Greensboro to Birmingham
Last week the city of Greensboro sent some 100 “local leaders” to Birmingham, Ala. on a fact-finding mission of sorts.
Birmingham has had some success with a downtown research park and business development — or so the PR would have you believe — experience that could help our city as it struggles with stagnant growth and high unemployment.
Birmingham is a wonderful city with a retro-cool downtown, a full slate of festivals, a burgeoning urban condo market and a trolley that runs through it all. A massive statue of Vulcan, the god of the forge, stands guard on a mountaintop above the city, a reminder of the mining and steel industries that carried it through Reconstruction but have fallen into decline.
It has something else in common with Greensboro: a troubling racial history.
Birmingham’s former mayor, Larry Langford, who once sat as the head of the county commission, is in jail after being convicted in 2009 on 60 counts of conspiracy, bribery, fraud, money laundering and tax evasion.
Eugene “Bull” Connor was commissioner of public safety in B-ham during the Civil Rights Movement. It was he who ordered the fire hoses and dogs when the peaceful protests reached critical mass, who allowed Klansmen to beat the Freedom Riders at the bus depot when they pulled into town. It was from a city jail cell that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote one of his most famous missives.
To be fair, Birmingham changed its whole city government to remove Connor from office — switching to a mayorcouncil system in 1962 because Connor was still popular enough to win an election. While 50 years is not all that long a time, the episode is far enough in the past that it shouldn’t matter so much when considering Birmingham as an example of municipal excellence.
More troubling is something that happened just a few years ago, when Birmingham and the county it sits in — Jefferson — got swindled into bankruptcy by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and a couple other Wall Street firms.
The episode concerned Jefferson County’s sewer system, which had fallen into disrepair. For a solution, the county commissioners turned to Wall Street and a bond issue.
The scheme itself is enormously complicated —journalist Matt Taibbi gave a wonderful accounting of it in the April 2010 issue of Rolling Stone — but the long and short of it is that after a series of risky refis and synthetic rate swaps — at one point, Jefferson had more synthetic rate swaps going in its portfolio than New York City — Jefferson County filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history in November 2011, some $4.23 billion — yeah, with a B — in debt. Birmingham’s former mayor, Larry Langford, who once sat as the head of the county commission, is in jail after being convicted in 2009 on 60 counts of conspiracy, bribery, fraud, money laundering and tax evasion.
The overnight trip to Birmingham cost the city of Greensboro $12,000 for the 10 representatives it sent — the rest of the 100 came from the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, the Greensboro Partnership, the county commission and the school board.
And though we have yet to see what the delegation learned, there is the hope that the lessons of Birmingham’s recent past were not ignored.
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