Birmingham is surprisingly awesome

Rotary Trail--Birmingham is surprisingly awesome
Rotary Trail–Birmingham is surprisingly awesome (Photo courtesy of Rotary Club of Birmingham)

Surprisingly Awesome is my favorite podcast.  Each episode explores topics that would put most people to sleep, but the show makes boring topics interesting and fun.

Subjects like pigeons, mold, or concrete become fascinating.

Birmingham, Alabama would be the perfect topic for the show.

Birmingham may sound boring—but Birmingham is Surprisingly Awesome.

The Birmingham story is definitely not boring—it’s been one crazy roller coaster ride.

Birmingham probably shouldn’t have been born in the first place and it’s a miracle that she has survived.

Every time Birmingham appears to be on the verge of greatness, she stumbles and falls.

For those of you who don’t know Birmingham, she’s the largest city in the state of Alabama.  Birmingham’s the economic and financial center of the state.  She is mountainous and beautiful and her people are kind and generous.

You probably know the names of many Southern Cities—Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans.  You likely have read about their role in the Civil War.  General Sherman may have marched through Atlanta, but he never marched through Birmingham, because Birmingham wasn’t founded until 1871—six years after the Civil War.

Birmingham had a late start, but she took off like a rocket.

Birmingham is founded

Land developers heard about the possible location of the intersection of the North & South and Alabama & Chattanooga Railroads.  It was like knowing the location of an Interstate exit today, but a 1,000 times bigger.  Right from the start, real estate values soared.

Two catastrophes strike Birmingham

But bad luck hit Birmingham almost immediately.  In the summer of 1873 a cholera epidemic slammed Birmingham causing thousands to flee the city.  And in the fall, just as the epidemic subsided, the economic Panic of 1873 hammered Birmingham causing many others to leave also.  Birmingham was fighting for her young life within two years of her founding.

Birmingham roars back

There are very few places on earth where iron ore, limestone, and coal are located next to one another—and one of those areas is Birmingham.  Iron ore, limestone, and coal are required to smelt iron—and this amazing coincidence propelled Birmingham to become the industrial center of the New South.

In 1907 when U.S. Steel bought Tennessee Iron and Coal (TCI) Birmingham’s economy exploded.  In addition–manufacturing rails and railroad cars made Birmingham a railroad industrial center.

Birmingham soon became known as, “The Magic City,” and “The Pittsburgh of the South.

The depression punished Birmingham like no other city in America

In October, 1929, the stock market crashed.  U.S. Steel closed its Birmingham mills leaving only 8,000 of its 108,000 local workers employed causing the Hoover administration to call Birmingham “the hardest hit city in the nation.”  Birmingham was devastated and many people thought Birmingham might never recover.

U.S. war effort propels Birmingham

The city that had gotten financially annihilated by the depression was indispensable during World War II.  The mills that sat empty through the 1930’s ran at full capacity during the war.  Birmingham’s economy was roaring and Birmingham was again leading the South.

Racial violence destroys Birmingham’s reputation

Most every city in the South fought integration, but Birmingham had the misfortune to have a hotheaded Bull Connor as police and fire commissioner.  Birmingham saw its image annihilated when Connor dispersed black protesters with high-pressure fire hoses and dogs in 1962.  This unwelcomed notoriety was reinforced by the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, in which four little black girls were killed by white racists.

Birmingham suffers the consequences

In 1960, 340,887 people lived in Birmingham.  Her population shrank to 212,247 by 2014 as white flight and then black flight hit the city.  The much broader Birmingham-Hoover seven county metropolitan area was stagnant also–while other Southern metropolitan areas celebrated double digit increases in population.

Birmingham was in a rut and many of her citizens had given up on her future.

But then something awesome happened to Birmingham

Just when all hope seemed to fade, something amazing happened to Birmingham.

Even though Birmingham had lost much of her manufacturing and steel industry, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) picked up the slack.  UAB now occupies over 100 square blocks, is the largest employer in the state, and has a $5 billion economic impact on the region.

Then, unexpectedly, Birmingham found herself in the middle of an amazing renaissance punctuated by a $1 billion construction boom.  Even the population of the city began to grow.

As one visitor recently posted on Facebook, “Birmingham, Alabama is amazing!!! The people are so friendly, the food is yummy!! One thing is better than the other. The community is so welcoming, and to top it all off it is beautiful!”

And even more remarkable–Birmingham is working to take advantage of one of her biggest blemishes–turning its historic downtown into a Civil Rights landmark by becoming a National Park.

Is this finally Birmingham’s time?

This blog is titled ComebackTown because Birmingham always seems to be on the verge of a comeback.

Will this latest comeback be the one that finally allows Birmingham to achieve her potential?

Whether Birmingham makes it this time or not—you must admit that Birmingham is Surprisingly Awesome!

Let’s turn Birmingham around.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter.  There’s power in numbers. (Opt out at any time)

David Sher is co-CEO of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  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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4 thoughts on “Birmingham is surprisingly awesome”

  1. *A nice, succinct encapsulation of the history of Birmingham. One thing that makes Birmingham so great is its perseverance, despite those who have predicted and would celebrate its demise.

     As it stands now, only two things are holding the city back – The people who are still not moving into the city of Birmingham(which would dramatically and quickly alter many public institutions and bodies in a positive way), and the Birmingham Business Alliance. Change those two things and the city will grow like a weed and prosper like never before.

  2. *Thanks for the succinct history and perspective.  Birmingham is awesome! A minor historical note–Connor was not the police chief. He was the police and fire commissioner. As such, he was over the police chief, Jamie Moore, a moderate man whose influence and efforts became lost to history in the overwhelming shadow of Bull.

  3. Great article. Lots of stuff I didn’t know, like 100,000 losing their job during the depression. I can’t imagine the feelings those families were going through. Unfortunately we all know about racial parts? At the end of the day I’m very thankful Birmingham (my home) has continued to be the comeback town!

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