Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin delivered his State of the City address to the Kiwanis Club Tuesday afternoon. His speech focused largely on his administration’s neighborhood revitalization efforts and its nascent Birmingham Promise education initiative, though he also touched on race relations in the 74% black city.
He started by reemphasizing his administration’s stated “number-one priority,” its neighborhood revitalization program, focusing on sidewalk and street re-paving projects, investment in the city’s 116 parks and efforts to bring grocery stores to areas of the city that do not have easily accessible healthy food options.
“In addressing those neighborhood revitalization issues, I’m reminded that we’ve inherited, we can’t solve overnight,” he said. “The city of Birmingham is only as strong as its lowest quality-of-life neighborhood. I’m happy to say, though, that we are making strides.”
He also pointed toward recent public safety efforts, led by Birmingham Police Chief Patrick D. Smith, as having caused a decrease in crime throughout the city. “Homicides are down in our city,” he said. “Total violent crime is down in our city. We’ve taken an enormous amount of guns out of our city … . One homicide is too many, one robbery is too many, one rape is too many. But what we want to make sure is that crime is not increasing, nor is it remaining the same.”
Woodfin then turned his focus to economic development and opportunity, saying his administration was taking a three-pronged approach focused on “the creation, preparation and access to jobs.” Unemployment, Woodfin said, has decreased by more than 2% since Sept. 2017.
“Since 2017, 5,855 more Birmingham residents have found jobs … . That’s 6,000 residents of our city limits who have been gainfully employed,” he said, adding that the creation of a small business council had allowed small business owners “to know that they’re being heard.” He also highlighted a new change to City Hall that allows businesses to renew their business licenses online.
But employment in the city, Woodfin said, also will be helped by the implementation of his Birmingham Promise initiative, which connects high school juniors and seniors with apprenticeships and the opportunity to attend two- or four-year state colleges or universities. Woodfin encouraged business owners in the crowd to participate in the program, which needs businesses to provide apprenticeships to students.
“None of us can afford to sit on the sideline,” he said. “I want to challenge each of you to be part of Birmingham Promise … . If you want to see real change in this city, you have a vehicle, you have an opportunity to be on the right side of the city of Birmingham’s history. This goes beyond our administration; what we’re really talking about is a moment in time for our city.”
“I want to leave City Hall knowing that it’s easier for people to do business, and it’s easier for residents to receive the basic services they need,” he said. “And then the third thing I would say, right at the root of where people live, is that there is pride in their individual block/street/neighborhood. That we’ve removed blight, but the neighborhood is not snaggletoothed. That actual homes are going back up on those plots of land, and that people want to be proud of where they live.”
At the end of the address, Woodfin took questions from audience members. In response to one question, he promised to lobby state Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook, who was present, to expand Medicaid in Alabama. But he spent the most time answering a question about the state of race relations in Birmingham.
“Race relations can always be better,” he said, stressing that he was only expressing his personal opinion. “You have to know that we as a city are made up of 23 communities, 99 neighborhoods. And we are one of the blackest cities in America.” (The 2010 census ranked Birmingham as the fourth-blackest city in the United States by percentage.)
“In a city of 99 neighborhoods, 88 of them are majority black and 11 are majority white,” Woodfin continued. “Those 11 neighborhoods are the safest. Those 11 neighborhoods have the highest income, highest home property value … . And in those other 88 neighborhoods that make up the fourth-blackest city in America, there’s a 29% poverty rate. You dig deeper into that for single families, it’s 43%. They don’t have vehicles. The property value hasn’t increased, unemployment is higher, and there’s too much crime. And so the way some people in those 88 neighborhoods view themselves or view what’s happening in those other 11, there’s tension there. There’s friction.”
“In any city where there’s growth, there’s going to be tension between black and white … . You can see why that exists. Has it gotten better? The answer is yes. Can it get better? Does it need to get better? Yes.”