ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a more prosperous Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is David Fleming. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
If you were standing on the corner of 1st Avenue North and 20th Street in 1871, you would be standing in a forest. A few miles to the west would be the small county seat town of Elyton. You’d see a few pioneer homes scattered throughout the valley.
In 1871, in a state dominated by the agricultural stronghold regions of the Tennessee River Valley and the Black Belt, Jefferson County was insignificant.
By 1912, 41 years later, this same corner, became what we now call “The Heaviest Corner on Earth!” It was the heart of commerce for a new industrial city called Birmingham whose population in 1871 was zero and by 1910 was over 132,000. By then, four skyscrapers anchored this intersection, and the rapid growth earned this new city the nickname “The Magic City”. Birmingham, the Magic City, drove the economic engine of Alabama and became the state’s largest and wealthiest city.
What happened in those 41 years that enabled this level of growth? I offer several lessons from the first period of our city’s history, a period I call “the Upstart Era”, that help define us today. Also, some of these observations are of character traits we may have lost and need to reclaim in order to capture our full potential for the future.
First, in the Upstart Era, there was vision fueled by ambition and the ability to see great potential. The men that were willing to put in the hard work of building a city from nothing, take the financial risks, and endure the skepticism and even ridicule of others were certainly driven by a desire to make money.
They coalesced around a vision to create the greatest industrial city in the South, if not the United States. That vision was possible because they could see the potential of a region with the elements necessary for industrial success: coal, iron ore and limestone. They just needed the people to make it happen.
Second, they invested in the infrastructure needed to build an industrial city. As stated before, they needed people. To get people here and get product out of here required building railroads, and so they did. They planned and laid out a modern city using the grid pattern with wide streets that could handle a lot of people and products moving around.
They created a rail link from the City to the closest navigable river, the Black Warrior. They built a system to carry water to the core city from “over the mountain”. They created a robust streetcar system that connected the early “suburbs” of Ensley, East Lake, Avondale and Woodlawn to the downtown. These investments paid off.
Third, they promoted like crazy. They named this new City after the largest, most famous industrial city in the world at that time – Birmingham, England. They advertised the opportunity to make a better life here to the world, and people from all over the world came.
They asked an Italian sculptor to create the largest cast iron statue in the world of Vulcan, the god of the forge, to be Birmingham’s exhibition in the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Over 16 million people visited the Fair over eight months and saw Birmingham declaring what was possible here.
Finally, a case can be made for resilience as a key factor in the Upstart Era. There were many times in the first 41 years of our history that Birmingham could have ceased to exist. A Cholera epidemic, financial panics and the risk of devastating fires did not squelch the ambition and drive to build this city. The early citizens of Birmingham showed resilience.
What not to do
We can also learn from these origins what NOT to do in building a city. Needless to say, our cultural context at the time resulted in a city where not everyone had the same opportunities. The ground was laid for division and separation around race, class and religion which has led to a fractured and distrusting metropolis.
Also, we had all our economic eggs in one basket. While the iron and steel industry is why we were born, dependence on that one economic sector has haunted us for decades. When times were bad for iron and steel, they were really bad for Birmingham.
Signs of hope
On the corner of 1st Avenue North and 20th Street today, one can visibly see the signs of hope for our city, now part of a region of 1.2 million people. The four skyscrapers still stand but only one is empty, awaiting its planned redevelopment. The others are, respectively, a new hotel, a bank headquarters and the headquarters of Shipt, our greatest modern business success story.
Morris Avenue is beginning to bustle again, and the tunnels that allow cars and pedestrians to pass under those railroad tracks laid down 140 years ago are illuminated with dancing lights that draw people and connect people to destinations on the north and south sides of the tracks.
We constantly talk in Birmingham about our “perpetual promise”. This is our time to learn from the Upstart Era, to focus on our assets, cast a vision for that perpetual potential and ambitiously pursue it.
We can and should invest in the infrastructure needed to thrive in a modern economy and in a way that unites us, providing systems that connect our community to the education, the markets, the resources needed to foster ambition.
We can and should tenaciously tell our story and invite the world to come and see the Birmingham of today.
We can and should design for resilience, because we can’t know for sure what the future holds. We can learn from our mistakes without being held down by them, and we can become a better city where everyone can realize their dreams.
David Fleming is the President and CEO of REV Birmingham, a catalyst for downtown and neighborhood commercial district revitalization. A native of the area, David lives with his wife and son in Crestwood.
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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).
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