Monday, March 19th, 2007

Birmingham at a Crossroads

There’s an interesting thread over at skyscrapercity.com that discusses a recent Birmingham News series called Birmingham at a Crossroads. It’s a sobering assessment. Located in the high growth South, you’d think Birmingham would have been primed to be one of America’s faster growing metropolises. But racial tension and political infighting have really dragged the city down.

It would be interesting to do some study comparing some of these southern metros to see how they took different paths. It strikes me on the surface that you can use the matter of race as a proxy to see the difference. Atlanta, even in the immediate Civil War period, was home to many black leaders, educational institutions, etc. and today is both a center of black culture in America and its fastest growing metro area. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these are together. Birmingham, on the other hand, conjures up quite a different image. I argue elsewhere that of these smaller metro areas, the one that really starts taking its black community seriously is going to gain a huge competitive advantage.

Of course, Birmingham is in many ways a Rust Belt city that just happens to be in the South. A gigantic statue of Vulcan (incidentially, the largest cast iron statue in the world) towers over the city, a symbol of Birmingham’s steel making past. It doesn’t get much more Rust Belt than that. Yes indeed, there’s a reason this city was named Birmingham. Perhaps this shows that the problem with the Midwest Rust Belt is actually the declining industrial heritage, not climate, flat geography, and no coastline.

I’ve only been to Birmingham once. It seemed like an ok city to me, not much different from many similar sized Midwestern metros. There were upscale residential districts, cool urban areas, restaurant districts, etc. in addition to the decay portrayed by the article series. Though I wouldn’t claim to be blown away by it. I’m not familiar enough with the history here to try to draw any firm conclusions, but this article certainly points the way to fertile ground for examination and speculation.

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