Wade on Birmingham

The Future of Birmingham: Ambitious

By
Sloss Arts and Music Festival

Photo: Shannon (CC)

The Sloss Music and Arts Festival launched earlier this year.
While new events can enrich city life, many residents continue
to lack basic services and help.

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Details at the end.

By Caperton Gillett

I’d never really considered the future of Birmingham. In my inherent cynicism, I figured that the future of this city would be more or less identical to the present.

The Future of BirminghamIt’s not something one likes to discover about oneself.

And I recognize that it’s neither entirely accurate nor entirely founded. Things in Birmingham are changing dramatically for the better. It’s a place to be on purpose. We’re on lists that start with “The Top 10 Places” — and good ones, not like “The Top 10 Places for Competitive Tulip Growers.” A metropolitan area once known for largely for racial tension, record-breaking bankruptcy and obesity (we’re Top 3!) is now a city worth bragging about, and more so seemingly every day.

Birmingham has a legitimate downtown loft district, complete with actual entertainment, culture and nightlife in an area that used to roll up its sidewalks at 9 p.m. Downtown and surrounding areas are filling up with homegrown stores and restaurants, keeping money in the local economy and just giving us a reason to get out and meet our neighbors.

We have parks — nice ones. We have a baseball stadium — a really nice one. The hops? Free as a bird. Landmarks and cultural touchpoints are being restored with an eye to preserving our history instead of ignoring it; our sidewalks are literally teeming with filmmakers and walkers and crawlers of art. We have festivals the way rural towns have agricultural fairs (are we going to start crowning a Miss Cask and Drum? please?), and they’re well attended.

Just as notable as the positive changes are the changes that haven’t been happening. And the people to whom they haven’t been happening.

The ZIP code encompassing the loft district, many civic buildings and much of the new culture and entertainment happens to be the second-poorest ZIP code in Alabama, the seventh-poorest state in the country. The poverty rate surrounding all of those gorgeous luxury lofts is 50 percent; citywide, the rate is just above 30 percent.

Increasingly trendy neighborhoods like Avondale are pushing out crime and unpleasantness to make way for art, quirky bars, home renovation and rising property values. But caught in the tide are some longtime residents who can’t afford to hang with increasingly affluent newcomers. Often, infrastructural issues long unaddressed by the city finally see action once the neighborhood is nice enough to be deemed worth fixing.

The growth and revitalization of these de-vitalized parts of the city isn’t a bad trend. Residents have organized, worked hard and worked consciously to make their neighborhood a better place by reviving dilapidated houses, bringing in local businesses and supporting schools. Avondale is unquestionably a cleaner, safer and livelier neighborhood, thanks to its proponents.

But many neighbors who benefit from it aren’t the ones who made their homes there before it got fancy. “Improving neighborhoods” and “improving life for current residents” aren’t always simultaneous goals.

Issues like poverty must be addressed head-on. If an area is improved by pushing out the impoverished, they aren’t any better off. They’re just … elsewhere.

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Caperton GillettCaperton Gillett is a senior copywriter at o2 ideas and a freelance writer.

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Read more essays in our special 10th anniversary series, The Future of Birmingham.

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