What do people outside of Alabama think of Birmingham?

Dirt RoadA young business man sitting next to me on my flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia asked where I lived.  I told him I was from Birmingham and he said he was from Philadelphia.

Then I asked…

“What comes to mind when you think of Birmingham?

“He said, “You have dirt roads, don’t you?”then under his breath he muttered, “Probably not, huh?”

This brought back memories of when I was a child and my father visited relatives in New York City.  He came home totally frustrated because he had been asked if people in Birmingham wore shoes.

Recently I heard a speech by Charles Barkley.  He said when folks ask where he’s from, he always responds “Birmingham”—because no one’s ever heard of Leeds.

Many of us live in the suburbs, but people from out of state judge us as being from Birmingham.

After a Birmingham Chamber of Commerce trip to Nashville in 2005, Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford was excited about Nashville’s title as “Music City USA.”

He couldn’t wait to get home to clarify our Birmingham brand.

He commissioned an artist to draw a picture of a rabbit pulling a magician out of a hat with the caption, “Birmingham—the Magic City.”

Nothing came of this, but we have a problem owning that name anyway since eight other U.S. cities bill themselves as “The Magic City.”

 Barberton, Ohio; Billings, Montana; Bogalusa, Louisiana; Florence, South Carolina; Miami, Florida; Minot, North Dakota; Roanoke, Virginia;  and South Omaha, Nebraska

We must answer the question, how do we build a brand for ourselves?

The City of Birmingham represents only a small portion of the popultation of our metro area (only 19%).  Birmingham alone probably shouldn’t make the branding decision.  What about the other 81% who live outside the city?

Who should be empowered to make that decision?  With so many municipalities and no common vision, who would be responsible?

Earlier this year UAB launched it’s first unified branding campaign, “Knowledge that will change your world”.  Maybe Birmingham could build off that brand.

What do you think?

Let’s turn Birmingham around.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter.  There’s power in numbers. (Opt out at any time)

David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising and co-CEO of AmSher Collection Agency.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham)), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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3 Responses to What do people outside of Alabama think of Birmingham?

  1. Ike says:

    **I used to work for the old Channel 33 in Tuscaloosa. It was often bought and sold, and I recall being purchased by a company known as Federal Broadcasting, based in Detroit.

    After several months under the Federal banner, the CEO decided to come visit the station. (He’d sent underlings before.) He was on the phone with my GM, asking for advice on how to drive in, once he’d flown into Birmingham.

    “Any areas I need to worry about?”

    - What do you mean?

    “You know, these small-town speed traps.”

    - That’s not going to be an issue. You’ll get on the interstate right there at the airport, and our station is just off the intersta-

    You have interstates in Alabama?

    Yes… the CEO of a multi-million dollar enterprise, licensed by the FCC to own seven broadcast television stations… did not know that we have modern highways in the South.

    These questions and attitudes are not indicative of Birmingham, but rather the need for some in other regions to feel better about themselves. As long as they cling to stereotypes about the South, and of Alabama, they need not bother addressing the prejudices and hatred within their own hearts. It’s as though they don’t have to try to be better people — as long as they are better than Boss Hogg and Cleatus from Hazzard County.

    I’ve found the best way to educate these people is one at a time. I wish there were a better way.

  2. Wade Black says:

    * David, we can continue to fool ourselves if we want to, or maybe we frame the question to get answers we prefer, but the truth is, when we ask strangers what they think of when they think about Birmingham, the answer in some form or another is “race.”  And the way they think about race and Birmingham is not positive.  Maybe we’re just unlucky, fifty years after 1963, that enough stories like the UA sororities  –  not even Birmingham! — trickle into the national media so that no one in this country has an opportunity to forget for long that Birmingham was the centerpiece of racial resistance.  Be that as it may, until we  – both Birmingham and Alabama — stop doing these foolish things, and until we stop saying that race doesn’t matter any more when we ALL know that it does, people outside of Alabama will continue to think “race” when they hear “Birmingham” even if they don’t have the candor to say so.

  3. Casey Knight says:

    I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in several parts of the country throughout my former military career. I’m a West Point graduate and, as such, had to deal with certain stereotypes being from the South and being from Alabama while I attended.

    A time that will forever be ingrained in me was during my sophomore year in an American Politics class. It was our first day of class and our professor asked everyone in the room (classes sizes are between 12-16) to introduce themselves, where they are from, etc. So, when it came my turn I stood up, introduced myself and where I was from. My audacious instructor in front of the entire class asked me, “So, Cadet Knight, you’re from Alabama. Alabama ranks fairly low in education nationally. Out of curiosity, do you feel like you received an adequate education to prepare you for West Point?” I was floored, but not embarrassed. I didn’t know whether this was a test of my patience or my argumentative skills. If I recall correctly, I replied something to the effect of, “Ma’am, Yes. I do feel that I got an education that prepared me for here and I feel that if this institution did not feel like I belonged here, then they wouldn’t have accepted me.”

    What I’ve found through my experiences is that there will always be people who’s shortsighted views of people and places will never change regardless of what kind of truths they are told. But, what you can do is have the courage to stand up for your beliefs and look to educate those around you in the best ways possible in order to break any preconceived stereotypes. I don’t know if “The Magic City” is the best way to brand Birmingham or not, but one thing is for sure; we can’t forget where we came from.

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