Category Archives: Ensley Alabama

Ghosts of Birmingham

Ensley High School; July 2019

My father, Grover Journey, used to reminisce about when he and a group of boys from his Ensley neighborhood in west Birmingham would regularly ride their bicycles to the Woodlawn section of east Birmingham. He once told me, with a sly smile, that they’d ride over “to fight the Woodlawn boys.” I never knew if he was joking. Either way, I think of what an adventure those days would have been for a group of young boys in the early 1940s.

In my imagination, I see Dad, his three brothers, and some neighborhood boys barreling across the city on their bicycles, navigating the downtown Birmingham grid to 1st Avenue North, crossing the viaduct past Sloss Furnaces in its heyday. Their trek would have taken them past Avondale and onto the main drag of Woodlawn. Avondale and Woodlawn are having a sort of renaissance these days.

Ensley, 2016

I remain hopeful for the future of Ensley and its rusting forest of abandoned steel mills. My father’s boyhood home, in the shadow of the U.S. Steel smokestacks, is one of only two houses still standing on his particular block of Avenue D. Another house on that block was rental property owned by my great-grandfather McCarn; it was demolished just this summer.

Those mental images of the carefree days of my father as a youth give me comfort. It’s always interesting to contemplate the meanderings of the mind and to plot the streams of consciousness that haunt us through each day and the days beyond.


Those memories of Dad on his bike were triggered in a roundabout way when I happened to hear Patti Smith’s version of “Because the Night” from her Easter album over the sound system in a grocery store a few days ago. Although Easter was a stalwart of my late 1970s turntable, I had not heard it, or “Because the Night,” in years – maybe decades. To hear it in the aisles of a grocery store was …  odd.

According to rock lore, Bruce Springsteen, who originally wrote the song, wasn’t making it work for himself and passed it on to Patti Smith’s producer. Smith revised it and recorded it, resulting in her best-known and probably most-played hit. Springsteen now regularly plays it in concert with his original lyrics, and he and Smith share the song-writing credit for what is a great and enduring rock anthem.

I saw Patti Smith live in concert at Brothers Music Hall in Birmingham, a short-lived music venue located on Lakeshore Drive near the place where the Homewood neighborhood slides into the tiny kingdom of Mountain Brook. It was a memorable concert, made even more extraordinary by the fact that I was recovering from a head injury suffered in a bicycle accident the day before.

There was a suggestion that maybe I should pass up on the concert since I was still on medication, but it was Patti Smith and I would not be deterred.

Brothers was an intimate space, with tables set up for maybe 200-250 patrons. In its short existence I saw Elvis Costello, The Police – just on the cusp of super-stardom, and other acts there.

Long after the end of Patti Smith’s show, as audience members were lingering around at the bar, Smith walked out on stage with a push broom and began to sweep the stage. My friend George, a Tuscaloosa record shop owner, and I spotted her and went up on stage to see if we might engage her in conversation. She moved methodically across the stage with an enigmatic smile, occasionally glancing up at the two 20-somethings earnestly trying to get a response (I honestly don’t think that we were being obnoxious). Finally, I stopped in my tracks and said, “You have no intention of talking to us, do you?”

She stopped, too, sort of leaned for a moment against the broom handle, smiled, and shook her head no.

We left her alone, on the darkened stage, quietly finishing her unnecessary task. Just as quietly, she moved into the darkness of the backstage area and was gone.


The building where Brothers Music Hall was located started life as Hollywood Country Club in 1926. It was a grand building with bars and meeting rooms, ballrooms and dining rooms, and a huge pool. A planned golf course for the country club never materialized.

The building went through several incarnations before becoming the location for Brothers Music Hall from 1978 to 1981, where I frequented those concerts as a young adult.

My father remembered going to Hollywood Country Club to dance in the years before he met Mother. His experience with the place was at least three decades prior to mine, but I still felt a synchronicity in the shared experience of space.

The Hollywood Country Club building was demolished by fire in 1984. The site is occupied by a chain hotel.


Bush School; July 2019

“Because the Night” prompted my Hollywood Country Club memory of Dad. A drive past the ruins of his alma mater, Ensley High, which was demolished by fire almost exactly a year ago, and his elementary school, Bush School, now closed but just around the block from the high school, reminded me of those boyhood rides to Woodlawn.

Thus, this tangle of memories and a renewed exploration of Dad’s landscape began.

I’m reminded again of my favorite quote by the painter Willem de Kooning: “Then there is a time in life when you just take a walk,” he said. “And you walk in your own landscape.”

Ensley High School; July 2019

Ensley

DSCN0435 Each person’s Ensley narrative varies but the through-line boils down to this: Ensley is a proud and tight-knit community on the west side of Birmingham that once was a bustling steel-making industrial center with omnipresent smokestacks, industrial barns and sheds, shift whistles, train traffic, and massive blast furnaces. Because it was a 24-hour town full of shift-workers, many Ensley businesses in the early to mid-20th century were 24/7 operations.

The jazz standard “Tuxedo Junction” is about a club at an Ensley streetcar crossing. Erskine Hawkins, a Birmingham native, is the composer of that tune. My favorite rendition is Glenn Miller and his Orchestra’s chart-topping 1940 big band arrangement.

When U.S. Steel shut down its Ensley works in the early-1970s, the area’s population and businesses began to disperse.

DSCN0399Today, ghosts of Ensley abound; much of the community is semi-abandoned and desolate. Birmingham media have a tendency to report anything that occurs in western Birmingham as happening in “Ensley” and you have the additional burden of a bad rep and the not always accurate impression of an abundance of crime.

Crime is definitely a problem these days in Ensley but the community seems to get more blame than it deserves. Recently, when I was visiting my mother in her over-the-mountain Birmingham neighborhood, a local television news report was covering a recent shooting in “Ensley.” When the address of the crime was given Mother looked at me and said “That’s a Central Park address – why are they calling it Ensley?” For some reason any bad news from the west side of the city automatically gets attributed to Ensley.

DSCN0430Katherine Webb’s 2014 article “Who Is Ensley?” in Weld (www.weldbham.com/blog/2014/01/29/who-is-ensley) provides a good overview of efforts to resurrect present-day Ensley from the challenges it has encountered since the steel mills were shut down. The article provides plenty of first-person evidence of the pride that still hangs strong in the community.

My father was raised on Avenue D and Mother moved around the corner from him to 25th Street as a teenager. Ensley was the starting point for Grover and Jean Journey’s 63-year marriage. Dad and Mother left Ensley for good in the early 1950s but Dad never ceased to be a proud “Ensley boy.” DSCN0429

Mother still talks about shopping in Ensley as a young woman and I remember visiting Ensley department stores such as Cotton’s and Goldstein & Cohen with Mother and Grandmother when I was a little boy. Dad’s first job was at the poultry shop that Fred Trucks owned over on Avenue E. Marino’s grocery store, which operated then, still operates on Avenue E across from what used to be Ensley Lanes bowling alley.

One could get a meat and three at Ensley Grill or “all you can eat” catfish at Catfish King’s Avenue E location in the building that was once the Franklin Theatre. In Catfish King, tables were set along each side of a center aisle on raised sections that once held rows of theatre seats and the stage was still there (the grand drape too, as I recall).  These places were still around when I hit my teens.

Dad’s childhood home, in drastically altered form, is still standing and inhabited on Avenue D but the house that Mother’s family lived in around the corner is gone. A house that was once owned by Mother’s grandfather, Houston McCarn – who lived in Cullman but invested in Birmingham real estate when the city was still young, still stands on the corner down the street from Dad’s house. It has been long abandoned.  DSCN0407

It is these ghosts of the past and the hope for community renewal that still draw me to Ensley. But my main draw these days is an ongoing fascination with the beauty and decay of the former Ensley industrial sites that were abandoned when the steel mills shut down. The railroad tracks are still active through the site and the viaduct over the tracks where 20th Street-Ensley becomes Birmingport Road heading out to the river is a good spot to linger and observe the buildings and remaining stacks that are being rapidly reclaimed by nature.

On a clear day, peering down from the middle of the Ensley viaduct toward Fairfield, you can see to U.S. Steel’s Fairfield plant where the remaining blast furnace was idled in 2015. Fairfield and Ensley steelmaking operations have gone from tens of thousands of workers at their peak to a few hundred at the pipe mill in Fairfield today.

On a hot June morning, the mimosas are prolific at the Ensley plant. Rusty railings and sagging metal buildings with broken windows sit along abandoned roads that used to teem with trucks and industrial vehicles. The few remaining stacks stand tall amid the ruin and rubble. A train creeps through the site, taking loads to more remote locations that are not yet abandoned. DSCN0420

In the modern post-industrial era, things come and go more quickly than in earlier epochs but, to me at least, these 20th century industrial remains have a pride and dignity equal to that of ancient ruins of early civilizations. The craggy, mineral-laden ground that now nourishes the mimosas, poke weed, kudzu, and wild vegetation of the Ensley ruins is the same ground that nourished my family in a recent past that seems impossibly far away.

I will always go back to check on Ensley. DSCN0404