Friday, November 19, 2010

Alabama: Where Pontiacs go to Die

I’ve been traveling a lot in the last two months, so I haven’t had time to post any new updates. But right now I’m on a long flight with a baby that won’t stop screaming, so now seems like a good time to review my first year in Dixie.

When I think of the last year living in Central Alabama, three things come to mind: college football, sunglass chums and Pontiacs.

College football

The obsession with college football goes beyond the degree to which Eagles and Giants fans vicariously live through their respective teams. When two people in Alabama meet, within 5 minutes someone will say: Auburn or Alabama?

On Saturdays everyone is at home watching football. There are a few restaurants in Montgomery where you actually do need reservations, especially on a Saturday night. If Alabama or Auburn is playing at night, the restaurant is empty. And when I say empty, I mean it’s the bartender, the wait staff and me.

My theory with the obsession is that people view it as a form of social mobility. By going to either the University of Alabama or Auburn University, you’re part of a special club, and you maintain your membership by being a vocal fan – it’s how you let everyone know you went to one of the two schools. It’s like how people tie their identity to a country club. And what’s really wild about it, is that the only thing the schools are known for (whether deservedly or not), are their football teams. Let me try and explain it this way: when pretentious assholes like me brag they went to an Ivy League school, we’re trying to showoff that we’re smart, or at least people should think we are smart. When people say that went to the University of Alabama, they’re bragging about the football team – and people here are impressed that they went to a school with such a good football team. People are so obsessed with the teams that it’s not uncommon for parents to tell kids that they can only apply to one school.

On the upside, Alabama and Auburn fans are much more pleasant than Philadelphia sports fans. No one is throwing batteries, puking on children, or beating people to death.


There are some fashion trends that are distinct to the Deep South, most notably sunglass chums.

All the locals wear them – everyone from construction workers to attorneys. I think that people believe it communicates ruggedness. I think they look ridiculous. I bought one and tried it out to see if I was missing anything. I wasn’t.


Have you ever wondered why you see so few Pontiac cars on the roads up north? It’s because they’re all down here. While most people have at least one SUV or pickup truck, the sedan of choice is by far a late model GM P.O.S. Pontiac (completing the trifecta of gas guzzlers).

The 1980s time warp

In many respects, Alabama is still in the 1980s. While there are surprising number of restaurants that are into only using locally grown and raised organic food, they are up against a culture that believes a meal should not cost more than $10. New restaurants have a very hard time convincing people that it’s reasonable to charge $20+ for an entrée.

But more emblematic of the 1980s culture is the lack of urban redevelopment. The major cities – Montgomery, Birmingham, Mobile, etc. – all have vacant downtowns. There’s no retail, and few restaurants and bars. The problem is urban sprawl.

Here’s what city planning in Alabama amounts to: someone builds a new planned community in the outskirts of the city, and strip malls are built nearby to provide retail and food for the people living in the community. A few years later someone builds another community even farther out – being surrounded by pastures is selling point. A new strip mall or two is built near them. The process then keeps repeating itself over and over again. The homes in the old communities are obviously not as nice as the ones in the newer, so people in the older communities move out to the new ones. As a result, people are increasingly moving out of the city center to the city limits, and the geographic footprint of the city is increasingly expanding so there is still wide open land for new planned communities to be built on. The old homes and strip malls then become dilapidated.

The most cynical I’ll get is that people here have unknowingly chosen to live in mediocrity. No one has figured out the connection between paying little in taxes and having roads that have not been repaved in a two decades, public schools that are only surpassed in failure by Louisiana and Mississippi, and an inadequate number of police officers. As ass backwards as Philadelphia can be, Montgomery makes it look like the most efficiently run city. In Philadelphia, if you call in a pothole it will typically get repaired within 24 hours. There are heavily used roads down here that look like Dresden after the bombing.

But to give you a real idea of the mediocrity, there is no curbside recycling. While every city in America is moving to single stream recycling and expanding the various waste they recycle, the Mayor of Montgomery decided to get rid of curbside collection because he said it costs too much. Now this is total bogus because the dumping fees for recyclables are less than waste. Further, there is already twice a week trash collection. How about eliminating one day of trash collection – if people have curbside recycling they’ll have less trash, and won’t need twice a week collection. I feel like I’m the only person in the city who realizes this.

And the whole recycling thing gets better. The city has drop-off sites where you can leave your paper and cardboard, and one or two of the sites will supposedly accept glass and plastic. Nobody uses them because it’s a pain in the ass to drive out to them. Even the Mayor has acknowledged that the recycling rate has plummeted since he eliminated curbside. So what’s his solution to this? Add more drop-off sites that are not used. I’m going to find out where he lives and leave my recyclables on his lawn – turn it into a drop site.

No comments:

Post a Comment