Have you ever tried to paint a room without prepping the walls first? Then you know the paint won't stick. It's hard work moving furniture, filling cracks in the sheetrock, sanding it down, scraping and washing woodwork, etc., but it's necessary if you want the paint job to look good. Oh, you can slop paint on the wall without doing all that, but you can tell the difference.
The folks who run the metropolis in our valley these days have not figured that out.
I've worked downtown for 41 years, and visited downtown since a child, so I've been watching Birmingham a long time. Downtown was a magic place when I visited as a child. The grand movie houses, like the Alabama and Lyric Theaters, were places of gilded wonder, and the department store windows at Loveman's and Pizitiz were like looking into a fashion magazine. Britling's Cafeteria was an immense eatery with dumbwaiters serving two floors. Joy Young's Chinese restaurant offered exotic tastes from lazy susans in the center of round tables. Terminal Station, with its Beaux-Arts glass windows and bustling passengers, was a marvel.
But downtown was also dirty. Steel was still king in the valley then, and the king belched mightily from his smokestacks in the steel plants of west Birmingham. It was said that in the bottom of the valley one breathed the equivalent of three packs of cigarettes a day. The trees, streets, and sidewalks downtown had a layer of soot on them that even a hard rain would not wash away.
In the seventies the city fathers decided to paint the town, but they didn't realize how important it was to prep first. They gentrified downtown with flowered medians and new light poles, and took the bus lines off the main drag, 20th Street, thinking department store business would make a comeback from the suburban mall trend. They hoped to lure white folks back, after the turmoil of the 1069's Civil Rights Era. But the white folks had already streamed into the suburbs, taking their school children and shopping lists with them. The main people who venture downtown now are those who have to because of work. The courthouses and banks are still centrally located. Parking garages hve gone up where distinctive landmarks went down. The Temple Theatre, old YMCA, and the Birmingham Terminal railroad station went down. Glass and steel replaced these original landmarks with buildings that have windows that do not open to the outside air that no one wants to breathe. Parking garages are attached to these new buildings so that it is no longer necessary to go outside on the street.
Such detachment only highlights the poverty on the street, where the displaced lounge on the prettified sidewalks and park benches designed for the ones locked up in their daytime buildings. The street people eat hamburgers and hotdogs, if they can afford food at all, while those in office towers lunch in their own private dining rooms on the top floors. Up there, the view draws the eyes to the spectacle of Red Mountain rather than the now-smokeless chimneys of the steel mills.
There's a developer in Atlanta that's figured this thing out, though. Tom Cousins is his name, and I read about him in a Leonard Pitts, Jr. column yesterday. Mr. Cousins understands that to bring an area out of entrenched poverty you must introduce poor people into the better environment. He took a hellish housing project and rehabilitated it, got its kids playing golf at the adjoining neighborhood golf club (which he had also restored), tore down a windowless school and erected a modern one. Residents' average income went from $4,000 a year to $18,000 a year.
Why hasn't Birmingham figured out this out? It's like painting without prepping first.
We have a mayoral race here on October 9. None of the candidates seems to understand that a chain is as strong as its weakest link, or if they do, they aren't talking about it. Everybody wants to talk about a domed stadium and tourist draws. What about the poor people who can't afford to come in there? Won't the crime of our poverty repel the tourists anyway? I wonder if we're just getting another bad paint job or if there is a chance we might elect a leader who knows how to paint the town.