Tag Archives: Commentary

Regarding the City of Birmingham and Feeding the Homeless

EDITOR’S NOTE: There has been a great deal said recently about the food truck ordinance passed late last year and how it’s affecting outreach efforts in the City of Birmingham. Matt Lacey, the senior pastor of downtown’s Church of the Reconciler,  has written this piece and shared it via social media and email. I felt it needed another, more openly accessible, place to reside. Links have been added by me where they seemed appropriate. As usual, comments are welcome and his contact information is below (though his email inbox was full as of this posting). ACN

One good way to make kind-hearted folks mad is to tell them it’s illegal for them to show that kindness.

Over the past couple of days here in Birmingham you may have heard reports in the media about the City of Birmingham threatening to arrest people for passing out food to the homeless in public parks and other gathering places.

The Mayor and City Council have said that they didn’t intent to create this type of environment by passing the food truck ordinance last year. Let me take some time to debunk that right away. This text is taken from page 9 of the aforementioned ordinance passed by the City Council:

“No person or business entity, including religious or charitable organization, shall operate a mobile food vehicle and/or pushcart upon the public rights-of-way within the city without a permit.”

Why would someone think to include religious and charitable organizations in the ordinance? More than likely they were attempting to bury legislation similar to other cities such as Raleigh, NC and others who have cracked down on public feedings in parks. In short: I think they knew what they were doing when they passed it.

To the issue of feeding at public parks: do churches, organizations, and volunteers need to have a conversation about the effectiveness of public feedings and the need for more permanent and ongoing help for the homeless? Absolutely. Is simply feeding at parks the best way to offer care for the homeless? Well, one could argue that you could do a lot more to offer more comprehensive care.

Organizations like ours-Church of the Reconciler-and the Firehouse Shelter, One Roof, and many others, frequently preach the need for more comprehensive services above and beyond just feeding the homeless. And there is certainly a lot to talk about. But is threatening to arrest people for feeding in public places a way to open up and have that conversation? Absolutely not.

Simply put: I’m not a public policy expert or a politician, but this isn’t going over well for the City of Birmingham. There are better ways to address this issue and have this conversation.

Mayor Bell, who in full disclosure was gracious enough to address one of our fundraising events several years ago, said that this is an effort to consolidate and organize services for the homeless through One Roof. That sounds really good, and One Roof does a great job of coordinating all these efforts currently.

Case in point: when police told Bridge Builders Ministries that they couldn’t serve the homeless outdoors any longer, we had a conversation with their leaders and opened our doors to create a more coordinated effort.

But if the Mayor and the City (and State of Alabama for that matter) are serious about this, it’s time they start providing more resources to care for those on the streets. Simply put: it’s time for Birmingham to stop talking and start doing.

I would like to issue an invitation to the Mayor and City Council members: come down to one of our organizations where, day after day, we offer care to those who need it most, rather than just bury something in an ordinance somewhere. Come and visit with those who suffer with mental illness and tell them, as we do, that there is little to no help we can offer because the State of Alabama lacks the resources (and will) to adequately address the issue. Come and argue, which I do on a weekly basis, with the drug dealers who prey on our population and help keep them in the cycle of addiction.

If we are going to talk about the need for more comprehensive help for the homeless, it’s probably best to not intimidate those attempting to do something about it, even those who might be well-intentioned but need to be more educated.

If the City wants to talk about the homeless in Birmingham, and ways they can help with the community my door is always open, as it has been.

Maybe this is the spark this City needs to starting talking about the issue of homelessness and poverty, which we have only treated with Band-Aids in the past, when in reality it needs comprehensive, holistic, and preventative care.

Rev. Matt Lacey
Senior Pastor, Church of the Reconciler
matt@churchofthereconciler.com
facebook.com/churchofthereconciler

A local's suggestions for digital media moving forward

Editor’s note: While this site’s been quiet about what’s been going on over at The Birmingham News, there’s still been discussion going on elsewhere. Comments made by Scott Schablow caught our eye, leading to our first ever Storify piece and a brief look at what else has been happening out there recently.

As always, we’d appreciate any comments you have.

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.

A network to build a future of Birmingham on

UPDATE: The plan and its name – The Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System – was announced this evening – along with a website that allows you to see the entire plan.

A possible Norwood greenway gatewayThe photo you’re looking at off to your left probably doesn’t mean a lot to you right now. But it may mean something to you a little later on, especially if you feel like dreaming…

It’s safe to assume that this evening (Tuesday) a large crowd will be gathered in the Steiner Auditorium at the Birmingham Museum of Art. They’ll be there to witness the unveiling of the Freshwater Land Trust’s “Our One Mile” plan. They’ll also be among the first to learn the name of the system – the result of a contest held at the end of last year. The level of excitement filling the space will undoubtedly be insane.

Well, this is where I bring up one more thing to keep in your mind as we get started – the under-construction Greenwood Park. Folks that normally travel along I-20/59 westbound that have wondered why all those bulldozers have been active just after you pass Tallapoosa St., here’s your reminder. This new green space could be viewed as a trail head for the 26-mile Village Creek Greenway, a project viewed by many as an integral part of the Our One Mile initiative.

You’re starting to connect the dots, aren’t you? These first two have been brought up before, courtesy of the Norwood Plan developed by Auburn University’s Urban Studio back in 2006.

The park would connect with the greenway, which could hypothetically have another touch point along Vanderbilt Road. That connection would just happen to be about ¼ of a mile from the easternmost edge of Norwood Blvd – and be right about where that photo I told you to pay attention to at the beginning of this piece was taken.

Assuming there’s access to the greenway at Vanderbilt, it’d only be a little over ½ a mile along the creek to get to the edge of Greenwood Park that touches Coosa Street. I’m not even focusing on the fact that this could potentially bring a whole new group of users over to Patton Park on the other side of the Interstate.

What does all of this mean?

It means more once you include the recent donation by Red Diamond – their former headquarters on Vanderbilt Road (valued at approximately $2 million in an online listing) to the Birmingham YMCA.

The distance from the edge of Norwood Blvd. to 1701 Vanderbilt Road is approximately half a mile. If you’re running, this means you’re probably no more than 5-7 minutes away.

It could be the jump start  needed to encourage potential investors to take a look at the section of Norwood referred to by some in the neighborhood as “the bottoms” as an option for renovation projects. It’s safe to say there would be several young professionals that aren’t looking for a mortgage but instead for an inexpensive place that’s relatively close to downtown and some of those intangible quality of life benefits.

It might also lead to some changes in traffic flow in the area surrounding all of these things – changes that could influence whether or not we see significant development along 12th Avenue North, particularly the eastern end of the street. The western edge may already see some influence from a entertainment district that will soon go from dream to reality in the coming months.

It’s just an example of what happens when the dreams of a community are thought through and given the potential to be realized. It’s all out there – including pieces like Ruffner Mountain, Red Mountain Park, and the (soon-to-be-added-onto) Shades Creek Greenway. Now it’s simply time to see if folks want to connect those dots all the way.

Many of these thoughts about the northside are assuming that the YMCA decides that it can move ahead and make the additional improvements to their newest piece of property – suddenly the largest of the properties held by the organization. It also depends on how empowered and motivated the citizens of metro Birmingham get to make this greenway plan presented this evening a reality.

That last sentence is probably the most important one. As Wendy Jackson said in this morning’s Birmingham News piece by Thomas Spencer,

People need to be a voice for their greenways.

The days of people waiting for someone to take the lead need to end soon. As former UAB president Dr. Joseph Volker once stated, “We would do Birmingham a great disservice if we dreamed too-little dreams.”

This greenway – and many projects like it currently in the pipeline – are probably what Volker may have been thinking of as he spoke. It’s now up to the general public to lead the leaders to the city they want, rather than have a disjointed one given to them instead.

Maybe coming out to the event tonight’s a good first step.

André Natta is the stationmaster of bhamterminal.com.

Assuming great things for Fleming, ONB

David Fleming in North Birmingham, October 2010. acnatta/bhamterminal.comThe first time I met David Fleming, I was sitting across the table from him for about an hour on the tenth floor of Two North Twentieth interviewing for the job that would eventually bring me to Birmingham. I spent most of that time wondering just what this guy thought of this kid from The Bronx living in Savannah, GA who was crazy enough to want to work for his new nonprofit start-up.

A month later, we hustled into the conference room at the Young & Vann Building downtown as the city’s Design Review Committee meeting started – beginning a 2 ½ year working relationship as his first hire for Main Street Birmingham (MSB).

I learned a lot while there and had a lot of fun too. We agreed about what needed to be done more often than not; it was often when it came to what we knew we could actually get away with where we’d often differ. The fact I was able to openly disagree with my boss – at least behind closed doors – was something I was extremely grateful for. I was also thankful for the chance to work for someone who truly loved his hometown and wanted to do right by it – a passion that still influences how I approach this website long after my resignation from MSB to launch it in 2007.

When news of Michael Calvert’s retirement and the resulting search for a new president and CEO of Operation New Birmingham (ONB) became public, a part of me just knew David would apply for the job. He did, and earlier today I learned along with everyone else that he’d been offered and accepted the position – effective November 1.

It’s a big day for the future of the city of Birmingham – or at least it is to me. I believe the ONB board sent a clear signal with this decision – one that suggests they value the importance of small business development as a significant part of the revitalization of the city center. It also suggests that while they may recognize Fleming’s familiarity with how things have been done during his previous tour of duty with ONB, they’re willing to listen to someone who may have ideas about how to tweak some of those policies and procedures to better serve small businesses and grow the residential community – both vital to realizing the hopes of many not just in the central business district but the greater downtown area.

These are assumptions – and David’s favorite reminder to me was “never assume.” The thought of just what could happen if some of those changes that could be made to make ONB more effective were applied to MSB initiatives makes me want to assume the best though – for David and the city he enabled me to move to more than seven years ago.

Waiting to see if some of those assumptions become reality will be the hard part…

André Natta is bhamterminal.com‘s stationmaster. He served as senior coordinator for Main Street Birmingham from September 2004 until March 2007.

Photo: David Fleming at North Birmingham ecoscape dedication, October 2010 via archive.

Still dreaming Birmingham? Time to do.

Birmingham 360 degrees. E. Bruchac/FlickrIt is something that has become a mantra for me in these early days of 2011.

“It’s time to stop just thinking and do.”

The simple sentence echoes around in my head – a space that has felt quite cavernous until recently due to setting goals for the future.

This evening I’ll join more than 500 people over at Old Car Heaven starting at 4:30 p.m. as The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham announces the NEXT BIG THING for The Magic City (by the way, you’re invited so come out if you can).

There have been great things going on throughout the region in the months since Rebecca Ryan delivered a memorable keynote at the Community Foundation’s annual meeting. I shared this post on the organization’s Imagine blog the day of the speech.

A lot has happened. True, there’s been the success of Railroad Park and the Birmingham Business Alliance‘s unveiling of their Blueprint Birmingham strategic plan has led to many important conversations to be restarted.

It’s important to remind folks of some others things happening that may be just under the radar screen so to speak…

There are mounds of dirt moving on the city’s west side as work continues on a revamped centerpiece of the city’s Five Points West community, one that has felt long neglected despite being one of the city’s most populous regions.

There are families benefiting from the development of residential options in Woodlawn and buzz for a new downtown field of dreams to house our beloved Barons.

There are residents in communities like Norwood who are willing to lift their voices so that people know what they want and have no reason to assume while looking forward to the ability of having an entertainment district within walking distance in the next two years.

There’s a connection to a road that brings Birmingham ever closer to Memphis (and the western edge of Jefferson County) that teases those driving along I-65 every day watching its progress.

Tonight we gather to see if what the Community Foundation will announce as their next great project. If nothing else, attending this evening’s event will be an opportunity to celebrate all that has been accomplished, both big and small, and to answer the call represented by former UAB president Volker’s quote,

“We would do Birmingham a great disservice if we dreamed too-little dreams.”

Whatever it is, it will be part of a larger dialogue that needs to take place in Birmingham about where we’re going. The big difference is that instead of dwelling on what isn’t happening, we’ll be wondering what else should be happening.

There are several projects I think are worthy of being undertaken – whether it’s making sure that the Powell School building is preserved and maintained for a civic purpose or figuring out a way to expand and ensure the continued presence of the Birmingham Public Library. While I doubt that these are among the ones considered for today’s announcement, perhaps after the dust settles, people will see that much more is possible than they’ve ever imagined. They may just step up and get it done.

I know that as the incoming president of the Birmingham Jaycees, that organization will be doing their part to take on part of the challenge of doing.

How about you Birmingham?

It’s more than a year later – how big are the dreams you’re dreaming for Birmingham (and what are you willing to do to make them a reality)? What are you willing to do to help shape the city’s story.

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com.

Photo: Birmingham 360 degrees. E. Bruchac/Flickr

Time for our future to be seen and heard

hanging baskets downtownHow often are you heard, I mean really heard?

I was driving along 20th Street North last night after attending the third ever YP Expo and I noticed the hanging plants at the intersections. They’ve been hung every spring for at least the past four years, adding a bit of color to the hustle and bustle of the city’s central business district. It took getting a chance to stop at the light and be confronted by them to realize they were back and appreciate them.

The Expo holds a special place in my heart and I’ve long hoped for it to serve as a way to bring the city’s young professional community together under one roof to make it easier for individuals to learn about what’s available to them and about all of the good things going on in the city (I guess anticipating my hopes for accentuated positivity).

Despite arriving after comments had been made, there were several discussions taking place at tables throughout Rosewood Hall in downtown Homewood. Courtney Bascom Truss of the Birmingham Business Alliance and the organizations that took part in this year’s event should be commended. The conversations with people interested in getting involved were taking place.

So what’s next?

There have recently been some folks wondering aloud about the perpetual promise of our young professional class here in Alabama’s largest city (check out the comments to get a feel of how the conversation’s developing).

I actually spoke with two young ladies yesterday morning at one of the coffee shops I currently frequent after hearing them say that they felt limited in what they could do here in Birmingham. They did not know about the Expo. Once I told them about it they agreed that while it would be interesting to attend they weren’t really sure it was for them.

Young professionals have been viewed for a long time much in the same way that those hanging plants are – they are there and occasionally we are reminded of their existence and their significance. But they don’t necessarily announce their existence as loudly or with as much detail as we’d like them to.

As the push to engage more people in the future of the city continues, the idea of sharing information about what these organizations do with each other and those that may want to become a part of them becomes more important than ever.

The YP Roundtable is already making strides to improve that communication between organizations so the next logical step is to investigate how to share the missions and activities that the various organizations undertake with those on the outside. Focusing specifically on the YP organizations, using YP Now as a platform for their message to get out is one part of the solution, but so is focusing on the individual stories and the “hidden” efforts of the organization. People need to be shown why raising the funds are important and exactly what people are getting out of it.

I sort of came from the George Steinbrenner school of charity – do it but don’t necessarily let everyone else know you’re doing it. You’re supposed to be doing it for yourself and not for the praise or recognition of others. I’ve had to resign myself to the fact that it only lives in my idealogical world (though I’m hopeful that it is still possible to be that way one day).

It falls to the Young Professionals, young professionals, the creative class and all of the other groups that make up the city to find ways to expand the sphere of those who know what they’re accomplishing outside of the networking events and fundraisers.

It is easy to assume that YPs have failed us, but when you get a chance to speak to those who don’t always attend those events and hear what they’re actually contributing, it gives you a reason to express hope and see true progress in our region.

Does that mean that media outlets should give these groups a little more coverage? Maybe. Does it mean that maybe some of these groups need to take the on the broadcasting of efforts and achievements themselves to ensure that the message gets out to those who need to hear it? Definitely.

Part of changing that attitude involves becoming truly engaged in the conversation wherever it happens and not to be afraid of having conversations that truly need to be public and not behind closed doors or in hushed tones.

I believe the region’s best days are ahead of it and that there are many people who consider themselves YPs or creatives taking an active role in the process.

What do you think?

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com