This essay is part of #TheRisingTide4ClimateJustice’s Elephant in the Room series (link): a writing project calling out the institutions and ideas that contribute to environmental environmental injustice within the Birmingham community and across the South. Image: Downtown Birmingham December 1966 – photo courtesy of Jefferson County Department of Health.
By Reggie Bolton
Birmingham air has been memorable. My memory of it goes back over 65 years to the early fifties.
My parents grew up in Shelby County north of Montevallo. After the war they got married and moved to Birmingham where my father got a job as an electrician at the TCI steel mill. When I was born, they lived in an apartment in West End near the mill (Alameda Court I think).
I still have a few vivid memories of this time. I remember our pet canary “Petey Bird”. I followed my mother after him when he escaped. He got out of that cage and he was NOT coming back. I remember when they invented Kix cereal. I loved to get some dry in a bowl and eat them by spearing them with a broom straw. I remember I liked to play in the empty field across the street. I would meet a friend over there. My mother worried about my safety and she told me not to cross the street by myself. So, I crawled under the street through the storm sewer to get over there. I was infuriated when I got spanked for that.
I remember the night my parents hid on the floor with me after strikers from the power company dynamited a power pole in front of our apartment. I remember hearing mother complain that the laundry got dirty just from hanging too long on the clothesline. And I remember the croup kettle.
Finally, Dr. Berry told my parents that she didn’t think I could get well in the filthy mill town air, so she convinced them to move back to the country.”
As a toddler I developed asthma, not that surprising really, for a steel town. I can sort of remember the slightly panicky feeling of not getting enough air. What I clearly remember was when I had an attack at night and my mother would crawl into bed with me and hold up a sheet over us with the croup kettle going to make steam. I was lucky I had an excellent pediatrician, Dr. Berry. I remember trips to her office. Her nurse seemed a little scary, but she would give me a lollipop from the jar high on the shelf after she gave me a shot.
Finally, Dr. Berry told my parents that she didn’t think I could get well in the filthy mill town air, so she convinced them to move back to the country. So just after I turned four, we moved into a rental house next door to my grandmother. Within about one year the asthma was forgotten. And as it turned out this move was good for more than my lungs.
I got the wonderful experience of rural life with Granny. I learned to split lumber scraps with an ax to make kindling and bust up coal chunks for the iron stove. I picked up manure in the barn yard to fertilize the tomato plants. Granny sprouted tomato seeds in the basement, and we set them out under little newspaper tents held down with dirt clods until the plants toughened up enough to stand the sun. I learned to pinch beetle eggs on the bottoms of the bean plant leaves. I enjoyed playing in the creek and roamed free in forty acres of woods. So, in a way the bad air did me a favor.
At some point along the way my father took classes at night school and got a job as a draftsman with the City of Birmingham engineering department. The commute to town became exhausting for him so my life in the country came to an end when we were forced to move back to Jefferson County. And thus began my idyllic life in suburbia. Now I had hundreds of acres of woods to play in, complete with creeks, boulders and a canyon. Sadly, that is almost all gone now under I-65 and Woodmere Creek Apartments.
The cloud was so thick that my fellow employees fifty yards away were little more than a blur. This might last for most of the day. And so we re-earned or nickname: Birmingham, “The Magic City”, now you see it, now you don’t.
But in the day, I played Little League and joined the Scouts. The Scouts had a camp somewhere in north Jefferson county and our troop did a few canoe outings on the Locust and Mulberry Forks. These trips took us through Tarrant and past the ABC coke plant. We all looked forward to seeing the huge fire plume coming from the burning outgas. I had no idea of the cloud of contaminants that was settling all around and would be killing people in the neighborhood these many years later.
And so the sixties passed, then came college and summer jobs in between. One summer I worked for a construction company that had a curb and sidewalk contract in Fairfield. The high point of this job was learning how to fill in as a dump truck driver. From our job site we could see the huge US Steel plant in the near distance. Most days it was little more than a scenic backdrop. But sometimes if the wind was right and the smelter was firing a pink fog would roll in. The cloud was so thick that my fellow employees fifty yards away were little more than a blur. This might last for most of the day. And so we re-earned or nickname: Birmingham, “The Magic City”, now you see it, now you don’t.
“That was then”, you say. “Now is now.” But last year al.com reported that Birmingham is the 14th worst in the US for year-round particulate air pollution. We still have so much more work to do.
Reggie Bolton resides in the Birmingham area, and considers himself a “concerned citizen of Earth”.