Thursday, December 06, 2007

Lou Plugs Historic Birmingham

I have, in times past, been something of a reluctant Southerner. I left the Deep South for some two decades. And for a long time, it seemed that the only time Birmingham ever made the news it was because we'd done something horrendously medieval - like being the only station to ban Ellen's kiss or sticking the Ten Commandments up in a courthouse. Not far removed from that Simpsons episode where the old men want to burn a visitor for teaching the metric system. ("Old ways are the best ways! Forty rods to the furlong!"). I stayed gone a long time, and my return was very much less than willing. But over the last few years, I've come to appreciate where I am a bit more than I did when I lived here the first time, (and not just because it's about as far from the Yellowstone Caldera as one can get in the continental US. Did you see that Discover Channel special? Man that freaked me out! But I digress...)

The line I usually give people is that when I left Birmingham in the mid-80s, your choices were pool or darts, Alabama or Auburn, Baptist or Presbyterian, Bud Light or Michelob Light, Hank Williams or Lynyrd Skynyrd. Not to mention black or white (and not a lot of overlap). So when I returned almost two decades later, I was surprised to find that Bud or Michelob had morphed into Newcastle or Guinness. And there were at least seven sushi bars that I counted (at least one of which is really good), a huge Asian population that certainly wasn't here before, same for the huge Indian population and the Latino one, students walking around from as far away as Quebec, Starbucks in every suburb, biracial couples everywhere, and Jane Seymour seating at the table next to me at the restaurant that Gourmet magazine named the number five best in the country. And thanks to the top notch medical school at UAB, it was almost a rarity to hear a southern accent. And we have a very healthy independent film scene. Not the town I remembered at all.

So I've softened a little bit. And tried to see beyond some of my own prejudice, (word choice very much intentional.) And get down with where I'm from.

Which means that when the good people at Turner Publishing Company asked me if I'd like a complimentary copy of Historic Photos of Birmingham,I surprised myself by saying yes. It surprised my wife even more. And what really surprised me was how affected by the photographs I was when the book arrived.

Some background: Birmingham was founded in 1872, and was built around the iron and steel industry (the name was taken from Birmingham, England). It was called "The Magic City" - as I've known since childhood - because it grew up overnight "as if by magic", springing from a population of 3,000 to 38,000 in less than two decades.

So I don't know why I'm surprised by all the industry in the pictures - like I still expected just rural farms and tractors. Lots of shots of furnaces and miners, trains and construction. (We've always had a heavy Greek population. As a kid, I thought the statue of Vulcan that loomed over the city was our tribal god, and figured a bigger town like Atlanta must worship Jupiter or something. No foolin'.)

The shots of the city circa 1900-1930 are amazing. I had no idea we used to have street cars! Or special towers were workers manually operated stop lights! Or hosted three balloon races! Or that early 1900 traffic cops dressed so absurdly - the one from the 1920s looks like he think he's the German kaiser or something. The shots of aging confederate soldiers blows my mind and evokes a strange form of pity. But most affecting is the photo of the "company guard" standing watch over a worker village in 1937, shotgun in hand to deal with any trouble-makers who show signs of unionizing. Or the 1960s shot of an African-American man protesting outside a department store with the sign "We'll buy when Loveman's hires Negro clerks. Jim Crow must go." (Something bitterly ironic about a store named Love Man that doesn't love all men, isn't it?) Mostly, there's just this overriding sense of time, and history, and stories lost forever, and how the past really, truly, is another country. One right here next to me, but inseparably far away. And I'm glad that James L. Baggett's book helps me visit it, if only just a little.

If you're not in or of Alabama, this might not be your thing (though maybe it is - there's a lot of history in this town - and they do have a whole series of historic photo books). If you are an Alabamian, this is certainly worth your time. Especially if, like me, your appreciation of your town is a work-in-progress.


Jetse de Vries said...

Great post: when I visited you (and met Xin and Arthur) last year you were, indeed, happy about how Birmingham had developed for the better. And while you obviously only showed me the good places, I had a great time.

I'm having a similar experience: ever since I've stopped flying across the globe like mad, I'm slowly appreciating the history of my home town, Den Bosch.

A work in progress, indeed.

Tim Akers said...

I have similiar issues with my southernness, Lou. I grew up in such an insulated and parochial bit of the mountains that getting out seemed the only sane choice, and going back was to be avoided at all costs. My memories of the place are fond in specific wavelengths, and pretty damn horrible in others. There's no question that getting out of the south was important in my development.

Going back, though, has been an experience. I found a marked uptick in the "interestingness" of the place. It's not the town I grew up in, I don't think. Elements of that town are still there, and when I visit I can't help but spend most of my time in those unpleasant bits. I don't know. I'd like to go back in a more permanent way, but there's still too much there that reminds me of the old life.

Then again, where I live now is all Hummers and cheerleaders and mortgage obligations. So there's not a lot of winning going on.

Lou Anders said...

Thanks guys! Yeah, when I first moved back, my first week out, I got cornered in a bar by a very nice old guy who explained at great length to me - who he mistook for a northerner - that in truth n*****s made the best barbecue. I didn't even know how to unpack that, because while he was banding about a racial slur and also stereotyping a whole class of people, it was obviously being offered as friendly advice and said with great admiration for the people in question. I told my brother, who shook his head and said, "I've lived here on an off my whole life and never encountered that. You're back one week and..."

So seeing beyond that took me some deliberate effort. But 35% of the state voted against Bush in the last election, so the majority of that percentile has got to be in this town, not in the outlying rural areas, right? And I love seeing the Bright Blue Dot stickers on occasional cars here.

Adam Roberts said...

When, as a young lad, I first heard Randy Newman's hymn to the city ('Well you can travel 'cross this great, wide land/But there aint no place like Birmingham') I assumed the reference was to the English city. Took me a while to realise my error.

Lou Anders said...

And Dylan references it a few times too I think.