Imagine a moment of bliss. Euphorically tilting your head toward the sky and basking in the sun for a moment you wish could last forever. The air around you is crisp and light but warm enough to embrace you like a sweatered hug. Where are you? Perhaps a hillside? Are you overlooking a city in the valley or far from the bustle of life in a hidden canopy untouched by man? Surprisingly, Birmingham does have hidden pockets in the city that are just the right place to experience this moment of existential bliss, but only in the “right” places.
Unfortunately, this bliss can be torturous for some residents living within the Birmingham Metropolitan Area to find. More often, haze and smog from local coke plants and industrial polluters obstruct the natural beauty of our city. A Sun you wish to bask in can lead to microscopic sun damage. Air is assumed to be crisp and clear of numerous cancer risks before residents are even alerted to the dangers they live within. Decades of environmental injustice could disappear if you moved over the mountain. The truth is it isn’t old news, and it’s on every side of the mountain, haunting us. Dilapidated communities, food deserts, soot-covered homes, and widespread illnesses tell stories gentrification can’t cover up with a new coffee shop.
The repercussions from decades of redlining are still clear when looking at the populations within Birmingham’s communities like North Birmingham, Acipco, Fairmont, and Harriman Park. Loan denials and blatant racist boycotting forced black people moving to Birmingham to neighbor major pollution-causing entities. These industries applauded themselves for becoming the leading providers of our nation’s fossil fuel resources while failing to mention the people they harmed along the way. Cancers and respiratory diseases claimed many people living on what would become superfund sites by the 2010s (some unknowingly).
When you realize everyone in the neighborhood has suffered a similar fate, the mysterious illnesses that plagued communities became an evident epidemic. The “mystery” is a long and blatant history of institutional racism, redlining, and environmental racism. When the systems that operate this country squander opportunities to live a happy life before you are even born, it’s almost a lost cause to strive for more.
I was born in Birmingham, AL. I remember learning in history classes about how Birmingham “earned” its place in the history book chapters about the civil rights movement and immediately feeling embarrassed. I asked my family about their lives growing up in Birmingham. I asked my father if he remembered growing up in Harriman Park and how my mother recalled her childhood when we packed up my Grandmother’s home in Ensley. I listened to their stories of family members that passed before I was born. I never realized why so many relatives prematurely perished until I was old enough to sign my name as a witness to my grandfather’s wrongful death suit. He had passed a week before I was born from asbestos poisoning his lungs. Those kinds of things never felt fair. To subject people to inhumane infrastructure and then turn your back on a community by lowballing and conning those who are pleading for answers was the worst way to run a city. Moving over the mountain doesn’t mean the problems of the past magically go away. There’s still foul-smelling smog in the air some days and neighbors’ passive-aggressive attitudes, especially when you’re living in the suburbs while black. Years of living in polluted neighborhoods will follow you even after moving away.
When I think about how The Magic City people call home became unmagical one day for them, I wonder what we can do to restore it. People have history in this land, generations of lineage that shouldn’t be left behind or forgotten because of abuse of power, greed, and prejudice. I’ve reached that point in my life where people are beginning to ask me where I want to move to, assuming Birmingham is never anyone’s first choice to plant roots. I admittedly subscribed to this narrative, believing the major cities like New York or Chicago were the places to live for young creatives. I know there is beauty in this city. I know it has the potential to be magical again. There’s an energy that passes through Birmingham sporadically. Some think it’s in the annual tournaments that bring outsiders into town. I know that energy, magic, and bliss are in the local shops, restaurants, and hearts of residents that have spent their lives in this city. They are in the trails and those blissful pockets off beaten paths.
I believe it’s time to bring new magic to the city. I want justice for people subjected to these racist practices. I want them to live in a place they can be proud of that isn’t actively trying to push them out. I hear older residents saying they want to see their neighborhoods restored or relocated to build equity for future generations, but I want to see justice while they are still here to indulge in it. They deserve bliss too.