Have you ever wondered why Atlanta grew and Birmingham stagnated?
In 1959, the Mayor of Atlanta sent us a letter spelling out how Birmingham could be a great city.
We paid no attention.
Many of us are glad Birmingham didn’t turn out to be Atlanta, but it sure would have been nice to expand our economy, grow jobs, and retain our children and grandchildren.
In April, 1959 a resident of Homewood received a response from a letter he had written to Atlanta Mayor W. B. Hartsfield asking his opinion on the proposal to merge Homewood and Mountain Brook with Birmingham.*
If the cities of Mountain Brook and Homewood had followed Mayor Hartsfield’s advice—Birmingham would certainly be a different city.
Mayor Hartsfield’s letter could be perceived as ‘elitist,’ but his straight forward response is insightful and helps explain Atlanta’s expansion and Birmingham’s inability to compete.
Mayor W. B. Hartsfield’s letter*
Memo: Mayor Hartsfield sent me a copy of the following letter that was mailed to a resident of Homewood. This is for your information.
City of Atlanta, Office of the Mayor, Atlanta Georgia
William B. Hartsfield, Mayor
April 14, 1959
I have your letter of April 13 with reference to a proposed merger of several contiguous municipalities to the City of Birmingham.
In answer to your question as to why annex only two municipalities when there are twenty-seven in Jefferson County, possibly the answer could be that these are contiguous or nearby and ought, normally, to be a part of Birmingham, and as such, could be more economically administered.
Possibly the other municipalities are so widely scattered that their annexation might not make geographical sense. I do not know all the details of your situation, but through friends, I understand that the communities of Homewood and Mountain Brook are the ones affected. As a frequent visitor to Birmingham, I have often wondered why they were not a part of Birmingham. They seem to be peopled by a class of people whose advice and counsel and whose vote and civic service are badly needed by Birmingham.
We had a similar situation in Atlanta; to wit, the Buckhead area, where all of our business, social, civic and financial leadership lived. Their inclusion into the City of Atlanta was one of the finest and healthiest things which has ever happened to our town. We took in over 100 square miles of contiguous territory. There are still many outlying towns not included. At the same time, we adjusted certain competing functions of city and county. This was known as ‘The Plan of Improvement” and is the thing described in the Congressional Record.
When the limits of a city remain static for too long a time, there is a tremendous migration of new and youthful, active, child-raising citizens into the suburbs. These constitute the “cream of the crop.” Unless some way is found to reach out and include these people in the active, voting management of the city, it will have a disastrous effect on the future management of the town.
Sometimes people in the suburbs say, “Why should I come in when I don’t like the government?” The answer to that is, “How can it ever be changed unless they help do it?” So to those who talk about the difference in taxes, the answer is that the over-all advantages of good government far outweigh any small difference in governmental charges.
We are proud to say that in Atlanta, the very wealthiest of our citizens and the very largest taxpayers, after considering these facts, voted to come in and become a part of our city, and to this sort of broadminded civic patriotism, we attribute much of Atlanta’s marvelous growth in the last few years. There is but one question the suburban citizen can honestly ask: “Would I live where I do, would the value of my home be unaffected, would my business and social life be just as satisfactory to me and my family if Birmingham could be picked up and moved a hundred miles away?” If he can answer this in the affirmative, he, indeed, has no concern in Birmingham or annexation, but if he can’t, then every dictate of common sense and honesty should dictate that he should come in and become a real voting citizen of the town whose name he writes in the hotel register when he goes afield.
Yours very truly,
W.B. Hartsfield, Mayor
Editor’s note: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was named after Mayor Hartsfield. This is somewhat ironic. Take a look now at the size and scope of the Birmingham and Atlanta airports.
*Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections
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David Sher is Co-Founder 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).
Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.