Before I moved to Birmingham, I came through several times to visit my best friend. Each time the restaurants and shops of Mountain Brook blended into our schedule, along with visits to downtown Birmingham and other areas of the region. Whiskey at Dram, a nail appointment at Richard Joseph, dinner at Chez Lulu and always a stop by Church Street Coffee & Books: These were among my first experiences of Mountain Brook.
As much as she tried, my dear friend couldn’t really describe the city of Mountain Brook to me as an outsider. She could describe its (unfavorable) reputation, the census data on wealth and race and the general tone of the city. None of those quite prepared me for living on its outskirts, as I do today. I came prepared to dislike everything about the city, from the lack of diversity to the perception outsiders are not only unwelcome, but shunned.
I’ve watched with interest as the storyline of the new (dare I say “hit”) reality show “Jersey Belle” unfolds. The show and the immediate negative reaction to it wasn’t a surprise to many. The floodgates have opened and it appears Mountain Brook is public enemy No. 1 for anyone offered a platform for their opinion.
The first blow was a Salon article by Kristen Lloyd, who grew up here. To say it included an unflattering depiction of the worst cultural accusations made against Mountain Brook would be an understatement. Hers is one perspective based on a negative personal experience. She painted a city I have come to appreciate as if the most negative parts of it define it. I do not think they do.
Old money, new money, expensive cars and big houses neither define a person or a place. I don’t claim to know all of the ins and outs of Mountain Brook but I do spend a lot of time there. My gym, salon and daughter’s daycare are there so I’ve come to sort through the fact and fiction as much as an outsider can.
At 33, and after more than a decade in the not-so-gentle world of state and federal politics I’m not as easily shaken as others might be by the rough edges of Mountain Brook that come disguised as housewives with expensive taste and judgmental attitudes.
Don’t get me wrong; I have met some incredibly mean women, but they don’t define Mountain Brook. I’ve traveled the nation and have lived on both coasts in south Florida, and let me tell you Mountain Brook doesn’t have a monopoly on adult mean girls.
The fact is, their judgment only has the value that those being judged place on it. I will teach my daughter that her self-worth shouldn’t be determined by those who have more than her no more than it should be determined by looking down at those who have less.
The author of the Salon piece emphasized her difficulty fitting in during high school. Although I went to a small-town high school, we faced the same issues Lloyd described. Again, I’d say the problems she described aren’t unique to Mountain Brook.
To believe the hype of Mountain Brook is to believe that nothing good can come out of there, and that is just false. I met my primary babysitters, ES and MNR, through their parents. Both families contribute their time and talents not just to Mountain Brook but also to making the Birmingham region better. Both girls go to or went to Mountain Brook High School and are polite, well-rounded and responsible.
When I think of Mountain Brook, I think of the positives. The school system is among the best. Academic and extracurricular activities are emphasized in most homes. The crime rates are low. Many residents give generously to charities and civic causes that benefit the area. These characteristics draw people into the city and surrounding areas.
The show “Jersey Belle” is meant to be a comedy and shows a snippet of Mountain Brook’s people and places; it too does not represent all that the city has to offer. It may not be perfect, but Mountain Brook has lived up to the high expectations I had for the positives and, thanks to Southern hospitality and the friendships I’ve found, I have dismissed many of the negative perceptions I had.
Apryl Marie Fogel is a new Alabama resident who works as a conservative political activist.