What Birmingham can learn from a once dirty smoggy neighbor

Source: RockCity.com
Source: SeeRockCity.com

Chattanooga saw the future and acted.

Now it’s Birmingham’s turn.

While we’re in the midst of a pandemic, it’s time for Birmingham to stop, take a breath, and develop a bold vision.

When I was a child my family regularly took weekend trips to visit family in Chattanooga.

Since there was no interstate, this was an exhausting ten hour weekend trip (back and forth) on dangerous, winding two lane roads.

We filled our travel time by reading Burma Shave signs and counting ‘See Rock City’ and ‘Ruby Falls’ signs on the rooftops of barns along the way.

When we arrived we found a dirty, dingy industrial town.

In 1969, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Chattanooga had the “dirtiest air of any city in the United States…The air was so polluted that people drove with their headlights on during the day.  Walking to work left clothes covered in soot, and it was difficult to see the mountains from the city.”

A transformed Chattanooga

Clean and welcoming—Chattanooga now boasts free and convenient electric shuttles, The Tennessee Aquarium, The Chattanooga Choo Choo, a magnificent river walk–plus the old standbys– Rock City, Ruby Falls, and the Lookout Mountain Incline Railroad.

Quite a tourist turnaround, but this is not why I’m writing this piece.

Chattanooga, which bills itself as both the Scenic City and the Gig City, boasts both a beautiful location and a technologically connected city.

The Gig City

In 2010 Chattanooga built its own affordable-lightning fast Internet system and according to Tech.co, “Chattanooga, Tennessee has the best internet in the entire United States, period.”

This has been great for Chattanooga during the pandemic for children needing internet to connect with their schools and adults needing internet to work from home.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “If employees can work from home almost anywhere, many workers will be able to choose where they live and do their jobs. With more remote work options, many workers could migrate from expensive hubs like Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston and New York to more affordable places like Chattanooga.”

An independent study published by the University of Tennessee noted that Chattanooga’s “network directly led to the creation of between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs. Furthermore, the economic benefits have earned the small city around $1 billion… and (it) helped lure multinational corporations such as Volkswagen.”

Birmingham should consider upgrading its internet …or even better, Jefferson County could lead a broader effort.

Because of the coronavirus every city is facing new challenges. This is our opportunity to reset the clock.

We must respond and turn it to our advantage.

Let’s do something bold!

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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 for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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21 thoughts on “What Birmingham can learn from a once dirty smoggy neighbor”

  1. We have no river or seashore…a tip-off to many of the successful southern cities. Our city is known for racial injustice and parks and museums known for promoting that. Other than being Black and looking for a discrimination history tour, why would I travel to Birmingham? Vulcan? Nah, I don’t think so.

    I live in the Birmingham region and I don’t go downtown. Why, there’s nothing to see. Railroad Park? Really? Site of shootings and riots? Nah! I have breweries and beer pubs where I live in Shelby County. Southside and Five Points? Give me a break…

    1. There is nothing wrong with not having a beach or a major river. Birmingham’s unique character is defined from not having that.

      1. Even San Antonio has a canal of sorts…OK, Denver has mountains…got me on that one,

        Name me some more happenin’ cities without a water-based or geological feature. Oh, I forgot, Charlotte has the Catawba River and Lake Norman.

        Birmingport doesn’t count, unless one is into industrial coal shipping.


        To be fair, we do have Barber Motorsports and museum, albeit not in Birmingham. We would have had Honda and Mercedes here, too, had Birmingham never was able to pass the minimum air pollution standards. We might have gotten Toyota-Mazda, or Hyundai too. And we have a right nice golf trail, one course of which is near Birmingham.

        1. Karl, I very much look forward to your comments. Please note that Barber Motorsports and Museum are located in Birmingham. It was important to George Barber that his facility be within the city limits.

  2. Karl, I could not agree more. Birmingham tends to up-play its civil rights monuments, parks, and museum(s) as tourist attractions. They’re just not. People don’t fly in from afar or take a family vacation to these places. They primarily attract a minority population and are one-time-visit type places. They need to get away from advertising that as if it’s something people all over the nation want to come see.

    Birmingham has almost zero tourist attraction. There’s nothing that any other city doesn’t have, and they often have more/better.

    Disclaimer: i never said the Civil Rights movement, monuments, or museums were unimportant at all. They’re just not tourist attractions.

    1. Joe, my sentiments exactly. It’s not about race, nor should it be. What does Birmingham offer that is fun and attracts people to spend money here?

      Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham has far more to do than Birmingham. It attracts mountain bikers from across the U.S., plus it has RV camping, and fishing, and water sports, and hiking entertainment. This is a tourist attraction, even if it only pulls people off I-65 for a couple of nights. Red Mountain Park has done a very good job, but it’s not a tourist attraction, neither is Ruffner Mountain Park.

      We are not Chattanooga, or Mobile, or Gulf Shores, or Nashville, or Talladega… nor will it ever be. Even Charlotte, my home town and often compared to Birmingham has nothing to offer tourists, except a world-class airport and major financial center. Birmingham squandered both those opportunities decades ago.

      Lord…I pray Birmingham could shed its awful past and become that shining star of the deep south. But, God bless us, how? And when? Frank Stitt, Chris Hastings, and Rodney Scott can’t do it alone.

  3. As someone who grew up in Chattanooga in the 60’s and 70’s, I can attest to what an ugly, polluted city it was – and how it was transformed. What the story doesn’t mention is the renaissance began when a local business leader wrote a $30mm check to build the Aquarium. That started a stream of philanthropy AND public-private partnerships that made Chattanooga what it is today.

    Locals laughed about the “fish tank” and complained about the costs of the internet network, but the vision of a few committed people created the city that Chattanooga is today – a destination city and one of the hottest start-up centers in the Southeast.

  4. David, thanks for this piece. I’m not sure why folks are focused on the tourist aspect when you made it clear that it wasn’t your main point. A cooperative venture to build a huge, inexpensive broadband network would provide a huge boost in closing the information gap here. The new normal for schools, online learning, is simply widening the gap locally. In addition, such a network would provide a great boost to our rapidly-growing tech sector.

  5. People seem to forget that in the ’50s Birmingham was as bad or worse then Chattanooga with extreme air pollution from the steel industries around town. I remember learning the meaning of the word inversion as a kid when hot air, particularly in the summer, would trap smoke and smog underneath it and blanket the city. You literally couldn’t see downtown from Vulcan. So we’ve come a long way. Right now, because of the Coronavirus, the Birmingham Board of Education is spending millions, that they don’t really have, with Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T for mobile hotspots around town. The thought is that children whose parents can’t afford any internet at all can go to these spots with computers supplied by the Board of Education and Apple, get online and take their classes. If we had a high-speed broadband network, of course, that would make a huge difference on a lot of different levels. We have a lot of very smart people in this town and the community is known nationally for its generosity and giving nature. Also, one thing we do have that Chattanooga doesn’t is UAB and along with it, a very vibrant tech scene. A large broadband network would not only compliment that but also help to keep the brain trust that we do have from moving elsewhere. Lastly, I lived in Atlanta for 35 years and have a place in NC that I have to go through Chattanooga to get to. There’s only one highway through Chattanooga so the traffic is as bad or worse than Atlanta. I never thought that was possible.

    1. Well then, the geniuses in our hot tech scene and the millions that UAB spends and takes in should have done something 20 years ago to make the city Internet-friendly. What about the hundreds of high tech companies that have moved thru Innovation Depot? NONE of them offered or tried to make Bham connected? AT&T/Bellsouth, uh, no. I don’t remember that and I was in the area business arena including the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce from 1980-1983, plus another thirty years in local healthcare marketing and technology. AT&T has ruined Bellsouth…it is a low-paid employee sweatshop, says my wife who is a 30-year retiree of Bellsouth. They are not doing squat for Birmingham…unless you want a corrupt bundled wallet drain. What happened to Broadband over power lines (BPL) Alabama Power? Or whatever soulless hedge fund owns you now?

  6. Karl, the tech companies that moved through Innovation Depot were very small. Reading AL.com or other local news outlets, you’d think Birmingham was a mini Austin or Silicon Valley, it’s far far from it. Tech industry has been booming in most cities in the last 20 years so lets be careful not to up-sell Birminghams tech industry. Just because it’s the biggest thing going on around town, doesn’t mean it’s up to snuff comparatively.

  7. On point, most of you, especially the author!

    MAIN POINT: Birmingham a city that follows others, and leads none. It is time to dare being a leading city in anything. The Medical Centr is its current best.

    George Wallace absolutely ruined, totalled, Birmingham’s airport opportunity when he added tax to airplane fuel and kept airlines away for needing to be fuel in Birmingham, so the airport never recovered as it got too far behind.

    Keep our eyes on the future and not the past: What can we be first to pick up and run with?

    Tourism: rediculuos to worry about that! Florida in its overbuilding for retirees was crashed, even lost significant population in the recent recession, leaving 400,000 vacant unfinished, for sale, and just empty, enough to house more the 1.2 million people! The current virus pandemic resulted in a monstrous loss of jobs and the economy went bust. Forget bothering about tourism as so very important. It is like the old US Steel years long strikes, terrible! Chattanooga definitely has it for toutrism, and I wonder if the virus had some effect.
    It is very nice to be able to attract some visitors and have that as a way to introduce ourselves to possible new citizens, showing that it si a nice place to live.

    Chattanooga is evidence of my points. I have been through that city from its ugliest to its best, many times. as far as I know, Among you I have a uniquely strong connection to its process of advancement, assisting its leaders in getting where it is today. To save time and space, I will hold back, saying much about that for later. Two main points were the agents of change there: 1. realization of its problems and the resulting big vision, 2. the strong desire of local philanthropists to push Chattanooga ahead, particularly the very wealthy Lyndhurst Foundation, founded by the family that did Coca-Cola’s first bottling. THAT was vision itself. They poured money into Chattanooga’s re-making, and it worked. Then came along the high tech decision, and that bold vision worked. leading not following! they aimed for the best and got there.
    Actually, Birmingham is overloaded with intelligence, it just needs to wake up with a grander vision.

    WHAT can the city do to MAKE the future?

    Oh, some day I must gt into the architect’s in Birmingham, some of the best anywhere. And then there is the poverty of advertising..

    This is a great article.

    Folks, there is so much to do, and it is time to get going!

  8. Roy, we all agree. That’s where Bhamnow comes in. But pumping sunshine where it’s not worthy only hurts. You have to recognize where you are in order to move forward. You have to know where you rank with your competitors.. More importantly, where do young professionals think you rank. They’re the future of the city. They’re the ones driving innovation/growth. Generally, they’ve got their eyes set on other cities.

    Gone are the days where young people stayed home. They’re moving now. Birmingham does not rank well as a place where people want to move so there’s a lot of overcoming to do. You have to overcome the desire to move to Nashville, Atlanta, Dallas, Austin, Houston, Orlando, Tampa, etc.

    I.e. their light has to go dim while birmingham’s has to shine brighter.. Then you’ll start to attract the people who have made those cities great.

    1. You are absolutely correct. I have no doubt about it.
      I am thinking about writing more later. Birmingham has to get its head out of the sand and let itself be known. We absolutely fail on the advertising and sending forward the the good messages about the advantagces Birmingham offers and there are many. When flying on the major airlines I always check their magazines for something at least in Alabama. Somtimes a little something about Alabama, maybe, but never as in NEVER anything in Birmingham, not even anything that exists in Birmingham advertising. And never is there any artical suggesting there is something to pay attention to when you arrive in BHM, They are more likely to have written about the ‘Highline’ in Manhattan, but not about Railroad Park, (it is only in Birmingham and that is nowhere!) not even when Railroad Park won over the ‘Highline’ in the national landscape architects annual awards in the same year. Professional Landscape Architects know, but who else knows? did you know, Maybe because I have mentioned it before or you might recall a local news article. We have kept it a secret! That will not work!

      Let the good aspects of Birmingham shine out, Come out off the darkness.

      1. There was a time in the early 1980s when Bham was shining. I remember our Chamber of Commerce and Atlanta’s had a membership drive and WE won! Thanks to Tom Cosby and Buffalo Rock’s Jimmy Lee, Jr. Those were halcyon days. People lined the sidewalks everyday going to restaurants and stores. And we actually had a working body of actual CEOs directing business efforts as well as a functioning Travel and Convention service. And City Stages! And Five Points was full of healthy businesses. So what caused the collapse? I’ll leave it at that.

        Then racial politics hit the fan…Then the Hwy 280 sewer moratorium was lifted and BCBS, EBSCO, and everyone else who could moved out of Jefferson County. 280 has been a nightmare ever since, in spite of millions being spent on “studies.” Puleeze…..

        1. I will add my PULEEZE to yours! Everything you mentioned is what you want to happen when you are trying to tear up and delete a city. And all of those things did hurt badly.

          Even worse is that those are the things the world was told about Birmingham! What a horrible place that identified! and in relation to some of those with connected corrupt politicians being sent to jail, even a governor and his connection with Birmingham based health system. Horror shows, one after another and ongoing.
          So we have to understand that the new halcyon days will be hard to reach. Such memories make it very hard to do.

  9. Roy, responding to two posts up.. I agree, but you have to also understand that all those things are not unique to Birmingham. Railroad Park is pretty commonplace in other cities and old news there. So it’s not that impressive to someone from a city a tier higher than Bham. While Birminghamians think we have a lot of undersold secrets, so do other cities. It wasn’t until I moved off that I found that Greystone was only a so -so community. There are “Greystones” everywhere! Mountain Brook is nice, but it’s very small especially compared to some of the “Mountain Brooks” in other cities. Highlands Bar is nice, but there are many of them in other cities.

    So really, the only people who are that impressed with Birmingham are people from smaller cities – Montgomery, Mobile, maybe HSV, anywhere in Mississippi, etc.

    Now, I do think that people are surprised by it because the national reputation is very bad. Everyone thinks it’s just another Jackson MS basically. So they’re surprised to know about the nice parts.. But enough for them to leave your Nashvilles? Atlantas? Charlottes? Texas cities? OKC? Nah.

    1. Well it is not really about the moves from any other big city to think or dream about. They can stay in any of those difficult ones, and there is nothing to want to copy. Railroad Park is one of he nations very best, according to the landscape architecture profession but yes, eg Forest Park in St. Louis where Vulcan first stood is so well done that it is very appealing and well used.
      Each one in each city in fact is unique. There would be lest interest in any of them if they were copies.

      Or worst aspect is the Birmingham is actually hiding.
      How else to you every hear or read anything about Birmingham except in Birmingham?

      Therefore the assumption that other low down cities are similar. BTW have you been to Jackson recently, Dowton is slowing improving, but very slowly. Fondren is like Mountain Brook.

      Just this evening I did see something surprising, that could benefit Birmingham, as it is said to be taking the lead. That’s the important thing. lead, do not follow. They have reported in very positive terms, ‘Birmingham Strong! This is very good. Thhis is something that other might follow from Birmingham. It is NOT about grandstanding something physical. I ti about Birmingham helping its own people! GO BIRMINGHAM<

      MORE. Look up Architect of Chicago's Worlds Fair 1893. Daniel Burnham: 'Make no little plans….'and read the rest. That is how Birmingham needs to operate. No more dilly dalleying

    2. What Joe said…yes. We (currently) are a a little fish in a swamp, not yet a little fish in a small pond. We have great potential, we just haven’t managed to capitalize on it until we merge our Bham/Jeffco municipalities as Charlotte did with Charlotte/Mecklenburg many years ago.

      1. Karl: ABSOLUTELY! Why in the world do we keep sitting around competing with ourselves. Every municality in Jefferson County should be within a grand new Birmingham city limit. Every city that has done that has really moved forward. Working together instead of fighting each other works. I regret having to think one reason is still racism, but I do fear that it is. I fear that the black population majority of Birmingham does not want to lose its political position or even try to become absorbed in and broader city. Not after all they have lived through. If there is just some way to convince people that it will significantly benefit all citizens of jefferson County. If we can include Hoover, then we no longer need to be the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan area, Just Birmingham, standing out as more important. And it will be I promiss.

        Karl you are SO correct!

        Charlotte, Nashville, Jacksonville Florida, Miami Florida are great examples of success. Working together they go forward together, actually they have.
        Forget Atlanta. I think that place is just a huge nasty mess! It would take some much to make that a better place, even in spite of sich things as the Inner Beltway, etc.

        It is just so much more efficient, accomplishing so much more by collaborating, speeds planning approvals and arrangements for people and industries to move it. What we haveis discouraging as a vast array of mazes, none connecting with another.

        Let us keep pushing for this one.

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