What a fragmented Birmingham can learn from the most fragmented city in the U.S.

Ron Blatman
Ron Blatman

Today’s guest columnist is Ron Blatman.

I know cities.

I write about cities.

 I produce documented series about making cities better places.

I’ve always been fascinated with Birmingham, Alabama and…

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In Pittsburgh, Birmingham is known as “the Pittsburgh of the South” while in Birmingham, locals refer to their northern cousin as “the Birmingham of the North.”

Both cities are dealing with regional issues and have struggled to encourage regional cooperation.

Birmingham is the most fragmented city in the South with some 35 municipalities housed within Jefferson County.

Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, even though smaller geographically than Birmingham, is home to 128 separate municipalities.

Pittsburgh was once an economic powerhouse and home to more Fortune 500 companies in 1950 than anywhere but New York and Chicago. Pittsburgh’s city population is around 302,000, down from almost 680,000 in the mid-1930s and about the same as it was in the 1890s.  And the metro population, at almost 2.4M, matches that of the region in the 1950’s.

Birmingham, while not nearly as big as Pittsburgh, has seen its city population drop from a 1960 high of 341,000 to just under 200,000.  The Birmingham region continues to grow slowly with a bit less than 1.2M people, slightly above the 2000 number.

One photo tells it all

Pittsburgh, UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center atop the USS (United States Steel
Pittsburgh, UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) atop the USS  (US Steel) Tower

It’s all captured in one shot — the oversized white UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) letters atop the US Steel Tower that dominates Pittsburgh’s skyline.

Pittsburgh’s leading employer, The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, takes up around 1M sq. ft. in the tower for its administrative headquarters while US Steel is down to less than 300,000 sq. ft., signifying the changing of the guard in the city’s economic pecking order.

And a similar view is likely coming to Birmingham, as the University of Alabama Medical Enterprise recently purchased the 20-story Daniel Building for its administrative offices. Ironically, it was topped by a giant PNC (Pittsburgh National Corp) sign surely soon to read UAB or some variation.

Pittsburgh and Birmingham, America’s steel cities, have a history of explosive growth, steep decline and more recently, economic restructuring.  And both cities are bouncing back in similar ways.

For decades Pittsburgh reigned supreme as the nation’s leading steel producer, but today only one steel mill is still smoking in the entire Monongahela Valley.  Now the city’s future is tied to a burgeoning health care industry with a dose of technology right behind.

Similarly in Birmingham, the economic strength of the smokestacks dotting the Jones Valley has been replaced by the mostly brick-faced boxes of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and its ever growing medical center, now the largest employer in the state.

Pittsburgh is also an energy hub, as it benefits from sitting atop part of the Marcellus Shale, one of the world’s largest natural gas fields and a major source of oil from fracking.  Unlike Pittsburgh, Birmingham does not have such a second major economic driver.

And while Pittsburgh boasts a location astride three real rivers, Birmingham calls the main railroad lines running east-west through the city their river, as the city lacks a water feature.

Both cities have also invested in popular trail systems.  Pittsburgh opened up 15 miles of its industrial riverfront as public open space that is now over 85% complete.  Birmingham is laser-focused on building the Red Rock Trail System, a massive 750 mile trail system for hiking, biking and walking throughout the region centered on the city.

And another important similarity between the two cities — both are have limited air service compared to other metros their respective sizes.

What sets the two steel cities apart is the deep reservoir of philanthropy in Pittsburgh as well as a longstanding partnership between academia, business and government as compared to Birmingham’s more limited wealth and less active regional leadership.

While Birmingham’s decline can be traced to the Civil Rights transgressions and a deteriorating steel industry starting in the early 1960s, Pittsburgh’s fall was already underway during the Great Depression only to be temporarily propped up by World War II and the nation’s need for steel.

In 1943 (even during the War), Pittsburgh’s civic leadership was worried that when World War II was over, the city would be considered such a smoky hellhole that people wouldn’t stay and many of its bellwether companies would leave.  So, the Allegheny Conference was formed to plan for a better Pittsburgh of the future.

The new group set out to remake the city once the War ended and focused on four issues:

  • cleaning the air
  • cleaning the water
  • taming the water (downtown regularly flooded)
  • urban renewal

In an unusual case of business leading the way for environmental improvements, new laws helped clean the air and water, new dams upriver eliminated flooding and the city was an early and eager adopter of aggressive redevelopment policies, so much so that at one time 40% of its land area was within an urban renewal zone.

Since the late 1940’s, almost every major project of consequence has been the result of a public intervention into the private marketplace.  And despite decades of hard work to successfully remake the city, the underlying economic and population statistics are still pretty mediocre.  It begs the question of what would have happened to Pittsburgh if left purely to the private sector.

Birmingham, which escaped being a boom town even when its onetime Southern peers have exploded with growth, is fortunate to extend over 150 square miles as compared to Pittsburgh’s 58.

And UAB and its medical center have a disproportionate and growing impact on the city and regional economy.

Combined with quality of life improvements such as parks, trails and open space as well as performance venues and cultural hubs, plus a vibrant food scene and new housing opportunities, will that be enough to continue restoring some of the magic to the Magic City?

Ron Blatman is Executive Producer/Producer for the Saving the City: Remaking the American Metropolis documentary series about making cities better places now in production. To get a sense of the series, visit www.savingthecity.org for preview videos and more.

He also created and produced the acclaimed Saving the Bay national PBS series narrated by Robert Redford about the history of San Francisco Bay. Visit https://savingthebay.org/ for video clips and an extensive education section.  The series won four regional Emmy awards including for Best Documentary.

Ron previously worked in real estate development and finance in his native San Francisco and on Wall Street in New York as well as serving as the Director of Business Development in the San Francisco mayor’s office.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  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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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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5 thoughts on “What a fragmented Birmingham can learn from the most fragmented city in the U.S.”

  1. David: this historical comparison (Pittsburgh/Birmingham) is very thorough and the similarities of the two cities are certainly there. But, history should TEACH us something. I may have missed it, but I expected Mr. Blatman would suggest specific things our leaders could consider to regain its former MAGIC CITY dominance.

  2. The thought of combining the power 4 (Hoover, Mt Brook, Vestavia, and Homewood) makes people shudder. A rising tide does not lift all boats, furthermore, UAB, which controls the real purse strings will not allow it. UAB is the dragon that is guarding the gold in a cave, and as long as it is not raided by the inept leadership of BHM, it will stay perfectly content guarding it.

    1. A curious view cast in terms of bizarre metaphors involving dragons and gold in caves. Is the gold in the cave the federal dollars transferred from NIH and NSF (the federal gov’t) to UAB and so the state of Alabama? How would UAB be hurt by integrated municipalities?

  3. Never been to Pittsburgh, though probably will visit before long as I have family only a couple of hours away in western Maryland. One thing Pittsburgh has going for it is the unbreakable support for its professional sports teams that unify the entire region—Penguins, Pirates and especially the Steelers. Birmingham may lend its support for its minor league teams, as well as UAB, but can’t break the grip of Alabama and Auburn college sports. Could a major league team relocate to or an expansion team take root in the Magic City? There are a few isolated major league basketball and hockey teams that have found a home in smaller cities in the shadow of larger cities and loyal college alumni—Memphis, San Antonio, Sacramento, San Jose, Ottawa. Would it make a difference in building regional cooperation and respect in metro Birmingham?

  4. Curiously absent from the comparative analysis from Mr. Blatman is the role of white flight up and down the United States. My guess is that it afflicted both cities in similar ways, but it would be good to see a breakdown of the data to find out.

    Absent a second pillar of economic growth (beyond UAB), some, even on this site, have promoted the idea of biotech presumably developed by entrepreneurially-inclined scientist/physician/engineers at UAB. We shall see.

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