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Phillip Tutor: The wound that Anniston hasn’t healed

Downtown Anniston scenes

Downtown Anniston as seen from the observation deck on the 11th floor of Commerce Towers.

Love her as we do, Alabama is a poor state living among a proud neighborhood of poor states. Truth hurts. Only five states are poorer. Down in Mobile County there’s a small city — Chickasaw — that sports a head-spinning poverty rate of 38.6 percent. Selma trails that by an eyelash.

Anniston’s poverty rate is 29.5 percent; 5.57 percent of Annistonians — 1,213 people — live in public housing.

Spin that any way you wish and it’s still awful, a clear indication of Anniston’s health a decade removed from the Great Recession and 20 years after the closure of Fort McClellan. 

Anniston poverty chart

Poverty drips onto virtually everything City Hall discusses: economic development, ward politics, crime rates, racial divisions, public school funding, job creation and public perception. Poverty is Anniston’s underlying trauma, the wound that won’t heal.

Grab a map for perspective.

The statewide poverty rate is 16.9 percent — more than 13 percent lower than Anniston’s, according to Census Department data, but well above the national average of 13.4 percent.

Oxford’s poverty rate is 11.9. Dothan’s poverty rate is 19.7. Montgomery’s poverty rate is 22.1. Florence’s poverty rate is 22.2. Talladega’s poverty rate is 25.7. Jacksonville’s poverty rate is 25.8. Gadsden’s poverty rate is 27.2. Birmingham’s poverty rate is 28.1.

To be fair, Anniston isn’t Alabama’s poverty pole-sitter. It’s not even close. It rests instead among other cities straining to find an equitable economic footing for its residents, cities such as Albertville, Alexander City, Troy, Eufaula, Tarrant and Russellville.

What differentiates Anniston from some of its colleagues in poverty is the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. It’s systemic and historic. 

Thursday morning I asked Sonny McMahand, executive director of the Anniston Housing Authority, to put his spin on poverty in Anniston — poverty that in many cases affects residents not living in AHA properties. McMahand isn’t lord over all low-income Annistonians, and he was wisely reluctant to use a broad brush. 

The poverty rate, he said, “is definitely alarming because we have a high percentage of families who live in public housing. As for the causes for why we have that, I have my own personal thoughts. The city is the city for a reason.”

But, “I would say that because most of that (poverty) is on one side of the city, it has more of an impact. You have that high concentration because it’s all in one part of the city.”

Translated: There’s more poverty in Wards 2 and 3 than in Wards 1 and 4, a difference that by and large breaks down over lines of race and educational achievement. It’s also one reason why the AHA is redeveloping its public housing units and replacing some with modern apartments that aren’t clustered. Decentralization is embedded in McMahand’s plan.

McMahand said he “realized that when I walked through the door almost seven years ago” — that spreading out public housing locations was vital for AHA’s effectiveness. And that effectiveness is undermined when crime rates rise and public perception falls in public-housing neighborhoods.

“It’s been concentrated (in Anniston), it’s all in one part of the city,” McMahand said. “Whether it was designed that way, I don’t think that was the intent. But that is the reality of what it is today, which breeds other kinds of things ... You have to attack it in a comprehensive way.”

City Hall’s struggle is getting middle-class Annistonians to realize how detrimental the city’s poverty is to them, because it is. Remember, it touches everything. 

Economic developers often avoid cities with high rates of poverty. Cities with elevated violent crime rates drive job-creators elsewhere. Poverty affects public schools and property values. And, yes, these issues are central to this fall’s deannexation effort being pushed by a handful of residents who’ve formed a nonprofit and sought the assistance of state Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, arguably the most powerful politician in Alabama.

If that group succeeds, the possibility exists that Anniston’s remnant — essentially today’s poorest neighborhoods — would sport a Chickasaw-like poverty rate and a future as bleak as it can be. 

Little that Anniston’s leaders — its politicians, its civic titans, its philanthropic heroes — do in the next decade will matter if they don’t lessen the deprivation affecting nearly a third of all Annistonians and even more of its black residents. Handouts aren’t needed; it’s hope.

Mountain bike trails and McClellan developments and Golden Springs garden homes are nice additions. But they’re Band-Aids for the wound the city must heal.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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