Renewing Birmingham is the first book-length study of how federal funding helped transform a twentieth-century southern city. Christopher MacGregor Scribner shows that such funding not only aided Birmingham's transition from an industrial to a service economy but also led to redrawn avenues of power, influence, and justice in the city.
By the 1960s Alabama's largest city faced wrenching changes brought on by economic decline, suburbanization, and racial tension. Decades in the making, these problems pitted old-guard politicians, manufacturing elites, and working-class whites against an alternative vision, kindled by federal dollars, of Birmingham's future.
Scribner uses the Birmingham experience to trace the evolution of federal grants from extensions of Depression-era fiscal policy to instruments of social change. As he discusses federal backing of projects ranging from low-income housing to the University of Alabama Medical College, Scribner also shows how control of the grant purse, which once belonged exclusively to politicians, came to be shared with bureaucrats and activists, local and federal participants, and blacks and whites. Most important in Birmingham's case, debates over spending drew in entrepreneurs in fields as diverse as biomedicine and education, real estate and construction. This complicated bargaining and coalition-building sparked a "quiet revolution" that had begun hollowing out the core of Birmingham's old order even as civil rights protests cemented the city's segregationist reputation.
Scribner stresses that the social benefits of Birmingham's economic rebirth reflected not so much a change of heart for the city as an admission that segregation was simply bad for business. As a new Birmingham ascended--and became less distinguishable from other American cities--aspects of its racist, elitist past persisted. In learning the particulars of Birmingham we come closer to understanding how the South can be at odds with the rest of the country even as it participates in national trends.