Commentary on Alabama Law and Society

My Photo
Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Way it Was

Recently found a book of old B'ham postcards. They provided a wonderful tour of the city as it existed in the first quarter or so of the twentieth century. This must have been a great town. Neighborhoods like Woodlawn, East Lake, Fairfield, Norwood, Highland, Mountain Terrace, and Glen Iris were filled with beautiful homes. Some for the rich (Glen Iris), some for the average (Woodlawn). All were connected by street cars. At the center were the city offices, businesses, retail shops, and churches of downtown. Parks and lakes were located throughout. Almost every picture featured people interacting with each other, at work, at their homes, in the parks, while shopping. The structure of the town was much more conducive to community than it is today, with its clogged interstates, far flung subdivisions and randomly placed stuf-marts. I found myself wistful.

I almost thought, 'this must have been a better place to live in, back then.' And for me, it may have been. But I am white. B'ham, and I'm sure most cities, was a much more social place seventy five years ago. But that society systematically excluded large portions of potential members for no reason other than race.

So have we fixed that problem? Not really. Fixing it would have meant inviting the excluded members into the community. Instead, I think, we just got rid of the community. Walker Percy predicted, in 1957, that the solution to the race issue was not going to be integration but depersonalization. In the south, public places used to be places of personal interaction. The town square was more than where you went to take care of business, it was where you went to meet people. So, rather than admit 'the negro' to the public place, and therefore to personal dealings with whites, the public place became impersonal. Now, we just go anonymously from home to work to store and back home. Social interaction is now planned, and by invite only. Percy closed his essay, "The Southern Moderate" with these words:

"Yet the growing depersonalization of southern life may not be such a bad thing, after all. God writes straight with crooked lines. If the shrinkage of social intercourse to patio and barbecue pit serves no other purpose, it might yet provide a truly public zone outside where people are free to move about in a kind of secure anonymity until the time comes when they might wish to be friends."

When will that be?