Boom in Birmingham Bridges Racist Past and Mercedes Present

This sleepy Southern city is picking up the pace in business, industry, and education

WHEN his travels take him away from Birmingham, Ala., architect Kenneth Owens sometimes finds he must spend time dispelling the negative image that his hometown has not altogether shed.

''People still ask me, 'Can you do this, can you go there?''' says Mr. Owens, who is black. ''They think we're still fighting civil rights battles here.''

To many who live far from the borders of Alabama and the South, this foothill-framed city is inextricably linked with the turbulent decade of the 1960s. At that time, Birmingham was dubbed ''Bombingham'' for the nearly 50 unsolved, racially motivated bombings that occurred from the late 1940s to the mid-'60s. Its reputation was also one of a heavily industrialized, blue-collar town, smoggy from smoke-belching iron and steel foundries.

But in the past two decades, Birmingham has moved to diversify its manufacturing base, becoming a magnet for banking, engineering, and medical firms. Major corporations that might have passed Birmingham by a few years ago are showing interest now that a Mercedes-Benz plant is being built 30 miles west of the city, in Vance.

Racial tensions are but a shadow of past turbulence. Some blacks and whites claim there is more racial harmony here than in most other American cities.

''This town has probably changed more culturally and socially in 20 years than any other city in the South,'' says Theodore vonCannon, president of the Birmingham Metropolitan Development Board, a group promoting business in the area.

With a metropolitan-area population of almost 1 million, Birmingham represents the economic heart of Alabama, accounting for 23 percent of the state's business establishments and 24 percent of retail sales. Unemployment hovers at 4.2 percent, below the national average of 5.4 percent. But its job-growth rate lags behind those of boom-town neighbors such as Charlotte, N.C., Nashville, Atlanta, and Orlando, Fla.

''Birmingham's going to be a moderate grower,'' says Donald Ratajczak, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University in Atlanta. ''Slowly but surely people are recognizing that Alabama isn't a state of backward people, that there's some progressiveness there.''

Birmingham's 25-year metamorphosis occurred for several reasons, business and city leaders say. To understand how it happened, one has to consider its previous role as an industrial hub -- one that was ruled by United States Steel Corporation.

A city's transformation

Founded in 1871 at the dawn of the Industrial Age, Birmingham quickly emerged from a rural rail junction into a bustling center for iron, steel, and coal. So swift was its rise that founding fathers envisioned it would be the South's leading city for trade and manufacturing. It soon earned the nickname ''Magic City'' for its seemingly endless supply of opportunity and optimism.

But by the 1960s, the magic had begun to wear off. US Steel, which had employed about 33,000 at its peak in 1951, was forced to shut down many of its operations when it was unable to comply with antipollution laws. Desegregation of the unionized labor force also contributed to its decline.

''Birmingham was the only place in the nation where [US Steel] could get labor so cheap,'' says Tennant McWilliams, a professor of history at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. ''But ... the company could no longer pay blacks less than whites, so their profit margin shrank.''

At the same time that the metals industry began downsizing, new businesses were establishing roots. In 1968, South Central Bell Telephone chose Birmingham as its headquarters.

And a man named Joe Volker had visions of turning the then tiny University of Alabama, Birmingham into a major urban school with an emphasis on medical education. Backed by the community, Dr. Volker searched for the best talents, promising them high pay and research freedom if they would move to Birmingham.

Today, UAB, which now resembles a separate city on the edge of downtown, is recognized internationally as a leader in medical research and is the area's largest employer.

The city is still a manufacturing center led by iron and steel, transportation equipment, machinery, and food and plastic products. US Steel, now USX Corporation, still casts steel in a modernized operation that employs between 3,000 and 4,000 people. But Birmingham is no longer completely dependent on manufacturing jobs.

''The beginning of the change was a mind-set by the business community that change had to take place and that we had to diversify if we were going to survive economically,'' says Don Newton, Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce president.

Changes in business attitudes were paralleled by a social transformation. During the 1950s and '60s Birmingham became the symbol of a South stalwart, stubborn in its opposition to integration. The nation watched as Police Chief Eugene ''Bull'' Connor turned his fire hoses and dogs on civil rights marchers. In 1963 four girls were killed when a bomb wracked the 16th Street Baptist Church.

''When the church was bombed, it was the first time I saw my father cry,'' remembers Dennis Covington, an author and creative writing professor whose father was a segregationist. ''It broke his resistance and his heart. It was clear people like him couldn't persist in opposing integration.''

Tide of change

It was also evident that Birmingham's leaders couldn't stop the tide of change. At the city level, the civil rights movement ''resulted in the old, traditional, white-power structure being booted out, and it brought in other white leaders as well as blacks,'' Dr. McWilliams says.

McWilliams credits Richard Arrington, the city's first black mayor, with playing a significant role in the transformation. Mayor Arrington, an educator, served on the city council before taking office in 1979.

But reasons for the shift in racial attitudes go deeper than a turnover in leaders, some say. Mr. Covington, for instance, attributes it to a generational change. ''My father's view of Birmingham was shaped by Birmingham. My view was shaped by the media,'' he says, adding, ''Very rarely do I see racial tension. I think [Birmingham] has a healthier atmosphere than other places I've been to.''

But talk to a black resident and the perception is sometimes much different.

''There have been some great changes made, but change is hard to see,'' says Jesse Lewis Sr., president of the Birmingham Times, the Southeast's largest black weekly. ''You go down the street one day and say, hey, a lot of things have changed, and you run into some nut five minutes later, and say it's still the same.... The KKK is very much alive -- they just wear suits and ties so it's hard to distinguish who is who.''

Still, Dr. Lewis wouldn't live anywhere else. ''I'm a bell ringer for Birmingham. I love Birmingham,'' he says.

''This place has retained its character,'' Covington says. ''Though it's become more international, it's not yet cosmopolitan. It's a rough-edged town, and I like that.''

Birmingham has the appearance of a city in mid-metamorphosis. While sleek, glassy office towers have cropped up, many historic brick buildings and warehouses still remain.

Suburban Shelby County is one of the fastest growing and wealthiest counties in the country. Parts of north Birmingham, however, are pockmarked with shacks and weedy lots. Steelworkers heading for work with lunch pails in hand are now joined by a growing parade of briefcase-toting doctors and bankers.

Football is the most popular sport, but the Birmingham Bulls -- an ice hockey team in the East Coast Hockey League -- draw many fans. And there's golf, lots of golf.

City's trials

Birmingham's challenges are similar to many other cities: a deteriorating downtown, crime, poverty, and education.

While Birmingham has made much progress in many ways over the last two decades, it won't be in the same league economically as cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte until it improves its airline transportation, Ratajczak of Georgia State, says.

But Mr. vonCannon of the Metropolitan Development Board touts the city's role as a warehouse and transportation center, which is served by four interstate railroads and more than 100 truck lines.

''We're well-positioned between Texas and Florida, two of the fastest-growing states, and the industrial Midwest. In the next 20 years, I think Birmingham is going to continue to evolve as a commercial and financial and business center,'' he says.

''When you talk about education and quality of living, we're very comparable. Birmingham is a lot of Atlanta, hassle-free.''

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