My latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum:
Faith involves an acceptance of absurdity. – Zadie Smith, author
I’ve followed the work of various “folk” or “outsider” or “visionary” or “naïve” self-taught artists since college and remain eternally confused about what is the best and most inoffensive label to place on them. Of course, labels constantly evolve and what was respectful in one decade might be deemed offensive down the road.
The Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), in its current exhibition, “The Original Makers: Folk Art from the Cargo Collection,” lands on “makers” as the appropriate contemporary term. It makes perfect sense since the word “maker” has had a resurgence among artists and those who apply hands-on skills. The term does not delineate between level of skill and training and place. Picasso, after all, was a “maker,” as are all of the artists in this compelling show.
I wrote about my connection to Helen and Robert Cargo when BMA presented an exhibit of their collection of Haitian vodou flags in 2016 (“Communion: Haitian Vodou Flags at the Birmingham Museum of Art”). They were my neighbors and landlords during part of my graduate school years in Tuscaloosa. Dr. Robert Cargo taught French literature in the Department of Romance Languages and Classics at Alabama. I was aware that they were collectors of art by various folk and outsider artists but did not realize the extent of their collection until they opened the Robert Cargo Folk Art Gallery in downtown Tuscaloosa in 1984.
The Cargos have passed away but they made generous donations of their collection – in particular to the BMA – over the years. Their daughter, Caroline Cargo, has continued that generosity with substantial donations of the Cargo Collection – some of which are on view in the current Birmingham exhibition which will be up until the end of 2018.
The exhibit is sumptuous and detailed – a comprehensive overview of the range of the makers on display. The Cargos were avid collectors of Southern quilts and the exhibition includes a quilt by Dr. Cargo’s great-grandmother, Mary Ann Rouse Thomas, which sparked a life-long interest in quilts and quilters. Quilts from many periods and styles are on display throughout the exhibition, including works by more contemporary quilters such as Nora Ezell, Mary Maxtion, and Yvonne Wells, as well as Joanna Pettway of the acclaimed Gee’s Bend quilters. Some of the most stunning quilts are by unidentified makers. Dr. Cargo’s interest in male quilters is represented by a broken star patterned quilt by Afton Germany.
Some of the makers in the exhibit are already well-known to me and others are new or lesser-known. Charlie Lucas, Jimmy Lee Suddeth, and Mose “Mose T” Tolliver are familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in Alabama makers. Suddeth famously made the majority of his paints from various muds and clays and I was particularly moved by a painting of his wife, Ethel, done in the year she died.
Among the artists who are new to me is Kentuckian Denzil Goodpaster, whose charming wood carvings include an image of Dolly Parton performing as well as a trio of cheerleaders. The smiling faces of the people and the stoic faces of the various animals are memorable in the works of Shields Landon “S.L.” Jones, while the subtly rendered ethereal paintings of faces, flora, and fauna on brown paper bags by Sybil Gibson are haunting. I passed these images quickly during my visit to the museum but found myself thinking about them later and wanting to look at them again. Fortunately, the exhibition catalogue, available in the museum gift shop, makes that possible.
Chuckie Williams’s two-sided paintings of pop culture icons are bold, vivid, and good-natured. While Williams was recovering from an emotional breakdown, he felt called by Jesus to paint. It was particularly exciting to discover the autobiographical six-panel “Story of My Life” by Leroy Almon Sr., including images of houses and places he lived, jobs that he worked, and his calling to pursue art. Almon became an ordained minister (as well as a police dispatcher) in the final years of his life.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. — Paul Tillich, Christian theologian
Starting with an interest in the divinely inspired works of visionary artists Sister Gertrude Morgan and Howard Finster and the evolution of W.C. Rice’s stark and foreboding installation, “Cross Garden,” near Prattville, Alabama, I have been fascinated with the many outsider makers who have felt called by God to create their art. In the Cargo exhibit, a centerpiece is the visionary work of Rev. Benjamin Franklin “B.F.” Perkins. Perkins’s colorful and inventive art is showcased in an installation of his painting on a variety of media – birdhouses, gourds, text tracts on wooden boards. Rev. Perkins felt divinely inspired to spread the Gospel through his individual works and installations and the bulk of works in that area of the exhibition are devoted to art that is specifically religious in nature. Also of interest, however, are the inclusion of Perkins images and paintings prompted by his fascination with American patriotism, the history of time and the calendar, and the contents of King Tuthankamun’s tomb.
Artist Fred Webster is represented by a series of cases filled with works inspired by biblical stories from the old and new testaments. The carved images cover a wide span of biblical events along with more fanciful images of a choir of angels and a band of devils. Webster’s more secular subject matter includes images of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, and George Wallace delivering an address from his wheelchair. A collection of busts of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, along with a full-body carving take up about half of a display case.
Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, in essence, that there is no faith without doubt but there is a part of me that envies the blind faith of these makers, many of whom followed a divine inspiration without falter or question.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1
My father was born in the Employees Hospital in Fairfield in 1931. The hospital – which was later renamed Lloyd Noland Hospital in honor of its founding physician – was a company hospital of Tennessee Coal and Iron, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. Dad grew up in Ensley, within sight of U.S. Steel’s mammoth Ensley Works, where my grandfather worked.
Lloyd Noland Hospital went through changes in ownership, was closed in 2004, and razed in 2009.
The mining districts and steel mills around Birmingham, and the communities that sprang up around them, hold an ongoing fascination for me. My mother’s family moved from Cullman County to Birmingham in the 1940s and her father transitioned from farmer to steel worker at a steel fabrication factory. Mother’s parents lived in west Birmingham throughout their decades in the city. The house I most attach to them was in Fairfield Highlands. The Fairfield Works of U.S. Steel was visible down in the valley from their back yard. I remember my grandmother taking a damp rag to wipe the factory soot off her clothesline when she hung clothes on the line to dry.
My ongoing interest in the industrial history of the Birmingham district was greatly satisfied by a new exhibit hanging in the Birmingham Museum of Art this spring (www.artsbma.org). “Magic City Realism: Richard Coe’s Birmingham” is a collection of over sixty pieces – mostly etchings and a few paintings – by Alabama native Richard Coe. The pieces were made during Coe’s residency in Birmingham during the Depression in the mid-1930s.
Sometimes, it feels like the only history of Birmingham that gets any attention began in 1963 but the place has a rich and fascinating 90+ year history prior to that watershed year of the Civil Rights Movement. Coe’s Depression-era works capture a moment of that history and make me feel closer to my own family’s Birmingham. His etchings capture urban images of downtown and hospitals and churches; industrial scenes of factories – in action sometimes, idle other times; and domestic scenes of neighborhoods and humble houses – often in the shadow of the factories. One of the paintings features a neighborhood “No Nox” gas station.
The 1930s images of the downtown city center feature many of the same buildings that made up the core of the downtown when I was a young child in Birmingham in the ‘50s and 60s, before newer buildings in the ‘70s and ‘80s moved the city center a few blocks north and transformed the skyline.
Part of my mother’s family’s lore is evoked by a Coe etching of St. Vincent’s hospital on the city’s southside. My mother and her mother before her would recount how my great-grandmother, Dura Graves McCarn, was in St. Vincent’s when she was dying at a young age. When it became clear that nothing more could be done, my great-grandfather, John Houston McCarn, ordered her brought home. Aunt Bertha sent her car and driver to pick Dura up and transport her back to Cullman to be at home with her family in her final days.
Four decades later, when I was quite young, my grandmother Harbison was hospitalized at St. Vincent’s; it was still in the same imposing old brick building pictured in a 1930s Coe etching. Nuns still walked the grounds in full traditional habit, just as they do in the foreground of Coe’s depiction. The St. Vincent’s of the 21st Century is very different – another megalith serving the city’s southside medical complex.
Coe’s domestic images often feature humble houses and outbuildings, rickety fences, the inevitable clothesline. Most often, the people featured in these environments are African American – women talking off a front porch; children playing with a “Pet Possum” or walking on makeshift stilts; a birdhouse perched atop a roof.
But it’s the industrial scenes that I find most pleasing and beautiful in the series. Sloss Furnaces alongside First Avenue North is pictured at its peak, before it was abandoned in 1971 and became today’s National Historic Landmark and industrial museum (www.slossfurnaces.com).
Steel mills, steam plants, streetcar barns, railroad tracks, even the desolate landscape of a slag pile evoke a Birmingham of the past that I still find incredibly vibrant and rich in industrial-era history. As I drive through Birmingham now I still seek out the remains of that industrial past which wasn’t so long ago, really, but seems incredibly distant and almost quaint.
These are the memories that are inspired by Richard Coe’s art at the Birmingham Museum. And any sighting of a clothesline always brings a flood of memories to mind.
Birmingham; Friday, February 23, 2018. The Southern Foodways Alliance 2018 winter symposium, “Narratives that Transform,” began its narrative on Friday night with a reception on a loading dock behind a chain-link fence at an apparently abandoned building in an industrial district near the edge of downtown Birmingham (www.southernfoodways.org).
Although it is late February, it was a balmy evening with temperatures hovering in the 80s all day.
I drove past the place twice to be sure I had the right address.
When I parked the car and got out, the aromas drew me in to what was already a bustling gathering in progress. Grills were smoking and guests were gathered around picnic-style tables, creating a convivial spirit that enlivened the surroundings.
The ragtag location is the future site of chef Adam Evans’s new Birmingham restaurant that will open later this year. I first had Adam Evans’s food at a Friends of the Café dinner at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence in August 2016; I still remember that evening as one of the best meals I have eaten at that venue. The rumor was already circulating back then that Evans, a Shoals native who had recently left The Optimist in Atlanta, was contemplating a “new concept” in Birmingham and I have been regularly checking for news ever since.
At the reception Evans’s pass-arounds included Gulf clam chowder, Gulf oysters, and salt-baked fish. It all lived up to my expectations.
Saturday morning, February 24, 2018: When I told my mother that I would be spending most of the day at a food symposium in downtown Birmingham, she asked, as she is wont to do, how much I was paying for the event.
When I answered her, she said, “That’s a lot of money to listen to people talk about food all day.”
When I told her that Dolester Miles was making breakfast, Mother – remembering past desserts from Highlands Bar and Grill — laughed and said, “Well, it may be worth it then.”
The symposium venue was WorkPlay, the southside multi-purpose entertainment and work facility where food professionals, writers, and enthusiasts gathered for a packed day of presenters and food.
As participants arrived early on Saturday morning, Royal Cup coffee was being served on the WorkPlay sidewalk and Dolester Miles was plating up her cornmeal cake with strawberry preserves in the lobby. Ms. Miles is the James Beard-nominated pastry chef for chef Frank Stitt’s family of Birmingham restaurants and her dessert offerings are things of beauty and exquisite taste.
I ran into my friend, reporter Bob Carlton, who introduced me to Rusty Tucker, the force behind Rusty’s Bar-B-Q in Leeds, Alabama (www.rustysbarbq.com).The three of us sat together for most of the event. I have not been to Rusty’s, but I remembered him as one of the featured pitmasters in the documentary Q: Alabama’s Barbecue Legends that aired on Alabama Public Television and PBS. After hearing Tucker’s take on food and particularly barbecue throughout the day, I plan to make it a priority to drive over to Leeds to check his place out soon.
After breakfast, the gathering assembled in the WorkPlay soundstage for “Morning Corridos” – narrative protest ballads performed by La Victoria, a three-piece all-woman mariachi band based in Los Angeles. As they travel, the musicians meet with immigrants in each location, compiling stories and creating new corridos for each locality. With Birmingham-based Latino activists and residents on the stage, they performed “Heart of Alabama,” their newest ballad of Birmingham.
It was a good way to wake the audience.
Two papers followed in the morning session. Moni Basu of CNN presented a powerful discussion of how narratives can influence change. She began with her memories of being a young Indian girl relocated to Tallahassee after living around the world. Later, she told of the homeless girl, Dasani, whose mother named her “after a bottle of water she could never afford.” The greatest takeaway for me of Basu’s presentation was her statement that we are “compelled to share our stories for our sake as well as yours.”
In the presentation “Whiskey and Credit,” writers Clay Risen of The New York Times and Fawn Weaver explored the story of Nearest Green, the African-American man who shared his methods for distilling whiskey with Jack Daniel in the 19th century. Green’s story was largely lost until Clay Risen published a recent piece about it in the Times. Weaver, influenced by Risen’s narrative, was inspired to buy a farm and move from Los Angeles to Lynchburg, Tennessee, to dig deeper into the Green story. She shares an uplifting story of how the various families associated with the Jack Daniel saga – Daniel, Green, Motlow – have assisted and supported her in her undertaking. Most intriguing is Weaver’s conviction that Jack Daniel’s spirit is somehow behind the unearthing and renaissance of Mr. Green’s narrative. She asserted several times that “Jack wants this story to be told.”
Saturday afternoon, February 24, 2018: An appetizer, of sorts, before the lunch service, was a preview screening of Ava Lowrey’s short SFA film, “Dol,” about Birmingham pastry chef Dolester Miles. The lovingly shot film, to be released in March 2018, is deliberate and sumptuous in its presentation of Miles’s techniques and of her food that always looks as wonderful as it tastes. Among her many desserts over the years, I still particularly savor the memory of her Bastille Day cake I had at Chez Fonfon years ago. Miles has been with Frank and Pardis Stitt’s restaurants since 1982 when Highlands Bar and Grill opened.
After the “Dol” screening, a generous “Family Lunch without Tweezers” was served by Duane Nutter of Southern National in Mobile. Southern National is a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Best New Restaurant award. The meal included Kung Pao chicken breasts and a pea and Gulf shrimp salad along with a preponderance of other sides – a packed plate of delicious, hearty food.
David Hagedorn, a Washington, D.C.-based writer on food and dining, was born in Gadsden, Alabama, and summered at his family’s house on nearby Lake Guntersville. His presentation, “The Thank You / Screw You Paradigm,” ultimately seemed to be questioning the efficacy of exploiting and exalting his Southern heritage in his food writing and expertise, when he is so ambivalent about the South as it relates to his identity as a gay Jew from a prominent Southern family. His narrative was hilarious and heart-breaking – sometimes simultaneously; his bitterness was tempered with affection, generosity, and clarity.
During the Q&A that followed the talk, an undocumented woman, also from Gadsden, asked Hagedorn about his prognosis for Gadsden’s future. His response was empathetic but grim, prompting SFA executive director John T. Edge to say, to Hagedorn, “I’ll claim you if you’ll claim me.” Alas, Hagedorn sighed but had no ready response.
Writer, recipe developer, and activist Julia Turshen spoke about the process of putting together her new book, Feed the Resistance: Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved, in which chefs who are politically active provide suggestions for a synthesis of food activity with political activism. Chapter titles include “Easy Meals for Folks Who Are Too Busy Resisting to Cook” and “Feeding the Masses: Food for Crowds.”
Writers and scholars Ralph Eubanks and Tom Ward presented “Still, Still Hungry,” in which an upcoming reissue of Still Hungry in America, a 1969 book featuring photographs by Al Clayton and a text by Robert Coles, was discussed. The book grew out of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and Clayton’s photographs provide stark evidence of the dire poverty of areas of America including Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. The session was introduced by Clayton’s daughter and the presenters provided sobering contemporary evidence of the ongoing blight of American poverty and the government’s failure to confront it effectively.
The final presentation, by Rosalind Bentley, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was a master class in how to present transformative narrative. “Radical Hospitality” was a memoir of Bentley’s relatives and role models – Aunt Lucy, Cousin Carol, and Sandra, women who each participated in her own way in the Augusta, Georgia, chapter of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Aunt Lucy and Cousin Carol “fed the Movement” with home-cooked meals for the activists and their attorneys. Sandra “fed the movement” as a teenager jailed for marching, who shared care packages from her family with her fellow political prisoners.
Bentley built her narrative with care, seasoning it with the perfect amounts of humor and family stories, and building to a powerful climax and conclusion which provided the ideal resolution for a deeply felt and moving day of food-fueled activism.
As the day ended, Becky Satterfield and her crew from Satterfield’s, a Birmingham restaurant, were in the lobby serving a Conecuh County sausage gumbo as part of the event’s closing happy hour.
The 2018 SFA symposium is over, but its narrative, which began at the make-do reception on the loading dock, will end in a year at a reception at the same spot to launch the 2019 winter symposium. Next year, however, the site will have transformed into Adam Evans’s spanking new Gulf seafood restaurant and oyster bar.
The narrative of southern food and foodways is always, after all, a continuing saga.
In Raymond Carver’s glorious short story, “Cathedral,” a regular guy, stoned and semi-drunk, tries to communicate the actuality of a cathedral to a blind man – a houseguest who is practically a stranger to him. The task is pursued with the seeing man holding a ballpoint pen to paper and the blind man following the movement of the hand and the verticality of the movement.
“You got it, bub. I can tell. You didn’t think you could,” says the blind man. By story’s end, the seeing man is the one who has been enlightened about the majesty and meaning of cathedral architecture.
My ongoing project of photographing old churches is inspired by an interest in ecclesiastical architecture and architecture in general. I am often drawn to the quaint and forgotten small churches found on remote byways but church architecture of all types is interesting to me.
I am a fan of modern architecture but too many modern church structures are bland, utilitarian, and boring, it seems, with no architectural distinction whatsoever; I have seen charming buildings demolished to make way for eyesores, usually alongside major highways.
Fortunately, there are still distinctive old church buildings in the northside city center of downtown Birmingham with congregations founded within a year or two of the 1871 founding of the city.
The Cathedral Church of the Advent, an 1883 Gothic sandstone structure, stands on 20th Street across from the Harbert Tower (www.adventbirmingham.org). When I worked in downtown Birmingham in the ‘90s, I would often take a lunchtime break in the peaceful Advent church garden to read and reflect. A block away, on the other side of the Harbert building, is the First United Methodist Church’s brooding Romanesque structure built in 1891 (www.firstchurchbham.com).
It is noteworthy that the architecture of the 1989 post-modern Harbert office tower – formally known as the Regions-Harbert Plaza – acknowledges its proximity to Cathedral Church of the Advent and First Methodist in its building materials and architectural set-backs and flourishes.
A few blocks northwest of First Methodist (now known as First Church Birmingham) is downtown’s most famous church, 16th Street Baptist – site of the horrific 1963 bombing that killed four young girls and galvanized the Civil Rights Movement (www.16thstreetbaptist.org). The building, completed in 1911, is a distinguished Byzantine-Romanesque structure that anchors Birmingham’s Civil Rights National Monument.
Built in 1888, the Victorian Gothic First Presbyterian Church (www.fpcbham.org), east of 20th Street, is only a block over from the Cathedral of Saint Paul (www.stpaulsbhm.org), a Neo-Gothic building completed in 1893, whose brick masonry is so reminiscent of many of the downtown structures from Birmingham’s early decades.
On a recent Saturday morning a couple of days before Christmas, I went into the Cathedral. A couple of parishioners were in the sanctuary preparing for mass. The majestic impact of the soaring room was heightened by the Moller pipe organ that was at that time filling the building with bright and vibrant sacred music of the season.
Outside, the day was overcast, but the stained glass windows shone brightly as the sun occasionally burst through grey December clouds. I sat in a pew toward the back and listened to the music for a while, savoring the solitude and peace of the room and the history it encompassed. Then it was time to travel out into the busy streets and continue with holiday preparations.
May 2018 bring good news. Look for and savor the beauty that surrounds you. Happy New Year.
“The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.”
That quote, by the writer and critic James Agee (1909-1955), is one I often share and discuss with my directing classes. It provided fuel for the makers of Behn Zeitlin’s magnificent 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild (www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com) and it resonates with me whenever I am trying to think of my favorite kinds of movies.
I have always liked – maybe preferred – to attend movies by myself, which is probably a good thing. I have a long habit of trying to catch movies on weekday afternoons when the theatre is almost empty. One of the reasons for that is the ability to focus more intensely but the other is that it is sometimes hard to find people who share my tastes in movies. I am drawn to what I call “chamber movies” – intimate character-driven dramas that have a meditative quality and pace. Not everybody is into that.
The 19th annual Sidewalk Film Festival happened in downtown Birmingham last week and, while I didn’t have time to commit myself to the festival as fully as I have in the past, I did manage to catch a screening or two each day.
Two screenings stood out for me.
Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table (www.ellabrennanmovie.com) is the 2016 documentary about the doyenne of New Orleans restaurateurs. Directed by Leslie Iwerks, the film reveals things about Ms. Brennan and the famous New Orleans restaurant family that even the most avid New Orleans foodie might not have known.
Ella Brennan is credited with jump-starting the careers of chefs Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, and Tory McPhail, Commander’s current executive chef. Commander’s Palace is known as much for its joie de vivre as for its innovative and ever-evolving cuisine and Ella Brennan is credited with starting that New Orleans institution the Sunday “Jazz Brunch.” “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through,” she says.
Archival footage and recent interviews keep the documentary moving like a fabulous feast and the screening I attended was packed to overflowing.
“I wasn’t expecting this particular screening to be this popular,” said the woman perching on a bar stool next to me at the Red Mountain Theatre Company’s cabaret theatre space in the basement of the Kress Building.
“Well, it’s New Orleans and it’s about good food and it’s playing in Birmingham,” I responded. I wasn’t surprised at all. On leaving the theatre on 19th Street I immediately booked a table at Commander’s for an upcoming business trip.
A few years ago, I attended a mid-morning Sidewalk screening of a documentary that I have never forgotten and that may be my favorite movie ever seen at the festival. 45365 (2010) was directed by brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross (www.rossbros.net) in their home town and is a beautifully shot and moving chronicle of life in Sidney, Ohio; 45365 is Sidney’s postal code.
45365 has a hypnotic pace and is definitely not for everyone. It provides neither climaxes nor resolutions but follows the pace of life in a small midwestern town in an incisive and beautifully edited piece of meditative work that is documentary but hard to pin down.
I found myself thinking about 45365 at another Sidewalk mid-morning screening last week. The movie was The Other Kids (2016), a “narrative-documentary” hybrid directed by Chris Brown (www.theotherkidsmovie.com).
The Other Kids follows a group of high school students in a Sonora, California, high school. The cast are non-professional actors and the dialogue is improvised, based on the experiences of the engaging and attractive young cast. Many questions are raised but few are conclusively answered as the audience feels like it is eavesdropping and peeking in on personal and intimate experiences.
One of the teenagers resorts to cutting as he struggles with college and major decisions while another considers enlisting in the military. One deals with the pressure of being moved into a new school and community while another finds herself functioning solo, unable to make a connection. One lives off the grid, protective and secretive about his immigration status, while another feels pressured to hold everything together while her parents’ marriage dissolves.
Levity and pain are interspersed throughout the movie along with moments of pure joy and horseplay. The adult characters are as authentic as their young counterparts and the film quickly absorbs the audience into a world that is familiar but presented in a cinematically fresh manner.
The Other Kids ends with a high school graduation. “Pomp and Circumstance” has never sounded so portentous.
The massive steel girders and beams of Birmingham’s Legion Field have thrilled me since I was a kid growing up in the city. “The Old Gray Lady” is 90-years-old and, even though her best days are likely behind her, she maintains a majesty and charm. Another proud old sports arena, Rickwood Field, sits a short drive from Legion Field and is the oldest remaining professional baseball field in the country. Rickwood opened in 1910 and the first Legion Field game was played in 1927.
When I was in college, the University of Alabama’s significant games and major rivalries were played at Legion Field. In those days, Denny Stadium on campus in Tuscaloosa was a perfect little 60,000 seat bowl and half of the home games were played there while the other half went up the highway to Birmingham. This is years before Bryant-Denny became the 101,000+ seat behemoth that it is today and before big-time college football had become so “corporate.”
Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was the coach then and, depending on which national polls you’re counting, my freshman year was the year of Alabama’s ninth national championship and Bryant’s fourth of six. The most enduring memory of my years attending Alabama games at Legion Field is the image of Bear Bryant, hat always in place (despite the legend, it wasn’t always a houndstooth hat), leaning casually against the goal post and watching the team warm-up. One time, when Alabama offered Bryant a significant boost in salary (which would be paltry by today’s standards), he commented that it would be unseemly for the football coach to make more than the college president. Times have changed.
In those pre-ESPN days of a finite number of television channels and networks, the weekly choice of televised college football games was limited and it was always a treat when Alabama football was nationally televised – usually on ABC and usually with the great sports broadcaster Keith Jackson calling the game (“Whoa, Nellie!” and “Hold the phone!” Jackson would say at particularly exciting moments).
In 1981 Bryant broke the record of the most wins by any college football coach up to that time. Keith Jackson was in the booth. The opponent was Auburn and the game was played in Legion Field. The final score was 28-17. At halftime, Bryant growled to interviewer Verne Lundquist that his players were acting “like they’re afraid they’ll hurt somebody’s feelings or something.”
During those years the upper deck was in place on the east side of the stadium and the capacity of the stadium was around 70,000 with more expansions to come. For many years the words “Football Capital of the South” were displayed inside Legion Field and for most of those years that was true. At its peak, Legion Field could hold over 83,000. When a structural review in 2004 determined that the upper deck was not up to code, the city removed the deck and the stadium now seats about 71,000.
With the increased capacity of Bryant-Denny in Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama began to schedule more home games away from Legion Field. The annual “Iron Bowl” between Alabama and Auburn was always played at Legion Field from 1948 to 1988. Tickets were split evenly between the schools and they alternated the “home team” each year. After Auburn moved the game to Auburn in their “home team” years, Alabama would continue to play the game in Birmingham in their “home” years until the end of the century. The Birmingham location is the reason that the game is called the “Iron Bowl” in the first place. And the game is still and forever the “Iron Bowl’ even though it will probably never be played in Birmingham again.
The last time I lived in Birmingham, I could see Legion Field across town from my apartment on Red Mountain. When an Alabama game was televised I would host watch parties at my place; if the game was at Legion Field and something went wrong I was known to go out on the balcony and yell toward the stadium (a couple of times, maybe more …).
Among the monumental architecture at the entrance to Legion Field, which was named to honor the American Legion, are two reclining lions and, at the base of the two flag poles, American bald eagles. A later monument, centered between the flag poles, memorializes Bear Bryant. A quote from Reagan at the time of Bryant’s death is engraved beneath Bryant’s bust on one side and Bryant’s own words about what it takes to be a “winner” are on another. On the façade of the stadium these days are the words “Built by Legends.”
The Iron Bowl is gone but Legion Field still hosts annual games like the “Magic City Classic” between Alabama A&M and Alabama State. The Classic has been played in Birmingham for seventy years. The Birmingham Bowl is the latest and longest lasting in a series of post-season bowl games played in the stadium. The first two SEC championship games were at Legion Field. The stadium has been the site for high school football and major soccer events and was home to local football teams of the several short-lived efforts to challenge the NFL (WFL, USFL, XFL, etc.).
Legion Field will once again be the home field for the resuscitated University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers football team in fall 2017. For those of us who remember the Old Gray Lady’s glory years, it’s somewhat sad to see the mostly empty stands for UAB games.
Legion Field was already in its fifth decade when the Houston Astrodome opened and was declared the “Eighth Wonder of the World” in 1965. These days, the Astrodome is virtually obsolete — empty and avoiding the wrecking ball – but Legion Field soldiers on.
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.