (and hate… natives will understand my schizophrenia). Some of the proposals are wackier than others. Some are not at all original. But if you want to see Vulcan alive again, you’ll do what I say.
CIVICS AND PSYCHE Drop the inferiority complex: Just because something happens in Birmingham doesn’t mean it sucks. UAB clinical psychologist Josh Klapow told Birmingham News columnist John Archibald in January that the city’s self-image is similar to that of a person with low self-esteem, someone who filters everything through a “negative screen.” According to Klapow, “Collectively, we have to change our way of thinking. It is absolutely up to each of us to spread the word about Birmingham.”
Drop the fear: In addition to the inferiority complex, many Tragic City residents are afraid to speak up, to be different, to be change agents. It stems from Birmingham’s history of violence and repression. Bull Connor turned yapping dogs on black protesters. The Klan terrified white racial moderates into a numb silence with late-night death threats shouted into pay phones. Birmingham also had violent labor unrest, and not just when the city was hammered by the Depression of the 1930s. In 1908, according to encyclopediaofalabama.org, Birmingham was the scene of a strike by the integrated United Mine Workers District 20, one of the few interracial labor unions in the South. The strike was crushed by the city’s wealthy industrial interests. The point is that people tend to be fearful when you beat the shit out of them or threaten to kill them. This is part of Birmingham’s psychological legacy, even if the worst provocations are decades past. Maybe we should all do primal scream therapy at Legion Field. “That’s right, folks. Just let it out.”
Recognize class: Can we utter the word “class” in Birmingham? It ain’t all about race. I’m a capitalist, but you can’t help but see the fault lines of class here. Birmingham was a company town that existed so people could make lots of money extracting minerals from the earth. That’s it. All social relationships were subordinated to this goal. Class is a reality anywhere, of course, but it is definitely a reality in this town. And nobody… ever… talks about it.
Welcome outsiders: Many locals are psychologically damaged, or at least bruised. That’s all the more reason to welcome outsiders. Like vampires, we need fresh blood. Look at how many of the new cool things around town—coffee shops, galleries, etc.— were started by newcomers who don’t carry preconceptions about Birmingham.
WIDE SCREEN Go green! Green is not a fad. And Birmingham can profit from it. Our status as a railroad hub for the Southeast makes us, I’m told, a perfect place for green manufacturing.
Market the city indoors and out: We have urban amenities, and we have recreation—Ruffner Mountain, Red Mountain Park, the Cahaba River. We can emulate Chattanooga, Tenn., which has rebuilt its downtown as a tourist destination while leveraging its river and rock climbing. Asheville, N.C., provides a similar model. Birmingham could do the same thing on a bigger scale. It could be the way to establish a new identity for the city.
Think BTA (Birmingham/Tuscaloosa/Anniston): According to the 2000 census, the Birmingham-Hoover metro area was the 48th largest in the country. However, according to tvb.org, the Birmingham/Tuscaloosa/Anniston TV market ranks 40th in the nation. Viewed through that lens, we’re a top 40 city. Perhaps we should begin to market the BTA corridor nationally as a megalopolis with almost 1.5 million people. These communities are already growing together (look at the Mercedes plant to the west and the enormous development on I-20 to the east). And think of the possibilities if those communities were connected by transit, including a high-speed passenger line.
If mass transit fails, use jitneys! If we lack the will to fund transit, we should legalize jitneys. A jitney, or share taxi, is a car or mini-bus used as a sort of privately owned transit vehicle. The driver can stop whenever and wherever he wants without a regular schedule. According to Wikipedia, urban planners are taking a fresh look at jitneys, which can use GPS tracking, Internet booking systems and mobile phones to coordinate passengers and vehicles. Hey, it sounds great to me. Let’s get green cards for a few hundred dudes from Lagos or Phnom Penh, give them beat-up VW buses and cell phones and turn them loose. Maybe we could have warring factions among the drivers and shootouts in the middle of Five Points. It would be great, like a live Quentin Tarantino picture. But hey, at least we wouldn’t have raised our taxes to properly fund the bus system. Heaven forbid!
Don’t f**k up the ITF: Speaking of transit, the City of Birmingham is still planning to build the long-promised passenger Intermodal Transportation Facility on Morris Avenue, a sort of central station for all trains and buses. If they build it, I pray to God it’s not ugly as hell. It should be attractive and user-friendly and have a cool impact on the skyline.
CULTURE AND STUFF Use bohemians to help neighborhoods: You may be aware of the “Keep East Lake Weird” movement and the East Lake Arts District. The idea is to take advantage of cheap housing in East Lake to attract artists and other freaks to filter in and bring new life and activity to the neighborhood, along with the hardy folks who have stuck it out there through years of middle-class flight. A similar model could be applied in Avondale, Woodlawn and other areas.
Love Birmingham’s grit: Appreciate the fact that Birmingham is a gritty, working-class town, that it possesses a downscale but charming grammar of twisted metal, old red brick, kudzu, wild flowers and graffiti. It’s our visual poetry.
Fully restore the Lyric: We must fully restore the Lyric Theatre, the gorgeous old vaudeville house on Third Avenue North and 18th Street. We must use it as an anchor, along with the Alabama and the Carver theatres, of a new entertainment district that could bring millions of dollars to downtown. The office floors adjacent to the Lyric could be filled with arts groups and show people. There could be a ticket booth and a coffee cart in the lobby. The many contemporary circus, vaudeville and burlesque performers around the country would probably love to play the Lyric, making it one of the centers of a growing entertainment trend. And Birmingham could nurture new, homegrown acts. Asheville, N.C., is becoming a center for alt-showbiz. According to Mountain Xpress, “Contemporary Asheville teams with fringe-y performers, with vaudeville, cabaret and burlesque troupes launching and performing frequently.” Why not Birmingham?
ONE REALLY WACKY PITCH Big Rock Candy Mountain: First, some background. Women’s roller derby is a rapidly growing sport. According to a piece in 2008 in USA Today, “an all-female roller derby renaissance is gaining steam—now as sport, not spectacle.” And we have a roller derby team in Birmingham, the Tragic City Rollers. OK, that’s the first part. Now, you know how popular rock climbing is, and you may know that Birmingham has an indoor climbing facility downtown called First Avenue Rocks. So, here’s the pitch. Let’s kidnap some rich guy, maybe Richard Branson, get him TOTALLY baked, and then make him write us a check for like a jillion dollars. We’ll build a radical, Frank-Gehry-onshrooms building that will house the world’s best climbing facility AND the world’s best roller-derby arena (with banked and flat tracks). It will be like Rollerball. I think the place should look like a huge, bright red rock—like Ayers Rock in Australia. And you can climb all over the exterior. And when you go inside, there’s a concourse with more climbing walls (as well as concessions, including beer and cocktails). And then, at the center, you enter the multi-purpose arena, which can host not only roller derby, but concerts and other events. Oh, did I tell you about the killer skateboard park outside and the virtual-reality arcade? Beer, bands and hot roller babes with tats. Is there anything you don’t like about this? We’ll call it Big Rock Candy Mountain. And Branson can arrive for the grand opening in a hot-air balloon.
PARTING SHOT Know—and celebrate—Birmingham’s story:
This town is more than just Bull Connor. It’s Willie Mays playing at Rickwood Field. It’s Mae West playing the Lyric. It’s Tuxedo Junction. It’s Tammy Wynette and Country Boy Eddie. It’s black and white miners marching together through the streets of Jasper before their strike was broken in 1908. It’s Brother Bryan giving his overcoat to a homeless guy. It’s Lou Wooster and her girls, saving the city from the 1873 cholera epidemic. We have to celebrate our heroes and tell our stories. For example, do we even have a Lou Wooster Day? Why isn’t somebody peddling a screenplay about her? According to Wikipedia, Wooster was “a master at storytelling and self-promotion.” Yeah, it’s too bad this city hasn’t mastered the art.
Jesse Chambers is the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Send our comments to jesse@ bhamweekly.com
We can top this: Ayers Rock in Australia is impressive, but no more so than Big Rock Candy Mountain, Birmingham’s rock climbing/roller derby pleasure pit. Photograph by Paul Mannix.
july 1 - july 8 , 2010 BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY 9