Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Racial Realities of Hoover, Alabama

Hoover, Alabama, still struggles to define itself. It has of late become the most prominent city in the Birmingham metro region, but sits uneasily with the fact. Should it remain more than a glorified subdivision with a few basic elements of culture scattered here and there, or should it embrace the diversity upon which being a city demands? In this instance, it struggles between its humble past and what it has become.

I call it home. When I moved there in the summer of 1986, along with my parents and two sisters, it was little more than a sleepy suburb. The population hovered around 20,000 residents. Hoover was small enough that the same families and their children encountered each other regularly at the swim club or at the ballpark. My parents had come from small towns themselves, and eagerly small-talked with all the other young parents with kids. They found the environment friendly and familiar. 

The Hoover of my childhood felt like a small town. I attended the same elementary school with the same forty kids. Back then, there were three elementary schools in the entire city. Now there are nine. In those days, everyone knew my name, and I knew theirs. Where we lived had been forest or farmland fifteen years before. For a time I wasn’t bothered by the slow, plodding pace, but I grew more adventurous as I got older.

The suburbs were at times dull, I’ll admit. There was a limit of places to go and things to see in Hoover. No one eats at an Applebee’s for fun. When I became a teenager and earned a driver’s license, I headed downtown to Birmingham to observe the grittiness for myself. I’d been taught by my parents to be extremely cautious when in that part of town. I never really worried. Nothing to me was more boring than competition for the garden club's lawn of the month or the arrival of another big box store.

Hoover’s plan for economic growth, in the beginning, was put together by a compendium of wealthy white businessmen and developers. They were frustrated with the deterioration of economic and diplomatic relations between whites and blacks. By now, white flight had led a majority of whites to resettle over Red Mountain. Blacks still mostly lived in Birmingham. Led by a billionaire named John Harbert, the group decided to move Birmingham south, even if it might take years.

It was decided that a massive enclosed shopping mall would be built at the top of what had previously been a large hill, visible to motorists from U.S. 31. Highway 31 was the only direct route through town before the interstates were built. These days, a specially built interstate flyover directs traffic directly into the mall. As expected, the stretch of highway nearby bears Harbert’s name. 

The shopping center created, the Riverchase Galleria, was one of the largest shopping malls in the southeast at the time of its completion. In time, I would work inside it, making coffee drinks for mallrats, shoppers, and the perpetually aimless. For well over a decade, it would provide an ample, almost bottomless pit of sales taxes revenue, which fueled exponential growth. Shoppers came from every direction and throughout the state. Houses and developments sprung up like wildfire.

An area which had been overwhelmingly white became a diverse city, regardless of whether it wanted to acknowledge the fact or not. When I was enrolled at school, all the black kids sat together in the cafeteria. As I recall, there were just enough of them to fill up one table. They sat all the way to the back, on the left hand side of the lunchroom.

Years after I left, wave upon wave of black families began to leave behind the crime and violence of the Birmingham inner city to settle in Hoover. Some of them were surreptitiously moved into the city because their sons had athletic ability. Latinos, who had never before been part of the racial makeup of the South, moved in to take day laborer jobs.

Hispanics seemed to be the only ones willing to take on the backbreaking work of digging out foundations for new houses or many other menial tasks. They were able to settle in the city because the oldest apartments in Hoover now offered rent that was affordable to everyone. If they had no other choice, day laborers slept five and six to an apartment.

I recognize that this story is not unusual. Indeed, one sees some variation of it all over the country, especially in the Sun Belt. The problem in Hoover is same same problem in many cities--a power structure unwilling or even hostile to change. The City Council and Mayor’s office have, more often than not, been unwelcoming and unresponsive to the arrival of immigrants.

They’d just as soon keep things the way they were in the beginning. The same good old boys and good old gals have held power forever because no new candidates have stepped forward with a new plan of action. When progressives get fed up and leave and good people don’t run for elective office, it’s hardly surprising that incompetent and prejudiced politicians continue to call the shots.
Hoover made its name on the quality of its public school system. The tax revenue from the Galleria, as natives call it, built multiple schools and kept the quality of instruction high.  Now, when minorities who have gone years without the same access to adequate schooling bring down test scores, the district gets blamed for it. Failing test scores have been used as an excuse to fire or reassign competent administrators. 

An elementary school named Trace Crossings, which is no more than two miles away from my parents’ house, is now 37% minority. The last round of test scores, when formally released, will show that some students have failed to achieve the basic requirements that collectively determine student achievement. Affluence and opportunity create hierarchies. Minority students are behind the curve almost immediately upon enrollment and have to struggle to catch up to their peers. 

Any successful, comprehensive immigration policy must first take a look at each community. The problems in Hoover or in the entire state of Alabama are no doubt very different from those in the state of Arizona. We know that our country is growing more diverse with each passing day. Until we confront issues of basic distrust and take steps to separate the fear of immigration from the facts, thousands of other Hoovers will exist unchallenged throughout this entire country.

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