Birmingham, Alabama: ‘Shoot Yourself in the Foot Town’

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The Big Picture

By Glynn Wilson

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Bomingham. The Magic City. The Tragic City.

The Murder Capital of the South?

What’s next?

Shoot Yourself in the Foot Town?

I met Birmingham’s Mayor William Bell at a fund raising party on Birmingham’s Southside at the Rev. Jack Zylman’s house a few years back when he was first running for mayor. The question on the table that day, like many other days in the shrinking city where the tragic happens more than the magic these days, was how do we get more people from the suburbs and municipalities surrounding Birmingham to participate more in what goes on here? What can we do to get people to visit downtown again?

Most people here are at least vaguely aware of the missed opportunities in Birmingham’s history. How Atlanta got the regional airport and became the South’s capital city and how Birmingham lost out. How the city skyline lost the world’s largest replica of the Statue of Liberty on the Liberty National building to I-459. How the city lost the Iron Bowl at Legion’s field. How the Birmingham Barons baseball team abandoned the historic Rickwood Field for suburban Hoover in 1987-88.

While I was running a bookstore, newsstand, tobacco shop and coffee bar on the Southside in the late 1980s, I attended the final two games the Baron’s played at Rickwood Field. It was like attending a funeral. I knew it was a sad day for Birmingham, so even then, it was hard to see myself putting all my eggs into the one basket of making a future in my home town. I left once for college, then for a career in newspaper reporting. Not long after that last Baron’s game at Rickwood, I would leave again for Gulf Shores and points beyond.

Back in the city a few years ago at Zylman’s house, I told the mayor the only thing I could think of to help bring back people to Birmingham: “Get the Baron’s back from Hoover.”

I’ll be damned if he didn’t actually get elected and form a committee to do just that. And it worked. The city is building a new stadium for the Baron’s by the new Railroad Park, across the street from the Good People brew pub.

The new stadium is supposed to be ready for the opening home game Wednesday, April 10 at 7:05 p.m.

See the Birmingham Baron’s official Website here.

But you know what they say: “One step forward, two steps back.”

Last Sunday night, a 15-year-old boy named Jarmaine Walton was shot in the head and killed in Railroad Park. For many in the suburbs, this is confirmation of what they have long feared and justification for never venturing near the Tragic City, except maybe to pass through on the Interstate. They will continue to cower in fear at night in their suburban homes in front of the television. Sorry Birmingham.

That incident was not bad enough.

This past Thursday, on his way back from Spring Break in Destin with his family, 10-year-old Alex Bresette of Overland Park, Kansas, died when a 300-to-400 pound display sign at the Birmingham airport fell on him and his mother Heather Bresette, along with his two brothers, Sam, 8, and Tyler, 5.

Can you spell lawsuit?

“I have offered our full support to the Airport Authority as they investigate what has occurred,” Birmingham Mayor William Bell said in a statement. “I have asked our public safety staff to assist this family in their time of need in any way possible as they grapple with what has happened.”

A bystander quoted in the local paper said from what he saw, the sign appeared to be attached to the wall “only with liquid nails.” An Airport spokesperson couldn’t confirm that.

But what we do know is that newly renovated Concourses A and B were opened on March 13, phase one of a $201.6 million renovation to upgrade the airport to meet post-9/11 security standards. Construction began in June 2011 under the management of Brasfield and Gorrie-Bloc Global Services Group — a firm that uses only non-union labor.

When Mayor Bell was running for reelection last summer, I made another suggestion: He had been supported in his election by Birmingham’s unions, but the airport renovation contracts were being done without union labor. I suggested he contact the airport authority and check on that situation.

I have no idea if he followed through or not, but the entire story reminds me of a movie that continues to make the rounds on cable.

In “All the King’s Men,” Willie Stark, the character from Robert Penn Warren’s great southern novel based on the life of Huey Long as played by Sean Penn, gets elected governor of Louisiana after he tried to warn people about graft in the public bid process for building a new school. When the school board refused to take his advice and hire the firm using black, skilled labor, and after the school collapsed and killed several children, Stark became a hero.

Mayor Bell took my advice the first time, but not the second.

One step forward, two steps back.

Chalk it up as another setback for “Shoot Yourself in the Foot Town.”

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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