Note: The following email is addressed to the new Mayor of Mobile, AL, Sandy Stimpson.
The following analogy came to me as I was driving to Mobile for lunch, on Sunday. I thought I would sit on the idea for use at a later date, but I’ve since changed my mine. I’ve long known, as a fourth-generation resident, that Mobile has lots of exclusive and often unspoken clubs and memberships due to birth, religion, education, neighborhoods…, like most old cities and towns do, but a recent discussion with a smart, young female attorney, originally from New York, reminded me of one of the many hardships of calling Mobile “home”. Still in her twenties, she’s having problems with being accepted and embraced by the female natives due to their old, incestuous bonds. She’s an outsider. My ex-wife, from Virginia, experienced the same problem and it forced us to make friends and socialize with other transplants. I didn’t anticipate having this problem to contend with upon my return home after meeting her, in Atlanta, GA. I didn’t like the reality.
Years ago, Joe Bullard argued the broader point with me, that these old societies exist in all old cities, in his challenge to an essay of mine on old Mobile. I think he was trying to justified the longstanding inequalities in the city’s economic, political and social hierarchy, which worked very well for him and his family, but, lately, I couldn’t say the same. Our Mardi Gras societies, segregated neighborhoods, private vs. public schools, blue collar vs. white collar, race, religion, income… result in mental walls being erected between men and men, men and women, between natives and transplants… Rather than have a town working together for, both, personal and community good that leads to excellence, a high quality of life, we’re “a town full of Lone Rangers” with no Tontos. Everyone is on their own to make it to the top or just survive in the Port City. It’s a “I got mine, you go get yours” mentality. If your car’s engine, with its many interdependent components, operated in this same fashion, how far would you get down the road, each morning, on the way to work before the engine stopped — before your city of “perpetually potential” stopped working?
We’re all children of God. No man is anymore important than the next, yet citizens born here with distinct advantages often forget this truth. I believe there’s a great need to bring residents from all backgrounds, high and low, together to tear down these artificial barriers rooted in elitism, ignorance and prejudice, to realize that our similarities are far greater than our few differences in an effort to share our talents while exchanging ideas on how to make the city a better place for all of us to live and enjoy. These mental walls are pure illusion, but we treat them as though they’re real. Residents in some exclusive parts of town think they’re better than, that they’re more important than people living elsewhere, private schools and their stakeholders think they’re kids are better, smarter than the kids attending public schools… This is so destructive, it’s cancerous to self and to society; it’s causing the city lots of problems.
As the new mayor, I hope you will consider this idea by inviting city stakeholders down to Government Plaza for a series of casual meet and greets while starting a dialog about: what are our real community’s values, what problems do we face, what opportunities do we have before us and then literally set the city’s annual financial and operational policies based on this shareholder input. It’s radical, but the times call for it. Both, government and society need to be shook up!
This “Lone Ranger, this cliquey” mentality are two of the city’s chronic problems that can’t be solved by throwing good money at it. It requires more of a bully pulpit, diplomacy, bringing people together approach to solving it. Many newcomers are already choosing to live on the Eastern Shore while working in Mobile including many in your own administration! There’s your proof to the problem. With Airbus coming to town, if you were German or a transplant from around the country, where would you choose to live knowing this reality — within the city limits, in Mobile county or elsewhere?
Note: The following email is a reply to Council member Fred Richardson’s email (see below). Edited.Fred,
I appreciate your writing back and when I first saw your email I had hope for an interesting response, but that’s not what I got. What you wrote about your upbringing and experience is very interesting, I accept your story at face value. I remember your last email to me and it was about how you and other council members hold meetings in the districts to address needs or concerns and that essentially “all is well”. Having been raised in Mobile and to some degree white-privilege, I drank the community’s Kool-Aid on how great Mobile is and was, how Mardi Gras was the source of much of that greatness. The first time I realized that Mobile had problems wasn’t while living in Atlanta, GA, but on my first visit to Charleston, SC (2000), a town with a similar history.
What I experienced and witnessed from a tourist’s perspective from their cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages with lots of tourists, the easy access to the rivers, the many great restaurants, rooftop bars and grand views, the College of Charleston and seeing so many college kids on the clean streets of Charleston Proper (and the Battery) during the day and at night, along with many late night graveyard and pirate tours was inspiring. On my itinerary while in Charleston included paying a visit to The Citadel. I just wanted to see it. It was Friday afternoon when we got into town.
With a city map in hand, we made our way from downtown snaking through town before stumbling upon the campus. It was around 3 o’clock and as we pulled up near some buildings there were cars parked haphazardly on the grass. Sensing that something was going on we stopped the car and got out. Through the fencing we could see The Citadel band dressed and standing in formation on their Quad (field). There were a few spectators sitting in the grandstand. Soon the cadets paraded out of their barracks, to the playing band, onto into the field, which is surrounded by these citadel-style buildings and dorms. A review of the cadets occurs every Friday while school is in session. It’s a must see. At one end of the field sat a Howitzer cannon pointed towards the other end of the field some 30 or 40 degrees up in the air. The cadets went through their drills at the pleasure of the crowd. A ceremony was held.
Unbeknownst to me and my future wife, a famous alum and author was being recognized by his college for the first time since graduating there (1967) and after getting “blackballed” by the school for one of his early novels about life at a southern military school. The story could have been about any number of military schools from Marion, VMI and many others whose names I am unfamiliar with. The book, was turned into a Hollywood movie starring Patrick Swayze, “Lords of Discipline” (1980). The author would go on to write The Great Santini (1979), The Prince of Tides (1986), Beach Music (1995), South of Broad (2009). The performance on the field ended was that Howitzer being fired several times and the percussion bounding off the building at the far end of the field. It was an awesome display. The cadets returned to their barracks only to drop to their all-fours on a checkerboard painted floor doing endless push-ups. It was cool to watch. I came home from that trip depressed over the state of Mobile. Later, trips back to Charleston, to San Francisco and St. Augustine, FL have only reinforced my desire to see change happen in Mobile.
The Mobile Chamber of Commerce, city officials have taken countless trips to U.S. cities and now abroad while bringing no new ideas home with them. The city has failed to build a I-10 bridge in a timely manner and that’s now causing major traffic problems (no vision, no leadership), the I-10 corridor from I-65 to Water Street is unsightly, the public schools in the city limits are generally-speaking awful in performance. The city should consider taking them over. Poverty, unmet needs and unhappiness are the source of crime… This town has a drinking problem among, both, its adults and teens. I can name a twelve Mobilians from white, middle-class and prominent families who have taken their own lives, since 1990. Last spring’s survey of Mobilians that came out states the town suffers from emotional and mental problems and was ranked as the 10 worst cites to live in. Residents “loved” that story and the reporter at Business Insider?. The mayor invited her down during the campaign.
In Mobile, residents who are Alabama or Auburn alumni and fans demand that their respective teams field a championship team year end and year out and yet we accept mediocrity, day in and day out, in the city of Mobile. Why? Charleston wasn’t always the city it is today, in fact it was economically dormant for 100 years after the end of the Civil War. They changed, why can’t we? It’s a choice to pursue excellence and face all the challenges that come with it or be mediocre. It takes a little more energy to pursue excellence, but once you get there maintaining the level of performance is about the same and you would never consciously return to mediocrity when you start tasting all the fruits of greatness (world-class). It begins with an attitude, having a vision, a plan and executing it. As Nick Saban would say there’s a process to repeating excellence year after year. I would agree.
Consider me, the Pat Conroy of Mobile, the city’s truth-teller and a future honoree. I’m not going anywhere. Pat has been to Fairhope twice in the past two or three years for book signings at Page and Palette. How many times has he or anyone stopped in Mobile?
From: “Richardson, Fred”
Sent: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 11:07 PM
Subject: Re: Two of Mobile’s most crippling problems — affecting the city of “perpetual potential”.
I came to Mobile from the cotton fields of Conecuh County in 1958. Signs were up throughout the city to instruct me where to eat, drink waster, use the toilet, buy a house and what schools I could attend. I stayed right here and worked to change things. You ran, like many of my generation. Today, as an African American, my least problem is one of acceptance. When you know who you are and can defend it, when you have love in your heart for all of God’s children, you can overcome any and all issues associated with socialization.
I have friends of all political persuasions, from all ethnicities; rich and poor, Catholic and Protestants, Jews and Gentiles. To have a friend, you must first show yourself friendly. To be loved, you must first love. You left a great city. I am sorry you have to return daily to make a living. I hope you, one day, you can find the peace you are so desperately seeking. It may well be in the city you left, because you didn’t tell us you found it after your move to Baldwin County. Mobile should be your least problem, since you moved. It is too apparent this is not the case. My friend, this city is not your problem.