As soon as I was old enough to walk, I learned to march. Birmingham’s history was sewn into the fabric of my family, literally. My grandmother Sylvesta Austin supported my dad and his eight siblings by crafting the robes worn by choirs across the City throughout the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Even though I wouldn’t come along until nearly two decades later, activism was in my blood.
Growing up I spent long days in Metropolitan Gardens while my father ministered to the people and worked to breathe hope into a community where Dr. King’s dream was far from realized. Just like we see today, there were marches at Kelly Ingram Park in the ’80s and ’90s, where people of all kinds mobilized around issues and came together for a cause. I participated in those marches then, and I still do.
Today, if you go to the old site of Metropolitan Gardens, you won’t find the dilapidated brick buildings and the pothole ridden streets. You’ll find new buildings with condo-like units, fresh paint, new bricks, and manicured lawns, and you’ll be lucky to find someone who can tell you what it used to be like there. Downtown has been polished and made to shine like a trophy, but travel a few miles in either direction, and you’ll wonder why the rest of the city has been so blatantly overlooked.
If you visit Gate City or Elyton Village, you’ll find those same dilapidated brick buildings as well as spent shell casings in the streets. You’ll see burned and abandoned structures left to rot, and weeds tall enough to hide a grown man. So here we find ourselves in 2017, an election year, and there’s a scramble to put a band-aid on the wounds—a sudden dedication of resources to cut grass and remove blight and trash, heightened police presence to provide the illusion of safety in our communities and the promise of economic development in Ensley and other long-neglected areas. As we all know too well though, a band-aid is not a cure.
Now is not the time for band-aids. The Council’s vision for Birmingham looks well beyond the present. We are working on policy solutions that will outlast our own tenures on the Council and continue to benefit generations to come. We are developing a plan that will put in place Economic Development Zones to ensure that new projects and the investment that follows them will be distributed evenly through the entire city. Revenue generated in each zone will be invested back into the surrounding neighborhoods.
Birmingham is in the midst of a violent reality that we can no longer ignore, but militarization is not the solution. We don’t need tanks and soldiers bursting into homes with seniors and children as we witnessed in Pratt City recently. Profiling and targeting our young men and women is not the solution. The solution to our ills and the cure for our wounds is opportunity—bringing an end to the tale of two cities.
Through a collection of partnerships with various companies called Birmingham Careers, the Council is working to provide training opportunities and direct hire options for students graduating from Birmingham City Schools. This will provide a path to success for our youth, an opportunity for them to realize the dream here in OUR city without having to flee to the suburbs for better schools, decent housing, and a safer neighborhood.
The Council has a vision for our transit system that goes beyond the new downtown Magic City Connector. With federal funding that we’ve secured for the Bus Rapid Transit line and transit oriented development, we will continue to fight to ensure that wait times are decreased and reliability is increased so that people can get to jobs and to the services they need. We will ensure bus stops are integrated into shopping centers and shelters are provided to shield passengers from the weather. Certain segments of our City have been relegated to the back of the bus for far too long.
As history has shown us, without vision, the people perish. It’s long past time for us as the leaders of this city to grow our vision beyond the borders created by the highways around the city center. It’s time for activism to thrive again and demand more for OUR families and more for OUR children. We must reclaim what is already ours and fight for a vision that’s bigger than us.
Many of those choir robes my grandmother made are half a century old now, but the fabric of the struggle in this city is the same. The Birmingham City Council will continue to promote policies that promise to address the progression of our City as a whole. We will capitalize on our most precious resource– the untapped potential of the people of Birmingham. I’ve always known Birmingham was a special place, from those early days with my dad in Metropolitan Gardens to every time I have the opportunity to shoot a basketball at Fountain Heights Park, so Birmingham, it’s up to us — let’s keep marching until we reach the dream.
Johnathan Austin is president of the Birmingham City Council.