Category Archives: Montgomery history

Love. Love Won’t Keep Us Together…

Montgomery’s most famous musical legend is probably Toni Tennille, who was part of one of the most laughable public cheese-peddling duos of the previous generation. Sadly, the Captain and Tennille are getting divorced, dashing the hopes of all who care about the relationship of some septuagenarians from Arizona.

Your Montgomery roots have always got your back Toni, at least until things get rocky for Montgomery native Tommy Shaw and he needs to crash on our couch or something.

For other super-awesome Montgomery-born celebs, click here.

Montgomery and the River

We were wandering around some Swiss city a while back. Our guide was giving us the tour and made an offhand remark about how the city developed along the river, much as, he was sure, our American cities did.

“Sure,” I reflexively thought. “Obviously.”

The more I thought about it, the more puzzled I became about our home city. Clearly, the Alabama River played an important role in the development of Montgomery. Why put the capital city here, on the banks of the river, instead of, say, somewhere else? Duh. Shipping. Transportation. Security. All of the same reasons that have led people to settle near water for the whole of human history.

But do we actually use the river? Is it a featured highlight of our city?

In almost any number of cities, rivers are amazing attractions, where the highest-priced real estate clusters. People want to see the water, or walk alongside it. You probably know about the Riverwalk in San Antonio, but you could fill a book with stories and photos about how major cities (and some not-so-major ones) utilize their rivers, making them a place for recreation and tourism and incalculable civic value.

Here in Montgomery? We spent a bunch of money fixing up our city’s “Riverwalk,” and we have some events down there like the Dragonboat Races and the Wine Festival and New Year’s Eve Countdown. But that’s just one tiny city-owned strip (and even that strip struggles to get people down to the weird accessible-by-pedestrian-tunnel promenade). You’d certainly be hard pressed to describe the real estate alongside the Alabama River as among the “highest priced.” If you drive back behind the Biscuits Stadium and down around the Capitol Oyster Bar? You’d think that you were in one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the states, a sort of abandoned industrial warehouse zone

What are your favorite places to get a view of the river? It’s a pretty short list and it probably involves driving and parking and getting out and walking. The river isn’t integrated into our lives, whether you are talking about the tiny bit that touches downtown, or the entire rest of the massive coastline where the mighty Tallapoosa merges with the majestic Coosa. The river mostly exists as a depressingly-polluted abstraction, hidden from nearly every view, featured in public conversation whenever somebody has a hare-brained scheme to hold a triathlon (click that link for an idea of how such river-based events are promoted).

So, confident that we must be missing something, we set out to discover the parts of our city’s river that we might be otherwise overlooking. We do not have a boat. So our idea was to jump in the car and use the magical power of Google maps to find all of the places in nearby driving distance where we might in some way interact with this neglected treasure.

If you thought that was a long intro, fasten your seatbelt. We’re about to take you on a 2,000-word tour of your city’s river … and the difficulty you can have trying to interact with it.

The Alabama River is like a giant “S” sitting due Northwest of the city. Using that letter as the metaphor and working backwards from how you’d draw an “S” on paper (and the flow of the river), the “bottom” of the “S” abuts federal property (Maxwell Air Force Base) and is largely inaccessible to those without security clearance. The first curve of the “S” is the part that touches downtown. It arcs away from the city northwest towards Prattville and Millbrook before boomeranging back almost to the Northern Boulevard.

Here’s the map:

The points on our adventure. Follow along!

The points on our adventure. Follow along!

So we started up at Overlook Park and, yeah, you can see the river from there, along with the “urban farm” and the Montgomery Advertiser headquarters with their cool giant globe sign. But we were interested in interacting with the river in some way, not in seeing it from afar way up the hill alongside a weird giant steel reproduction of a Wright Brothers airplane.

The river from Wright Brothers (formerly Overlook) Park

The river from Wright Brothers (formerly Overlook) Park

We went down Maxwell Boulevard and tried to go to Powder Magazine Park, which we wrote about way back in 2009. Not a lot has changed since then. The park still seems sort of closed. There’s no information telling you what to do or what features the park has. The only difference is that the giant abandoned housing projects (Riverside Heights) have now been torn down (with prison labor!)

We did manage to creep our car down an overgrown and winding road (which you can see on your Google map as “Riverside Drive”) and found a boat launch and a few pickup trucks down there. But this had the atmosphere of an amenity-free private club of some sort, a utilitarian spot for good ol’ boys to get on the water and that’s all. Park benches and informational plaques are for the weak (and the kudzu).

Powder Magazine Park boat launch

Powder Magazine Park boat launch

Nonplussed, we were disappointed not to be able to access the parts of the river that abut Maxwell. The base has been closed to the public since 9-11, so we are allowed to praise the Air Force, but not look at their museums and scenic river views. It’s not like our tax dollars pay for their private beaches or anything.

So we curled back down through downtown and went past Biscuits Stadium into the aforementioned semi-scary part of town where Capitol Oyster Bar lives (in the building that used to be The Marina). For more on our 2010 trip there, click here.

We looked at where the COB touches the river and, well, um, they’ve got a stage and a marina where some people are docking boats. And there’s a big muddy patch where the COB’s riverboat sank and leaked oil into the river and had to be pulled out over the course of a multi-month fiasco. So, to put it politely, it’s not the kind of place you probably want to hang out near the river … and it may also be private property. Unclear. It’s probably pretty decent if you have a boat, but otherwise you kind of feel like you are trespassing in someone’s parking lot.

It's the river! And a stage! Warning: Do not touch river or stage.

It’s the river! And a stage! Warning: Do not touch river or stage.

Next, we cruised along Parallel Street, which you can see if you are following along our adventure on the map (and we hope you are). It is so crazy back here. We always thought it was funny that the street on the way to the Capitol Oyster Bar was called Shady Street, because it is a little bit sketchy. But really, it’s more depressing than fear-inducing.

From Parallel Street, we went down to the very end of State Dock Road and wandered around down there.

If you find yourself driving around in these semi-industrial areas, you can see some amazing things. These things may not make you think “this is a beautiful use of riverfront real estate,” but it’s interesting nonetheless.

If you've ever wondered where the Black Kingz gather...

If you’ve ever wondered where the Black Kingz gather…

Who owns these buildings that are within a stone’s throw of our beautiful river?

Commerce in action! Alabama River adjacent!

Commerce in action! Alabama River adjacent!

We accidentally ended up amid the railyard that you can see on the map. So, we got an up close look at how pine trees are exported from our state and turned into paper (or whatever). But not much of a look at the Alabama River. We wanted boats, not trains.

Dead trees. Future paper. Alabama's timber.

Dead trees. Future paper. Alabama’s timber.

Still, it was fun to feel like we had ended up somewhere that we weren’t supposed to be. We went connected with the Northern Boulevard and went north up Jackson’s Ferry road. What better way to learn about the Alabama River than to drive on the Alabama River Parkway?

We ended up out near the Montgomery Expressway, which is a racetrack. It does not feel like you are still in Montgomery.

We first saw an island in the river with a road leading to it. It turns out that this is a private island and there is a gate across the road. As the photo notes, you have to be a member. We are not members. Alabama River access denied.

IMG_0784

Yeah, well, we’d welcome YOU to our private island. Maybe.

By this point, we were getting hungry. Since we were cruising around with eyes glued to Google maps (well, the passenger was … the driver was keeping his eyes squarely on the road and hands at 10 and 2 o’clock), we noticed something called “One More Lounge.” Located at 4330 Riveroaks Road in Millbrook, this place turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

One More!

One More!

This place is right on the river. When we were there, it was incredibly chilled out, although you get the impression that it could get rowdy when it fills up with “the right people.” The bartender was super friendly and the beer was super cheap. It was perfect.

They have a patio that overlooks the river, and a boat dock so that you can pull your boat up, grab a round of drinks or some ice or whatever and keep on truckin’. While we were admiring the view, a seriously sunburned party dude stumbled off his boat to check in on the happenings at the “One More.” He probably had a few more.

What did we learn?

Our city sits on one of the state’s largest rivers. It was a life-sustaining engine of everything for native peoples that settled here. It has been a key piece of the economy and commerce. And it’s being promoted by the city as some kind of stage for water ski contests and country music fireworks extravaganzas. Yet, there is not (as far as we can tell) a single restaurant in Montgomery that has an outdoor patio that overlooks the river. There is no beautiful tree-lined space where you can sit and watch the water roll by. The best thing we could find was a bar attached to an RV park in Millbrook where folks go to play pool and sing karaoke.

This is no way to treat a river. It was fun to drive around and have a day-long adventure looking for access points, but we didn’t come any closer to being able to answer our European friend’s questions about the Alabama River.

“Why is everything so far away from the river? Are you scared of it? What’s wrong with your river?”

I have no idea. If the river is too polluted for swimming, we shouldn’t be having triathlons in it (or jet ski contests or Dragon Boat races or anything else). And if it’s got too much freight and cargo traffic, can we have a public conversation about that? And why hasn’t that stopped other cities from developing the properties around their rivers? Is part of the river a flood plain? Aren’t there engineering solutions to such issues? If we are going to leave so much of the riverside undeveloped and poverty-stricken, can’t we just make it undeveloped and a nature preserve?

I have no answers to these questions, and it’s possible that we missed some prime spots. It’s possible and we’d love to be corrected if we’re wrong. But I get the feeling that we gave it a fair shot. And I sure do wish the river named after our state, the one that runs through our capital city, was a bit more of a revered centerpiece instead of an afterthought. Until someone steps forward with ambitious ideas for integrating our city into the nature that it was built on top of, visitors to Montgomery are going to remain like the Alabama River — just passing through.

Here are some more pics from our adventure:

Rumors – July 2013

Alienation has been one of the ongoing themes of Lost in Montgomery since it was launched in September of 2008. This was not because we were particularly anti-social folks or especially misanthropic, but simply a product of our efforts to figure out life in a new city. Montgomery was unique and mysterious, both of which are conditions that are bound to deteriorate inevitably with natural social and cultural adaptation. 215 posts later, we are much more plugged into our new city than we once were — although we often still find our home to be somewhat bewildering.

So instead of posts like “What’s the deal with this park?” we are now much more often to say, “Here’s what we are hearing…”

And since it’s the Internet, there’s got to be a time and place for scraps of information to be assembled into a larger speculative narrative. Here, in that vein, are some things that we (being only mildly “connected” to people who know things) have been hearing lately about things that matter:

Oak Park — We love Oak Park. It’s weird, but great. It’s obviously the crown jewel of the city park system, yet has been allowed to fall into a (somewhat exaggerated) state of disrepair. Back in 2011, there was a shooting there, which freaked people out, but could have happened anywhere crowds gather (it was at a family reunion). The park is not (as far as we can tell) and more unsafe than any other public space in Montgomery.

But the beloved park has been the source of some wagging tongues lately. First, the city has been talking about moving the park’s planetarium (which is owned by Troy State) downtown, likely to the Questplex at Court Square. That would take a big attraction out of the park, although we agree that the planetarium does need some upgrading to remain current and fun.

We also heard that two other entities were wanting to buy (or take?) large chunks of the park from the city. The rumor we heard was that Alabama State wanted part of it and Jackson Hospital had their eye on the land for expansion.

Obviously, the city would be foolish to give away or sell any part of its best park. They have been ringing the bell lately for us to all give our personal information to the Coca-Cola company in exchange for a chance to “vote” on winning some money for the park. Click click click to vote for corporate money, sure, but how about we don’t do that and just spend tax money to improve the park and make it an enjoyable resource … since that is what tax money is for. Parks are a community good. They should be protected, whether or not the corn syrup barons from Atlanta give Montgomery free money or not. Also: hands off, ASU and Jackson. Oak Park will rise again.

Anita Archie — So we wrote before about how major city leaders (Chad Emerson and Jeff Downes) were leaving for cities that (we guess) they like more than Montgomery. That’s cool. Good jobs for them or whatever.

Well, Mayor Strange has replaced those two with Anita Archie (who’ll become Strange’s “executive assistant,” which sounds too much like “secretary” for someone of her caliber) and Mac McLeod (who’ll be “director of retail and commercial development”).

Archie comes over from the Business Council of Alabama (BCA), where she was a top lobbyist for one of the most feared entities at the statehouse. Think Alabama enacts laws to cater to corporations? BCA is part of the reason why. You name it, and they have been involved in it — environmental stuff, labor stuff, tax policy, whatever. They are a main reason why Alabama is the way it is. And Archie was their “senior VP for intergovernmental affairs, advocacy and communications and legal advisor” and any other collection of titles that means “fixer” and “do not mess with.” She isn’t new to Montgomery politics because she was also ED of the Montgomery Public Housing Authority and the Riverfront Development Foundation. So she probably knows where some bodies are buried and how to get things done, even though we don’t have a ton of information about her vision for the city just yet.

McLeod solidifies the city government’s “intimate” relationship with Colonial, which is the real estate end of the company that once was akin to a sister company, Colonial Bank — which was the 6th largest bank failure in American history. I wrote a million billion words about Colonial Bank, its abandoned headquarters, its relationship to McLeod’s company, and the ties to the Hampstead Institute EAT South here. Really, it’s worth reading. It’s one of the better things I have put up on Lost in Montgomery. But if you don’t wanna, it will help you understand McLeod and the Lowders to read this article (which I link to in my post). A crooked bank! Auburn football boosters! A $1.95 million deal to buy land for a school!

Obviously none of this has been reported by the teenagers that cover local politics for The Montgomery Advertiser. They’re doing good to spell the press releases correctly. But they’re having a contest where you can send them photos of yourselves in 1980s clothes! Journalism!

the road construction on the way to Auburn – This is one where we don’t have any information. We really just want to know more. Have you seen the giant towering ramps that are being now fully constructed out on I-85 on the way to Auburn? They look like exits to take you to … what exactly? Mt. Meigs? Pike Road? Why are they building these huge loops of road? Is this what we need? More east-side sprawl? Who is paying for that? Why? I get that our fiscally conservative leaders are borrowing highway money hand-over-fist, but is this what it is building?

ASU bowl game vs. All-Star Game – Our brand new college football all-star game was really fun. We went. It was great. We hope it succeeds. But now ASU is talking about hosting some kind of bowl game in their new stadium? You know, the new stadium they inaugurated by failing to maintain one of their most important rivalries in the Turkey Day Classic? Ah, that’s some good athletic directing. Couldn’t move the game so Tuskegee could play in the playoffs. Had to just kill it.

So, the Legends Bowl? Maybe a low-rent Mountain West team versus some Sun Belt also rans? Can we support this plus our All-Star game? Who knows? The bet is that there is absolutely no limit to the appetite of people in Alabama for college football, no matter what it is. We can always look to the Papa John’s Bowl BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham for an indicator of how that might go. BBVA is pulling its sponsorship after next year? Oh. Maybe don’t look there.

New stadium ya’ll! And if the bowl game brings a parade, don’t expect to have a car waiting for you.

skate park – We have always thought that it was super cool that our city had a skate park downtown. But there is always talk in the media that it is going to be shut down. Not because the kids on skateboards are trouble-making bandits. That would be cool. No, they are always talking about shutting it down (or moving it) because it occupies some primo real estate.

To me, that’s part of what makes it great. It’s downtown and urban and a great location for people that like to skate. But first they wanted to put an apartment complex there. Rumor was, the developer pulled out because of the toxic underground pollution plume (known affectionately as “the downtown plume” or “Plumie, the shifting poison vapor trail you also mustn’t drink”). Yeah, it’s on the EPA’s radar. No, the development people don’t like you talking about it.

But what will happen to the skate park? Will the teens turn into Toxic Avengers? What about C.H.U.Ds?

Well, that’s enough for now. Leave all of your hottest new tips down in the comments section. We will either respond to them, ignore them or delete them. Love always,

Lost in Montgomery

Montgomery’s Lightning Route

photo(1)Did you know that Montgomery was once home to the nation’s first electric trolley? It was a marvel of the times, a true wonder of science, technology and progress. We were envied by the rest of the world for our public transportation.

No more. Now, we only drive cars or trucks, burning fossil fuels and cutting off the poor from employment and health care. Out city buses became famous for racism and tactics deployed against it. We now incentivize sprawl, which is convenient for those looking to flee neighbors that don’t look like them or share their values.

This sign is still on display downtown, as poetic in decay as the discarded idea it represents. Here’s hoping that one day our city will again be on the cutting edge of something good.

John Durham, the Bell Building, and A New Era

There’s a lot of talk these days about downtown revitalization and the future of Montgomery. The city government has pushed its chips almost entirely onto the square betting that downtown economic development will lift the rest of the city. There are plenty of people eager to talk to you about the future of downtown, and they’ve got architectural sketches and demographic surveys to back up their sales pitch.

But not as many people want to talk about the past. I don’t mean the fact that there were slave markets there. And I don’t mean the type of nostalgia that drives people to want to have a street fair or a downtown soap box derby race.

Diane McWhorter hinted at what I mean in her op-ed in the New York Times a few days ago. Writing with great insight about her native Birmingham, she wrote

Yet the evil segregationist archetype is fixed in the popular mind as the villainous housewife of “The Help” or the cretinous mob of “Django Unchained” — nobody we’d ever know, or certainly ever be.

But the disquieting reality is that the conflict was between not good and evil, but good and normal. The brute racism that today seems like mass social insanity was a “way of life” practiced by ordinary “good” people.

But in my particular reflections on the recent history of downtown Montgomery, I’m not thinking about the ethical judgment necessitated by civil rights. I’m just thinking about how regular folks, overlooked folks, did keep businesses downtown, even though the surrounding shops were shuttered, leaving entire blocks looking like a bomb had gone off.

One such merchant was John Durham.

Until January 1, 2013, Durham ran a watch repair shop in the Bell Building on Montgomery Street. Today, when walking by, I noticed that his shop was empty. Mr. Durham was inside, making one last sweep of the place before closing the door behind him for good.

I didn’t know he was closing. I stopped in to let him know that we’d miss seeing him in there, peering through a jeweler’s loupe into a beautiful set of meticulously arranged gears.

He offered me a jug of hydrochloric acid, not knowing how tempted I was to take him up on it and cart around the dangerous liquid that he had used for some process related to gold plating.

I didn’t tell him that we had briefly blogged about his shop, encouraging people to take their watches there. I didn’t tell him that, although I had never used his services (and don’t even wear a watch), that it warmed my heart to see him at work. I didn’t talk about how I was sad that cell phones had reduced watches to luxury status symbols for the rich, nor did I express admiration for the details and focus that an artisan must have to work with tiny machines that measure our lives in such discrete increments.

No, instead I told him that we’d all miss him and wished him the best in his retirement. He is, after all, in his 90s and he said that he had plenty of housework to catch up on.

I don’t honestly know if Durham is a nice guy or not. I never heard anything negative about him. But it’s interesting how my mind valorized Durham’s longevity, his commitment to his work, the generational and technological divide that he represented. I would love to be so passionate about my craft that I continue to work on it into my life’s ninth decade.

Alvin Benn, himself an elderly icon of Montgomery, wrote an indispensable story about Durham for the Montgomery Advertiser on July 25, 2010. For the moment, it is online at this Sidney Lanier website. But if the operators of the site take it down, it’ll disappear in the impenetrable archives of the corporation that owns the Advertiser. The article is good, as most of Benn’s feature stories and profiles are. It’s the reason I didn’t try to interview Durham before. It contains plenty of info about his 65-year career fixing watches, his 70 years in Montgomery, his 40 years in the Bell Building.

At the Bell Building today, I felt lucky to have run into Durham before he left for the last time. I held the door for him as he carted the hydrochloric acid to his minivan, saying that he thought some auto parts people might could use it — something about car batteries.

“Arched Victory” by Sunny Paulk

I looked in at his empty shop, where he used to have some really cool pocket watches, and little velvet cases, and a set of intricate tools. I looked at the Bell Building, which is over 100 years old and currently for sale. I thought about the old guy around the corner that runs the engraving shop, which may also be an endangered business as people just order plaques and trophies off the Internet.

There’s something both sad and beautiful about the sole proprietorship run by a single person with no successor. When the person ceases to engage in commerce, the business goes away. People get old. People stop wearing watches.

Durham Watch Service didn’t have a website. It didn’t have a Facebook page. It almost never advertised. But it had a loyal customer base who respected the craft of someone who was incredibly skilled. And now there’s an empty place on the ground floor of the Bell Building on Montgomery Street.

Downtown Montgomery will carry on, with minor league baseball, some hotels, a ton of bars and over-priced restaurants serving mid-grade food to convention attendees and tourists looking to tweet photos of themselves standing next to something or other about civil rights or the Civil War. But hopefully, people will take a minute and look up at the Bell Building and think about how small merchants used to make things and provide services to folks.

R.I.P. Jubilee Festival

We wrote a while back about the month of May, our plans, and how we hadn’t been to the Jubilee Fest. And now, we’ll never go. Because it was cancelled.

If Jubilee is to be mourned, it must be mourned for what it was at its peak. The shuffling zombie quasi-festival that it had become was a casino-sponsored money-losing albatross, bringing second-rate acts to town at absurd prices, eventually, in its death spasm, throwing in a beer festival to go along with the music and road race. It was originally an arts and crafts festival, founded in 1976, growing (as we have noted) into a quality event that drew people from all parts of the state (and from other states). Ultimately, it died as one of those “city services” that we just can’t afford anymore, like curbside recycling. Capital un-cool.

A few points:

Many cities have figured out that music festivals are winning economic development opportunities.

If music festivals didn’t make money, Atlanta wouldn’t still hold the Midtown Music Festival, which just drew tens of thousands of people to their downtown. People that attended that event got to hear Pearl Jam cover The Clash. Also, the Hang Out Fest has been a massive success and has exploded in recent years, drawing people from around the country to Alabama’s coast. If music festivals couldn’t work, they wouldn’t have just started one in Gulf Shores and pumped millions of dollars into their local economy. Finally, Bama Jam was also a big success, drawing people to the backwater wastelands of a cow pasture near Ozark. Although Bama Jam’s organizer is heading to jail, the festival may carry on and appears to be making money.

The death of Birmingham’s City Stages should have been a huge opportunity for Montgomery to solidify the dominance of Jubilee.

Birmingham blew it by letting City Stages die. Years of mismanagement contributed to the death of that world class gathering, with considerable grumbling about how the city had (for tax purposes) overstated the “cultural” significance of the event. If there was going to be a silver lining to the death of a once-great Alabama institution, we hoped that it would be that Montgomery could learn from the financial issues of our neighbor to the north. Evidently not.

Instead, we are taking the easy way out and saying that a music festival is just an expense we can’t afford. And when you’re doing something similar to what they’re doing in Birmingham and Jefferson County, odds are, you’re doing it wrong.

Music festivals provide something for everyone. They can help to grow a local music scene.

Festivals, when properly booked, draw diverse audiences. A little bit of country, a little bit of rock and roll, and some hip-hop – it ain’t rocket science. People get exposed to new bands because they pay admission to see their favorites. You have to be careful not to traffic too heavily into the washed up acts that frequent Mississippi casinos. You can get some nostalgia dollars, but don’t want to rely on them. You want the kids to come and have a place to hang out away from parental supervision. You want some food, some arts and crafts, some vendors, some shade and some benches, and you’re pretty much good. If you’re humane, you give away water because it’s hot and we live in the south and we’re not monsters.

Also, you make sure to book local acts, growing the music scene. It’s one thing to give tax breaks to downtown bars, hoping that they’ll book musicians. It’s another to get people to step up their game because they’re playing on the same stage as one of their heroes. Festivals let low-visibility bands play in high-visibility settings, with (in theory) good sound technicians and a chance to sell some merchandise. The digital era has impacted these facts without rendering them false. There’s not a single local band that we’d go out of our way to hear, but that might change if some hungry band spent the year practicing to get on stage before an A-List act on a downtown stage.

City budgets show priorities.

Evidently, dragon boat races are good, especially if you control the concessions contract. And road races good because you can charge people money to run on your public streets, while claiming that you promote fitness. But music festivals require dealing with musicians and booking talent and setting up stages and keeping streets closed for long periods of time. People will get drunk and might get into fights, and there’s tons of trash to clean up afterwards.

But the bottom line is that other cities have figured out how to make festivals work. Even lowly Birmingham replaced City Stages with the Crawfish Boil. What will we replace Jubilee with? A third-tier college football all-star game?

Jubilee was spun off into its own 501(c)3 in 1992 as a non-profit organization with a volunteer board of directors and a full time executive director. The city still put up money and any other number of kinds of support. Here’s a look at what the festival was like shortly after that time, when it cost $9 per day, or $12 for a weekend pass.

Musical highlights of that Memorial Day weekend in 1995 included Dr. John, Junior Walker (who died later that year), B.B. King, Drivin-N-Cryin, Maceo Parker, Peter Rowan, and Col. Bruce Hampton and the Fiji Mariners. Again, let me emphasize, these world class legendary acts were all present in Montgomery at the same time.

A map!

A sense of sponsorship and scheduling.

A welcome from the mayor

The Slow Death of the Montgomery Advertiser

There was a time when I was a young high school journalism student, so many years ago, that I thought the Montgomery Advertiser was an impressive newspaper.

That was long enough ago that I can’t say whether the Montgomery Advertiser really was once a good paper, or whether, as is often the case, the lesson is that children are idiots. But I sure did think it was good. I would read every issue I could find, devoting extra attention to the opinion pages, the columns of Alvin Benn, and local sports coverage. It had some heft. It made our small town daily, with its two or three “news” articles each day, look like tissue paper.

Since that time, I grabbed myself a fancy journalism degree from a top college of journalism and learned a lot more about the economics of the newspaper industry (see also: implosion). I began to develop opinions about Pulitzers and the companies that own the newspapers. Even as I veered from practicing journalism into law school, I still read a lot of books about things like media consolidation, and devoured all of the navel-gazing stuff from Romenesko and Brill’s Content.

And honestly, all that is a long and roundabout way of saying that I’m totally qualified to say that the Montgomery Advertiser sucks … and it’s a damn shame. Hell, any reader can see it. You don’t need to know jack about journalism to know that the Montgomery Advertiser is a shadow of something worth reading.

Big cities need daily newspapers. It’d be great if they had more than one, since the competition inspires excellence. And those days are almost certainly gone forever. Most startups, even weeklies, seem doomed to fail. Advertising dollars are scarce as the economy collapses suffers. Print editions are increasingly expensive to produce and deliver, while online content still, after all these years, has yet to find a proper profitable niche (or replicable model).

And capital cities need daily newspapers more than other cities. They have a special duty to cover politics that dramatically impact the rest of the state (papers in other cities are cutting back on their statehouse political reporting for all of the above reasons). And any proud capital city worth a damn ought to take pride in covering local politics with a relentless tenacity, setting themselves up as a model for other papers around the state.

Sadly, the Montgomery Advertiser is only a model for how not to run a newspaper. The few people that haven’t been fired (or quit) can unleash a staggering torrent of details about their sorry working conditions: low pay, forced furloughs, low morale, lack of pride in the finished product. I don’t know a single friend that actually subscribes. The only time we even look at the website is to make fun of the laughable attempts at getting “page views,” (the coveted currency of the Internet era). I refer here to the “Spotted At” feature, where the Advertiser sends a (likely ashamed) photographer out to some local nightclub, where they document bar patrons in a series of unflattering photos. The idea, I guess, is that people will click on the site the next day to see their photos (or to see if they know anyone), but the result is to make our town look like a backwater of bad fashion and hair gel — and our newspaper look like a sad gossip rag.

The Advertiser has been owned by Gannett since 1995, and last won a Pulitzer in 1988. The Tuscaloosa News won a Pulitzer this year for reporting on the tornadoes that decimated that town. Grandma Advertiser (as it was once charmingly called nearly a century ago), is meanwhile struggling to provide even basic news coverage of city council meetings. I honestly can’t even think of the last important news story that they broke, compelling me to read along each day to find out more details.

Some specifics:

• The Downtown Plume: Did you know that a huge chunk of downtown is a toxic Superfund site? It’s because of chemicals dumped over decades by state agencies and, well, the Advertiser itself, which once had printing presses downtown and used poisonous solvents to clean them. I understand you might not want to spread news of your own pending tort liability, but this is also a public health story that a) concerns the public and b) is still developing. The feds are involved and it’s impacting downtown development. Fortunately, nobody is writing regular articles about it.

• City Council: Do you have any idea what your city council member has been doing lately? Ours got elected to Congress and we rely on our neighborhood association for info about her replacement. We understand that the Advertiser’s best city beat reporter recently departed for greener pastures (Norfolk, Virginia), but things were tough even before she left. She broke a really good story about the tragic fiasco at Lincoln Cemetery (and executed great follow-up), but the fact that I can’t name the reporter who replaced her isn’t a good sign. Remember how in 2010 City Councilman C.C. Calhoun voted against a distracted driving ban and then tragi-comically told the press that he was personally planning on talking on his cell phone as he drove home? And then remember how he just recently got a DUI? Yeah, neither does anyone else. Because city council gets treated with kid gloves and no actual investigation into, say, primary documents or budgeting decisions.

• Context: Do you know anything about the city school system? We certainly try to, but since all the reporting about it is framed in ahistorical context-free terms, it comes off as a political pissing match between personalities, with little sense of what policy issues are the basis for the disputes. Yes, we know that there’s talk of pushing for a new city school system (apart from the county system). But the quality of reporting on this important topic is laughably poor. On the plus side, some of the paper’s reporting on this subject isn’t behind a paywall and instead lives on the Daily Siftings blog. On the minus side, the blog went nearly all of February without being updated and has lost the aforementioned city beat reporter that provided much of the content.

• Archives: Look, we understand that you can’t just open all of the paper’s entire history of articles to the general public for free. Fine. We get it. The paywall or subscription wall must go up at some point. But if a person wanted some journalism on, say, public health reporting, the Advertiser has nothing to offer other than an exceptionally shoddy search engine and some paywall articles to sell you. Compare that to the Philadelphia Inquirer series on violence in schools or the Austin American-Statesman series on dangerous pipelines. Oh, and that last one was published more than ten years ago and is still up for free on their website. Some papers are proud of the journalism that their employees do.

Would it kill the Advertiser to do some reporting that would appeal to someone wanting a bit of a bird’s eye view of our town, then put it on their site for free? What’s the deal with Maxwell Air Force Base? Is there an archive of all the articles about the Jubilee Cityfest? Who runs the city zoo and how much money does it make? I’d read that. What about a sub-site with a bunch of articles about the Biscuits, including the articles surrounding the team’s arrival in Montgomery and the construction of the stadium? How about an evergreen page highlighting famous people from Montgomery? What about a map, showing every part of town that got federal stimulus money? What about insight into how the city’s Latino community has reacted to HB 56?

Bottom line: They’ve got at least one good reporter over there (Bryan Lyman, who covers state politics), but not a single columnist I’d consider must-read. Ken Hare is gone. Jim Earnhardt is gone. Others, whether gone or merely playing out the string, really aren’t worth mentioning.

But our city, our proud and beautiful city, is information starved. We need and, yes, deserve better from our daily. We can’t be nourished by the free magazines that people pick up at local restaurants. And don’t suggest that blogs like this one (sporadically compiled as a hobby) can ever compete with professional journalism produced by paid experts.

The information spread around Facebook and Twitter has to come from somewhere. Somebody’s got to turn over the rocks and give people the journalism (investigative and otherwise) that makes democracy function. Because, ultimately, I think that adolescent version of myself, scanning over the pages of the Montgomery Advertiser, was probably right: That paper used to be pretty good.

ASF: The Evolution

One of the greatest documentary films about Alabama in recent years is called Best Worst Movie. Sure, it’s about things besides Alabama, like fame and cult movies and Hollywood and celebrity, but the main character is a dentist from Alex City named George Hardy. And it’s a great movie. It shows how a charming man can be swept up in a subcultural madness and a celebration of nostalgia that blurs the lines used to make aesthetic judgment. Thus, thanks to horror movie fans and tastemakers, a “bad” movie becomes a treasured one.

In that movie, there’s a scene where the Italian director of “the worst movie of all time” remarks that it doesn’t matter whether your movie is bad or good — it just matters that your movie has an impact. And by shocking millions of people with its low quality, his movie hit the mark in that regard.

That’s the framework with which I was thinking about the performing arts scene in Montgomery. Who is to say what is “good?” A lot of people don’t much care for Shakespeare. They’d rather pay money to go see a play about Bear Bryant or one written by an introverted pervert.

Still, it’s interesting to poke at the idea of aesthetic judgment without going full scale Harold Bloom, bemoaning the death of the Western Canon™. Let’s take then the evolution of our city’s crown jewel of the performing arts, the Alabama Shakespeare festival. In their first season in Montgomery (1985-1986), this was their lineup of plays offered to the public:

There were 10 plays, three of them by Shakespeare. The other playwrights being offered? All luminaries: Arthur Miller (Pulitzer winner), George Bernard Shaw (Nobel winner), Tennessee Williams (Pulitzer winner), and Harold Pinter (Nobel winner).

Now let’s look at the 2011-2012 lineup:

  • DraculaOct 7 – 30, 2011Adapted by Willian McNulty; Originally dramatized by John L. Balderson and Hamilton Deane from Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • A Christmas Memory – Nov 25 – Dec 24, 2011Book by Duane Poole, Music by Larry Grossman, Lyrics by Carol Hall; Based on the short story by Truman Capote.
  • In The Book Of ... – Jan 5 – 22, 2012 – “In John Walch’s powerful reimagining of The Book of Ruth, an Army lieutenant, and her Afghani interpreter settle in Mississippi, where they are targeted by a rampaging politician. Family, friendship, and the American Way are tested in this often funny, touching, and unforgettable story.”
  • The 39 StepsJan 27 – Feb 7; April 22 – May 19, 2012 – Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan, from the 1935 movie by Alfred Hitchcock and an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon
  • Travels With My Aunt Feb 3 – 7; April 22 – May 19, 2012Adapted by Giles Havergal, based on Graham Greene’s novel.
  • Merry Wives of Windsor – April 13 – May 18, 2012
  • Henry VII – April 19 – May 20, 2012
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream – April 21 & 29; May 4, 12 & 20, 2012
  • NANTA Cooking Show – July 11 – 15, 2012 (“The Iron Chef Meets Stomp!”)
  • The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling BeeAug 10 – Sept 2, 2012 – Book by Rachel Sheinkin, music and lyrics by William Finn, conceived by Rebecca Feldman.

That’s 10 plays, and three Shakespeare. When making the comparison between this year’s ASF offerings and that initial season (the first after ASF came to Montgomery from Anniston, where it ran from 1972-1984), it’s easy to see that there are the same number of Shakespeare plays. Two of the Shakespeare offings are the same this year as that first year, replacing Richard with Henry.

You go, girlfriends!

But the plays are just not the same. The picture of Merry Wives makes this year’s offering look like Merry Housewives of Windsor County. And it’s undeniable that the theater’s offerings in recent years have been more towards more, um, populist fare like Menopause: The Musical and Peter Pan and Bear Bryant and Elvis.

Last year there were only two Shakespeare plays: Much Ado About Nothing and Julius Caesar. And one might guess that this is simply an economic reality of running a theater company in a world of 200-plus cable channels, the Internet, and degraded public tastes. If Beavis and Butthead: The Musical is going to put fannies in seats, who are we to decry the coarsening of taste? Don’t the ASF impresarios know more about what people will pay to see than us?

A few more facts: ASF began in Anniston in 1972 as a professional regional theater company. It has been located in Montgomery since 1985 when it moved from Anniston as a result of Mr. and Mrs. Winton M. Blount’s gift of a performing arts complex. ASF operated through the University of Alabama from 1993-2008 and hosted a highly-regarded MFA program there, starting in 1985.

This program was considered one of the most desirable offerings in the nation for aspiring actors. Elite level talent sought to perform at ASF as a result of the prestige and the ability to use the degree as a springboard to bigger opportunities. Getting a serious run of Othello on your resume was a major credential for actors looking to jump to the most exclusive acting circles.

Unfortunately, while ASF touts 2007-08 as “a landmark season at ASF,” the reality was a bit more mixed. While the holiday production of Peter Pan became the best-selling production in ASF history, the ASF ended its relationship with the University of Alabama in 2008 amid a series of clashing egos and priorities. But the marketing wins for Montgomery’s jewel of a theater is undeniable: Peter Pan is closely followed by Menopause the Musical and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as the top three most successful shows – all having been produced within recent years at ASF.

We’ve heard that ASF is contractually required to produce at least two or three Shakespeare plays every season, allowing them to keep the Bard’s name on their masthead. But it’s clear that the public wants Disney-themed fare, quality productions for families with short attention spans and pre-approved, market-tested, focus grouped winners. Who around here has ever heard of George Bernard Shaw or Harold Pinter anyway?

To be fair, this year’s offerings do include the names of Bram Stoker, Truman Capote, Alfred Hitchcock, and Graham Greene. All of those artists are favorites of ours, and well-skilled. But they also didn’t really write plays, meaning that the performances are adaptations of their works, leaving a lot of wiggle room for either genius or mediocrity. A musical comedy based on Thelma and Louise might advertise by including a name we like (“based on the movie by Ridley Scott!”), but it’s not the same thing as actually producing and staging a play by Eugene O’Neill.

Again, there’s no denying that audiences are into the new direction. By definition, more popular, less challenging fare is, well, more popular. ASF audiences have increased from 117,965 in 2004-05 to 164,335 in 2006-07. Unclear about the current stats.

And we’ll certainly go see some of the new stuff in 2012. We certainly will see the Shakespeare and may give some of the other stuff a try (probably not the Afghan war one based on a book of the Bible). But the idea that we missed the chance to live in a town that was regularly producing plays by edgy, legendary playwrights is a bit of a bummer.

This isn’t about nostalgia. We aren’t interested in seeing the plays of a Harold Pinter or a Vaclav Havel simply because they are decades old. It simply cannot be argued that Tennessee Williams is yesterday’s version of Twilight: The Musical. The latter may well sell more tickets than the former, but that’s simply a sad fact leading inexorably to Cam Newton: The Musical. A gem like the ASF should not be debased by the ever-descending tastes of popular whimsy.

We realize that the battle between art and commerce is nothing new. With the economy collapsing, people aren’t going to pay $30 a pop to go see academic fare about people Coming to Terms With Things. They want to see musicals, vampires, and Captain Hook swordfights with Spider-Man hung from a harness while riding the Lion King. And tickets must be sold to keep the lights on. We get it.

Over the holidays, we’ve been reading Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. He conjures a world where the self-medicating seek frivolity and distraction. It’s a place where love of servitude is made possible when confrontation and non-conformity are obliterated by consumption of art that is touching and heart-warming and musical. When confronted for the first time with that dystopia, Huxley’s character John (the Savage) speaks rapturously of “the Brave New World.”

The origin of that phrase being quoted by John? “The Tempest” by some guy named William Shakespeare.

This is intellectually slippery territory. It’s hard to find your footing when every move in this high/low culture fight has been mined with various politically charged explosives. To be clear: we’re not saying Julius Ceasar has to be staged in togas every time. We haven’t even seen many of the plays we’re talking about. And we’re not trying to pick a fight with ASF, which we love and revere.

But we do want to start a conversation about art in our city, and we don’t have a lot of places to do that – Grandma Advertiser certainly isn’t keeping a theater critic on staff, not that the newspaper’s comment pages are the best forum for talking art (or anything, for that matter).

As Michael Chabon rightly says, there’s nothing wrong with entertainment as the purpose of art. Homer tried to entertain his audiences, and it’s been the same even through dreadful Victorian novels and empty experimental French cinema. But artists also push at the bounds of what’s comprehensible, thereby expanding the bounds of what’s possible. We don’t need Shakespeare to help us see more, differently and better, but it’s irresponsible and dangerous to think that Disney and musical tributes to Buddy Holly serve the same purposes.

A great city can’t exist without great art, and even a pretty good city’s residents deserve art that encourages them to dream in something other than Technicolor.

Emory McCord Folmar (1930-2011)

“Perhaps the best way of encapsulating the gist of an epoch is to focus not on the explicit features that define its social and ideological edifices, but on the disavowed ghosts that haunt it, dwelling in a mysterious region of nonexistent entities which nonetheless persist, continuing to exert their efficacy.” – Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute

It’s difficult to write obituaries of people like Jesse Helms or Mayor Joe Smitherman of Selma. You’re talking about men who ended up on the wrong side of history. You’re talking about people who, whether their crimes were legal or moral (or both), or even forgivable, still leave this world with families that care about them. And even the most objectionable of that bad lot, say, Richard Nixon or George Wallace, still were, beneath the accumulated iconography, men who went into public service with an idea of improving their communities and working on behalf of those they saw as their constituencies.

This has always been true for the humble writer of the villain’s obituary, juggling historical perspective, balancing the good deeds with various atrocities, writing with an honest voice without seeming to be ghoulishly dancing on the graves of the recently deceased. That’s why some batch of scribes is going to soon have to parse through the reprehensible career of a highly-respected war criminal like Henry Kissinger. To have any ethics at all, we’ve got to make judgments about these fallible (and usually proud) humans.

This is especially dicey when you’re dealing with people who were famous back before social attitudes underwent some kind of massive transformation. There can be all sorts of quibbles with understanding someone’s life “within the proper context.”

Allen Tullos, in his book Alabama Getaway, writes about the ghost of George Wallace, making extended reference to the brilliant work of the Drive-By Truckers. Tullos writes about the Truckers’ song, “Wallace,” which posits that even if Wallace’s vile racism wasn’t genuine, pandering to evil in order to get votes is still sufficient to earn a person eternal damnation.

“Concerning Emory Folmar, the mayor of Montgomery, there is no middle ground. To a substantial majority of Montgomerians, he is the greatest thing ever to happen to their city. He attracts from them a Wallace-like loyalty. Then there is the vocal minority who see Emory Folmar as a power-hungry racist who would turn Montgomery into a veritable police state.” — Alabama Magazine, December 1980

Emory Folmar was a heavily decorated Korean War vet. He was a millionaire who made his fortune in construction. He built shopping centers. And he was mayor of Montgomery from 1977 until 1999.

He was a legendary hard worker. He was also no friend to free thinkers, nor to Montgomery’s African-American community. He was a constant nemesis of the city’s black leaders, notably Joe Reed, who was then on the city council, and was (and is still) the head of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the black wing of the state’s Democratic party.

Media accounts of Folmar’s tenure as mayor have mostly focused on his gruff personality and his incredible work ethic. He was a stickler for details and would often accompany city employees on their most routine tasks. And certainly there’s a double edge to the idea that he’d ride along with garbage crews, making sure they were picking up trash properly. On the one hand, he wanted the citizens of Montgomery to be receiving top-tier service from their tax dollars. On the other hand, there’s a certain point where “salt of the Earth” becomes Helicopter Boss.

Folmar and Race

It was 1982. No sitting president had been to Montgomery since Jefferson Davis. But Folmar was a Republican back before that was Alabama’s dominant political orthodoxy. So when Folmar backed Reagan in 1980, the Gipper repaid the favor by coming to Alabama and addressing the sitting Alabama Legislature. Rep. Alvin Holmes, who still represents Montgomery at the Statehouse, walked out of Reagan’s speech. The event seems like a microcosm of where Montgomery was in terms of racial harmony.

Still, Folmar valued law and order more than he valued white supremacy. The Mayor was on the scene in 1979 to order the arrest of nearly 200 Klansmen as they marched from Selma into the city limits without a permit. News reports from the time highlight the fact that the mayor, sporting his pistol, stood alongside the police in their riot gear.

Nonetheless, the city under Folmar remained extremely racially polarized, as noted by some electoral reporting in the Times Daily on Oct. 12, 1983:

“Supported by an organization of more than 3,000 campaign workers, Mayor Emory Folmar trounced challenger Franklin James Tuesday in an election that revealed a clear division between white and black voters.”

Folmar won that election by a count of 32,734 to 23,149 (58 percent to 41 percent), but it was a high-profile battle. Nearly 50 percent of the registered voters in the city voted.

Montgomery was then 40 percent black, but, according to the article, Folmar barely campaigned in the city’s black districts. Still, he somehow got 20 percent of the city’s black vote. The Times Daily article waits to the end to explicitly state the subtext of the campaign:

“While Folmar denied he was making an issue of race, his campaign literature and his radio ads repeatedly asserted that James would allow “radicals” to run the city. Those “radical forces” he named – city councilmen Donald Watkins and Joe Reed and state Rep. Alvin Holmes – are black.”

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was under Folmar that Montgomery experienced the notorious “Todd Road Incident.” An excellent 30-minute documentary about the incident can be seen here, but this racially-charged tragedy will forever be linked to Folmar, not just the officers in question. Folmar and the city went to court to try to force the officers to submit to questioning about the incident. Folmar ultimately fired the officers, but the city was torn apart by the fallout from the incident.

Development of the City

Folmar was defeated in 1999 by a prison guard-turned-lawyer named Bobby Bright. Bright and current mayor Todd Strange spent years of their terms (and millions of tax dollars) repairing downtown Montgomery. During the 1980s, the whole center of the city became a bombed out and abandoned wellspring of fear. Sure, some of that was caused by white flight and sprawl, factors too large to be caused by a single mayor. Yet, the focused efforts of Bright and Strange (which we admire and mostly support) demonstrate that concentrated leadership in the area of urban development can make a difference. When we moved to Montgomery, there was a near total consensus that downtown was just emerging from a time in which it was a decimated wasteland. Even if some of the credit for Riverwalk redevelopment goes to Folmar (as Mayor Strange said during some of the memorializing), it must also be true that Folmar could have stopped some of the creeping blight before it reached the tragic levels that it did.

One would think that a person from the construction industry would have seen and corrected the ongoing and worsening disrepair of Garrett Coliseum. One would think that someone who made a fortune building shopping malls would have been more attuned to the withering and death of the Montgomery Mall, which remains an abandoned eyesore at the southern entrance to the city.

Like Zizek says in the epigraph to this piece, Folmar (with his focus on the east side of the city) still haunts downtown’s boarded up buildings and the undeniably heart-breaking impoverishment of the city’s west side.

The First Republican

It is a now-familiar thesis in political science circles that George Wallace made people like Newt Gingrich possible. Although a Democrat, Wallace carved out a template for a brand of populism that Republicans used to engineer their 1994 rise to national power. Among the hallmarks of this political mode of being: a resentful contempt for softness, a chest-thumping support for a militant foreign policy, and a toxic distrust of elites, intellectuals, and “special interest” minorities.

Long before dimwits like Ann Coulter showed up on the public radar, Folmar was quoted saying things like:

“You turned the media people loose on me, saying that I had a Reagan-Bush sticker on my car as though it was a city car. I own that car. I furnish my own gas, my own tires … I can do with it what I damn please. I want to let you know that this was the beginning of a long war against what I consider liberals. And anytime one of you liberals gets in my sights, I’m going for the kill and I’m taking no prisoners. You liberal do-gooders have damn near destroyed this country and here is one who is going to do all he’s big enough to do to make damn sure you don’t get your hands on the throttle again. That’s what I told her … No, this war’s not ever going to be over.”

We already noted his stumping for Reagan, and it’s hard for young people to remember what the nation’s climate involved at that time: Afghanistan, ICBMs and the missile gap, AIDS, the explosion of crack cocaine, fear of the Japanese economy, Iran-Contra, the savings and loan crisis, and dozens of other issues that don’t make much sense to contemporary ahistorical minds.

Most Republicans in this era were exceptions to the political rule. Alabama, while conservative, was still part of the “solid South.” Democrats didn’t lose control of the Legislature until 2010. Republicans back then were simply ahead of their time, and it took a while for the national partisan trends to catch up to the groundwork plowed by men like Folmar.

As a Republican, Folmar ran against George Wallace in the gubernatorial campaign of 1982. Wallace had done his whole “repent and apologize” routine for the racist unpleasantness of previous decades and also was operating on some sympathy because a would-be assassin had put him in a wheelchair. In his indispensable book, Black in Selma, a legendary civil rights lawyer tells this interesting story about the Wallace-Folmar campaign:

When he beat MacMillan (in the primary), Wallace came seeking (the Alabama Democratic Conference’s) endorsement in the general election against Emory Folmar, the Republican mayor of Montgomery. Joe Louis Reed, the chairman of ADC, usually called the shots on the state and national endorsements, but this was one decision he didn’t want to make by himself. Joe called about twenty ADC leaders from around the state to come to Montgomery to meet with Wallace the next day in the boardroom of the Alabama Education Association, the state teachers’ union where Joe works. We were all sitting around the big conference table when Wallace — smoking a big cigar — came in with a black man pushing his wheelchair.

He started talking his usual stuff about how he was a populist. He and his family had been dirt poor. He’d built trade schools, raised teachers’ salaries. Emory Folmar was nothing but a damn “Republican chief of police” running around looking for some black heads to whip. He said he wanted us to make a statement endorsing him. He thought it would make a difference.

Somebody said they didn’t think the race would even be close. There weren’t that many Republicans in the state of Alabama except when electing a president.

“In all my years in politics, I’ve never taken a race for granted,” Wallace responded.

Wallace was correct that we weren’t going to ask black people to vote for Emory Folmar, who was so right-wing, some folk in Montgomery called him the mayoratollah. He liked to strap on a pistol and ride to the scenes of crimes with the policemen. More than one black had been shot or injured by the Montgomery police under questionable circumstances, and the black community there deeply disliked him.” — J.L. Chestnut, Black in Selma, p. 334-5

Statewide candidacy rebuffed, Folmar later threw in his lot with Fob James, running Fob’s failure of a campaign against Don Siegelman in 1998. Fob, the sitting Governor at the time, was famous for agitating for prayer in schools and two terms of states rights-themed meanness. James was trounced by Siegelman, the last time that the Democrats managed to win a race for the executive office. Among the highlights from that campaign, Folmar said he “laid a trap” for Winton Blount, James’ challenger in the GOP primary, by having Richard Arrington (the black mayor of Birmingham) endorse Blount. That’s right: For Folmar, it was a strike against you if a black person endorsed you.

Folmar was also famous for always being in shape. He was a high school football star and worked out regularly, maintaining a trim and muscular figure throughout his public life (as noted in the picture above). And in some ways, this is an appropriate metaphor for state partisan politics. The lean and trim GOP, made sharp by year in exile, ultimately destroyed, perhaps permanently, the state Democratic Party that had gotten over-confident, lazy, and bloated from years of control.

The Gun

And then there is the pistol. Every story about Folmar mentions the fact that he packed heat. He said it was because there were threats on his life. Evidently somebody shot out the windows of his car a couple of times. And there certainly seemed to be no lack of bravado from the Marine who killed Koreans during the Truman administration. Many folks seemed to cringe at the primitive Wild West image of a pistol-packing mayor. But others took pride. Folmar was a “man’s man,” showing up many mornings when police did their first roll call. He’d be out there at the scenes of traffic wrecks and crimes, embodying the idea that this was his city, and he had the loaded sidearm to back it up if need be.

Needless to say, it’s extremely difficult to imagine an elected official behaving in this way today. Nothing says “good place for economic development” like a city with a mayor always prepared to draw down on his many foes.

Moral Leadership

Also while running that James campaign, Folmar appeared on a local TV show called “Good Morning Montgomery.” According to an Associated Press article that ran in the Tuscaloosa News on Christmas Eve 1997, someone called into the show to complain about being harassed outside a Montgomery nightclub.

Evidently, the person was gay and the nightclub in question was a gay club. The Mayor called the person a queer.

“I said something to the effect of if you didn’t all hang out together there wouldn’t be a problem.”

To its credit, the Tuscaloosa News slammed Folmar’s comment in the opinion page of the same issue in which it reported the story. And Folmar, for his part, was fully unapologetic about using the slur.

A report complaining that Folmar refused to meet with gay residents or support city AIDS services quoted the Mayor as saying, “I used the word queer and I’ll use it again. I’m not going to call them gay. I don’t approve of their lifestyle one bit.”

Oh, and evidently at one point he described AIDS deaths as “self-inflicted wounds.”

Truly, it was a simpler time.

And then there’s this gem of an AP that ran in the Times Daily on March 5, 1988:

Police broke up a punk-rock concert that Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar described as a “Satanic event,” sending about 100 disappointed teenagers home without making any arrests.

Um, what? Wow. The ’80s were crazy. We wish there were punk rock shows at The Capri. Well, except for the part where the police raid the place and ruin everything.

The article quotes Capri Theater Director Martin McCaffery as saying, “The kids at the show had much better manners than the police.” He continues:

“After a fishing expedition through our trash cans — which the police videotaped — they found a few empty beer cans, most of which were in there because we confiscated them.”

Police said they showed up because McCaffery rented the theater to someone without a business license. “That’s not usually handled with 30 cops and a paddy wagon,” McCaffery said.

And that wasn’t the last clash between Folmar’s regime and the Capri. It’s hard to fathom now, but religious right protesters flipped out over a movie called The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. Folmar and then-Gov. Guy Hunt led a “Stand Up for Jesus” protest march, although they declined McCaffery’s invitation to actually view  the film that they were making into political hay.

And that sort of thing was sort of par for the course under Folmar. Numerous people that lived in Montgomery under the Folmar regime remember a string of rock concerts that were ruined (if not banned) by the mayor. It wasn’t that Folmar hated music or the arts — he was partly responsible for bringing the Shakespeare Festival to Montgomery. It was just that he saw young people (and black people) as disrespectful troublemakers and he didn’t want their loud rock music happening in his town (to say nothing of the explosion of hip-hop that was sweeping the rest of the nation in the 1980s).

And in some ways, maybe that’s one of the good things about Folmar’s legacy. He created a counter-cultural opposition. Youth culture can be forged in some memorable fires when your mayor is a dour, gun carrying enemy of fun. Folmar, the glowering gay bashing Reaganite, may have unintentionally given rise to new and interesting forms of cultural opposition. It’s certainly a more revolutionary climate when your mayor is trying to use the city’s toolbox to actively suppress fun and art — versus having the mayor trying to use fun and art as mechanisms to fuel economic development.

Still, that seems like little solace to the actual victims at the time. If you were gay and felt like your mayor hated you, or were black in the birthplace of the civil rights movement and felt like you were still ghettoized, you’re not going to take a lot of comfort in the fact that some skateboarding teen has a convenient nemesis. Hunter S. Thompson got a lot of mileage out Nixon’s evil, but at the end of the day, those kids in Vietnam were still dead.

All told, I think the legacy of Emory Folmar shows us how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time. He seems to have run this town for over two decades in a manner similar to that in which the principal in The Breakfast Club ran the school. He was a hardline authoritarian who probably loved (parts of) Montgomery in equal proportion to his contempt for those who had differing visions of reality.

Good mayors like Bright and Strange seem to understand that it takes a lot of effort to ensure that rising tides lift all boats. The city has a heap of problems on its plate, many of which defy easy solutions. And every one of which will need more than a single mayor to properly tackle. We’re all in this together.

But reflecting on the life and times of Emory Folmar may well give us a map of where we’re going, as much as where we’ve been.

Since Folmar brought the Shakespeare Festival to Montgomery (lured it here from Anniston, where it ran from 1972-1984) perhaps it’s fitting to end this obituary with a quote from Mark Antony’s legendary eulogy of Caesar:

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.

Alabama Teachers: The Past as Prologue

We were strolling around our neighborhood and walked past the house we called “The House of the Standing Man.” We called it that because when we moved here, this old guy was always standing in the driveway next to his car like he was about to go somewhere, or had just arrived from somewhere. He never moved. He just stood there by the car, never returning our friendly “hellos.” He was in perpetual transition, frozen next to his car, never fully arrived or departed.

This went on for a few years, until we stopped seeing him. We wondered if he had some sort of dementia and had finally been whisked away to some assisted living facility by some son or daughter or grandchild. Shortly thereafter, piles of stuff started appearing on the curb — massive, heaping piles of boxes and bags. There were pieces of furniture, but also the accumulated debris that must be cleaned out at the end of someone’s life. For weeks now, new piles have appeared and vanished. They are rained on, get moldy, and are picked over by various roving trash pickers. We never stop to examine the piles. Until today. A newspaper caught our eye, peeking out from one of the unsightly mounds.

It is part of the February 5, 1969, edition of the Montgomery Advertiser. As we read the editorial page out loud on the way home, we came across a letter to the editor under the section, “Tell It To Old Grandma.” We have noted before how hilarious we think it is that people once called our newspaper Grandma Advertiser. Anyway, the letter merits sharing with you in full because it reads like it could have been written today. And although it was written over 40 years ago, it needs to have also been written today. Here’s hoping that teachers across the state are writing similar letters today.

Dear Editor,

I am one of those controversial, intimidated creatures who serve as whipping boys for frustrated parents, fearful politicians, and self-serving private-interest groups. I am a teacher.

At least, I once believed that I was a teacher. I have even had the unmitigated gall, on occasion, to think that I might perhaps be a “dedicated” teacher.

Why do I now wonder if I am really a teacher? The answer lies not only in the impossible demands that are made upon teachers, but also the coals of fire that are repeatedly heaped upon their heads. I, like many other teachers, am demoralized.

For example, I find it intolerable that teachers should be expected to genuflect, hat-in-hand, and beg, “Please Mr. Legislator, throw me a crumb! See what a great job I’m doing.” Yes, we teachers must “sell the public” (I’ve heard that expression quite often lately) on the needs of education.

Why must we “sell the public?” Are the members of the Legislature incapable of rising (just once) above the politically expedient course of action?

If they, the legislators, are awaiting a consensus (a great word among politicians — consensus), I have news for them. The rank and file of their public couldn’t care less! I would delight in a deluge of letters proving my disillusionment to be wrong, but I simply don’t expect those letters; nor do I expect any great shift of public opinion on behalf of education — for Coffee County, my home county, only a few months ago, for the third time in the last ten years, defeated a proposed five-mill tax for the Coffee County school system.

A shift in opinion, therefore, will not occur because the public wants a good educational system only if this system costs no additional money, an impossible condition.

I can understand the public’s aversion to additional taxes. I, too, am a victim of taxation and inflation — inflation of everything except my paycheck. I, too, can understand the feeling that is prevalent today: “If the federal government is going to run our schools, let the federal government pay for them.” Granted that the federal government is running them, but it is not paying for them.

These bitter facts notwithstanding, one additional fact must be faced: that the future of our schools and of our state is at stake. If our legislators fail to act, they must face the resulting alternatives — not only face them, but also bear the responsibility for them.

These alternatives are quite obvious: disruptive, heart-breaking teacher strikes or increased exodus of teachers to neighboring, higher-paying states, both alternatives being destructive for our children and our state.

I call upon our Governor and our Legislature to forget political expediency; upon our rural and urban areas to forgo rural-urban bickering; upon our universities, colleges, junior colleges, and State Department of Education to cease their sickening wrangling over who gets the biggest slice of the meager pie.

Remember the forgotten member of the team, the overworked, overloaded, underpaid elementary-secondary teacher, who, after all, is the great heart of any education system. Could the universities and colleges, the State Department of Education, and yes, even the Legislature itself, exist without this much-ignored, often-scorned, always-maligned creature!

Mrs. Bryant Steele,
New Brockton, Alabama