Did Mt. Brook blow up Birmingham?

(Editors note:  This article is not about Mt. Brook–it’s much broader than that.  It’s also not about the City of Birmingham–it’s about our metro. Today we examine the topic no one wants to discuss.)

A young, well-respected business man approached me after a civic club meeting. He wanted to talk about our region’s lack of progress.

Soon the conversation turned to our 37 municipalities in Jefferson County.

He said he understood how competing cities hurt our region, but as a Mt. Brook resident he was not about ready to sacrifice his children’s education for better government. I said I understood–my children attended Mt. Brook schools also.

I quickly emphasized, however, that I wasn’t necessarily advocating we combine schools or governement, but he did make me think.

I had always heard that historically much of Birmingham’s problems could be blamed on Northern businessmen who controlled companies like U.S. Steel.

Samuel Pullman, editor of the Richmond Dispatch, wrote*

“Birmingham was a “colonial economy” shaped by the influence of northern capital and the willingness of southern politicians to offer northern investors “cheaper money, cheaper taxation, cheaper labor, cheaper coal, and cheaper power” than they found in the North.”

But do businessmen in Pittsburgh deserve all the blame?

Charles E. Connerly wrote a piece titled, One great city or Colonial economy?–Explaining Birmingham’s Annexation Struggles, 1945-1990.

“Because school districts in Alabama are city based, white suburbs could create their own school districts, thereby completely avoiding racial integration. Mountain Brook, home of Birmingham’s economic elite and thus the Holy Grail of Birmingham’s annexation efforts, put this approach into practice…members of Mountain Brook’s elite could institute their own version of the colonial economy, profiting from Birmingham while keeping their taxes and children in their own separate and white city.”

Other states didn’t allow school systems to organize by city–so there was no advantage to splitting into separate cities as we did in Birmingham.

It was just announced that we’re losing another public company (Colonial Properties Trust).  We can make excuses, but metro Birmingham now has 16 fewer public companies than it did 15 years ago.  Cities with common agendas like Nashville are growing, adding jobs, and increasing the number of businesses headquartered there.

We can’t afford to allow our local governments to continue to compete with another and lose our businesses and children to other cities.

Many Birmingham business people must agree that too many competing governments are stifling us.  The BBJ asked in a recent unscientific poll, “Would you support a unified metro government in Birmingham?  Amazingly 64% said yes, 26% no, and 10% not sure. (371 responses as of June 9)

Charles Connerly concludes…

As a colony of both Wall Street and Mountain Brook, therefore, Birmingham was constrained…”

*Samuel H. Pullman to editor, Richmond Dispatch, January 1, 1897, quoted in C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South (Baton Rouge, LA, 1951, 1971), 310. For Birmingham’s place in the New South’s colonial economy, see Woodward, Origins of the New South, 299-302, 315-7;W. David Lewis, Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1994), 217, 498.

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David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising and co-CEO of AmSher Collection Agency.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham)), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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9 thoughts on “Did Mt. Brook blow up Birmingham?”

  1. It has been clear for a long time that salvation for the entire metro area is a unified government.  It is also clear that lack of home rule is a big roadblock.  The duplication of everything from school systems to police departments is an unnecessary drain on local revenues.  As an economic developer, I have worked in metro and rural communities in more than thirty states and innumerable population centers.  Some have been very small.  Many have been huge.

    The common thread that separates the thriving from the dying is the ability of community leaders to rise above personal ego, ambition and/or loyalty to a local myth about some superiority to put the common good and future of the whole in first place.  We have many examples to follow.  This isn’t new thought. There have been many plans and studies done for this area, only to be tossed aside and abandoned without any attempt to move forward.  

    It won’t be easy, quick, or pretty.  It will be hard and at times even bloody, but the baby would be worth the labor pains.  Let’s ditch the petty politics and stubborn pride and rebuild the metropolitan base into the first class city that our citizens deserve.  

  2. I suggest anyone interested in a serious study of this topic pick up the book authored by late historian Marvin Whiting entitled “One Great City.” It’s a good primer for getting this movement dusted off again after 43 years of inaction.  Past as prologue…

  3. I disagree with this endless attack on suburban cities and the idea that bigger is better and one giant metro government is somehow going to make magical progress.  It is ideas that count, not fewer governments and reducing the number of towns won’t add or subtract one idea or progressive thought.  Smaller governments are more responsive and the smallest cities have obviously created the best schools.  So David, let’s break up Birmingham into 4 or 6 smaller cities to make real progress!

    1. Terry, I’m sure everyone is open to all suggestions. I’m certainly not recommedning complete county/city consolidation. I’m just saying we have to compete against it and we are getting whacked. What would you recommend?

  4. *The efforts to unify the government make sense only if the strong local municipal governments and municipalities can provide best practices that raise the weaker municipalities up to a stronger single government.  However, the more likely outcome is the destruction of the strong local governments and municipalities by the dilution of incompetence and politics of the larger “unified” government.  We can look at Nashville, Memphis, Montgomery, St. Louis, Kansas City, etc. for many examples of a unified government at work and what you will also find is the destruction of public education and the proliferation of private schools.  I do not know one person in Nashville, Memphis or Montgomery who sends their children to public schools.  By the way, the average tuition for elementary schools in those communities is well north of $10,000 per year.  Nashville does have a more robust economy and a better political structure and leadership but they are not an example to follow in education. 

    1. James, thanks for your well thought out comments. I hear you. But please understand the objective of our blog is not to recommend unified government. Our objective is to begin a conversation on government structure. 37 municipalities in Jefferson County, no political candidate elected county-wide, and because of our State Constitution, we cannot hold our County Comissioners accountalbe because State Legislators make all the important financial decisions. The end result is metro Birmingham is unable to compete with Nashville, Charlotte, Jakcsonvile. We are near the bottom in almost every economic develpment measure.

      I assume you have children. Unless you have a business to give to them or unless B’ham changes its government structure, you will lose your children and grandchildren to other more progressive cities. That is what has happened to me and most of my contemporaries.

      We certainly continue to lose our publics companies. We had 30, 15 years ago–with the loss of Colonial, we are down to 14. We’re down from 6 S&P Companies to one–Regions.

      We’ve posted close to 100 blogs and not a single one has suggested we combine the County and the City. And we’ve made a point to say that there is no way we recommend that we combine schools. That isn’t going to happen. And who says that you can’t have some govenment adjustments and keep the schools as is. And assuming that consolidation is considered, there’s more than one way to do it. Charlotte has a functional consolidation. One entity does fire and the other police.

      I’ve given speeches all over our metro and I always ask the question, Who here thinks B’ham has reached its potential. I’ve never seen a single hand raise. And no one knows why other than we have a segmented/dysfuctional government. People often want to say that it is because of poor leadership. There is no single politician that answers to everyone in Jefferson County. The City of B’ham only represents 19% of our metro. I’ve heard Mayor Bell say on numerous occassions, I was elected Mayor of Birmingham–not Mayor of our region. And he is right.

      Those of us who want to grow our businesses have to go to other markets to do so.

      Please continue to comment. Maybe you have a solution. If we continue to operate as is, then things will stay the same.

  5. David,

    I did a paper on the history of the the City of Birmingham’s amalgamation attempts as part of my current studies at UAB (am a newcomer to the area). When the steel and coal companies were the main drivers of the regional economy, they did everything possible to keep their property taxes low. That meant resisting, in every way possible, being brought within Birmingham, city limits, from pushing for laws at the state level that restricted municipalities’ powers to annex and merge, through to pushing to set up and grow their company towns over which they had overwhelming influence. This, in combination with school system segregation, and white (and relatively wealthy) resistance to desegregation is why the region has the civic structure it has today. 

    From what I read regarding the last amalgamation push in the 1970s, the main tripping point for most suburbanites within the region is consolidating the school systems. If I was leading the effort, the approach I would take would be to emphasize the improvement in 911, fire, ambulance and police response times (and much reduced address confusion!) that could be gained through a consolidated service, and the gain in efficiences and the ability to support specialized service units (dealing with hazardous waste fires, dangerous spills, derailments) that one larger organization would enable. It could be built using the “special district” model of services (a purpose-specific body created to administer that specific service or group of services)  in which the individual municipalities contract with the larger agency to deliver services into their municipality (pooling resources would be really benefit the poorer communities the most), while allowing resisting municipalities to retain their own, independent services, until such time as their residents see what the rest of the region can do collectively. 

    If that works, a similar approach could be proposed for city services, such as trash collection, road maintenance, 311 (city and service directory), in terms of pooling resources and sizes of contracts awarded for work that is currently contracted out. 

    Something like this will only work over a longer period of time. It took a full generation for attitudes and expectations to change to what they are today; it will probably take the same to shift the municipal organization.

    The other thing that identify the problem  _for everyone_, would be to have an official newcomer’s guide or website. When I first arrived in B’ham, I found it difficult to get oriented quickly because there was no one source I could go to to learn about city, state and federal services in my area. All major cities that are growing have being brought within the city limits of Birmingham, now, usually as an explicit newcomer’s FAQ and checklist page with links to the the things they are likely to need right away, and then over the next year in succession. The online materials that have been put up over the past four years have greatly improved what information is available, but they are not yet linked on one page, within one website area or within an mobile app.

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