I choose Birmingham. That iron ore must have seeped into the fibers of my body. It draws me back like a magnet. In the 1980s, my co-workers at CNN thought I was crazy to leave Hot-lanta to come back to what was a distinctly uncool city at the time. They knew Birmingham, despite the fact that they have never stepped inside the city limits. You know these people, too.
But I know Birmingham. I was born at St. Vincent’s Hospital when nuns ran it. I played in its streams and ran up its mountain trails. The view from Clairmont Avenue as it creases the ridge of Crestwood South never fails to catch my breath.
It has no culture, the naysayers taunt. Really? What cuisines developed outside of the South? Let’s see, we have soul food, barbeque, Creole, Cajun and country-cooking. You have a pizza adaptation or maybe a sandwich? Okay.
What about music? Shall we discuss the roots of blues, soul, swing, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, Old Time, country, western, Sacred Harp, Southern rock, and of course, rock n’ roll.
Don’t even start with literature. Alabama and Mississippi are two of the smallest states in population but loom largest on the list of Pulitzer Prize winners. At one time in recent years, the editors of the New York Times, TIME Magazine and Newsweek all hailed from our home state.
Add in folk artists and craftsmen and you hit the cultural pinnacle. If you think about it, most things that say ‘America’ originated in the South, including the cowboys.
Nothing happens here? Not so. I chose to be a journalist in Alabama because things DO happen. Important things. As a Reuters reporter, I got more bylines and front pages than my colleagues in New York and Washington, at a fraction of the cost of living. The 10 Commandments controversy traveled the nation begging for attention — when it hit Montgomery, the satellite trucks rolled up. Eric Rudolph felt neglected by the media in Atlanta, so he hopped over to “Bombingham” to make his name. The first test of the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate fraud law was brought against HealthSouth. Alabama is a major news state – the nation fights its battles and tests its laws here. Always has.
Historically, Alabama is a news state because what happened here changed the world. Alabama was one of the first westward expansions, making the land so desirable; it resulted in the Trail of Tears, which started here. In a few short blocks of Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, you can trace Civil War to Civil Rights from a slave market to where Jefferson Davis was sworn in, to the single block that separated George Wallace from Martin Luther King, Jr. Birmingham’s brutality brought about the Civil Rights Act, Selma the Voting Rights Act. Huntsville launched the space race. Mobile started Mardi Gras.
Never let anyone tell you that you do not live in an exciting place because you do. Our painful but vital history and the rich, authentic culture we created shaped our nation and the world. That’s why I choose Birmingham. Explore the fascinating city we built – it’s all there – great food, art, historic sites and striking natural beauty, waiting for you to discover.
Verna Gates is the author of 100 Things to Do in Birmingham Before You Die and Executive Director of Fresh Air Family. Find more information at www.VernaGates.com. Her book launches Sept. 16 with a 2 p.m. signing at Little Professor Bookstore in Homewood.