Monday, August 11, 2008

The Death of Birmingham: An Anecdote

I was raised as the typical suburban middle class kid, growing up in a land of obsessively manicured lawns, two car garages, and what seemed to me at the time to be a pervasively smothering sense of dull conformity. Hoover was a fine place to grow up, but it didn't offer much in the way of entertainment. Those of us Over The Mountain kids in need of a viewing of the seamier side of life invariable hopped in our cars and headed down to the Southside of Birmingham. By "Over the Mountain", I mean the white-flight created cities that are literally directly laid out over Double Oak Mountain, fifteen to twenty miles south of the city which, for the time being at least, bears the name of the whole metropolitan area.

Southside is what passes for Bohemia around these parts and in the mid to late 90's, for those of a certain youthful, gleefully irresponsible inclination, it was the place to go to let one's hair down and actively pursue collective rebellion. If you know me at all in any detail you've probably guessed that I've never been much for mingling with the masses on anything more than an occasional basis, so I have a kind of ambivalent attitude towards the dramatic interplay that routinely transpired there on a weekly basis. Don't get me wrong--if I'm feeling nostalgic I can easily locate in my memory banks a wealth of recollections driven by a frequently alcohol-fused, adrenaline-fueled intensity. Those were the days before I worried actively about losing my hair, my teeth, or my mind.

Those were the days where the latest hit song on the radio became an immediate anthem, to be played at maximum volume with the windows down, a cigarette stuck between the knuckles of the right hand, taking care to ash out the window while not poking the person sitting next to you in the backseat with the lit end. Those were the days where the world was new and mere conversation alone could spark an amphetamine rush. This was when everyone you knew tacitly assumed that they would live forever, just as a matter of course, never spoken aloud, since mortality and the awareness of it is a revelation granted only in hindsight.

What has sparked this extended anecdote was reading in the paper that a Southside nightclub, Banana Joe's, was recently forced to close after a sixteen-year-old hoodlum shot and killed two people in the club's parking lot. Clearly, the area has gotten worse, much worse that I would have even imagined. My sister refers to the place as "crack alley" these days and I find it comforting she no longer slings coffee or sells useless goods for minimum wage at the latest hole-in-the-wall, flash in the pan novelty outlet to set up shop and attempt to make a profit.

It's been at least half a decade since I felt any desire to go downtown and elbow my way through the latest bumper crop of baby hipsters, punks, social defectives, and petty criminals. Adolescence and young adulthood craves such experiences, but as thirty begins to be less and less of an abstraction, an attitude of "been there, done that" enters the picture. These days, I'd rather hole up in a coffee shop or peruse a bookstore than explore the nihilistic juxtaposition of cigarette smoke, decay, and underarm scent.


Five Points South provided each generation of privileged kids the first opportunity to see what an abundance of panhandlers, poverty, discarded crack pipes, and broken glass in combination and in copious quantity looks like. Birmingham had seen much better days by the time I was old enough to traverse its well-worn streets. Birmingham proper has always reminded me of a rusty fence in an abandoned lot---each time you go by, you can observe the slow, but nonetheless inevitable corrosion. Certainly, I have memories there, and some of them involve stumbling out of a club at two o'clock in the morning, lurching from side to side with the signs of obvious public intoxication, reeking of smoke. On occasion these memories abruptly concluded with a bout of vomiting out of a car window, though not always.

In those days, my most pressing desire was, above any other, to find some degree of sexual contact with a random stranger, culminating in outright intercourse if I was exceptionally lucky. The ultimate destination of those dimly lit Friday and Saturday nights were completely left to chance, and frequently I was invited to a party a friend or acquaintance was throwing. Reeling from the booze-buzz, straddling the line between legally drunk and just coherent enough to drive, I'd feel that sense of anticipation of the unknown, following behind another car on my way to yet another house party.

South of town one can't help but notice how Birmingham is the terminus of the Appalachian Mountains. The streets run uphill, diagonally, crooked, even perpendicular to each other--but never ever flat or level. As if walking in some kind of minimal drunken state wasn't challenge enough, one had to park, apply the emergency brake, then adjust to an extreme incline that would be obstacle enough in plain daylight and total sobriety. One always knew in which house the party was being thrown due to the volume of the horrible band blasting forth, in true Birmingham fashion, an earnest combination of volume and cheerful incompetence. One felt like a bit of a spelunker, using the wall as guidance, pausing occasionally to take in the spectacle, tripping over feet and discarded beer bottles. Invariably, whomever I was attempting to proposition ricocheted towards where I was slumped against the wall from some unseen angle, having also traversed the length of the gauntlet, having delicately pressed through the crowded hallway as cautiously as a blind person with a cane.


As Birmingham gets more and more run down, I know these sorts of everyday occurrences will become less frequent. While Southside always retained a kind of barely-restrained edginess, with a police force just effective enough to keep rapes, robberies, and assaults at a bare minimum, now, apparently, the darkness and resulting violence have come to stay. If this keeps up long enough, Southside's traditional residents: eccentrics, artists, college students, underemployed and overqualified young professionals, and their ilk will have to uproot and move elsewhere. It won't happen overnight, but then again, Birmingham didn't grow corrupted and gang-ridden overnight, either. For the past twenty-five years now, wealth has continued to stream Over the Mountain and away from the traditional city center. Gentrification is little more than wishful thinking at this point and time, since the growth and development has expanded in every direction, but only a few hardy souls have felt inclined to move back to what is an increasingly crime-ridden downtown.

Looking back on it now, one can only marvel that this didn't happen long before it did. This is the continuation of a trend sweeping many aging cities across the country. They will evolve to changing times with progressive leadership and forward thinking programs, or they'll continue to wither away at the vine. Though I hope for the former, I fully expect the latter. But at least I have my memories.

1 comment:

Life As I Know It Now said...

And it is very sad that the middle class is shrinking quickly and the working classes have no where to go but skid row as it were. You see an increase in blight because wages do not keep up with cost of living increases. Lately inflation is getting so bad it is almost like the early 1980s all over again. It's sad really.