An Overview of the Metro Area
Birmingham has indeed come a long way in its relatively brief history. Born in the aftermath of the Civil War (1871), the city quickly burgeoned into the iron and steel industry’s “Pittsburgh of the South” by the early 20th Century. The city’s explosive growth in its first forty years earned it the nickname of the “Magic City”. Although it soon became the state’s largest city, Birmingham has always been considered a brash industrial upstart by the more genteel antebellum cities of Mobile and Montgomery.
Birmingham’s reliance on the iron and steel industry would be a curse and a blessing as dependence on one industry would lead to a boom and bust cycle throughout most of the 20th Century. During the last 20 years the steel industry has waned to secondary importance as Birmingham has pegged its future to banking and medicine.
The banking industry of Birmingham has recently succumbed to the on-going national trend in bank consolidation and three of it’s four largest banks have changed form. Southtrust was swallowed by Wachovia which was in turn forced into Wells Fargo. Regions Bank bought their slightly smaller rival AmSouth. The smallest of the four largest banks, Compass, retains it’s name but is now owned by a Spanish bank. Voila! There is now only one large bank headquartered in Birmingham: Regions Bank. As of June 30, 2009, Regions was the 10th largest bank in the United States with deposits of $93.7 million.
The University of Alabama-Birmingham‘s large medical center is nationally recognized as a leader in many specialties and has been critical to the stabilization of the central city. The university itself was essentially grafted onto the medical center and has blossomed into a respectable urban university in spite of weak state support. The city also has two highly regarded large Baptist hospitals and St. Vincent’s, a very large formerly Catholic hospital.
The city is located in Jones Valley in the foothills of the Appalachians, and the bulk of the city limits lies in the flat lands of the valley. Upscale neighborhoods developed along the flanks of Red Mountain in the early part of the twentieth century as the city’s aristocracy escaped the industrial pollution and captured today’s panoramic views. Don’t bother looking for expensive housing north, east or west of the city; the upscale development of the metro region is found along U.S. Highway 280 to the Southeast of the city. The upscale neighborhoods in this area are very beautiful due to the rugged, heavily wooded topography. Homes are built along the sides, in the valleys and on the crests of Red, Shades, and Oak Mountains. Of course, Birmingham has no real “mountains,” but none-the-less, these three rather steep, heavily wooded Appalachian ridges make for very attractive suburbs and neighborhoods. Suburban sprawl has brought development to the flanks of a fourth Appalachian ridge, Double Oak Mountain.
Higley 1000 Neighborhoods in the Greater Birmingham Metro Area
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Birmingham will forever be tainted by its fierce and violent resistance to racial integration. Although the city’s race relations have progressed along the lines of the rest of the nation, a social and cultural gulf between whites and blacks persists. White flight from the central city (now 73.5% black) continued at a torrid pace during the 1990s with the white population dropping from 91,000 to 58,000. This trend continues into the new Century as the American Community Survey estimates the White population at 48,000 in 2006. The Birmingham city schools are over 99% black, heralding ever more residential segregation. Social and religious life in Birmingham is almost completely segregated. Mountain Brook, easily Birmingham’s most prestigious suburb, is 98.1% Non-Hispanic White. Even Forest Park, a city neighborhood that is much more liberal than the suburbs in outlook and voting, is 96.2% Non-Hispanic white. Unfortunately, there is a latent and sometimes outright hostility between Black Birmingham and the White suburbs.
The Arrival and Demise of Hurricane Larry (Langford)
In November of 2007 Birmingham began a new era with the election of Larry Langford as Mayor. Langford is a controversial character in local politics. Vainglorious and egotistical, he started his political career as the mayor of Fairfield, a struggling, small poor Black suburb adjacent to Birmingham that is famous as the location of the formerly huge US Steel works. Langford spent profusely in Fairfield leaving the small poor city struggling financially to pay off a new city hall and civic center. A man of unbounded ambition, he soon jumped to the Jefferson County Commission where he made waves and headlines by creating what may have been one of the most unusual fiascos in the annals of county governance by railroading through an amusement park with public money. He named his brainstorm Visionland and it was a disaster from the get-go. After $90 million of taxpayers money was poured into this albatross that was in a dreadful location, this money hemorrhaging loser was sold to a private developer for $5 million and rechristened Alabama Adventure. Commissioner Langford also raised the sales tax in Jefferson County to an astronomical 10% to finance a vast rebuilding of the Jefferson County school buildings. As head of the county commission he reigned over the rebuilding of the county’s sewer system that has saddled the county with $3.2 billion dollars in debt after he pursued a policy of debt swaps and was hoodwinked by the city slicker bankers in New York City. Look for the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States when Jefferson County goes under. It is not a matter of whether it will happen…. it is just when. As of June 2011, the Jefferson County Commission has managed to stave off bankruptcy for now, but it is only a matter of time.
Langford was indicted in 2009 for taking $238,000 in bribes for steering the Jefferson County bond business to a brokerage firm run by the highly connected Blount family in Montgomery. The trial, that began on August 31st, 2009 and the jury quickly found Mayor Langford guilty. He has begun serving a 15 year term in a federal penitentiary.
Langford brief tenure was a whirlwind of activity. He immediately raised taxes and “found” money to start an incredible array of initiatives that are too numerous to catalog here. One bad idea that preceded Langford was the quest for a domed stadium downtown… a sort Visionland Stadium that will push the envelope with a half a billion dollars of additional debt. No professional teams would consider relocating to Birmingham as the market is too small. If the stadium is ever built, Birmingham will have a gold plated stadium that will be used for gun shows and tractor pulls. Considering the impending bankruptcy of the County, the on-going financial problems of Birmingham and the intransigence of the White suburban counties and cities to help the central city, means that it is very unlikely that this boondoggle will ever be built.
Fortunately for Birmingham, Langford has been succeeded by William Bell, an honest career politician who has been tasked with cleaning up the mess left by his predecessor. Mr. Bell is just what Birmingham needs: professional, realistic, and willing to make some tough funding proposals to deal with a difficult economy and the accounting shenanigans of the brief Langford mayoralty. Bell has been forthright in wrestling with a $77 million deficit. He has proposed some tough cutbacks and it will be up to the city council to come up with a better plan for fixing the problem.
One notable and timely Langford intervention has been in the local “mass transit system”. I use quotation marks in that what passes for mass transit in Birmingham is a joke. The local bus system is an embarrassment and Langford proposed non-existent money money for 100 new buses and 8 antique trolley cars that Prague, Czech Republic is trying to unload on the rubes of Alabama. Fortunately, the city council decided the street cars might have to wait and that harebrained scheme seems to have been put to rest. The 100 buses never materialized (surprise) as the money that was given to the mass transit district had to be used to cover a whopping budget deficit and makeup for lost federal transit subsidies.
Whether it is a bus system that actually works, or some other combination mass transit system, a source of dedicated revenue is necessary beyond sales tax increases. Sales taxes, in all of there regressive glory, are the only tax venue open to raising in Alabama without going through the completely corrupted Alabama state legislature. At 10% through much of the metro area, they have been raised to the breaking point.
Taxes: The Third Rail of Alabama Politics
Taxes are the third rail of Alabama politics. The state has the lowest per capita taxes in the United States and yet to hear the politicians talk, you’d think they we’re living in Massachusetts or Minnesota. No matter how horrible the schools are, no matter how inhumane the prisons, no matter how many federal court orders castigate the wretched public services of Alabama, Republicans and “Democrats” will not raise taxes in any meaningful way. One must remember that the difference between Republicans and Democrats in Alabama is negligible and laughable: they are both hard core right-wing conservatives. There is nary a Liberal or Progressive thought to be heard in any meaningful forum from the state legislature in Montgomery to the salons of Mountain Brook…
The voters have made themselves loud and clear on the issue of taxes and any politician that has the courage and audacity to speak the truth on taxes is in peril. Alabama’s current Governor, Bob Riley (R) lived to prove that it is possible to have a political life after proposing a tax increase, but he has a rare amount of courage in my humble estimation.)
Hence, it is difficult to make progress in any meaningful way. Progress on one front means another is neglected. And yet there is progress in an unplanned plodding kind of way.
Whether the domed stadium ever gets built, or the Olympics will choose Birmingham over Chicago, this is a metro area that can’t even get the lights burning on the freeway system! Mayors have made promises about fixing our darkened byways ever since I have lived here and nothing ever happens. Whole sections of the freeway have no lights as all levels of government show that they are totally incompetent in solving this most complex of urban problems facing the 21st Century American city: changing light bulbs.
The state is mismanaged and under taxed and its antiquated 1910 Constitution gives local authorities little discretion in solving their financial problems. This inability to solve local problems is no more evident than in the U.S. Highway 280 corridor. The highway is the proverbial “golden goose” of Birmingham’s economic development, and it is literally being strangled to death by traffic. The 280 corridor has witnessed a boom in commercial, retail, and residential construction that has overwhelmed the six-lane commercial strip with grinding traffic. This strip of highway has become an unplanned overbuilt jumble and is as ugly as it is dysfunctional…. and still the developers build more…. while the politicians wring their hands and commission another study. Urban planners commit suicide after looking at 280. .
The highway runs through seven competing jurisdictions, and their cutthroat competition for sales tax revenue and unwillingness to control growth have made this an area to avoid for sane motorists. There’s nothing like crawling along behind giant SUVs (drill, baby drill) contemplating the exhilaration and freedom of the open road. The willing residents who live along 280 have no alternative routes to get to the CBD, and if the tolled, double-decked section is ever built, this future “improvement” will promise staggering traffic disruption as it is built. Oh well, as one local Realtor told me in downplaying the dreadful traffic on 280, “It’s no worse than Atlanta”.
I’ll let that speak for itself!
Not that any real improvement for 280 is actually in the planning stage…. The latest proposal is to double deck the highway from the end of the current commercial development to I-459. Opposition from the wealthy suburb of Mountain Brook extending the double decker toll road through their corporate limits would be ugly and especially problematic for 30 or 40 large/mansion homeowners as well as other more modest homeowners who were allowed to build too closely to such a major arterial (see lack of planning).
The city of Birmingham survived the loss of most of its white middle class by the shrewd stewardship and long-running tenure of the city’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington. Arrington made peace with the white business establishment and embarked on an aggressive annexation campaign that long-lassoed some of the most desirable commercial properties along the booming Highway 280 corridor. These include the wildly successful Summit, a lifestyle shopping center (essentially an upscale, heavily landscaped strip mall), a Target SuperCenter, and two struggling yet potentially successful older shopping centers, The recently remodeled Colonnade and Brook Highland, a somewhat forlorn shopping center in a perfect location.
These smart annexations were coupled with an aggressive defense of the central business district. There are currently more than 80,000 people working in the extended downtown… more than ever before in the 130-year history of the city. Unfortunately, this healthy employment base has not translated into a vibrant downtown: there is no significant retailing downtown, the department stores are long gone, and the streetscape is dominated by commercial property. The downtown is devoid of pedestrian traffic after dark.
Operation New Birmingham, a joint local operation has been very successful in rescuing literally hundreds of vacant downtown buildings and finding new uses for them. Birmingham has managed to avoid the curse of Charlotte (whole scale demolition the old CBD). As law firms and architectural design firms have moved into the small and medium sized buildings, work is now in progress on some of the largest abandoned buildings. A wonderful old 1920s skyscraper, the City Federal Savings & Loan is going condo. Similarly, there if hope that the long abandoned Thomas Jefferson Hotel will burst forth in all of its terra cotta beauty reincarnated as the Leer Tower, another condominium development. Leer Tower update: canceled due to recession.
There are few middle class residents in the city center, however, several hundred residential lofts have been constructed in the last few years and city officials are hopeful that these urban pioneers will be the vanguard of revitalization. The recent demolition of the huge, crime-infested Metropolitan Gardens public housing project and its replacement with a mixed-income, federally subsidized Hope VI housing development (Park Place) may augur well for Birmingham’s central business district. Nothing helps a downtown more than removing 900 crime and drug infested public housing units and replacing it with 580 units that are composed of 1/3 carefully vetted poor people and 2/3 market rate (that means lower middle class) apartments!
The Wealthy Neighborhoods of Birmingham in the Higley 1000
There are nine Higley 1000 neighborhoods in Birmingham: Two in the city, three in Birmingham’s premier upscale suburb of Mountain Brook, and four standard issue gated suburban fortresses.
Forest Park and Redmont Park are urban neighborhoods on the city’s commonly called the “Southside”. They were both developed in the early 20th Century (1914 and 1925 respectively) and have flourished in the last twenty years. Forest Park suffered through the 1960s and 1970s only to return to its former glory through gentrification in the 1980s and 1990s. Redmont Park has some of Birmingham’s grandest mansions peering down on the city from Red Mountain, a steep 350 foot tall ridge that overlooks the city below. Both Redmont Park and Forest Park are very small with a few hundred homes each. They are also noteworthy in that in spite of the fact that the central city is 75% Black, they are even Whiter than the suburbs! Along with the contiguous gentrified neighborhood of Highland Park, these three neighborhoods are the only upscale places left in the central city.
Mountain Brook: The Tiny Kingdom
Mountain Brook is a large suburb with about 21,000 overwhelmingly Non-Hispanic White residents. Local wags refer to it as “The Tiny Kingdom” due to its insular culture and social dominance.
I have carved out three “neighborhoods” out of the wealthiest sections of the city. Two of these neighborhoods are centered and named after the two towering institutions of social prominence in Birmingham, the Mountain Brook Club and The Country Club of Birmingham. The third neighborhood in Mountain Brook I have dubbed Mountain Brook Estates-Canterbury. Mountain Brook Estates was really the start of this gilded suburb in the in-fortuitous year of 1929. For statistical purposes I have joined it with the adjacent neighborhood of Canterbury.
Mountain Brook’s Higley 1000 Neighborhoods
Mountain Brook Estates-Canterbury
View Larger Map of Mountain Brook Estates - Canterbury
Mountain Brook, without question, is the place where Birmingham’s upper class lives along with a good portion of the metro area’s upper-middle class. Few wealthy suburbs in the United States command such a disproportionate majority of a metro areas wealthy and influential families.Â Mountain Brook has more than 80% of Birmingham’s Social Register families and anyone with a shred of social aspiration must live within its golden boundaries. It is a world apart from the crime infested streets of Birmingham and its genteel forested streets and clubs are truly a kingdom unto themselves.The Mountain Brook public school system is rated the highest in the state, and the suburb unquestionably has the largest number of Birmingham’s movers and shakers. It is home to the aforementioned blue-blooded Mountain Brook Club and the The Country Club of Birmingham as well as the social matrix of clubs and social alliances associated with the wealthy. The social system is difficult to break into in Mountain Brook unless one has a sterling pedigree. If you’re an internet entrepreneur from Boston… forget it… move to Greystone or Liberty Park. Nouveau riche households abound, but don’t hold your breath for an invitation to join the Mountain Brook Club!
As mentioned previously, Mountain Brook is incredibly white. Not one of the 62 African-Americans that lived in Mountain Brook in the 2000 Census was a householder. My guess is that they would mostly be live-in servants. There are plenty of well-to-do African-American families that could afford to live in Mountain Brook, however, they choose not to. This is a mystery I have not been able to figure out at this time. Anyone with some ideas, please leave a note below.
Greystone and Liberty Park
Greystone and Liberty Park are similar in that they are relatively new, gated master-planned communities centered on golf courses. They are both unusually large in scope and have developed neighborhoods with distinctly different price points. Of the two, Greystone has a wider range of single family houses ($200,000 to $3,000,000). Liberty Park is uniformly more expensive although it has a high end rental complex that is carefully segregated from the expensive single family homes. Each of these developments will have close to 3,000 housing units when complete, and a majority of those homes will be worth more than $500,000.
View Larger Map of Greystone
Greystone is part of the suburb of Hoover, a large (70,000) and aggressively pro-growth suburb with the state’s third best school system. Located at the southern end of the 280 corridor, Greystone has been extremely successful in spite of worsening transportation problems associated with 280. I drew the boundaries for Greystone to include only the three high income gated sub-neighborhoods for the Higley 1000: two country club themed neighborhoods and a third (Greystone Ridge) with multi-million dollar view estates. There are hundreds of many more downscale houses available in Greystone…. houses as low as $200,000! Would that buy a pool house in Greenwich?
View Larger Map of Liberty Park
The second gated community in the Higley 1000 is called Liberty Park. If you can get past the hokey replica of the Statue of Liberty, this master planned community is located on a lovely patch of rolling wooded land that is ideal for beautiful homes. Liberty Park is part of Vestavia Hills, Birmingham’s second wealthiest suburb (after Mountain Brook) and its second highest rated school system. Vestavia Hills is a large (30,000) overwhelmingly white upper-middle class suburb with one exception, the recently annexed lower-middle class community of Cahaba Heights. The architecture of Cahaba Heights is unremitting expanses of dreadful post-war ranches. Cahaba Heights has a perfectly central location in the metro area and the physical environment is beautiful…. can you say TEARDOWN!?
The addition of Cahaba Heights to the corporate limits of Vestavia gave the city a geographic link to Liberty Park formerly a non-contiguous isolated piece of development. But that’s another story…..
View Larger Map of Highland Lakes
Highland Lakes, is a very large gated community located out the 280 corridor in the rolling Appalachian foothills south of the city. Highland Lakes is a planned development where every house essentially looks the same. The “lakes” are dammed (damned?)narrow valleys in the Appalachian foothills. As a native of Wisconsin, I can say with full-throated condescension, these puddles are only “lakes” in a developer’s dream! Highland Lakes is solely residential and will ultimately be home to thousands of people that live in a monument to Stepfordian socio-economic and Republican homogeneity.
Shoal Creek-Stonegate Farms
View Larger Map of Shoal Creek and Stonegate
The final Higley 1000 neighborhood is Shoal Creek, another gated golf community and the adjacent newly constructed gated community of Stonegate Farms. After more than twenty years of development, only about 90 of the 230 large wooded lots in Shoal Creek have had houses constructed on them. The development includes suburban Shelby County’s answer to Versailles, an over-the-top 45,000 square foot (empty) chateau built by a local entrepreneur. I think it’s visible from space. Years ago, Shoal Creek’s golf course gained some unwanted national attention when the PGA threatened to cancel a golf tournament at the club unless it was integrated. A token Black guy was recruited, given a membership, and the PGA was happy. The Club was technically integrated and the tournament proceeded. The token Black guy reported in a recent newspaper article that he was treated well at the club, but, unfortunately he died recently. Never fear though for Shoal Creek’s integration as they have found another Black guy to replace him that doesn’t caddy or mow the fairways.
The Village of Mount Laurel
Although not a Higley 1000 neighborhood, there is one newly developing community that merits mentioning. If you’re a fan of New Urbanist design principles, Mt. Laurel is a planned community in the middle stages of development on the far urban fringe of the metro area. Yes, suburban fringe, auto dependent New Urbanist design is a oxymoron, but it’s pretty. The question I would havd for the developers of Mt. Laurel is: when you jettison any pretension at having a mixed income community and build on the auto dependent fringe, can you still call yourself “New Urbanist”? Sales have been slow in spite of a charming and unusual design aesthetic. The general consensus is that it’s a bit pricey.. and no more than a cute architectural conceit for the upper-middle class.
Homewood: Birmingham’s Coolest Suburb
And finally, a word about one of my favorite of Birmingham’s suburbs, Homewood. Ideally located in the metro area, Homewood is a predominately lower-middle class suburb adjacent to Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills. Most of Homewood is made up of well-maintained bungalows and small homes and it has a significant number of rental apartments. Thanks to a strong sales tax base, Homewood has managed to maintain a good school system and has continued to attract young families that have turned vast tracts of forgettable bungalows into beautifully remodeled houses in tidy wooded neighborhoods.
Homewood has two very interesting upscale neighborhoods: Mayfair & Hollywood. Hollywood has a wonderful collection of stuccoed, flat roofed houses built in the 1920s that have been remodeled for the the 21st Century. I love Hollywood: great architecture and a great location. Mayfair is more traditional, with its rolling, heavily wooded landscape, it share’s Hollywood’s ideal location for getting anywhere in Birmingham.
Birmingham is a very interesting town with a wide array of housing choices. This is but the first of my essays on Birmingham. After all, it has been my home town for 15 years and as an Urban Geographer, I have much to say about my adopted home. It is my fervent hope that I will be able to use my web site to express my critical thinking about the metro area.. something that is woefully absent from the boosterism so characteristic of what one finds published locally. The Birmingham News, an achingly Conservative newspaper does a fairly good job of covering the city and bankrupt county, but sounds like a the local arm of the Chamber of Commerce when covering the suburbs. I hope that my website counters the flackery and drivel that passes for journalism about the suburbs of our fair metro area.