Sat, April 19, 2014

The Decline and Fall of West Birmingham

February 17, 2011

I'm glad that Black & White's offices are located on Second Avenue North downtown. Working in this historic business district lends the feeling that I'm part of a continuum, walking into and out of a building each day that has seen decades of events and changes take place. I enjoy the architectural ambience that older downtown structures provide, the energy on the streets, and close proximity with ongoing enterprises such as the gallery scene, Pepper Place Market, Art Walk, and Magic City Art Connection. Occasionally something new and different comes along, like the Railroad Park. Regrettably, I never fully enjoy these circumstances because, even when I'm standing on the 22nd Street bridge admiring the city's skyline, I'm haunted by something that lingers ominously in the background. It's the existential hum that comes from wondering how long it will take for local officials to squander all of this potential and diminish any progress that has been made.

That may sound totally preposterous to the city's most ardent supporters and energetic boosters, but I wonder how many of those who were in attendance at Blueprint Birmingham's gala event at the new Railroad Park a few months ago, for example, have ever ventured past Center Street. There aren't any hip coffee shops or art galleries there; it's just a long street running north and south that marks the boundary of the city's west side. It's more than a "division avenue" however, because if you compare the infrastructural quality of Birmingham's west side with the conditions east of that area, it seems that Center Street functions as a kind of municipal partition. It separates Birmingham's "you are beautiful" communities from forgotten neighborhoods such as Sherman Heights, Smithfield, Ishkooda, Arlington, Elyton, Pratt City, Fairview, Belview Heights, Powderly, Monte Sano, Central Park, Berney Points, South Park, and Ensley.

Click photo above for the full photo gallery.

It is a huge area (the Birmingham Police Department's West Precinct patrols some 65 square miles), and almost every block suffers a degree of urban or suburban decay. Vast portions of many blighted streets probably can't be salvaged without a complete overhaul. So when I hear or read almost daily that the city is experiencing a slow but steady renaissance in Lakeview, or near the Railroad Park, or in Five Points South, I immediately recall that Birmingham's west side—the part of town where I was born and raised, and where my parents lived until 2003—required only 20-plus years to reach its current state of serious decline. While it is true that the loss of heavy industry in the area during the mid-1970s initiated that decline, the West Side's near-total collapse is the more recent result of municipal ineptitude and neglect, compliments of former mayors Richard Arrington, Bernard Kincaid, Larry Langford, and a large cast of profoundly incompetent city council members, past and present.

The drop was precipitous. In 1980, long-established, leading Birmingham retailers such as Parisian and Pizitz had anchor stores in Ensley and at Five Points West. Schools in Belview Heights, Central Park, and Fairview were consistently posting test scores in the upper percentiles. Kids went trick or treating over blocks and blocks of their communities—unsupervised. The annual September arts and crafts fair at the Arlington Antebellum Home looked like the model for today's Magic City Art Connection. My younger brother and his friends rode their bikes to Five Points West Mall or to West End and spent whole Saturdays there. Our mother's primary concern at the time was that they might wander into the Pizitz department store and touch things.

Fourteen years later, in the mid-1990s, the business district in Ensley had become a boarded-up ghost town crumbling behind chain-link fences and razor wire. Five Points West Mall had been an empty shell for years. Kids could barely get home from school ball games safely; forget about Halloween. During the late-1990s, every 87 minutes a West Side resident was the victim of a violent crime; every 4 hours a criminal broke into or stole a car, according to statistics from the Birmingham Police Department. Streets were not repaired, zoning laws were ignored, and absentee landlords exploited Section 8 federally funded houses, creating slums, crack houses, and eyesores while property values took a nosedive. Tuxedo Junction and West End were dangerous places to be, period. Gangs and drug dealers essentially controlled Tuscaloosa Avenue in West End. Parts of Elyton and Smithfield were off limits after dark. Belview Heights, where my father served as neighborhood association president for several years, had changed for the worse. My mother's primary concern by that point was that her grandchildren could not safely play in her front yard.

After another ten years had passed, whole portions of the West Side were barely recognizable. Abandoned houses and businesses dotted every neighborhood, aggravating what was already a kind of pervasive lawlessness along the worst streets. Residents couldn't depend on the police for even the most rudimentary enforcement of parking or public nuisance ordinances, let alone handling more serious crimes. In 2003, former Birmingham Police Chief Mike Coppage told Black & White that the West Precinct "was where you [officers] go when you screw up," as if the assignment were a form of punishment. In 2005, delivery services (and pizza vendors) began crossing off certain streets and neighborhoods from their routes in West End. Still more businesses departed the area, and still more families followed suit, usually to get their children into a better school system. When average standardized test scores for all area high schools are the equivalent of Ds and Fs, and the elementary schools' scores are roughly the same, it's time to move on.

Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, City Hall claims to be on the case. In a baffling move ostensibly designed to reverse the West Side's rapid demise, the City of Birmingham bulldozed the old Alabama State Fairgrounds complex and is completing construction of an indoor track and swimming-sports facility on the site. The tax-dollar tab is currently $50 million and counting. While some members of the City Council insist that the sports-competition facility be available for public use (establishing for all practical purposes an insanely expensive recreation and daycare center), Mayor William Bell holds an equally baffling position: he claims that the natatorium is an exercise in economic development for the Five Points West area. Perhaps because this all began as another wild scheme by former mayor and convicted criminal Larry Langford, no cogent explanation of how it will generate revenue has yet emerged.

That leads us back to two familiar refrains, both at City Hall and among Birmingham's most out-of-touch boosters: 1) build it and they will come, 2) national and international sports events will put Birmingham on the map. According to the equation faithfully employed by the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau to measure practically any event's fiscal impact in Birmingham, those two scenarios result in an economic boost for the area in question. The last time William Bell and Councilor Steven Hoyt heeded the bureau's numbers, Hoyt "expedited" a $25,000 payment to some first-time event promoters for a fiasco called Vulcan Bike Week, an obvious-to-anyone bogus motorcycle rally that never happened. The City got all the money back, but no one was able to recoup Hoyt's, Bell's, or the bureau's credibility. It is anyone's guess as to how these guys might manage international competition–scale sums of tax dollars, but Five Points West is in Hoyt's district, so taxpayers can prepare for the worst.

That's assuming there are any sums to be managed. When the imagined international athletes and their fans do take the drive from Birmingham's airport to the Fair Park natatorium, the scenery along any of three possible routes they might take will indeed leave an impression. (The photos accompanying this article were taken along those routes.) Opportunities for boosting the local economy in the immediate vicinity of the project do exist—in the form of nail and hair care, auto parts, and quick-cash loans. But visitors will need to do their shopping before sunset, because the West Precinct—like the police department's three others—still doesn't have enough officers on patrol to respond to every call on a given Saturday night.

During their rides back to the airport, the envisioned Olympic swimmers can ponder what the locals have already determined. For three decades West Side residents have hoped and dreamed that city leaders might deliver to their streets the many services and improvements that so often arrive in other parts of town. Yet if this absurd natatorium constitutes City Hall's big Christmas present, officials there should be advised that this is not what residents hoped to find under the tree.

In other words, if any practical-minded urban planner made a long list (let's say five legal pads worth) of various methods to improve Birmingham's west side, they might begin with better police service and better schools. They could add zero tolerance for abandoned buildings, broken windows, loitering, parking vehicles on sidewalks, et cetera. Business incentives for something other than a salon or church-affiliated "learning center" might be in the mix. Perhaps a few experimental approaches and some controversial ones would make the cut. However, not even on the last line of the last page of the last notepad would one find a $50 million swimming pool. &

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