The Gentrification of Birmingham, Alabama

2014 912 birm stFrom top left: Downtown from Red Mountain; Torii in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens; Alabama Theatre; Birmingham Museum of Art; City Hall; Downtown Financial Center. (Image: Altairisfar)The city that raised me is changing. Over the years I have watched Birmingham, Alabama, transform in many different ways. My hometown periodically captures the nation’s attention during discussions about civil rights or its high murder rate. I recently saw images of Birmingham appear frequently during the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri. People made comparisons to Jim Crow Birmingham without really knowing much about the city today. It’s a city that has often displayed abandonment, disrepair and mismanagement. Today, its government is boldly evoking a word of great political significance during this era, stating to the world that the city is moving 50 years “forward.” This 2013 proclamation marked the 50th year after 1963, when things were much different. However, some questions about what needs to be changed remain.

For the last couple of years I have watched Birmingham transform from afar as I traveled back and forth, living in Washington, DC, and then the borough of Brooklyn. Seeing Birmingham change was intensified by the fact that I was living in places undergoing some serious transformations of their own. These two areas, like other predominantly black areas around the country, are seeing an influx of white newcomers, generating a national conversation about gentrification. Now, it’s happening where I’m from. The more I returned home, the more white people I saw downtown.

Suddenly, the fearful unwelcoming gazes I once thought were more exclusive to the suburbs where I grew up are now being directed toward me in parts of downtown Birmingham that white people once avoided. Areas like the Northside were desolate at night and off limits to my white classmates who told me their parents warned them they could “get shot.” I heard things like this frequently as a working-class child of two black parents. Though it wasn’t always explicitly stated, I was well aware what city inhabitants I was supposed to be wary of. It didn’t take much for a black kid like myself to understand I was not necessarily wanted in communities that are still adamant about segregating their children. Alabama is second in the nation for desegregation lawsuits. The county where I’m from is the same infamous county that recently gutted the Civil Rights Act, if that tells you anything about the mindset that still exists.

Naturally, because white supremacy still exists, things are becoming much nicer now. White citizenry are starting to appear in predominantly black neighborhoods and cities like Birmingham. With white people come wealth and newfound concern. Upon my return, I noticed things I had fought for prior to my departure had changed overnight. Buses are running more frequently, but still to the inconvenience of mostly working-class black folks. The city is also cleaner and people are coming back downtown to spend money. People from the suburbs “over the mountain” are returning to the city their predecessors fled in fear of integration and intermingling with blacks. The city that was being starved suddenly deserves a meal and it’s being fed by the acquisitive interests of the same class that’s driving the reclamation trend nationwide.

Cities like Birmingham, with predominantly black administrations, are often seen around the country as pictures of failure and fault. Black mayors seem to often be the face of corruption. Despite the fact that they are not necessarily more corrupt than their white counterparts, they definitely seem to get caught disproportionately. Former mayors like Detroit’s Kwame Kilpatrick, DC’s Marion Barry, and most recently New Orleans’ own Ray Nagan often serve as examples of failed black leadership for white flight apologists. Birmingham has not been much different with its former mayor Larry Langford currently serving a 15-year federal felony sentence. So with suburbanites returning, there is a veiled racism in assuming that newcomers are cleaning up what they purposely deserted.

Recognizing this disturbing trend of viewing black administrations as infantile in their management of cities is important because that view derails discussions from focusing on economic racism. It also erases the sinister intentions of depraved Wall Street forces that helped debilitate Jefferson County’s sewer system leaving it with an over $1 billion debt. When poor blacks in Birmingham recently had a “third world” water crisis much like what Detroit is currently experiencing, it seemed like no one noticed. Yet, these neglected black folks who are directly descended from the Birmingham civil rights struggle make fine props when the country needs historic inspiration or a political footnote. Black communities like Birmingham’s throughout the country have been systematically segregated, exploited and driven into desperation by white flight. In every major city where whites fled racial change, they took resources and wealth with them. It’s easier for some to forget this history than others. But the city is still quite segregated and black people are still facing environmental threats.

However, people can gleefully return to the once-blood-stained streets of Birmingham to buy cheap property and talk about progress. And for a city that capitalizes on its civil rights history, black bodies that were once strange fruit will become ingredients for a new slice of American pie. Blacks who are displaced by expansion, new commerce and lofts will be told they should consider themselves lucky to have equal opportunity housing like Birmingham’s Hope VI housing. And this will happen to the tune of “let’s put the past behind us.”

Real progress in Birmingham will be defined by how the city addresses its history of mistreating black people in the past and present. Cities are destined to change and it should not have to be a bad thing. However, we cannot say we are moving “forward” while ignoring the very people who have been trampled on and disenfranchised. If Birmingham is to be a playground for wealthy white people once again, while working-class blacks, the homeless and people below the poverty line are pushed out, we are not moving forward; we’re still going backward. We should let our city’s civil rights history serve as a guiding principle for equality and not just a tourist attraction. Fire hoses and bombs that tore into black flesh did not wash or burn away the sins of a generation that ran from their hate rather than address it.