Category Archives: Birmingham

Signing on to the city's comprehensive plan

Comp plan final forum crowdIt was one of those things where you just felt the level of optimism surrounding you (even as some skepticism tried to sneak in from time to time) and got infected by it. There were approximately 250 people gathered at the Birmingham Museum of Art on Saturday morning to learn about the current status of the city’s first comprehensive plan effort since 1961.

Community leaders from across the city shared breakfast and opinions with the consulting team and the plan’s steering committee (of which I am a part). Yes, I focused on community leaders first. There were only four (4) citywide elected officials in attendance out of a possible 19 on Saturday morning at various points; Birmingham mayor William Bell; city councilors Valerie Abbott and Jay Roberson; and Birmingham Board of Education member April Williams.

The current implied timetable for this effort means that we’ll be starting to look at some of the broader issues next year – so long as its adopted before the end of this one. It also means that it could be used as a measurement tool to hold elected officials and our numerous community organizations accountable, also known as an election year issue. This is where I remind you that in the midst of next year’s commemoration of the events of 1963 (by the way, it’s a Flash-based site), we’ll be choosing who we want to have lead the city forward at the beginning of the next 50 years – in the mayor’s office, all nine city council districts, and the Board of Education.

It’s my hope that the comprehensive plan becomes the kind of issue where we’re asking for our elected officials to voice their continued support for it instead of it being used as a political football. Hopefully as more of our elected officials become familiar with the plan, it’ll make it harder for them to do the former (though not impossible).

Signing inWe have a chance to offer comment once the draft is released, though for those of you reading this, clicking through to the plan’s website will also enable you to know what’s been going on. There are opportunities to read through materials at the Birmingham Public Library for those who’ll suggest that they can’t find their way to a computer. There isn’t an excuse to not participate just like there wasn’t an excuse to do so during the holidays despite freezing temperatures and the likelihood of snow.

Most impressive was the number of young people in attendance. Yes, there were young professionals scattered among the various tables, but there was a large contingent from UAB as well as a few area high school students – none of whom were afraid of having their voices heard and not necessarily agreeing with the adults in the room. It reminded me of the group of young people who presented their hopes and dreams for the city during the first public forum last fall. They know what they want to see in their city as it moves forward and of its potential. More than anything else, this plan is about their future and not about our legacy and we owe it to them to be involved and to get it right (and adopted) when the time comes.

You might say that those who attended and those children I’ve mentioned are not like most people in Birmingham; those who see a grand future for Birmingham think they aren’t like most people anyway. I’ve got a feeling they’re wrong though and they exist in greater numbers than most think. The key will be making sure they know their voice still matters and that there are several ways to share their comments.

What do you think?

Andre Natta is The Terminal’s stationmaster.

How are other cities handling food trucks?

This year’s Birmingham Magazine Best of Bham readers poll allowed participants to vote for the Best Food Truck. An online petition launched last week to show support for area food trucks has continues to grow; the new target is 1,500 signatures with more than 1,160 already collected. If there’s any doubt in your mind right now, get over of it:

Food trucks are here to stay; the question is how they’ll be handled.

The recent issue of food truck regulations has found me looking around online for the past few days to see if we’re alone on this issue. The findings – not even close to being alone. Food truck regulation is apparently a big issue in several cities right now. This week for example, Portland, ME and Chicago, IL will attempt to pass new ordinances aimed at making both sides agreeable, with neither side necessarily declaring victory so far.

A couple of things took place last week providing insight into how crazy the food truck issue is in several cities right now. It should help those involved come up with a good solution for all.

The first event happened on July 9 as Chick-Fil-A rolled out their new food truck at Farragut Square in Washington, DC. According to a post on “All We Can Eat,” The Washington Post’s food blog, the truck had been planned for some time (it was supposed to debut in April and was seen in May and June around town) and underwent a design change before its apparently successful relaunch on the streets of the Nation’s Capitol. Incidentally, one of the reasons cited by Chick-Fil-A for introducing the truck in the piece is their lack of physical locations in metro DC (one actually – on a college campus). The ability to gauge interest in eventually opening brick and mortar establishments was what the head of DC’s Small Business Administration pointed out in a recent interview.

By the way, DC Mayor Vincent Gray introduced a new ordinance in January that would among other things allow food trucks to stay parked in one spot instead of needing to be “hailed” like a cab in order to conduct business. It would also dictate the hours they would be allowed to operate in the District.

Thursday, July 12, saw a the spotlight focused on food trucks… in Chicago. Our friends at Gapers Block were one of several media outlets writing about the first ever Chicago Food Truck Day. The event was organized in advance of the upcoming July 19 hearing involving that city’s new food truck ordinance that would among other things finally allow operators to cook on board. The Chicago Tribune reports they’d also have to install GPS devices to allow the city to track them, making it easier to enforce a two-hour parking limit at any one location while being able to operate 24 hours a day.

Chicago’s municipal legislation has been stalled out for at least a year according to most reports and it’s not come without its share of debate, including an interactive debate presentation over on The Huffington Post. It should calm folks looking at Birmingham’s current situation and the discussions surrounding a rewrite of local laws to accommodate the growing industry that others are tackling it as well.

Specifying distances is not necessarily new – Chicago is asking for a 200 ft. distance from the front door of brick and mortar restaurants; incidentally, Portland, Maine’s asking them to be 65 feet away after hours while actually being more restrictive during the day in their proposed ordinance (scheduled for a vote later on today – Monday, July 16).

There have also been some successes so far. Boston (as usual) has found a way to make it hip and cool, even creating a page on their website letting people know which trucks are out and where they’re located as well as a streamlined page for applying for the requisite permits. This while they’ve instituted a lottery system as part of their process. The folks in Memphis are talking about how successful their ordinance (PDF) has been – becoming a lucrative opportunity for several operators shortly after its passage last spring.

Hey, at least we’re not in Clearwater, FL, where they have no intention of adapting their ordinances to accommodate food trucks any time soon. Those willing to talk about the negative long term effects may want to look at what problems developed in Raleigh, NC some ten months after their battle over their food truck ordinance (PDF)none.

Time will tell what happens here. There appears to be folks willing to work together and a community that’s willing to support whatever decision is reached. With several cities going through the same situation right now, hopefully it will calm folks down while also giving everyone an idea of what’s working and what’s not.

Time for a “Green Out” on Saturday?

UAB Blazers logoThere have been protests, tweets and columns all written about the recent decision by the University of Alabama Board of Trustees’ decision to not include discussion about a proposed football stadium for the UAB Blazers as part of the agenda for their upcoming meeting.

I’ve got a better idea – why not pack out Legion Field on Saturday night as the first step at showing the trustees that there is Blazer pride for more than basketball in Birmingham, AL? Incidentally, I’d be curious to know how many tickets are sold for Saturday’s game compared to how many folks will be at Bartow this evening for the preseason opener against Florida Tech (starting at 8 PM CT)…

A crowd of more than 32,000 would be a much louder message than having 100+ fans protesting the trustees meeting. It would be one that locals would have to pay attention to as well – especially considering all of the attention being shown to the game of the century happening about an hour down the road Saturday evening between the Crimson Tide and the LSU Tigers (at the same time no less).

There will be 101,000 fans in Bryant-Denny and countless more milling about outside. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the Old Gray Lady looking a little more like herself on Saturday, almost in a way defying the belief that the state of Alabama can’t support three large crowds in one day. It’d also be interesting since all of UAB’s top 10 attendance totals at Legion Field are before 2006. Granted, there hasn’t been a winning season since 2004 (and they haven’t finished higher than fourth in their Conference USA division since then either).

Those facts make it tough to not understand why the trustees didn’t necessarily vote the Blazers’ way. The largest crowd in Blazer football history – 44,669 – showed up primarily to see Ruben Studdard perform back in 2003, though the Blazers did put on a show, barely losing to Southern Miss by a score of 12-17. No doubt many of them wanted to try to score tickets to the Velvet Teddy Bear’s concert the next night at the BJCC. The closest they came to that total again that season was for homecoming against Army, with a gathered crowd of 22,020.

Some folks would argue that the home field should be closer to UAB’s campus. A quick drive down Graymont Avenue towards their current home reminds you of just how close it is to campus (though not as close as most supporters of the new stadium would want) and how powerful the experience could be if some folks felt like investing in redevelopment along the street – not just for UAB fans approaching from campus, area interstates and Highway 280, but also for those attending other sporting events like the Magic City Classic and the SWAC Championship among other things.

A UAB campus creeping ever so closer towards Birmingham’s Entrepreneurial district would make it easier to do those types of projects and help accelerate many of the long held dreams for that part of the city, though probably not soon enough for those who want to see something happen as soon as possible.

That said, Legion Field has issues and they’re more than enough to justify wanting a new home or a commitment of some sort towards a significant renovation – something not necessarily in the immediate future during these difficult economic times.

A new stadium would have humble beginnings if built, especially considering it’d be a little larger than Legion Field was when it was first constructed in 1926 (it originally held 21,000). Perhaps playing in cozier quarters would help gain some additional fan support. That would be something difficult to come by considering the large contingents of Alabama and Auburn fans in the metro area.

If success – on the field and in the box office – followed though it wouldn’t stay cozy for long. That’s one reason why suggestions to make changes to the proposed plan for a baseball-only stadium adjacent to Railroad Park accommodate the Blazers seem a little far-fetched. The Barons already play in the largest home field in the Southern League (10,800); any future expansion necessary to suit the needs of the Blazers would force them to be looking for a new home a lot faster. Considering the Barons would still be the primary tenant of such a facility (six month baseball season vs. 2½ month football season), I don’t see that ending well for the Blazers long term either.

Which takes us back to Saturday…

It’d be a powerful message to the team and the trustees – and one that would do more to move forward efforts for a new home in the long term – if they saw a sea of green and gold at Legion Field on Saturday night. A crowd somewhere around 40,000 wouldn’t hurt either. You’ll still get to see a BCS team play too – and it may not be on television locally.

There’s still time to trade in your tickets to the game of the century in Tuscaloosa for a ticket to Legion Field. I’ve got a feeling this one may also mean more in the future – for the team and the city – than the hotel rooms occupied for the showdown an hour south.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below…

André Natta is The Terminal’s stationmaster.

Constantly interdependent

Magic City Art Connection (6 of 18)3.14 | 5.6.2010

There are much more online sources for information locally now than there was when this site started 3.14 years ago today.

Those numbers we shared via our Facebook and Twitter accounts back there in March should be making more sense now.

The recent conversations about the existence of an online news outlet have led several people to wonder (via email, chat and phone calls) what this website’s place is in the ecosystem.

I’d argue that as more voices continue to emerge, The Terminal’s role is easier to define for people than ever before.

We’re “micro local!”

That’s how Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) fellow Michele McLellan categorizes The Terminal in her list of promising local news sites. She’s compiled it as part of her research on the concept of community news sites and how they’re influencing civic engagement in an ever changing digital landscape.

This site was established to become a hub for Birmingham, AL though a better term to use nowadays may be a curator of what’s being said elsewhere.

Our news outlets are becoming more important than ever before, with each one, regardless of medium, being better at one area of interest more than anything else. The public is best served by the different perspectives each of these voices bring to any given topic, but currently we tend to stay within our own silos, not necessarily understanding the importance of truly “getting” the other side of the story.

The local opinion leaders, especially those that share their views online, also serve an important role in our city’s digital (and physical) information exchange. They help the media outlets see the city’s pulse, perhaps influencing how important an issue is to the general public.

I’d argue that several issues have received attention recently because of being the focus of blogs that are read by influential voices in the community. Here’s one of them – parking meters.

Local media realized the issue’s importance because of paying attention to all of its voices. The opinions helped continue to raise awareness.

Perhaps we view some of these stories as minutia now but it is always interesting how certain pieces eventually affect other broader issues in the region.

It’s been interesting attempting to pull together these various perspectives on computer screens across metro Birmingham. That’s what a curator’s job is – take different perspectives on an issue that currently exist out there and maybe get people to see just how they are intertwined. Every once in a while we get the chance to share an original story as well.

As The Terminal works to do this (and get better at it), it’s my hope that people realize that we need to be aware of all of the voices around us. If we’re successful people will know that the city can speak with one voice and know that it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s from one person.

Perhaps the use of the word conversation has been flawed as it relates to this journey of storytelling and awareness that we’ve been on. Engagement is the goal of most outlets, particularly knowing that the information that you’ve shared can potentially influence the revitalization or renaissance of a city like Birmingham.

The hope is that for every post shared about an event, new website or inconsequential point of interest people will pay attention to the other issues that will have an impact on their lives and feel the urge to either learn more or do something about it.

It is a lofty, perhaps insanely idealistic goal, but it is one that hopefully drives the intention of every person that hopes to share another piece of the ever emerging story of the city at the center of Jones Valley.

I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to be included in McLellan’s list of websites (and the operators I’ve been able to meet both virtually and in person) and am thankful for RJI’s allowing us to share this visitors survey with you.

I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the survey after RJI has completed tabulating them and figuring out just how to work to improve. They’re offering to help in that arena as well and I look forward to what the results will help The Terminal become.

I’d argue though that many of Birmingham’s sources for news and information have learned a lot from each other already – sort of the way an interdependent community should be.

André Natta is the stationmaster for

Photo: Magic City Art Connection (6 of 18). Josh Self/Flickr.

Hot Dog Time Machine

hot dog time machineAsk a sampling of Birminghamians about the city’s signature cuisine and you’re likely to hear about slow-cooked barbecue or pimento cheese sandwiches, maybe Greek-style broiled snapperfried green tomatoes, or orange rolls. Perhaps even the grilled lamb shoulder and crushed potatoes from Highlands Bar & Grill. As a student of Birmingham’s history, however, I’m casting my vote for the traditional Birmingham hot dog.

Since debuting as hand-sized fair food on Coney Island a year before Birmingham was founded, Wiener Würstchen on soft buns have become a staple of the working man’s diet. And once Birmingham got going as a boom town in the 1880s, there was growing demand for quick, cheap, standing-up meals. Among the entrepreneurs scampering to establish the city’s food service industry were the first generation of Greek immigrants from Tsitália, a small village in Arcadia, southwest of Athens.

Enterprising mustachioed men like George Cassimus (Fish Lunch House), Tom Bonduris (The Bright Star), and Tom Balabanos (Hobson Cafe) opened restaurants while their countrymen peddled fruit from carts and cigar stores and built up mercantile warehouses on Morris Avenue. They brought their cousins and neighbors and soon Birmingham’s Greek community was a vibrant force in our economy and culture.

In 1939 Pete Koutroulakis, bought “Louis’ Place”, a lunch counter tucked into a 7-foot-wide slot between the former Dude Saloon and the Loventhal clothing store. It cost him $600 that he had won in a pinochle game. He changed the name to “Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs” and installed the now-familiar blue neon sign. Soon he hired his nephew Constantine (nicknamed “Gus”) to help out. When Pete took ill after a vacation, Gus took over.

That was on January 18, 1948. That was before the city’s first television broadcast. Teenage phenom Willie Mays was just about to take the Black Barons to the Negro Leagues World Series. City Hall was still at 4th Avenue North and 19th Street.Paul Bryant was the young head football coach for the Kentucky Wildcats. Bobby Bowden was enjoying his senior year as big man on campus at Woodlawn High School. And an infant Larry Langford would soon be keeping the neighbors awake at Loveman Village.

Allow me to repeat. Gus Koutroulakis has been serving hot dogs right there almost every day since that January morning. His narrow doorway has framed his view of forty-five per cent of our city’s entire history. Today I darkened that door long enough to purchase two specials all the way, a sack of Golden Flake potato chips, and a 12-ounce bottle of Grapico: my idea of Birmingham’s signature meal.

At the center of that meal is the traditional Birmingham hot dog: a griddle-cooked wiener served on a slightly-warmed bun topped with Greek-seasoned meat sauce, sauerkraut, onions and mustard. Variations on the same sandwich can be procured at any of dozens of hot dog stands around town. Among the most venerable are Gus’s Hot DogsLyric Hot Dogs, Dino’s Hot Dogs and Scott’s Koneys. The Sneaky Pete’s chain has its roots in the same traditions. While one or another may have a sweeter sauce, crisper onions or different cooking habits, the essence is the same.

Koutroulakis gets his wieners from Zeigler Meats, a company started by R. L. Zeigler out of the grocery store he opened inBessemer in 1920. Zeigler’s pork sausage became the store’s top seller and gradually eclipsed the rest of his business. Now the company ships sausage, souse, bacon and hot dogs all across the United States (well, the souse might not be so widely available). The company has changed hands a few times and was once partly owned by Coach Bryant, who famously answered “mama’s call” to come to the University of Alabama in 1958.

You might not think of sauerkraut as a Birmingham product, but soul legend Frederick Knight did. Knight was producing and recording for Neal Hemphill‘s “Sound of Birmingham” studios in Midfield in the late 1960s. One of the demos he cut for Atlanta’s Lowery Music Company was a track extolling the virtues of Birmingham sauerkraut: “I’m goin’ back to Birmingham. I’m gonna be on the next train out. How I miss potatoes, greens and beans; but most of all the sauerkraut!”

The ideal complement to a Pete’s Famous special is a pack of Golden Flake golden potato chips. Like Zeigler, Golden Flake started out as a side business for a grocery store. Mose Lischkoff and Frank Mosher’s “Magic City Foods” fried up the chips and also made peanut-butter crackers and horseradish for Hill’s Grocery in the 1920s. Their golden-haired spokesmodel, Helen Friedman, later married Mosher and bought out Lischkoff’s share. After their divorce, Helen took over the company. She was grossing $750,000 per year in sales when she finally sold it in 1946. The buyers were Leo Bashinskyand his brother-in-law Cyrus Case who wisely utilized Bear Bryant’s star power in the company’s marketing efforts. The Bashinsky family took the company public in 1968 and expanded rapidly to over $100 million in sales by the mid 1980s.

And to wash down the quintessential Birmingham meal? You can’t go wrong with a bottle of Grapico. Although Grapico was invented in New Orleans, the first wholesale bottler for the grape-flavored soda was R. R. Rochell, a member of Birmingham’s huge variety of dope dealers (“dope” being the local colloquialism for bottled soft drinks). When Grapico’s founders lost their rights to the trademark in a dispute with the Federal Trade Commission, Rochell took over production and distribution across the South. The Grapico Company of America had offices on 11th Avenue North and pursued national distribution for their sodas before being acquired by local rival Buffalo Rock in 1981.

For more on Birmingham’s hot dog culture, I recommend viewing “Hot-Dogopolis“, a short documentary film produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance (an organization founded in Birmingham in 1999). But for the real thing, make sure to hurry down to the hot dog time machine on 2nd Avenue and get Pete’s Famous special all-the-way.

Photos: Top: Gus Koutroulakis at Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs, photographed by André Natta. bottom left: The store’s neon sign. bottom right: a special all-the-way with Golden Flake chips and a Grapico, both photographed by John Morse.

The local music scene just took a detour

Scott Register referred to them as “The Uprising” during Sunday’s broadcast of Reg’s Coffee House on Live 100.5.

That would be the group of people on Facebook now numbering more than 16,000 that have  joined the Save Live 100.5 Facebook group since last Friday in an effort to save the station from a pending format change this week. I’m one of them.

It wasn’t necessarily your usual online campaign to save a local radio station either, considering the names of the people that lent their virtual voices to the cause this weekend.

The last song ever played by a human on the popular radio station (the video for Muse’s Uprising is over to your left) was a fitting tribute to that group and to all that have come before them in the battle for local radio stations with an independent voice and spirit. It may also become their battle cry as they work towards their ultimate goal regardless of the issue – having their voice heard.

“What happens next?” is a question that no doubt plays repeatedly in their minds even as they continue to make phone calls and send emails to the suits in Las Vegas hoping that Citadel will change their mind.

One thing for folks to keep in mind is the fact that as Reg said several times during yesterday’s broadcast, this group’s creation and actions “shook the foundation” of one of the nation’s largest media corporations.

If this group of 16,000+ can do that , imagine what it could do for Birmingham?

Imagine if this group became a rallying point for supporting the city’s music venues? What if it was the first step in creating a clearinghouse for information about publications sharing stories about different local musical acts around the metro area?

Imagine if they threw their support behind those businesses that once sponsored Live 100.5 and used it as a way to circumvent the current system (or possibly reward those who were willing to provide them just a taste of what they were looking for)?

They could even try to pool together the necessary resources to launch an online station of their own (or look to influence another station to give them another spot to congregate via terrestrial radio)?

That is the power that 16,000 people have when they’re focused on one issue, one goal.

It is quite possible that we may get to enjoy that diversity on Live 100.5 again. We should never say never.

I’ve seen several people online say that “the end of Live 100.5 will be the final nail in the coffin for the Birmingham music scene.”

That is one thing that I don’t believe. I’d argue that the attention that this modern day virtual protest has caused may very well be one of the first things to get folks re-engaged in the city’s music scene, so long as the movement doesn’t splinter into different segments. It’s a sad detour, but only a detour as the movement continues to grow and gain momentum.

This same force could be incredible as we hope to see more accomplished in the region than ever before. Perhaps it’s time to stop waiting for someone else to do something and do it ourselves.

As the song says:

They will not force us
They will stop degrading us
They will not control us
We will be victorious, so come on…

So let’s see where this movement takes us, in regards to music and life in The Magic City in general, before declaring all is lost.

André Natta is the stationmaster of

THE TEXT: Where do we go from here?

Editor’s note: The following remarks were written and presented by Ed LaMonte at this year’s MLK Unity Breakfast here in Birmingham, AL on January 18, 2010. We felt the need to provide the text here as well as a link to a piece published in Sunday’s Birmingham News by current city schools interim superintendent Barbara Allen. We try to provide some context on our site’s front page . – ACN

JANUARY, 18, 2010

Old professors may retire, but they rarely stop giving assignments. I will be giving you two assignments this morning.

Many of you probably know that I am a back-up speaker, and I am proud and grateful to be in that role. The breakfast planners had hoped to have Dr. Regina Benjamin, recently sworn in as Surgeon General of the United States, with us, but her overwhelming schedule prevented her from attending. We can all be proud that this native Alabamian occupies such an influential position in the health care arena. Her life, her values, and the remarkable contributions she has made to health care place her squarely in the tradition of Dr. King and what he stood for. For those of you who are not familiar with Dr. Benjamin’s story, my first assignment for you is to learn about this exemplary public servant and be grateful for her leadership at this critical moment in health care.

As we reflect today on the meaning of Dr. King to our own city, to the nation, to the world, and to us as individuals, I want to assess critical aspects of our community in 2010 to see where we stand in meeting some of the challenges he issued us.

In 1937, Harper’s Magazine published a lengthy commentary on Birmingham, regarded by local residents as “The Magic City”, a unique American city poised on the edge of municipal greatness. But to the chagrin of most locals, correspondent George R. Leighton entitled his article, “Birmingham, Alabama: The City of Perpetual Promise.” Instead of documenting the city’s undeniably impressive physical development, he emphasized its equally undeniable short comings and the causes of the unfulfillment of the perpetual promise.
Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Birmingham in 1963 to assist the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and others in achieving a portion of that perpetual promise. One year later, Dr. King published an account of Birmingham and the challenges that urgently needed to be addressed in our city and throughout the nation; he entitled his book, “Why We Can’t Wait.” In 1967, he again addressed the future of America, and our city, and asked, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

Today Birmingham stands at another crossroads at this beginning of a new year and a new decade. Tomorrow many of us will go to the voting booth to elect a new mayor for our city – the fourth person to occupy that office in as many months. The new mayor will face a municipal financial crisis which is, I fear, not well understood by the public at large and which will set severe limits on his ability to lead us forward.

But at least we can expect both some stability in that office after a prolonged period of turmoil and blessed relief from the present campaign. Soon we expect to have a new superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools.

At this time of new beginnings, I hope to issue a clarion call to a faltering community, arguing that in critical areas our promise remains unfulfilled, that we do not have the luxury of time to wait, and that the question is an open one as to where we go from here. I will focus on only two topics this morning: our ability to function as a community in addressing regional topics that affect the lives and well being of all our citizens and the challenges confronting us in meeting the education needs of our city’s children.

When Dr. King led the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham in 1963, there were 31 municipalities in Jefferson County; local leaders had by that date identified political fragmentation in the metropolitan area as a pressing issue which, if unaddressed, would thwart our progress. Today, there are not 31 but 38 municipalities in the county; moreover the metropolitan area – in fundamental ways a single economic community – is now defined as including 7 counties and 94 municipalities. The question is, do we have any stable, predictable means for defining regional problems and developing responses, including the necessary funding to address these problems. Sadly, the answer is no. The next question then becomes, does this political fragmentation have a negative impact on the lives of citizens, and especially those for whom Dr. King was a strong advocate? In the now famous words of Sarah Palin, the answer is, “You betcha!”

A prime example of this problem is the much discussed reality of our deplorable public transit system. I well recall the first meeting of the Community Affairs Committee of Operation New Birmingham that I attended in the fall of 1969, shortly after I began my career with the Center for Urban Studies at UAB. The CAC then had 27 members: 9 representing local governments, 9 the private sector, and 9 the African American community. The two topics at the top of CAC’s agenda over 40 years ago were adequate housing for low income families and adequate public transportation. Illustrative of the cost of our failure is the fact that most of the $87.5 million for a Birmingham Transit Corridor, secured by Senator Shelby in 1998, has been left on the table because of the inability of local leaders to secure the required 20% match or to establish an ongoing, reliable, annual operating source of funds. As a result, the transportation options for all of us are limited, with the heaviest burden born by those who have no regular alternative to public transit; and our environment is unnecessarily polluted in the process.

Turning to education: when Dr. King led the Movement here in 1963, the latest census recorded a population for the city of Birmingham of over 340,000; more than 70,000 students attended the Birmingham Public Schools. The latest Census Bureau estimate of the city’s population was 228,798 in 2008, with about 28,000 students enrolled in the city school system. The city is steadily moving down a path toward having a population under 200,000; several hundred students leave the Birmingham schools each year to pursue other educational options, or perhaps none.

The Birmingham News reported on December 21, 2009 that the high school graduation rate for the Birmingham Public Schools is 83%. Statistics are often very unreliable, given the differing ways that data can be organized and presented. The venerable and highly respected Southern Education Foundation has conducted studies of high school drop outs in Alabama, defining a drop out as a student who begins ninth grade but does not graduate – a definition now uniformly required by the U.S. Department of Education. The Foundation’s study, after adjusting for students physically leaving the city or transferring to private schools, establishes Birmingham’s dropout rate in 2008 as 50%.

Dropping out clearly limits any young person’s ability to achieve his or her full potential in many areas of life, with income a clear indicator of this fact. The Southern Education Foundation documented that in 2008, the adult mean annual earnings for a Birmingham dropout were $15,803; for high school graduates with no further education, the mean was $21,991. Therefore, high school graduation accounts for, or at least
correlates with, an income that exceeds that for a dropout by nearly $6,200 per year, almost 40% higher. With heart-breaking sadness, we can assume that most high school dropouts in the 21st century will live severely stunted lives and be an economic drag on the local economy. And for some as yet unexplained reason, a Birmingham dropout’s income is nearly $3,000 per year less than the adult median annual earnings for high school dropouts for Alabama as a whole.

And so many look forward to the arrival of a new superintendent. Let me put the superintendency in the context of our city. First, the previous and present boards of education have pursued a search process that has prompted widespread local skepticism and unprecedented negative comments by two knowledgeable observers. Both are our own greatly admired Dr. Ethel Hall, Vice Chair of the Alabama State Board of Education, and Dr. Michael Casserly, Executive Director of the nationally respected Council of Great City Schools, have publicly stated that the ongoing search is so flawed that it should be abandoned and a new search begun.

Also sobering is the fact that research by the Council of Great City Schools has established that the average tenure of an urban school superintendent is now about 3.5 years; in the past 15 years, Birmingham has had six different leaders. I well remember when, as Interim Superintendent, I attended a meeting of the Council of Great City Schools in Wichita, Kansas. The mayor of Wichita welcomed us to his city, saying that he was happy to have in Wichita the highest paid group of migrant workers in America. We should not expect to be so fortunate as to have a new superintendent who will fix our system. I sadly conclude that we adults of this city have let down our children, and we must – in my view – assume much greater responsibility for their education. It was, after all, for the children of the future that Dr. King held such high hopes.

Let me assure you that it gives me absolutely no pleasure to stand before you and make such critical comments on the occasion of this Unity Breakfast celebrating and honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But I firmly believe that Dr. King would be deeply disappointed in the Birmingham of 2010. And I do not want to “beat up” on this city where I have chosen to live my adult life and raise a family without offering some specific suggestions – some modest food for your thought.
Regarding encouraging a regional way of thinking about and responding to common concerns, I want to point to two organizations that are already in place, staffed, and led by respected professionals: the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, led by Charles Ball, and the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, Jim Williams, Executive Director. I have talked with both men, and they are prepared to discuss how their organizations can play larger roles in addressing the needs and opportunities of regionalism. I very strongly recommend engaging them in such discussions.

Regarding public education in the city, we clearly need to support the new
superintendent and current board when they have earned such support, as we must support principals, teachers, and especially children. A promising development in 2009 was establishing a local education foundation to secure needed financial support for the Birmingham Public Schools – an effort led by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, certainly a leading voice in our area for both regionalism and public education. However, I today want to urge that our community create or identify an organization with the single purpose of monitoring carefully our public education system as an advocate for the students – an ombudsman role in behalf of those for whom Dr. King voiced such high hopes and aspirations. My personal instinct is to turn initially to Greater Birmingham Ministries for leadership in this area.

My second assignment for you today is to act individually in some specific way to support at least one student in his or her education – by being part of the adopt-a-school program, tutoring, reading to, or perhaps simply writing or calling a young person to express your interest and encouragement.

To finish, I realize that I could have come before you this morning with comments about significant progress in Birmingham since 1963, especially in race relations, and marvelous programs and institutions in our midst. But, in my opinion, that is not the perspective called for at this critical moment. Birmingham remains a community of great but significantly unfulfilled potential. We can’t wait to take immediate and significant steps. The question is, where do we go from here?