It was a hit job on Decatur, but valuable nonetheless.
The evaluation supposedly came from a lengthy set of databases. Most of the underlying numbers were omitted from the story; the ones mentioned for Decatur were inaccurate.
The injustice may have been most obvious, though, in the photographs. Each photo of the top 10 cities is beautiful. The Athens photo shows a darling child painting on a sunny day. Pelham got a photo of a beach and a beautiful blue sky. Flowers and parks and smiling people mark the top 10 cities, a veritable travel brochure.
The Decatur photo is a close-up of the railroad bridge on a dreary day.
None of the boats that frequent the river are visible, nor the beauty of the bridge as the sun sets. There were no photos of our bustling parks, of the newly built Alabama Center for the Arts or the fountain at the Old State Bank building. Just a train on a rusty bridge.
The people of Bessemer — listed as the fourth worst city — had more reason for complaint. Their city was depicted with a photo of a demolished building surrounded by crime-scene tape.
The short piece made mention of Decatur's high dropout rate, but said nothing of the extraordinary efforts under way to improve the school system. It exaggerated the unemployment rate and understated the median income, possibly by lumping together statistics for Morgan and Lawrence counties, which some government reports do. There was no mention of more than $1 billion in recent industrial investments that took place despite a sluggish economy, or of the future jobs those investments will bring.
While the piece was unfair, it inadvertently pointed out something important: reputation matters.
The glowing reports and colorful photos of Madison and Athens make reputation even more important. Prospective residents and companies who took the piece at face value would of course gravitate away from Decatur to one of its pristine and sunny neighbors. And while the report was inaccurate in its assessment of Decatur, it correctly noted the growth of nearby cities. Even as Decatur invests in itself, they are doing the same.
Decatur is doing much to improve its reputation. The community is galvanizing around an effort to upgrade schools. The downtown area — an eyesore a decade ago — is flourishing with commercial and public investment. The city needs to improve litter control and become more innovative at improving the appearance of major corridors, but it is making progress.
Decatur is a beautiful city, and the folks at al.com would do well to spend some time here. It is a diverse city, filled with rocket scientists and steelworkers, blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians. Diversity brings challenges as well as benefits, but Decatur and its school system are up to those challenges.
The city has one of the strongest industrial sectors in the state, providing good jobs to its people. Few cities in the state can brag of finer parks and recreational facilities.
Even as Decatur residents are frustrated by unfair portrayals, they can learn from them.
The reality is people compare Decatur's high schools — each more than a half century old — to the high schools of neighboring communities. Low test scores and high dropout rates hurt. The city's thoroughfares — including Sixth Avenue and Wilson Street and Moulton Road — do reflect on the city's image.
Decatur is in a competition with neighboring communities for residents, for retailers and for industry. Without constant investment and maintenance, it will lose.
Improving Decatur is an ongoing process. As remarkable as the city's recent advancements have been, it must continue the effort. The result will be a better quality of life for existing residents and a reputation that attracts, rather than discourages, prospective residents.
Eric Fleischauer can be reached at 256-340-2435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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