THE BIG PICTURE
Find people who WANT to live in Birmingham: Birmingham’s population continues to fall, from 340,000 in 1960 to 212,000 in 2010. What can be done to plant the seeds of an inner-city recovery—short of stopping crime, fixing our schools and magically increasing our tax base? One clue can be found in a recent study at newgeography.com. Metro Birmingham was ranked the sixth-best brain magnet in the country from 2007-2009, based on the number of college graduates who moved here. They came mainly for cheap housing, and most moved to the suburbs. What can we do to attract more of these people? How do we retain the ones who have moved here? And how do we draw more people with an urban consciousness who want to live inside the Birmingham city limits?
Make Birmingham an idea factory: Birmingham, like Detroit, Mich., post-Katrina New Orleans, and other blasted, abandoned places, should be open to radical experiments. Let’s put out a call to people across the county and around the world who have an adventurous spirit and want to come here and try out their wild, radical ideas to rebuild our neighborhoods and make us a vital city. In some cases, these people will be eager to live in sketchy areas in return for cheap housing and an opportunity to do something exciting.
According to The Week magazine in October 2009, “If Detroit has a future, it can be glimpsed in a new generation of urban homesteaders who have begun reclaiming ragged neighborhoods, renovating old housing stock and turning abandoned lots into gardens.” And check this out: “[Detroit] has a massive supply of usable industrial locations and plenty of cheap labor, a combination that could once again attract entrepreneurs,” The Week says. Doesn’t this sound like Birmingham? Granted, home prices haven’t cratered here in the same way they have in Detroit, but the analogy seems apt.
In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a local non-profit there called The Idea Village began providing support to entrepreneurs, including people who wanted to go to New Orleans precisely because it WAS so screwed up, because it was a place where nobody has anything to lose by trying a cool, new idea.
Let’s make Birmingham an idea factory (the industrial metaphor a fitting one for this old steel town). And this won’t be a government program. It can bubble up from people in Birmingham who recruit their friends and associates from other places to come here and set up shop.
Airdrop thousands of Bohemians into Birmingham at night: O.K., we won’t airdrop them, but we have an urgent need for infiltration by outsiders who don’t carry the psychic wounds that the natives do. In my neighborhood in East Lake (Wahouma, actually), there are plenty of abandoned houses. Recruit artists, entertainers and other alt-entrepreneurs from around the country and find a way to get them into those houses. Let them mix with the people already there and serve as shock troops for redevelopment. Even people who aren’t MBAs or software programmers can add a lot to this city just by being here and creating their own vibe. This phenomenon has begun in Detroit. Architect Eric Corey Freed calls it “Rust Belt Chic.”
Sponsor more “Next Big Thing”: You’ve probably heard about the “Next Big Thing” contest recently announced to attract ideas for redevelopment of one block near Railroad Park. If this works, maybe we could pick other blocks in other areas—Woodlawn, Ensley, etc.—and repeat the process.
BREAD & CIRCUSES
Support the Tragic City Rollers: After giving the Rollers, Birmingham’s female roller derby team, a shout-out in the first edition of “Immodest Proposals” in July, I saw a bout in person at the Zamora Shrine Temple in Irondale. The place was packed. But I would like to see thousands, not hundreds, at these bouts. It’s a real sport, and it’s fun to sit in the balcony and watch the plays develop. Birmingham should fully embrace the Rollers, making it feasible for them to eventually have their own arena and the capacity to host regional and national championships. Their next home game is Sunday, May 22 (hint, hint).
Build the new ballpark near Railroad Park: I think everybody wants to see the new baseball park for the Birmingham Barons built near Railroad Park. Perhaps we could incorporate the recently opened Good People brewery on 14th street into the new complex. Birmingham Mayor William Bell seemed open to discussing that idea when he did a Q&A with the Weekly in our January 20 issue. He also said he didn’t want to run businesses out of the area. “We’re not interested in just grabbing up property and running people out,” Bell said.
Build a good UAB football stadium or don’t do it at all: If UAB builds its own football stadium—which I’m told they need in order to impress recruits, build fan interest and increase revenue—they should get a quality design and build something the city can be proud of for decades. If they build a low-cost dump that looks like a somewhat nicer Lawson Field (i.e., that Godawful high-school ballpark on Oporto-Madrid Boulevard), please don’t bother. Remember when Baltimore built its new baseball park in 1992? Camden Yards was not a 1970s-style cookie-cutter facility, but rather a “new-old” park with nice amenities. It made the surrounding area a destination. UAB should have the guts and vision to build a small but gorgeous stadium with a brick facade and inviting pedestrian plazas, maybe even a place for outdoor concerts and other events. We’re not talking just about money, but about good design. cutting costs is fine, but you get what you pay for.
Start a friends of Legion Field group: This city is in debt to the Friends of Rickwood Field for helping to save that great old ballpark, but Legion Field—which the late Birmingham News sports editor Alf Van Hoose, a lovable cornball, called “the fabled Westside ball-yard”—doesn’t get much love. Its useful life as a major venue may be over, but we should treat the site in a sensitive way, even if most of the grandstands are dismantled. Legion could be a park with a natural-grass football field, portions of the original grandstands, some lovely brick and stonework and, of course, the Bear Bryant monument. Maybe there could be some college football exhibits. This is a holy place and, in 100 years, people will be grateful if we have the vision now to avoid ripping down the entire structure just because people don’t want to go to West End.
Hope for local pro football fans (sort of): Birmingham has seen a lot of pro football teams fail, but don’t blame the fans. I was at Legion Field and saw big crowds for USFL games in the 1980s. It’s not our fault the leagues folded. But there’s still hope. Birmingham may get a franchise in the all-female Lingerie Football League (I’m not kidding). Stephon McMillen, LFL media director, tells me the LFL is “considering Alabama for a 2013 launch.”
Alley Oops: Geoff Langdon of Advantage Marketing has his own immodest proposal. “The idea is to renovate several alleys downtown with art on the walls and add benches and food carts to make them accessible and inviting rather than foreboding,” he says. One possible site, according to Langdon—an alley that connects 19th and 20th Streets from which you can see the façade of the McWane Science Center.
Pray for Pizitz: Pray that Bayer Properties can pull off their planned $57 million renovation of the old Pizitz department store. Along with the restoration of the Lyric Theatre, this could transform the city’s retail and entertainment district.
THE POWER OF SOUL
Save Powell School: Powell School is not just a burned-out hulk. It’s one of the most precious artifacts we have. We could save it if we want to, as The Birmingham News pointed out recently. Of course, as Jeremy Erdreich of Erdreich Architecture told the News, this would require a major private campaign to raise the money. I hope this happens. When Powell was built, it represented the confidence of a young city in its future. Now a more mature city, battered and bruised, can make another statement about its faith in the future of its downtown.
Have joint white and black homecomings at former white churches: I grew up in Wahouma and was baptized at 66th Street Baptist Church, now abandoned. Most of the other European-American churches in the area, and in other city neighborhoods, were sold one by one through the 1980s and 1990s to African-American congregations. What if Memorial Day, or some other appropriate holiday, were an occasion for these newer African-American congregations to invite former white members of those churches to come back to the old neighborhoods and worship? These folks could have picnics together on the grounds and celebrate their shared values and faith and pride of place. Very few white people would come at first—though maybe more than you think—but it could grow. I still live in Wahouma. I love my African-American brothers and sisters, and I know that many of the European-Americans who joined the post-1970 suburban Diaspora have that same love in their hearts. We all need a way to show that love and rebuild a truly integrated future. As Jimi Hendrix said, “With the power of soul/Anything is possible.”
Jesse Chambers is a Birmingham Weekly contributing editor. He invites you to visit bhamweekly.com and check out the original “Immodest Proposals: Wacky ideas to make Birmingham better,” posted on July 1, 2010. Send your comments--or your own immodest proposals about Birmingham--to jesse@ bhamweekly.com or email@example.com.