(As a new president takes office, BirminghamWatch is looking at what divides us and connects us close to home. This is the second of the stories.)
Driving 20 minutes west of downtown Birmingham and taking a short jog off the interstate lands you solidly in Trump Country.
It’s a world where trees outnumber people and hardware stores are still locally owned, where people believe in hard work and fair play, where voters believe entitlement programs should be cut back, and maybe taxes a bit, too. It’s a world where some people visit Birmingham, but mostly they try to avoid the crime and traffic they perceive in The City.
This is Sylvan Springs, population about 1,542 in the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 97 percent of it white. At the largest polling place in the area, 94.29 percent of voters cast their ballots for Trump in November. That was one of 11 Jefferson County polling places where more than 90 percent of voters cast ballots for the candidate inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president on Friday.
The county stands out on presidential voting maps as a rare blue area voting Democratic in the Deep South. But town by town and precinct by precinct the Jefferson County picture takes on a pattern of red and blue and purple.
Sylvan Springs is just one of thousands of rural areas credited with giving the new president the votes he needed in the right places to sweep him to victory.
No Mystery to Trump’s Victory
The why of it is no mystery to some of Sylvan Springs’ residents and workers who talked about why Trump is the new president.
“Fairness,” Tony Ladue said when asked what he wanted out of his government. Ladue is the owner of the Sylvan Springs Diner, where Trump signs are hung prominently behind the cash register.
Ladue said he believes immigrants and minorities get favorable treatment from the government, such as better terms for business loans, and he’s tired of it.
He also thinks the country’s programs to provide aid to the poor are counterproductive. Government should be giving people a hand up, not a hand out, Ladue said.
“There’s no fairness in our country,” he said.
The issue of entitlement programs is one that nearly everyone interviewed brought up.
Jodie Jones, who was working at Jones Tire and Battery, said the state of welfare in the U.S. concerned her. She said she believes too many people are taking advantage when they could be making it on their own.
It’s a sentiment with which Donald Cox of Bayview agrees. The 76-year-old has been working all his life. He served in the Navy, went to college but didn’t like being confined to an office in the bank where he worked, and then moved on to working in carpentry, a foundry and then coal mining, from which he retired. Now he helps out at J.F. Julian Hardware and Feed.
Cox said he thinks the nation is on a course correction. The past few years, it’s been swinging to the left, he said.
“I feel like I’ve been left out a lot,” Cox said.
But Trump’s election could be signaling that the country is swinging back to the right, he believes.
But mainly what Cox wants out of government is simple. He wants it to, “Stay out of my business.”
Randy Julian, who also was working at the hardware store last week, said there are several things he wants from government. Locally, he wants the county to fix potholes; one on his street is near big enough to swallow a car, he said.
But nationally, he wants government to enforce immigration laws that are on the books now, keep illegals from coming into the country, and, like Ladue, he believes the government is giving preferential treatment to immigrants who are not American citizens.
Worries About Jobs, Immigration
The people of Sylvan Springs and surrounding areas are not alone in their concerns. The Pew Research Center in a survey this past spring found that rural whites were more worried about immigration, jobs and their children’s economic futures than were whites who lived in cities and suburbs.
Another Pew Research Center study found that an overwhelming majority of Americans believed the country is more politically divided now than in the past. That certainly is a trend playing out on the small stage of metro Birmingham.
The more central, developed areas of the county voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, while the outlying areas voted for Trump. The Democratic/Republican split is not a new one, though it was more pronounced this year than in the recent past, and it was not just about politics. The divide is also a racial and cultural gulf that exists between Birmingham and the rural sections of the metro area.
Rodney Jones, of nearby Maytown, said that heavily populated areas tend to be African American and lower income, while more rural areas are mostly white.
“Most people vote on what they were raised to vote for,” he said. In this area, they were raised by Republicans and so became Republicans, he said. In Birmingham, they’re more likely to have been raised by Democrats.
“If people really took a look at the issues, they would think a lot different,” he said.
The cultural split plays out in ways other than at the polls.
“You can’t hardly take a gun and make me go to Birmingham,” said Cox.
Jodie Jones agreed, although Howard Jones, owner of Jones Tire and Battery, said he doesn’t’ mind going to Birmingham and doesn’t see a cultural divide between Birmingham and its rural neighbors.
Rodney Jones said he goes into Birmingham all the time with his job for a mortuary transport service. He even goes into the city for social reasons, or at least parts of it. He won’t go to Legion Field or Five Points West, he said, but he will go to Five Points South, for instance. He also says he doesn’t want his wife going into downtown because he’d be worried about her safety.
“I don’t consider myself part of Birmingham. You tell people, ‘I’m from Birmingham ….’ People say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’”
Glenn Hinesley, who works now at the hardware store, said he grew up in Birmingham and worked for the city for 30 years. But he isn’t interested in going there much anymore.
Hinesley observed that, as the anchor of the region, Birmingham does tend to get most of the project money and attention from other government bodies. He doesn’t mind so much the millions spent to rebuild the interstate bridges downtown or expand the convention complex, as long as the work gets done.
Yes, “Birmingham wants it all,” Hinesley said. “But that’s also what’s changing the city.”