Unfortunately, that comes with the territory in Anniston, Calhoun County’s biggest and most important city — not to mention the county’s eternal hub for medicine, courts, law and politics. I say that as an Annistonian of nearly 25 years. The negativity drains you.
It’s not a black thing, or a white thing, or an old vs. young thing.
It’s an Anniston thing.
The good news is that there is good news — new City Council, a caring mayor, a notable grassroots effort to create an Anniston wholly different than the one critics love to pan. Anniston 2010 is not Anniston 2013.
If you open your eyes, the difference is unmistakable.
But it is still Anniston, northeast Alabama’s eternal rebuilding project. Rebuilding downtown. Rebuilding the schools. Rebuilding after the Army left. Rebuilding McClellan. Rebuilding attitudes. Vaughn Stewart, the mayor, needs to wear a Bob the Builder construction hat.
Anniston isn’t one of Alabama’s cool cities. You have to love it to like it, you know, and plenty do. Other cities — not Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville — are praised by Montgomery and outsiders alike for their progressiveness, their improved schools, their educated workforces, their family atmospheres, their Southern utopias.
Anniston, fair or not, rarely gets that adulation.
It’s old hat now to hear of another reputable study that bans Anniston from the rankings of Alabama’s top cities. It happens annually, like tax day, and with similar disappointment.
The latest is courtesy of Nerdwallet.com, one of the many bloggers that use Census data, crime statistics, education information and real estate values to rank cities on all sorts of metrics. This one — “The Best Young Towns in Alabama for Young Families” — should make the Stewart City Hall flinch.
Here’s the punchline: Anniston isn’t on it. (Neither is Oxford or Jacksonville.)
But Auburn is.
And Prattville, Muscle Shoals, Saraland, Vestavia Hills, Pelham, Fairhope and Trussville.
Let’s forego the emotional response — But there’s crime in Hartselle! The schools in Prattville can’t be that good! — and consider the three questions the blog’s authors asked when ranking Alabama’s cities.
Does the town have good public schools?
Can you afford to live there?
Is the town growing and prospering?
This is where Anniston’s road gets uncomfortable.
The public schools aren’t good, at least statistically. Anniston Middle School is considered a “failing” school by the state Board of Education. Anniston High School’s dropout rates, graduation rates and test scores desperately need improvement. System-wide, the student population has dropped for decades, which makes contraction so important for the system’s fiscal health.
Affordability is one of Anniston’s strengths; you can live like royalty here for what a standard middle-class life would cost in Mountain Brook. For those with little, that’s critically important.
Growth and prospering are problematic. There is growth: at McClellan, in pockets of Golden Springs, in certain industries. But the city’s population is not growing, its schools are downsizing and the influx of large employers that pay top salaries is more a trickle than an open spigot. There is the Chamber of Commerce version, and there is reality.
Auburn, this latest ranking says, “has received attention for its strong job market, having made number 10 on Forbes’ 2013 list of the best small cities for jobs.”
Madison “has been called one of the best places to grow up as well as one of the best places to live in the United States, period.”
Saraland “includes over 10 parks, with walking trails, playgrounds and sports fields. Forbes ranked the Mobile metro area number 62 on its list of best places for businesses and careers — an analysis that took into account projected economic and job growth … The area also has great schools.”
Prattville’s population “has increased substantially of late, too, with 49.7 percent growth last decade.”
If I were to write Anniston’s entry, I’d include the city’s still-new aquatic center, the Coldwater Mountain Bike Trail, the springtime bike races downtown and elsewhere in the county, and its cultural events such as the Knox Concert Series, but those gems don’t make up for what ails us.
Gurnee Avenue knows this; the grassroots volunteers know this. It’s obvious. You’d have to be a fool to believe poor rankings on public education, weak population growth and a lackluster job market aren’t concrete barriers standing between Anniston and its future. If you don’t fix them, particularly the first one, you don’t fix Anniston.
The day will come when the negativity that drains us is gone, wiped away by those who stayed the course instead of running away. I just wish it wasn’t taking so long.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.