SOTRU Visits Birmingham
The Red Ore Stained Everyone Through and Through: Mining on Red Mountain.
Sixteen years ago, Eric McFerrin came across an old coalmine shaft when he was out mountain biking on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama. His initial curiosity grew into an obsession with finding out the untold history of the mines and the people who worked in them. As it turns out, Birmingham was built on the steel industry. Before the city even existed, slaves worked the ore on Red Mountain with sledgehammers. That same mountain provided a middle-class lifestyle for thousands upon thousands of families. But the steel economy finally imploded in the 1980s, leaving behind holes in the ground on a fenced-off mountain where no one was allowed to go. Until now. Today, Eric has his dream job: he’s a park ranger converting the no-go zone of Red Mountain into a city park for Birmingham. That means scouring the 1,100 acres like an archaeologist, deciding which mines to preserve. He’s given the first public tours of the site in 30 years. And though he was nervous that no one would show up—that no one would be interested in these old mines—he was wrong.
Nobody Respects Excuses Anymore: Jeane Goforth’s Scrollworks
Arts budgets have been slashed in Birmingham’s schools, which means that most kids here never get to touch an instrument. Jeane Goforth, a retired geological engineer, decided to change that. Jeane poured her retirement fund and all her life savings into a program that covers the whole cost of a music education for any kid who wants it. She funnels promising students into try-outs for the city’s youth orchestra. Matthew Belser started taking lessons in Jeane’s program, called Scrollworks, in the 4th grade. He now plays clarinet, flute, saxophone and drums, and just started at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. His mother Leslie says she couldn’t imagine Matthew’s life without Jeane’s influence. “If anything’s gonna get better, people have to make sacrifices,” she told me. Thanks to Jeane, “Nobody in Birmingham respects excuses anymore.”
Our Birmingham episode features a number of compelling stories about a city reconciling it’s past, while moving forward in unique and creative ways. Look for the entire episode, as well as the other four episodes of our Spring season coming this May. Sign up for SOTRU e-mail updates, visit our iTunes feed, or contact your local public radio stations for air dates and times.
Spring 2011 Season
Las Vegas, NV
These days, competing versions of Las Vegas occupy the public imagination: everything from Sin City and the City of Lights to home to The Strip and a bastion of glitter and entertainment. The other is as a dramatic victim of the recent economic recession, a city where entire neighborhoods have been foreclosed, where the jobless rate shot up to double digits, where massive casino and hotel construction was suspended, leaving hulking ghosts to remind residents of the boom times. SOTRU explores stories of people making Las Vegas home between these two sides of the city and those working to cultivate community in a place that has a reputation for being impersonal.
Birmingham, Alabama. The words tend to make you think about freedom riders, church bombings, civil rights marches and police dogs. Nearly 50 years later, people in Birmingham still can’t escape their history—especially the painful parts. Some have started trying to unearth the city’s past and face it. In this hour, SOTRU brings listeners into the courtrooms, churches and backyards of Birmingham to answer the question borne out by the lives of people here: is Birmingham a monument to brutal segregation, or one of the few American cities willing to take a hard look at race?
A couple of decades ago, Utica, New York, was dying; a popular bumper sticker in the ‘90s read “Last One Out of Utica, Please Turn Out the Lights.” Once a bustling textile city perched on the edge of the Erie Canal, Utica lost its mills in the mid-20th century and has been losing population ever since. But something has changed in recent years. With a surprising influx of refugees to this part of snowy, upstate New York—the newcomers have given Utica hope for second chance. SOTRU looks at the way in which Utica has opened its doors to the world’s needy, and how that’s bringing fresh energy to a city in dire need of it.
Refugees, swindlers, visionaries, entrepreneurs chasing fast money—these are the historic roots of Oakland, California. The city has long been home for people building new lives and imagining even better ones, but dreams that have been deferred also haunt this place, in its empty post-boom skyscrapers, its infamous homicide rates and deep budget cuts. In the face of entrenched problems, Oakland answers back with diverse, revolutionary solutions. In this episode, SOTRU looks at the costs and rewards for people dreaming big in Oakland.
Dubbed the “Magic City” for its stunning growth rate and rapid proliferation of high-rise skyscrapers, Miami is also the 3rd poorest city in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2004 numbers. If you own a store in South Beach, your customers are equally likely to be billionaires as they are homeless. And on top of that, they’re very likely to have started life somewhere else. Miami is an incredibly international city—making it feel the impact of world events such as the Haitian earthquake or the political situation in Cuba more than most cities. In this place of class, racial and cultural juxtapositions, SOTRU features an hour of stories of Miamians reaching out from their enclaves to create community across these lines.
From iconic cities, like Brooklyn and Los Angeles to small American towns like Oakridge, Oregon, and Española, New Mexico, State of the Re:Union explored an incredible range of American places throughout the first season. With honesty, perspective and deep curiosity, host Al Letson shares compelling stories of communities and the people who make them nuanced, unique and surprisingly relevant. Listen to any of the first season’s ten regular episodes or two specials by clicking below:
- Greensburg, Kansas – To the Stars through Difficulties
- Brooklyn, NY – Change Happens
- Milwaukee, WI – City of Vision
- New Orleans, LA – The Big Easy
- Oakridge, OR – A Work in Progress
- Twin Cities, MN – World within Two Cities
- Española, New Mexico – The Land Remembers
- Austin, Texas – Growing Pains
- Los Angeles, CA – Home, Sweet Home
- Appalachia Rising