There was a tense dialogue on Facebook over the weekend that started with a trollish post about crime in the Railroad Park area. It brought to mind another tiff over perceptions of what areas were safe. I’m writing this from memory, but I believe it to be substantially accurate. And I believe the perspective offers a few lessons in perceptions and the way investment affects neighborhoods.
Way back in the early 1980s, when plans were being proposed for a new federal courthouse in Birmingham, there were strenuous objections to the location (the one where it’s currently located at Fifth Avenue North and 18th Street). Notably, U.S. District Judge Bill Acker especially complained, saying the western edge of Downtown was far too crime-ridden, and that he favored a location on the eastern edge instead — somewhere in the 23rd or 24th Street area.
The Birmingham News, for which I worked at the time, obtained and published crime figures for the two sites. It’s probably true that the eastern site was in an area perceived as having less crime. It was closer to the Mountain Expressway, which led to the “safer” (=whiter) communities over the mountain. The Birmingham News — which was a major downtown employer at the time — anchored the respectable eastern edge.
But here’s the tricky part: Crime was actually higher on the eastern edge, which was considered safer.
The city’s psychic memory in those days also included a period of several years in which Birmingham attracted a large number of streetwalkers, who rented rooms by the hour in the seedy old hotels along 5th Avenue. It was well known that there was a well established economy and “pecking order” on the hooker food chain, with the cheapest girls working the blocks farthest to the west and prices going up progressively as you moved east. When you got to 21st and 22nd street, the hooker population was whiter and (cops assured us) considerably more expensive.
I haven’t accessed current crime statistics, but today, I’d venture a guess that today, the western edge — where the Hugo Black Courthouse was ultimately built — has a safer reputation. The fleabag hotels are long gone. The area is vibrant with such attractions as the beautiful Kelly Ingram Park, the Civil Rights Museum, and (let’s not forget) the federal courthouse.
And that “safer” corridor to the east … Um, yeah. It could use a little work.