VJ Graffeo dreams of Birmingham being an “it” city


V.J. Graffeo

Comebacktown published by David Sher & Phyllis Neill to begin a discussion on creating better government for our region.

Today’s guest blogger is V.J Graffeo, a young professional.

I’m a Birmingham homer.  I drink the Magic City Kool-Aid in such excess that I am often blind to our blemishes, dreaming that perhaps that just one day, we will transform into an “it” city.  That city where businesses, young professionals and career movers yearn to make their home.  From the shadow of Vulcan’s hindside, I have watched with envy the significant strides other Southern cities like Atlanta and Nashville – even Chattanooga and Montgomery – have made over us in recent years.  Well, I’m tired of waiting and ready for our turn to be “it.”  Simply wishing, hoping and dreaming will not fuel this transformation though.  Unless we as individuals, as a community, and government, take collective action necessary to brand an identity and effectuate change, we will wait indefinitely for significant progress to occur.

Born and raised here, I have never strayed too far from the tree.  A fourth generation Birminghamian, my roots were sown by the seeds of my Sicilian immigrant great-great grandparents who crossed the Atlantic among the wave of thousands of other Italians in the early 20th century via Ellis Island and New Orleans en route to the emerging industrial New South, with little more than mere dreams of a better future.  During my childhood, I visited the monkey island at the Birmingham Zoo, ate Chick-Fil-A in the new Century Plaza food court and shopped at the Eastwood Mall Parisian.  But for seven years and two degrees in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham has been home my entire life.  As an attorney, I could have easily chosen to practice elsewhere, but I never seriously considered exploring other options.  My sense of pride and loyalty to Birmingham was too strong.  To me, to move away would have been to abandon and turn my back on the city my ancestors chose over a century ago.

Now, after nearly ten years of living, working and playing in Birmingham as a professional, I ask why do I still choose to make Birmingham my home and why am I so passionate about it?  With family always near by (eerily similar to “Everybody Loves Raymond”) and an embracing community filled with a rich cultural history, friendly people, and an unparalleled civic spirit,  Birmingham has always provided all that I need and want.  Plus, I feel blessed to live in an area containing the natural beauty of the Appalachian foothills and the Cahaba River.

To no surprise though, not all of today’s generation of young professionals share my enthusiasm for Birmingham.  It has become readily apparent to me that our City will not sustain growth and prosperity by depending on our native sons and daughters returning here to begin their careers and raise families.  I have witnessed far too many of my high school and college classmates leave not only Birmingham, but also Alabama, only to return for the holidays.  While harvesting and keeping home grown talent is an important, if not a vital, part of a improving our City, we need to take a concerted effort to recruit and welcome fresh graduates, experienced workers and new business into the City.  To accomplish this task, we must transform Birmingham into an “it” city.

In January, The New York Times prominently featured Nashville as the next “it” city, comparing its growth and coolness to that enjoyed by Portland, Austin, Dallas and Las Vegas over recent years.  The Times praised Nashville’s country roots, but recognized that its tourists, young new residents, immigrants, music and entrepreneurs have created a synergistic force which has lead to Nashville being ranked as one of the nation’s hottest cities, reaching the top of many lists in 2012.  On the other hand, the Times has made Birmingham a proverbial punching bag.  In an article highlighting Jefferson County’s notorious bankruptcy last year, the Times labeled our County as having fallen off the financial cliff and compared Birmingham’s old industrial core to a “monument to urban flight.”  Embarrassingly, we all know there’s some truth there.  Outside my office, I see the empty Cabana hotel and several 20th Street vacancies.  Even the Birmingham News’ mere six year old signature building is now on the selling block.

For every bump and bruise we may have, Birmingham has very recently proven that she can do some things right and has demonstrated substantial steps of progress in spite of our fractured and cash-strapped governments.  The new Children’s Hospital is an impressive addition to our skyline.  The City is proudly hosting numerous events marking the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, bringing many cultural tourism visitors here.  Railroad Park is now complete and will soon have Regions Field as the home for the Birmingham Barons.  Red Mountain Park rivals the green space of New York City’s Central Park.  The Lake Brothers’ Avondale Brewery has helped sparked an urban renewal renaissance just east of downtown.  The Innovation Depot, packed with entrepreneurial tenants, continues to bring jobs to the City.  The new Westin and entertainment district is nearly complete.  And let us not forget UAB, with its constantly sprawling University and Hospital, the behemoth engine driving much of our local economy.

In order to bridge the gap between Birmingham and other Southern cities so that we will not only survive, but thrive, Birmingham must build identity and a brand so that we can better market and position ourselves to be an “it” city.  Nashville has music, Austin is weird, New Orleans is a party, but what are we?  The Magic City?  Sure, it’s a catchy moniker but its relevance has diminished for locals and visitors alike.  The population boom we enjoyed 100 years ago peaked  at over 340,000 in the 1960s and has steadily declined to just over 212,000 today in the city proper, barely maintaining  position as Alabama’s largest city.

With time passing and populations shifting, we need to think and act regionally.  The present “Birmingham” is a seven county metropolitan area currently comprised of over 1.1 million people and over thirty governments.  Yet, we have no unified identity that signifies to the world who we are and what we aspire to become.  Birmingham is a superb place to live and work, but in the global competition for industry, human capital and tourism, Birmingham’s greatness often is a mystery to outsiders.  A strong unified identity can serve as a catalyst for progress and guide our region to new heights.  But building an identity will not be an easy or quick process.  We must  unite to help our governmental, business and civic leaders to brand a distinctive identity so that one day soon, Birmingham will be “it.”

V. J. Graffeo is an attorney with Burr & Forman LLP, practicing in the area of commercial litigation.  V. J. was recognized by the Birmingham Business Journal as a Top 40 Under 40 in 2012 and is actively involved in multiple civic and charitable organizations, including the Rotary Club of Birmingham and the Birmingham Museum of Art.

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David Sher is a co-founder in Buzz12 Marketing and co-CEO of AmSher Receivables Management. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (ONB), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).


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7 thoughts on “VJ Graffeo dreams of Birmingham being an “it” city”

  1. VJ, thank you for this post! I feel Bham has pockets that function like Boutique cities (think the Highland Park neighborhoods, South Side, and SoHo). These pockets have a solid identity and town pride one might find in a Fairhope, AL or even Portland, ME. Bham is full of artists, dog lovers, music fiends, and we all need to figure out a way to leverage these traits and market our wonderful city. I feel we have a Baltimore issue, where our middle-size, lack of progressive industry, and crime rate work against us. I always think of Bham as a technology and health care city, and hopefully that will fuel future prospects. Keep loving it, and see you at the next big event!

  2. V.J. I am with you a 100%. I will briefly share a “microcosm” example as to how corporate Birmingham can build deliberate “bridges of investment” with the city of Birmingham….I’m talking neighborhoods from where our students come. That is why we are doing what we are doing here in Ensley with a college preparatory school for the underserved. 100% graduation rate, 100% accepted into college, over $ 1 million in scholarships for our class of ’13 so far, with 3 1/2 months to go! It is all because corporate Birmingham is hiring our students work and “catch a glimpse” of a future that is do able. I don’t think we can understand fully the significance of a young 9th grader telling me, one day when returning from his Friday job at a law firm, “Fr. Alex I can do this.”

    And how that can affect a family back home, and the neighborhood surrounding that family. It is all about the “tipping point” of a positive movement affecting all involved, corporate, academic, family and neighborhood. That is a paradigm shift / out of the box thinking and doing. I know you have been with us since the beginning. Don’t just hold onto your optimism…continue to pass it along.  It’s all part of the movement forward for this city and region. *

  3. Excellent article VJ! I share your Italian heritage although I was born in Chicago and moved here at around 10 years old.  I too think the “Magic City” needs to be reinvented. I’d really like to see us concentrate on our core in a green, sustainable way.  We could really set ourselves apart by building mixed use throughout our downtown core and linking in little communities like Homewood, Avondale, and others with cool, hip trolleys or light rail.  Make our town bike and pedestrian friendly and we’ll mark our spot on the map.

  4. *I would encourage anyone likes VJ’s post to take action.  Pass on his post to five friends and ask them to signup for the newsletter.  If you are tired of complaining one-on-one, join a community that wants to take action!

  5. Thank you all for the comments and engaging in the discussion.  I have gotten much positive feedback on the piece.  It’s especially interesting to see the different attributes of our city in marketing it.  Anne points out Birmingham is “healthcare and technology.”  Jim brags about us being “green.”  Fr. Alex points out our civic heart and Carey is part of the movement of young business leaders contributing to our city.  The best thing about these engagements is people recognize all the great things Birmingham is.  Heck, we’re also arguably a “beer” town now with all the breweries!  Now, the key (and most difficult part) is putting all these great pieces of the Birmingham puzzle together to we can prove to the world and ourselves at are “it.”

  6. *I am 92.  I was born and raised here.  I admire and cherish your thoughts. I still think our city is great and would not think of living elsewhere.  Keep up  your enthusiasm. 

    1. Marvin, Good for you! You have the distinction of being the oldest person to comment on our blog. You and your family have a rich history in Birmingham and y’all have made a significant positive difference.

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