Young Professional: Why I came back to Birmingham

By Roman Gary

My name is Roman Gary.

As you can tell from my photograph, I’m a young African-American.

What you can’t tell is that I attended Ramsay High School and graduated from Auburn.

You also can’t tell that I’m married, have a baby girl, and am a principal in a local architecture firm.

You also wouldn’t know that I chose to move back to Birmingham when many of my professional friends moved away.

Why Birmingham? Here is my story…

As a boy in the 70’s, I remember going to Cotton’s Clothing store in downtown Ensley with my grandmother to get her a new Church hat or dress. We would leave Cotton’s to go to Gilmer Drug store to pick up a prescription, then to New Ideal furniture to pay on her layaway bill and we would finish up at Graffeo’s meat market to pick up some items for dinner.

The merchants were thriving and it seemed like Ensley had everything you could think of to offer its residents. If we got the opportunity to go to downtown Birmingham, it was like going to a major metropolis with so much activity. On the way back home, I’d see adults manicuring immaculate yards and my schoolmates playing on the streets. Man, how things have changed.

I went to Birmingham Public Schools in the 80’s and early 90’s and I’m not embarrassed by ‘Birmingham Public Schools.’ After considering several architecture schools around the country I had been accepted to, the money seemed right just 2 hours away at Auburn University.

My parents moved to one of Birmingham’s suburbs at that time and, to a certain degree, I thought going off to college, being in academia, meant that I would not be returning to Birmingham or even Alabama to reside. However, just before leaving for college, my home church in Pratt City, consisting primarily of senior-citizens, awarded me a scholarship for my college expenses and this action resonated with me.

Even though I was just 2 hours away, I only came home during a few holidays and some summers. I sort of lost touch with my family and lost connection with Birmingham. I established a great working relationship with a professor who had a thriving architectural practice in Nashville and Knoxville thinking I was on a path to end up in Tennessee.

As fate would have it, Auburn’s Urban Design Studio in Birmingham was planned for 4th Year students. I would be spending an entire semester in Birmingham and living at home with my family. This was the mid-1990’s when downtown Birmingham was a ghost town after 5pm.

At the time, Professor Frank Setzer was part of an organization called ‘The Tuesday Group,’ (I feel the architects in our region nodding their heads) which spearheaded revitalizing Ensley. By fate, Professor Setzer organized a site visit for us to view the conditions of Ensley and when we got there I saw the chronic blight and decline.

The same sidewalks and streets I walked on as a boy with my grandmother were crumbling and the buildings in disrepair. I felt like Nehemiah in the Bible when he received a report from his kinsmen that his homeland was broken down and destroyed. I was both saddened and enraged. How could this happen? Where was my grandparents community? I no longer recognized it.

From this encounter, I returned to Auburn with the intent of learning as much as I could so that I could to return to My Birmingham and rebuild my homeland. I remembered my grandparent’s values and I remembered the senior-citizens from my Birmingham home church, with limited incomes and educational opportunities, wondering what their legacy would be. Birmingham had invested in me. Now, how could I pay it forward and invest into Birmingham?

Architects like to present several options in problem solving and explore long term pros and cons of solutions. Let’s pose questions to evaluate several options for Birmingham, explore their long term consequences and ask if this in the best interest of the entire Birmingham-Jefferson County region.

If Birmingham proper looks bad, do the suburban cities stand to gain something beneficial? And if the suburbs do gain something at the expense of Birmingham proper, is this good for our entire region? Regardless of race, political affiliation or religious preference, from a human-being standpoint, does it make sense for cities in the same county to work against the original city they emerged from and still expect the entire region to prosper? Does it make sense for adjacent cities to work against each other? Long term, will this option attract national and international opportunities to our region?

Is crime only crime if it happens in the inner city of Birmingham or is crime, crime wherever it happens? I’ve been told many times by friends, associates and some family members that if you buy a house in Birmingham it would not be in a ‘safe’ neighborhood and your house would be broken into. So, my wife and I moved to the suburbs instead to be in a ‘safe’ neighborhood where we didn’t have to worry about crime. So, two weeks before we were to move into our newly built ‘safe, suburban’ house, our home was broken into and we were left repairing damage before we even moved in. Two weeks after we moved in, there was a string of car break-ins in the neighborhood. Since that time, entire cars have been stolen. Finally, leading up to end of the year holidays, burglars would steal mail packages delivered at front doors before homeowners got home from work. So, I did not feel ‘safe,’ even though I was in the suburbs. I had experienced crime in the suburbs. Long term, is it beneficial for our entire region to sell Birmingham as crime-ridden and the suburbs as safe havens?

Economic Development
From a human perspective, when our University of Alabama and Auburn University football teams are invited to the National Championship game or a major Bowl game, does it make sense every year for us to travel elsewhere, pay inflated plane fares, hotel rates, and game tickets to enrich revenues for Arizona at the University of Phoenix Dome, Louisiana at New Orleans’ Superdome, Texas at the Jerry World Dome or California at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl (doesn’t even have a Dome over it) and fight against having a multi-purpose facility here that can be on the circuit of venues to hold these types of events? What about attending an NCAA Elite 8 or Sweet 16 basketball games that we used to have in Birmingham? What about larger conventions? All because we choose to not agree on how to pay for a multi-purpose facility or stadium or dome (pick the facility name that’s most palatable for you). We know that our state and region have low job growth, revenue and income every year in comparison to other states. Why not pay ourselves every now and then?

Come on now, it cannot be a good long term option for our region to be one of the leading places in the United States with the most segregated school districts, borders and economic disparity. From a human perspective, is this not an embarrassing statistic nationally and internationally for our region to be known for, whether you live in Birmingham proper or a suburban city? This is the year 2016, not 1966. Come on now, you’ve got to be kidding! In the words of my grandmother, “this doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.”

So, I came back to the ‘Ham.’ I came back to help. And what do I get for coming back? I get the opportunity to rebuild and reinterpret old landmarks which meant something to Birmingham. I get to establish new landmarks for Birmingham which did not exist before. I get the opportunity to break preconceived stereotypes Northerners have about the State of Alabama and Birmingham when they move here.

It gives me great delight when I hear someone say, “Wow, I was pleasantly surprised about Birmingham when I came here. This is a great place to raise a family.” (No, we do not have dirt roads in our downtown, with tumbleweeds rolling down the streets – Grin.)

Though it’s not an easy way of life to rebuild and break stereotypes, it gives day-to-day life meaning. It gives you something to wake up for every morning and labor for into the night. So, as a human not motivated by race, politics or religious preference, can we not improve both Birmingham proper and the Suburbs or does fear make this an either / or situation where we must choose one or the other?

In developing Birmingham, do we have to focus solely on the City Center and place development of Birmingham’s historic neighborhoods on the shelf to collect dust for decades to come? Isn’t it time for our region to organize a multipronged approach to address both Suburbia and Birmingham, with City Center and Neighborhood Development?

Article originally published by