Why do we apologize for Birmingham?

David Dionne
David Dionne, Executive Director of Red Mountain Park

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is David Dionne.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

I moved to Birmingham in 2008, coming from a great job in Maryland where I was building and operating parks and trails.  I was lured to Birmingham after receiving a phone call about an opportunity at Red Mountain Park in Birmingham.  My knowledge of Birmingham was pitiful so I began to confirm the information provided by the recruiter.  First, I was astounded to learn that Birmingham was in the mountains.  Then I was delighted to find a city filled with outstanding restaurants, world-class hospitals, six universities, art museums, an excellent orchestra and an overall great quality of life. I noted from census information the diverse population and low crime rate.  I also read that the people were among the most generous in the world with collective per capita philanthropic giving well above cities ten times as large.  Admittedly I found challenges, but they were typical of cities across the nation.  So I applied for the job and felt very blessed when an offer was forthcoming.

My children and I thought we had moved to heaven, but I was surprised at all of the apologies I received; Magic City citizens cited traffic congestion, high crime, and racial division as things that were wrong here.  I was flabbergasted.  I had lived in Maryland for 30 years and worked all along the East Coast where I experienced those things in abundance.  I explored my new hometown and could not find any real evidence of those maladies.  Gang graffiti was nonexistent.  Street crime was not often and usually solved at once.  As for the racial division—I came home from work each day to the United Nations playing in my driveway.  Black, brown, Asian and white kids were all skateboarding, riding bikes and playing football together.  Sure, traffic was a bit congested at rush hour and the politicians here bickered too much, but every town and region I visited in America had the same problems, many in larger measure than Birmingham.  So what was I missing?

Part of the problem is perspective.  My first drive through the dreaded “malfunction junction” was comedic to me.  I have driven through Northern Virginia’s deadly “mixing bowl” and regularly traveled on the beltways of major East Coast cities so I was prepared for the worst when people warned me.  In “malfunction junction”, I used my turn signals and people slowed down to allow me to merge.  We even exchanged friendly waves as we made room for one another.  How this area was perceived as dangerous or malfunctioning was beyond me, but I soon realized that my perspective was very different of that from citizens here.  I had seen far worse and they hadn’t.

Let’s talk about “Snowmaggedon”.  I have in-depth experience with snow (pun intended) as I worked snow operations at our Emergency Operations Center in Maryland for dozens of years.  The people of Birmingham set an example for the nation as they reacted with grace, class and humility to this unexpected test.  Citizens and government workers made extraordinary efforts to rescue people and care for their needs.  Sure, a few fenders were bent and travel was frustrating but we pulled together.  This region has few plows, sand and salt trucks and little experience in snow but it is overflowing with hospitality and desire to help others.  It made me proud and I bragged to my friends up north about the character of my new southern friends and neighbors.  And the meteorologists did their best with the information they had.  They made forecasts based on solid predictions from the National Weather Service, and the NWS is accurate 95% of the time. Based on those predictions, the decision to send kids to school and people to work were reasonable that morning.  Our storm shifted and you know the rest, but who cares if James Spann or JP Dice miss a snow prediction once every 20 years?  I want them to be experts at tornadoes, and they are, proving their value in April 2011 when they first predicted and then helped us through one of the worst outbreaks of deadly weather in our nation’s history.  They saved untold lives that day and will always be heroes in my view.

A native of Maryland, David Dionne began his career in parks and trails in 1987 and spearheaded several projects along the East Coast, making him an ideal person to lead the startup of Red Mountain Park where he is Executive Director.

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David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising Agency 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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6 thoughts on “Why do we apologize for Birmingham?”

  1. *Perspective is always important. Yes, it is true that most Birmingham folks have not seen worse, but it is also true that they have seen better. You see there is a reason why people help each other out during snow storms and wave when someone lets you merge in traffic. There is a reason why folks still hold doors open for other people and why a broken down car doesn’t have to wait long before a good samaritan stops to lend a hand. The reaon (in my opinion) is because Birmingham is made up of mostly folks who moved here from small towns or rural areas in the state. Most came here for education or employment opportunities. What those folks left behind in small towns like Oneonta, Ashville, Enterprise, or Monroeville was something more akin to a Norman Rockwell painting than modern life. In small towns and rural areas all across the south manners are still being taugh. Children see their mothers and fathers wave and say hello to people on the street. You see there are no “strangers” in these towns, only neighbors you have yet to meet.

    So what’s the point, how does that relate to Birmingham? The point is that at the core Birminghamians are good well mannered people. However folks can, will, and do voice their complaints about things which are foreign to them. Heck it took me 6 months before I could relax somewhat while driving thru “malfunction junction”. People will always complain about politicians, blight, and injustice. But when your perspective is essentially “Mayberry”….well not much could stand up to that comparison. 

  2. John, I love your perspective on Birmingham. Would you consider converting your comments into a guest
    blog?  You’ve just about gotten it
    written already.A possible working title: 
    Birmingham like Mayberry.

    You could either refer to David Dionne’s guest blog and
    I could include a link or you could let it stand on its own. If you have an interest, please click on following link
    for details:  https://www.comebacktown.com/guest-bloggers/

     I very much appreciate your candid comments and am always
    glad to get your insight.

  3. *David Dionne’s post is excellent! If we could all realize what we have here, we could and would focus on making it even better. And I agree that traveling in other states puts a nice spin on our “traffic problems” here. Thank you David Sher, and David Dionne!

  4. After 20+ years as a Birmingham police officer and 15 more downtown as the director of CAP, I have seen just about everything, I think. (If there is something I haven’t seen, I don’t want to!) Most of my adult life has been spent here, working or living, and though I’ve seen other cities, I’ve never worked or lived there, so I lack David Dionne’s perspective (and we are so fortunate to have him as an Alabamian!)  What I do know is that the people here are generous and kind and caring and their potential is unlimited. Unfortunately, as David Sher often reminds us, we are held back in large part by structural problems–an archaic and unwieldy constitution and disjointed governments. And we MUST find a way to give more of the first class educational opportunities that exist here to more of our citizens. But we are hardly unique in having those problems.  What we do have is an extraordinary resource in our environment and people. Thank you David & David for reminding us!

  5. Sometimes I think of Birmingham as that pretty girl in high school who doesn’t make friends or pursue ambitions because she has low self esteem; maybe because of a hurtful or embarrassing situation that occurred years earlier.

  6. *Thanks for a great column.  Having grown up in Chicago, gone to college in NYC, worked in San Francisco, L. A., OKC and now Birmingham, I couldn’t agree more.  Appreciate what you have Birmingham-ians!  


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