Tag Archives: bham

For some, it's about a lot more than a "sign"

PepsisignmidinstallSt. Patrick’s Day reminds me I’m a product of Catholic schools in New York City. The first nine years were because my parents told me so; the last four were by choice. The result was being greatly influenced by the thirst for knowledge central to the core of the Augustinian and Marist traditions. A summarizing of that thirst is the need to seek knowledge, particularly the truth. In order to accomplish this, you have to remind yourself often to look at the entire scope of a project – not just the part central to whatever fight you hold dear.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve been laughing at some of the commentary about the dislike of the Pepsi sign. Among the popular arguments presented against those speaking out about it is that there are bigger issues affecting the city of Birmingham. After all, it’s a little ridiculous to be all worked up over a sign paid for by a long-time Birmingham-based business advertising a New York-based multi-national business founded in North Carolina, right? (Granted, that’s the least of PepsiCo’s problems right now…)

Yes, here are a lot of major issues facing the general population of Birmingham. However, if you think about the original reason for the sign it is covering, its placement, and its visibility, you realize it speaks more to the pecking order of major issues affecting the region. At least, that’s why I’ve been vocal about the sign. I’ll explain:

Those finding issues with the installation of the advertisement probably wouldn’t be as vocal as they are if the skirting of city law wasn’t flaunted in their faces in the form of a party overlooking the city. While forgotten in recent years, the display board it covers was installed to brag about the potential for Birmingham as part of its centennial. It leaves many, including myself, wondering if the choruses wouldn’t have been muted ever so slightly if the money spent on this unveiling were publicly shared with one of the city’s missions or outreach programs, tackling an issue of significance directly. Well?

The sign is visible from much of the city proper, especially areas west of downtown. When poverty grips approximately 30% of our city (or more based on the screenshot of an interactive map created by The New York Times earlier this year), does it give them hope as they see a sign installed for an undisclosed amount of money advertising one of many soft drinks that lends itself to the state’s ranking among states fighting obesity (regardless if it places us in the top 5 or farther down the upper reaches of that kind of list)?

PovertyinAL

When quality affordable housing is not a reality for many and the ability to find some in an area that allows you to get to work and have access to the basics is increasingly hard for citizens, what does that sign say to them? How many homes could be renovated or built with those funds? Whether intended or not, and regardless of where the conversation is taking place – fellowship halls, barber shops, libraries, parks, living rooms, or Facebook – discussions are taking place that vocal online participants aren’t as plugged into as we may believe.

Maybe the sign serves as a more powerful mirror to the community about its priorities, placing corporate objectives above the social needs of the city? What if you’re so concerned with fighting against “the man” that you blow off people willing to help with some piece of a solution? Could a removal of the advertisement include monies being given to those organizations and initiatives working to battle the bigger issues? The need to polish a public image can lead to some interesting partnerships, but we may not find out.

Recent weeks have reminded me of just how polarized a community can become, potentially keeping people from realizing they might be working towards the same goals. The opportunity for those partnerships to be forged and acted upon become harder when antagonistic baiting of a captive audience becomes more entertaining to some instead of digging a little deeper to find out how others may tick. There are far more constructive ways to make noise and hold up that mirror than saying there’s only one way to fight a battle. The city will move forward in spite of the nitpicking. It could move a lot farther if it was more civil. We’d also do a lot better of we looked at the entire situation when thinking about how to tackle one piece. Isolating yourself from being a true part of the solution is a sad thing indeed.

Maybe it’s time to rewrite former UAB president Joseph Volker‘s famous quote? Instead of dreaming “too-little dreams,” we need to start accomplishing more and more goals. The pointing, waving, and name-calling is doing more to destroy potential progress before it even begins, though it’s being done in the name of raising awareness. Awareness is needed, but so is the need to recognize how to act like adults and agree to disagree.

Otherwise, we do a great disservice to Birmingham if we continue to isolate, name-call, and posture too childishly.

André Natta is the stationmaster of bhamterminal.com.

Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the City Positive

Birmingham Railroad Cut - East End. Curtis Palmer/FlickrI got into a conversation about an area of downtown known as “the cut” yesterday with someone very familiar with it. It runs down the middle of 1st Avenue South between 20th and 24th Streets South and is considered an important piece of the continuation of the soon to open Railroad Park – providing a pedestrian connection to Sloss Furnaces.

I’d recently walked across the 21st Street Viaduct, looked down and noticed a great deal of garbage and debris inside of it. It disturbed me because I’d taken part in one of several clean-ups of the stretch of land while I was a resident of the Birmingham’s Central City neighborhood.

I suggested to the individual that it was probably time to organize another clean up the space again, perhaps engaging a new group of concerned individuals in the process while they suggested that perhaps a phone call to the city to do so would be better while finding another way to get citizens involved, like a charrette.

When I asked why, he said that it would most likely be the same group of folks who always came out that would do the clean up again since it probably wouldn’t attract any new people.

I’ve got a feeling that people visiting Railroad Park in September who’ve still haven’t heard of it as of yet (and live in metro Birmingham) could be motivated to clean up a piece of property for the first time if invited.

Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to seeing the usual suspects all of the time that we don’t always think of new ways to reach out to more people and engage them as well (maybe even using some of the same things that don’t work on the usual suspects anymore).

Maybe it’s because it appears to some that others are always looking for something to complain about or they immediately have a negative reaction to any idea that is presented to them – for no really good reason. If you hang around a lot of people like that long enough, it tends to rub off on you too…

I write those last statements knowing that the majority of the voices that we normally hear online are those of a small minority made vocal due to the majority not necessarily wanting to share their opinions.

It would be nice to hear more of those optimistic and positive voices across more of the platforms that we use for communication here in Birmingham, AL. There are some people that need to hear from others like them; from imagining what this portion of Jones Valley can be in a few short years. Luckily, there are a few of them online (and offline – that you will run into every once in a while.

Avondale Brewing Co. home in progress. Courtesy of their fan page on Facebook.I headed over to the future site of the Avondale Brewing Company on the city’s east side today. I went over to check out the progress on their building – one that I’ve looked at optimistically for years in my former life at Main Street Birmingham. It was great to see the progress…

I was also over there scouting out a potential location for the office/collaborative space that I’ve talked about before on these virtual pages (BTW – the survey results and other news regarding that project will be posted on Monday morning – along with a few other minor changes to the site in general).

As I parked I noticed that the space that I was heading over to stare into again was in fact open, leading to one of those weighted moments where you’re thinking “I know there are other places there but…” That feeling went away when I figured out that the person leasing the space was a long time champion for the neighborhood.

His plans for the space reminded me of the hope that I used to hear from merchants and residents in parts of this city that many of the folks in the know actually don’t know. One of the great things about my former job was the level of passion that you could feed off of after a conversation with a property owner who’d been there for 50+ years or a new business that wanted to be where they were because they truly believed in the city’s future. It’s something I’m beginning to find again as the site begins to churn out content again.

Getting back in a positive frame of mind is one way to combat the “we’ll never do better” attitude. As more things come online those here in Birmingham, AL will learn to once again accentuate the positive (and eliminate the negative).

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com.

Photos:

Birmingham Railroad Cut – East End. Curtis Palmer/Flickr
Avondale Brewing Company under construction. Courtesy of their fan page on Facebook.

Parking problem? Depends on where you have to go

Time out on parking meterIs parking availability really a major issue in Birmingham, AL?

An issue that has drawn considerable attention in recent months is the number of broken parking meters that currently exist in downtown Birmingham.

I recently stumbled across a couple of posts that suggested that Birmingham has a parking issue – one that would serve as a great reason for not considering a downtown baseball park. We’ll talk about the ballpark later on in this series…

We have a parking problem, but not the kind that will keep people from coming downtown because they can’t find a parking space.

Besides the obvious fact that we like to park right in front of the place we’re going and don’t like having to place our cars out of view, we also are having an issue collecting the total potential revenue that these spaces are supposed to be providing (which could be an issue unto itself).

As the city faces a budget deficit from this year and the City Council looks to the city’s reserve funds as part of a possible solution for the coming year, some have turned to the vandalized parking meters as a symbol for what’s wrong.

The lack of revenue due to several people (including LKW and myself) taking advantage of the “free” parking available on-street makes the situation the perfect poster child. If you remember, the plan was once to increase parking ticket fees and increase revenue coming into the city’s coffers.

It’s ironically something that most states do not encourage as parking meters are meant to be a way to regulate parking options and not to be viewed as a source of income. A quick glance at the Wikipedia entry for parking meters provides several examples of how the revenue argument does not hold up in a court of law even if it would in the court of public opinion.

It was also a shame to learn just how many resources were available to deal with the issue earlier this month while reading Kyle Whitmire’s account on Second Front .

Despite the city’s reliance on the automobile, it would be safe to say that people are becoming more strategic about when and where they drive, especially as gasoline prices fluctuate and some choose to boycott some stations due to the crisis in the Gulf.

A quick drive around any section of the city not called the UAB campus shows that parking options are plenty. For those wondering if there are enough parking decks available in the city to handle the number of vehicles, a recent Heaviest Corner post should put those worries to rest (and give you a heads up on where to consider parking next time you’re downtown).

Perhaps increasing the urban tree canopy would make walking a couple of blocks farther just a little more bearable if you had to park a couple of blocks away from your destination. Encouraging the city or an organization to take on a project similar to New York’s MillionTreesNYC may help us reach that goal. The more comfortable and enjoyable it is to talk, the more likely some of these beliefs of parking issues may start to dissipate.

There are other potential solutions, but I’ll save some of them for inclusion in tomorrow’s piece.

We could also use this need to replace our current collection of meters in certain sections of the city with pay and display units, moving some of these newer units into sections of the city that are not seeing a heavy demand on parking. It would allow for individuals to pay for parking on the street using credit cards and dollar bills, perhaps dissuading the desire to break into the units for money (it wouldn’t necessarily stop those just doing it for the fun of it all – as stupid as that is).

Money is still needed to implement improvements to our network of parking management solutions as well as its maintenance. The issue may warrant a serious look in the budget and perhaps an examination of whether or not the city’s parking authority should take over on-street parking as well (something currently not officially in their purview).

One day parking availability will be a major issue in the City of Birmingham; I just don’t think it’s there yet compared to the other issues facing the city. We’ve got a parking infrastructure issue (and a psychological one) to deal with first.

What do you think?

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com.

A Five Points South folly in progress

The Story Teller - Five Point South. stanroth/FlickrAccording to Glenny Brock’s tweet shortly after the Housing Board of Appeals voted unanimously to uphold the Design Review Committee’s decision to deny Chick-Fil-A’s proposal for a new local at the corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street South, much cheering took place.

The battle’s been won (for now). The issue that we’ve got to worry about now is winning the war.

The war in this case is what will happen on the site where the Chick-Fil-A was proposed (that is assuming that a lawsuit doesn’t materialize). It’s been reported recently that a long awaited renovation of the 103-year old Terrace Court apartment building across 20th Street South from the site is set to begin, with as much as $4 million planned to be spent on the project. That should somehow influence what is considered for the site.

The points (courtesy of Elizabeth Barbaree-Tasker’s comments at the meeting) highlighted by Jeremy Erdreich in this blog post recapping the meeting provide another set of criteria for what could potentially be considered on that site.

There are some saying that Panera Bread would be a proper alternative for the proposed Chick-Fil-A location. Any solution that looks at a chain placing a suburban solution on that site is missing what the major point of the battle should have been.

It’s been an issue of preserving the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

While I’m a huge fan of Panera Bread, I look at their suggested arrival in Five Points South on that site as simply providing a nicer visual but not necessarily dealing with the issue at hand.

You will still have a one-story suburban structure with surface parking taking up one quarter of a major intersection in the city’s greater downtown area. The drive-through will not be there, but the traffic from people picking up their take-out lunches will be.

I’ve long held the opinion that we live in a region that could serve as an example of what a New South metropolitan area could do in the first part of the 21st century. This intersection and the surrounding community provides a golden opportunity to demonstrate just what that could look like and how it would function.

Perhaps it would help if the property owner wanted a solution that was more befitting an intersection that sees an average of 38,000 vehicles a day. Despite the community’s desires, a lot will be determined by what he wants to deal with on that site. This currently means that it will most likely be something that’s one story, at least for now.

Joey Kennedy’s hosting a live chat at 1 p.m. on al.com to discuss the issue further, though I’m thinking that people will be willing to accept a wolf in sheep’s clothing rather than actually affect a change in mindset about what Alabama’s largest city truly lives like at its core.

Let me know what you think in the comments section.

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com.

Photo: The Story Teller – Five Point South. stanroth/Flickr

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 bhamterminal.com.

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

My recent brushes with wild speculation

While engaged in expanding Bhamwiki the last several days, I’ve had a rash of encounters with some of the wilder forms of speculation. The aim of Bhamwiki is to put forth the facts about any given subject, with the hope that doing so will give readers the means for drawing their own conclusions. What I’m itching to share here, in the form of a commentary, are the “facts” about the speculations themselves.

First, a tame example: Last October Patti Muldowney and her husband John, of Rapho Township, Pennsylvania voyaged on Royal Carribbean’s “Adventure of the Seas”. At their first port of call, they went on a snorkeling trip to a shipwreck. While her husband stayed on the launch, Patti snapped photos of the wreck and marine life with a disposable underwater camera.

In December, their friend Evette Dimm was flipping through the album, and that’s when pareidolia struck. She saw a human figure with a skull-like head half-buried in sand. The Muldowneys both had a “gut feeling” that they were looking at Mountain Brook High School graduate, Natalee Holloway , whose absence has become one of Aruba’s leading commercial exports since May 30, 2005. Early that morning Holloway was lured away from Carlos ‘N Charlie’s Cantina in Oranjestad by a 17-year-old boy for a long walk on the beach. She subsequently missed her flight home and hasn’t been seen since. Over the years several tourists have reported finding skeletal remains in and near Aruba. Most have been identified as shipwrecked sailors.

After showing an enlargement to other friends, their family doctor, and local police, the Muldowneys sent the photograph to the Philadelphia FBI office. When they didn’t hear back from the FBI, even after numerous calls to Quantico, the Muldowneys contacted the media — namely The Lancaster Intelligencer-Journal. Other outlets, including The Birmingham News and local television stations, quickly picked up on the “story”, and now Aruban authorities are sending divers to investigate.

Continue reading

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 bhamterminal.com.

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

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. UNITY BREAKFAST
JANUARY, 18, 2010
WHY WE CAN’T WAIT
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

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?

The race to mediocrity

This website has never endorsed a candidate in a political race during its nearly three-year existence.

We’re not starting today.

That said, even if we wanted to, there’s no way that either candidate would warrant an endorsement based on just how childish and asinine they’ve behaved in recent days.

Bell vs. Cooper - Bob Farley/f8PhotoThe “fresh face” has dipped down to the same level as “the elder statesman” of Birmingham municipal politics and in reality neither one of them have actually talked about the issues – or at least explained what they were actually going to do if elected.

When one campaign (or their supporters) is running photos of a candidate’s ex-wife and making accusations about that person’s sexual orientation while the other one (or its supporters) is digging up 10-year old articles that include allegations about his personal life instead of talking about the issues – the real issues – it becomes more about character assassination instead of talking about moving Alabama’s largest city (for now) forward.

We heard less about Mr. Bell’s current plans for his hometown and how electing him would be different now than previously and more about him being tied to Birmingham’s present – one that is described as a city “dying on the vine.” We heard him talk about himself in the third person (something that is incredibly annoying) and more insulting one liners than anything else, not to mention supporters talking about Birmingham becoming a colony – perhaps the only way to sustain our current population numbers right now short of fixing our educational system – even though charter schools are apparently not the answer in his eyes if it means that the city will have to pay the bill. I’d have more links for this section but the Black and White article kind of covers the good, the bad and the ugly – whether true or not.

We heard more about Mr. Cooper’s connections to Andrew Young and saw a lot of arm waving and heard less about his father’s past connections to several influential companies that conduct business in metro Birmingham that may be his key to bringing about change in the community. We heard less about the fact that the former U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica once served as the senior vice president for Volkert and Associates, an engineering firm that does a great deal of work here in the city. He is also a former member of the board of United States Steel – (see page 6) – owner of more than 200 square miles of land located within city limits, a lot of it undeveloped.

The connections that both candidates have to people are a result of them being politicians – yes, both of them. It’s something we’ve got to live with…

What disappointed me the most ties into the post I wrote back when this roller coaster ride began. I still don’t think that Birmingham needs a savior (even though they need someone to save it from this sham of an election cycle). Neither man did the one thing that would have made a decision on who to vote for a slam dunk – neither one of them called off the attacks once it became apparent that many people in the city were tired of them.

I hope that whoever wins this evening decides to actually be that leader or head coach that we need and not worry too much about getting re-elected. Then the city would truly benefit.

The only thing scarier is the issue of whose minds the mud slinging actually changed.

I encourage those of you registered in Birmingham, AL to vote today – even if you feel as though it will not mean anything. This city has been able to move forward – albeit slowly – in the past and can continue to do so regardless of who ends up in the big office on the third floor of Birmingham City Hall. But I may encourage all of you to look deep within yourselves to figure out what you can do to make Jones Valley a better place for all people – and start thinking about who can truly help us lay out a path for the future come 2011.

I’m going to have a glass of scotch and sit on the front porch at the house and hope that the calvary’s planning to appear by then…

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com

Photos: Bob Farley/f8Photo

The Mayoral runoff: Where to begin

Two years ago as part of our Election 2007 coverage I sat down with five of the mayoral candidates asking them questions submitted by our readers .

While we “lost” the Election site earlier this year during our server migration, we still have the audio.

It just so happens that the two candidates that will be participating in the runoff on January 19 – William Bell and Patrick Cooper – were among the folks I interviewed.

Since this special election is about completing the term that they would have started in 2007, I think it makes sense that the conversation about which one should be allowed to finish it begin with what they said when they sought the job the first time.

I’m looking forward to the opportunity to sit down with the candidates again prior to January 19 to see if any of their statements have changed as well as to get their thoughts on some of the new issues facing the City of Birmingham.

By the way, I’ll be asking you to submit some new questions beginning next week.

A reminder of the ground rules that were set for this series:

All of the candidates were asked to take part. Five candidates responded and set up appointments. The ten (10) questions were forwarded to them, with the candidates given two (2) minutes to answer each question. During the interviews, I gave extended time for some questions if they had not used their full allotment earlier.

The list of questions is available in PDF format and I’ll post each one above the embedded audio files. Something else to keep in mind as you listen to the answers – none of the candidates knew how any of the other candidates had responded to the questions as they were all posted at once.

Patrick Cooper was the second candidate interviewed in 2007, with William Bell being the next to last candidate to participate.

I know that some of you will wonder why I’m posting answers to the question pertaining to droughts given the rain totals this year. I think that it will still be a possible issue that the incoming mayor may have to deal with.

I hope that you enjoy this – the same way that I hope you will bear with us just a little bit longer as we deal with some upcoming changes for this site come January.

Enjoy the ride!

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com.