Birmingham Could Be the Southern City That Gets It Right

Today, we are pleased to repost a piece from Comeback Town, a blog that aims to “begin a conversation about a better Birmingham.” We’d like to thank Comeback Town’s editor, David Sher, for featuring our 2018 State of the South report on his blog–especially since the guest writer is a former MDC intern, Natalie Pickett. Natalie is an Alabama native who just completed her Master of Social Work degree from Appalachian State University. She is now a community social worker in Durham, North Carolina.

I am a proud native of the Birmingham area. I grew up in Hoover until I moved out of state for college.

I live in North Carolina now, but I visit Birmingham frequently to see my parents and siblings.

Downtown Birmingham was beginning to change

When I moved away in 2011, downtown was starting to change. Railroad Park and Good People had just opened. The Barons were moving downtown. The Lyric underwent exciting renovations and Iron City was on the way. My family and I went from going downtown only for dance recitals and the McWane Center to frequenting Pepper Place and WorkPlay.

When I introduced myself to new college peers, I proudly said I was from Birmingham—mostly because it’s more recognizable than Hoover, but also because I wanted to belong to a cool city like Birmingham.

My view after seven years

Seven years later, I now have a degree in social work and the beginnings of a career in nonprofit services with historically marginalized populations. I’ve lived in four metropolitan areas across the Southeast, including Birmingham.

Professionally and personally, I am interested in how urban areas, particularly in the South, are currently experiencing periods of rapid growth and development. I am further intrigued by the issue of equity—who is benefiting from revitalization? Who might be harmed by it? And most importantly, what will it take for all residents to have the opportunity to benefit from and contribute to their city’s revitalization?

Birmingham, Baton Rouge, Nashville, Durham—the wonderful Southern cities I’ve called home—they are all asking these questions. I don’t know of any city that is not. We are all grappling with how to revitalize and prosper without unintentionally pushing out our long-term and historically marginalized residents (i.e. our neighbors who are people of color, low income, elderly, disabled, etc.).

Birmingham has a chance to get it right

Birmingham is still young in the life cycle of urban revitalization in the 21st century. It could be the Southern city that gets it right—that invests in developing its native talent as much as attracting new talent from out of state or over the mountain.

But these solutions do not happen by accident or by good intentions alone. It takes innovation, commitment, and courage—three things I know Birmingham has.

The state of the South

I live in Durham, North Carolina, and just finished an internship with an organization called MDC, which recently released its State of the South 2018 report.

MDC’s President, David Dodson, presented it to the Birmingham Rotary Club recently, where its findings were well received—and also eye-opening. The report found that in every state in the South there are more people coming from out of state who have college degrees than the number of people who were born there.

In Alabama, based on 2016 American Community Survey estimates, just over 20 percent of folks born in Alabama have a Bachelor’s Degree, compared to nearly 35 percent of people who moved to Alabama from somewhere else.

If we are going to create a prosperous and equitable Alabama, we must commit to strengthening public schools, community colleges, and universities within our state, rather than fostering a heavy reliance on imported talent.

The report looks back at what things were like in the 1960’s and finds that the South is doing better, but has a long way to go to put everyone on an equal footing.

In 1970 in Alabama, fewer than 5 percent of African Americans had a bachelor’s degree, compared to around 10 percent of Whites. By 2016, the number of African Americans with a BA had risen to nearly 20 percent, while the number of Whites was nearly 30 percent (the U.S. average in 2016 was over 20 percent for African Americans and nearly 40 percent for Whites).

For African Americans, the result was an increase in household income of over 50 percent in that period, but the increase still needed for African Americans to have Black-White parity is over 150%.

Improve educational attainment

In other words, we’ve made great progress, but we still need to address persistent disparities and improve educational attainment for everyone if all Alabamians are to be competitive in a national and global marketplace and earn family-sustaining incomes.

We are not alone in these challenges. “Few Southern cities are achieving growth, prosperity, and inclusive economic outcomes that improve conditions across the socioeconomic spectrum,” the report finds. “[R]egional growth and prosperity, matched with limited inclusion of historically disadvantaged populations, will likely exacerbate social fissures produced by shifting demographics and increased income inequality.”

The State of the South report uses three lenses to address these issues facing the South: belonging, thriving, and contributing.

Belonging means full participation in civic and economic institutions by all Alabamians, especially as rising generations are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.

Thriving means removing the structural barriers and building the support systems that will generate wealth for everyone and spread its benefits.

And contributing means the engagement of once-marginalized voices who can define their own priorities.

Alabamians must find courage

That means Alabamians must find the courage to recommit to action that will engage progress, not backsliding. As the report says, we must build an “infrastructure of opportunity”—clear pathways to connect young people with educational credentials and jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.

We must create relationships between our cities, suburbs, and countryside that can connect them and provide opportunities for everyone, regardless of where they live.

We need to make it so our education systems and employers work together so both can be competitive in the marketplace. And we need to recognize and address the shifting demographics of increasing racial and ethnic diversity.

Everyone must enjoy the fruits of new revitalization

Like I said, I’m from Hoover. My family could afford to live in the suburbs, in the “Birmingham Metro Area.” I’ve never lived in the City of Birmingham. My privilege allows me to claim the Magic City as my hometown, and its revitalization has only made me more excited to do so. My upbringing was largely unaffected by anything that happened in downtown Birmingham. We visited when it was convenient and fun.

Since then, downtown has become more convenient and fun for more people, which is a good thing.

But for the downtown natives (and Avondale natives, Crestline natives, Southside natives, and so on), the city of Birmingham is home, through thick and thin. If these folks don’t enjoy the fruits of the new revitalization, if they can’t access opportunities to contribute to Birmingham’s thriving, Birmingham will lose its way just as so many other metro areas—in the South and across the country—have begun to do.