Blake Ells documents Birmingham, Alabama’s often overlooked rock and alternative music scene in his new book, Magic City Rock: Spaces and Faces of Birmingham’s Scene. I enjoyed reviewing it for Alabama Writers’ Forum. You can read my review here:
On the first morning waking up in my new house, I opened the upstairs bedroom shutters to a foggy warm morning. A family of deer grazed on the pine-forested hill just beyond the back yard – at eye level, maybe thirty feet from the window. A solitary cardinal perched on a branch of a mimosa, his bright red plumage dazzling against the frond-like leaves and feathery pink blossoms of the mimosas climbing the abrupt hill toward the pines.
I took it all as a good omen after retirement and a challenging fifteen months of social distancing culminating in an exhausting move. I decided to get my camera and take a picture; by the time I got back, they were all gone.
In the current crazy housing market, my house in north Alabama sold in one day with multiple offers. Then, I became the “buyer” and was quickly schooled on how challenging it is to buy a house these days.
I started out with high hopes of finding a place downtown or on Birmingham’s Southside, where I had last lived in an apartment on Red Mountain overlooking the city. It was a small and inexpensive apartment with a priceless view.
I always answer “Birmingham” when I’m asked the inevitable Southern question, “Where are you from?” Some may argue with my answer since I wasn’t born in Birmingham; I don’t know anybody born on an army base who considers the army base their home town, and we left the army for Birmingham when I was about a month old.
Birmingham is where my grandparents lived and where we spent our holidays when I was growing up. With frequent moves while I was growing up, and even more frequent moves for my career, I have lived away from Birmingham more than I have lived in the city, but this most recent move feels like a homecoming after twenty-seven years living in other places.
My house hunt started in the city and gradually moved farther south. The downtown and Southside places in my price range were usually too small and the ones I liked were gone before I could make up my mind. I looked at a twelfth-floor flat in a historic skyscraper in my idea of a perfect location in the central city; I loved it, but realized that I needed to have at least a balcony close by.
My realtor was patient and, more importantly, he was calm. Our search spread to townhouses south of the city and things began to look up as I found places with manageable and sufficient space for my “stuff” and enough outdoor space to satiate my need to get my hands in the dirt, plant some herbs, and have a place to sit in the sun.
When I found a townhouse looking out onto a tranquil park sloping down to the Cahaba River, my perspective changed and I decided I wanted a place near the river. Another place, with a terrace looking down at the river, shored up my resolve. Both were grabbed up before I could make an offer and my realtor assured me that the right thing would come along at the right time.
We scheduled a tour of the house I bought on the first morning it was on the market and made an offer on the spot. These are things you quickly pick up if you are a buyer in the current housing market. Later that day, I was surprised to learn my offer was accepted (you must also prepare yourself for disappointment if you are a buyer in the current housing market).
This house is not on the Cahaba, but the river is less than a half mile away. And it has those lovely woods behind it. I had told my realtor that I wanted to either be in the middle of things or in relative seclusion. I got the latter. I can hear traffic from an interstate when I’m in the front yard and one billboard pokes up above the trees in the distance. Downtown Birmingham is just a few minutes away, but the place itself seems remote and peaceful and surprisingly secluded.
I hosted my family for Independence Day, so the place has been given a social trial run. One morning I decided to work on plants for the walk leading to the front door. Thumbing through a book on New Orleans gardens with my morning tea, I felt fortified to tackle some pot gardening and headed to a nearby nursery.
There’s still a big “to-do” list to complete, but now that I’m no longer coming in to a stack of unpacked boxes and furniture to be rearranged, and now that my books are all organized neatly on the shelves, coming in has started to feel like coming home.
Last night, as I drove into the neighborhood, five deer stood watching from the side of the road. As I passed, they disappeared behind a house and up into the woods. Once again, there was no camera close by.
Growing up, I lived in Birmingham during some of its most tumultuous years. Through it all, I loved the place and was a vocal advocate for its potential to anybody that would listen. I find that most Birminghamians across the board seem to be a loyal bunch even as we recognize the challenges.
The last time I lived in Birmingham in the early 1990s, the movement toward developing city center living and lofts was being discussed even as the discussion was being met with skeptical smirks. I was an advocate for downtown living and hoped to be a pioneer in downtown Birmingham loft living but my career track had other ideas.
Birmingham is now in the midst of that long-anticipated renaissance as it is touted as a food destination, as it boasts more public green space per capita than any other American city, as it is competing successfully for new development, and as it aggressively restores long-neglected buildings and properties.
Birmingham’s central district is divided into north and south by railroad tracks that run through the center of the city. The financial district and the historical downtown are north of the tracks and the medical center, UAB campus, and Five Points South entertainment districts are south.
For many years the area next to the railroad tracks was a no man’s land of broken concrete and chert, poke sallet and weeds. In 1910 Railroad Park (www.railroadpark.org) opened as a 19-acre green space with trees and lakes, numerous paths and recreational areas, a food area and performance space, and nine acres of open, sloping lawn.
Railroad Park sparked development in that part of Birmingham south of the railroad tracks and now Regions Field, home of the Birmingham Barons baseball team (www.milb.com), is across the street from the park, Restaurants, micro-breweries, shops, apartments, lofts, and condos make the area a populated and busy space with new development all around. A couple of blocks from the eastern edge of Railroad Park, Rotary Trail in the Magic City (www.birminghamrotary.org), a four-block long green space claimed from an abandoned railroad bed, continues the expansion of green space to the former industrial site that is now Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark (www.slossfurnaces.com). Railroad Park was designed by Tom Leader Studio and was the 2012 winner of the Urban Land Institute’s Urban Open Space Award. Among its competition was New York City’s High Line.
An expansive park in the heart of downtown might have sounded like a place nobody would come to a few years ago but now it is always full of people and a great place to stroll or relax, picnic and play. Scattered through the park are descriptions of the city’s industrial heritage and stunning new views of the downtown area. Paths are made of recycled materials and bricks and rocks from the site are used throughout as the bases of benches and platforms.
On a recent visit to Railroad Park I saw families celebrating birthdays, people catching a bite to eat, frisbees and sunbathers on the lawn, people walking dogs, a dodgeball game. Many people were just hanging out until time to walk over to Regions Field to catch the Barons game.
I restrained myself from starting up a conversation with a young man sitting quietly under a tree and reading The Great Gatsby – just about my favorite novel ever.
Railroad Park is a relaxing respite in the middle of an increasingly vibrant city center. It is one more example of the city of Birmingham getting it right. There seem to be lots more examples these days.