Wade on Birmingham

The Future of Birmingham: Modest incremental improvement

moe - Avondale Brewing

Photo: Shannon (CC)

The band moe. performs at Avondale Brewing’s outdoor stage.
The transformation in Avondale could spread to other
Birmingham neighborhoods.

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By Karl Seitz

The future of Birmingham is not likely to be as bright as it could be. A lack of strong local leadership and obstacles beyond local control limit the improvements that can be achieved.

The Future of BirminghamOh, some promising signs have appeared, primarily from nontraditional sources of leadership that will make some difference. But the political, business and institutional segments of public life from which municipal leadership typically comes are not doing much leading these days. And looming in the background is the obstacle Birmingham has faced throughout its history, a state government that is more dysfunctional than usual even as it retains its traditional antipathy to urban areas.

So, with all these obstacles, does Birmingham have any hope for a better future? Yes. Perhaps not as much as one would like, but more than we could expect depending on traditional sources of leadership.

Although they could be separated into distinct threads, the combination of the local craft beer industry, high-quality restaurants and the local music-entertainment business has already transformed Avondale and is well on the way to changing other parts of the city. Add the developers who are transforming — not always benevolently — the areas near these dining-entertainment venues, and significant parts of Birmingham will be very different places in 10 years.

Another change, this one in attitudes, that has been going on for more years than most of us realize and is likely to continue is LGBT acceptance. It is no coincidence that Jefferson County probate judges were ready to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples the day it became legal. In marked contrast to the handful of probate judges in Alabama who are refusing to issue any marriage licenses to avoid issuing a same-sex license, Judges Alan King and Sherri Friday had prepared for the change they rightly expected was coming. They had even worked with the state Health Department to change the license application forms to remove gender references.

While one hopes they would have done the same regardless of public opinion, it is likely they knew that a majority of county residents at least tacitly accept equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. After all, bars in this city have openly catered to gay customers for at least 50 years. More recently, UAB has been a leader in treating AIDS, which primarily affected members of the gay community early on. And Jefferson County does have an openly gay state legislator in Patricia Todd.

Acceptance and equal treatment of LGBT individuals is not universal in Birmingham, but the trend is clear here as it is across the country. Acceptance will only grow in the years ahead.

Public education might produce positive changes in the next few years. New superintendents always stir hope. However, the cynic in me says such predictions are risky. Better to wait and see.

One would like to be more optimistic about the brightness of Birmingham’s future. But from my perspective, modest improvements appear to be the best we can do. The strong, broad-based community leadership that is necessary for a better result doesn’t currently exist.

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Karl SeitzKarl Seitz arrived in Birmingham in 1964 to attend Birmingham-Southern College after serving 3 years in the Navy. While still a student, he began what would turn out to be a 38-year career at the Birmingham Post-Herald. For more than 30 of those years Seitz served as editorial page editor. Since retiring with the 2005 closing of the newspaper, he has been editor of a quarterly newsletter for the USS Caliente Association, a group of men who served on that Navy ship from 1943 to 1973. He has also written for genealogical publications.

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The Future of BirminghamThe full version of this essay and many more are available in the free ebook, “The Future of Birmingham.”

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

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