Community members hope big projects and new initiatives bring some glory back.
George McCall, president of the Ensley Neighborhood Association, has seen it all in his community.
“I’m a retired letter carrier. I carried mail out here for 42 years in Ensley,” he said. “I’ve been to every doorstep in Ensley,” not to mention surrounding communities.
McCall has seen Ensley rise and fall. He’s seen the community in western Birmingham go from segregated to a nearly all-Black population. He’s seen the neighborhood’s economic fortunes decline with the departure of the U.S. Steel plant decades ago—and many other businesses since. And he’s seen hope for Ensley’s resurgence have to be tempered.
Case in point: McCall was one of many how had hopes for a while that the tallest structure in the community, the 10-story Ramsay-McCormack building being brought down into a pile of rubble. But that demolition was to make way for something new. And so even now, hopes adjusted, McCall, like many in Ensley, is optimistic.
“We have hope that what happens is something that will make Ensley a better neighborhood and a better community, and maybe one day, come back to what it once was in the past years,” McCall said. “We have that hope and belief that Ensley is going to come back.
A good bit of optimism is centered on a particular project, one which will see the site of the former ensley High School transformed into a carefully-designed new development of 244 apartments, with a fresh food grocery in the old high school gym, a clubhouse and other amenities, including greenspace in a courtyard and linear park. Site plans also show 15,000 square feet of commercial space in the 10-acre site.
Demolition of the old school, which burned in 2018, is expected this summer, with construction on the new development slated to being in late 2022, according to developer Zimmerman Properties.
McCall said developments like the one planned at the EHS site may not be the shot in the arm Ensley needs. “You see the plans that they have for the new development. If you [aren’t] prejudiced, it would draw your attention to come back to the area,” McCall said. “The new development is going to have everything there that anybody really wants. So, we’re looking forward to that area being developed there. And maybe the way it comes out, may draw people back to this area.
Ensley leaders, business owners and residents hope to see something good rise from the ashes of that site—as well as the former Ramsay-McCormack. And some are working actively to strengthen the business community with the end goal of seeing Ensley hit its stride again.
Ensley—Better Day Behind—And Ahead
Located today in the western section of Birmingham, Ensley was originally a company town, named after Enoch Ensley, who founded it in the late 1880s around the iron and steel foundry he owned. Eventually, Ensley’s company became the Tennessee Coal Iron & Railroad company, and even later became part of U.S. Steel.
Meanwhile, for decades, industry became the economic engine of the growing community. By 1900, Ensley had a city hall. By 1910, Ensley had an estimated population of 20,000 to 25,000. That same year, it was annexed into Birmingham.
In 1929, Erskine Ramsay and Carr McCormack erected the 10-story tower that would bear their names right in the middle of the Ensley business district where it would later become an iconic landmark. Ten years later, the still-famous jazz standard “Tuxedo Junction” was written by band-leaders Erskine Hawkins to immortalize the spot in Ensley where several streetcar lines intersected.
The Ensley Works and the nearby Fairfield Works, both owned and operated by U.S. Steel, produced steel through World War II and for decade beyond.
Songs, poems, and even movies were produced about Ensley as noted in BhamWiki. But with the passage of time, people moved away from Ensley. The Ensley Works shut down for good in 1979. By 2010, about 6,400 people liv3d in the community, according to the “Ensley Community Redevelopment Market Report” compiled for the city by BLOC Global in 2012. Some recent estimates place Ensley’s population much lower.
Despite population loss, vacant houses, lots and storefronts, Ensley has never really thrown in the towel. It keeps getting a second wind, manifested in several efforts to reinvigorate the community over decades.
Never Giving Up
“Numerous ‘revitilization’ efforts have been made, with marginal success,” BhamWiki notes. “The redevelopment of the Tuxedo Court housing Project into Tuxedo Terrace and of the nearby Alabama State Fairgrounds into Fair Park in 2010, along with renewed efforts by Main Street Birmingham and business groups to bring investment to the Ensley Business District give current residents hope for improvement. Long-range plans to transform the former Ensley Works site into an industrial park would accelerate economic recovery in the area.”
Over time, REV Birmingham gave support to various Ensley redevelopment projects, including what used to be Birmingham Police WEst Precinct and the Western Health Center. The city has pumped money and resources into assisting several businesses that have called Ensley home for years.
And there have been numerous other efforts to breathe new vitality into Ensley. For example, in 2018, BuildUP opened as a non profit, private high school focused around workforce development. BuildUP has garnered national attention and will be graduating its first class by the time this issues sees print.
“Launched in 2018, BuildUP is a program for youth from low-income families in Birmingham that sees its students through their high school diploma and associate’s degree, while training them for careers in construction and real estate with paid apprenticeships through partnering businesses in the community,” CNN noted in a March 2021 story. “The students combine academic learning with hands-on experience, renovating and rehabbing homes in neighborhoods like Ensley, where the school is based.”
Brian K. Rice, an engineer and business owner, said he’s glad to see any progress in Ensley. For instance, the new buildings to be built on the Ramsay-McCormack site is welcome news, he said. “We do look forward to progress and we do look forward to the new building going up,” he said, noting that the new structure, at five-stories and 30,000 square feet, is expected to be 18 feet shorter than Ramsay-McCormack when it is built in 2022. “So that will mean a lot to the community once it’s complete,” Rice said.
The city has big dreams for the new building. “The redevelopment of the Ramsay-McCormack site will be a beacon for the Ensley neighborhood, much like its predecessor building. This project coupled with the Woodfin administration’s additional revitalization strategy will support new and exciting opportunities,” said Irvin Henderson, a principal of Ensley District Developers (EDD), in a city web posting from October 2020. “These actions will support new and existing businesses. The enthusiasm and consumer interest will bring customers to the business and increase the traffic of the area, which will support a healthy climate for entrepreneurism and encourage positive investment. This is the formula for revitalization.”
On the other hand, Rice also sees issues even with favorable projects. For example, he said that since Ramsay-McCormack was brought down—his eight properties are in the next block over—he’s been coughing, and his eyes have been burning. And now he wonders if he and others in downtown Ensley are breathing something toxic. He’s pressed federal and state officials to test the air.
“We have a lot of people with pre-exisiting conditions in the community. They need to make sure they are protected,” Rice said.
Rice also praised aspects of the Ensley High School project, which will redevelop a large piece of property between Avenue J and Avenue L, and 2nd and 24th Streets--but with caveats.
“They’re bringing in Zimmerman Properties to redevelop that sire to put 244 subsidized housing units in that location,” Rice said. “they’re beautiful, the renderings are beautiful. So I’ll be honest about that. The renderings look great.
“For some of them, I’m going to call them cottage houses, where they may have a garage on the first level or your apartment or units are right above. Then some of them are your traditional multi-family housing. So it’s beautiful.”
But he raised concerns about building the new complex adjacent to the recently redeveloped Hope Six project called Tuxedo Court. He worries that the development will create zones of concentrated poverty, he said.
“So you have the Hope Six development which is only a few blocks away from Ensley High School, which was originally a housing complex, government housing. So they redeveloped that, but the majority of the tenants that are there now are still associated with...subsidized units. Now you’re putting these adjacent to that, a new 100% subsidized complex,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with the development. I just feel like that was too close to the Hope Six redevelopment.”
Similar concerns were voiced by the lone Birmingham City council member to vote against the EHS project when the city overwhelmingly approved it on April 27.
“We just spent an enormous amount of money developing Tuxedo Terrace and one of the reasons why we did that when I worked for the Housing Authority was to deconcentrate poverty because there was such crime that was happening in that community and that development,” said Councilor Steven Hoyt. “Every other day somebody was getting killed or getting shot or just getting something. And it was because we just has too many people in one area,” he said.
“This proposal is to put the same amount of folks or units that we took out of that project back into an area that is contiguous to this development, which means that we’re going to concentrate poverty in an area that’s already experienced that,” Hoyt said. “It’s my opinion that we need more single-family homes there. And what the developer is proposing to do it do stack housing...that’s really not the best highest use for that site.
“Multifamily (housing), generally the persons who live there are transient. They move in and out. When you’ve got somebody who’s got a home, you’ve got an investment. They have some ownership, and it's a little more stable than just multifamily. Just given the history of that community, the crime rate is still high in that community. We really want to promote home ownership.”
Hoyt said he was “vehemently opposed” to the plan for the EHS site. But the majority of the council disagreed, with Councilor John Hilliard expressing enthusiasm for it.
“I’ve had a chance to view it several times with the neighborhood president there in that area, George McCall and several others our in that area,” Hilliard said. “It comes to economic development. We’ve looked at it, I think it is a beautiful project. I would like to see it happen.”
During the same meeting where the council approved the project, the city also amended its capital fund budget to provide a $1.5 million grant for the EHS redevelopment to Zimmerman Properties, which will own and develop the site—purchased from the city for $50,000. The redevelopment will include apartments, the grocery, an afterschool center, a clubhouse and a parking structure in the 10-acre space.
Zimmerman has brought together a diverse group of corporate partners to develop the site, with a significant effort to involve community members in discussions beforehand, said Tab Bullard, who is in charge of the project.
After working with city officials and partners, including David Baker Architects (DBA), the Zimmerman team made sure to connect with stakeholders in Ensley.
“From then on it was really about engaging the community, hearing back from them, seeing what they liked and allowing DBA the freedom to come up with the plan that we presented to the city, that we presented to the community,” Bullard said.
“All along we’ve made a commitment to the community we would be sensitive to the history and the legacy of the Ensley High School, its alumni base and what that school has meant to the community over the years. That was one reason we were adamant about our construction company overseeing the GC [general contractor] aspect of it, so that we could make sure that we’re following through on the promises we’ve made as developers.”
Ben Parker, a Birmingham native, who is consulting with Zimmerman on the EHS development, took particular note of aspects of the project designed to support local students.
“We’re building an early learning center that we build and fund while we do the development so kids there from K-5 have a place when they get off the bus. The come straight to the after school learning center. They’ve got a safe place to go. But we also are in coordination with the Board of Education and their elementary schools. There’s a partnership with Star-C ourrof Atlanta,” Parker said.
Star-C is a nonprofit 501(c)(3), which has mostly worked in Metro Atlanta to reduce transiency by collaborating with landlords to keep rents within reach of those who live in “affordable and workforce housing communities,” according to the group’s website. Star-C provides “wraparound” services—additional educational, wellness and gardening programs, the website notes.
“They’ll be running that program [in Ensley], it has a focus on reducing transiency,” Parker said. “So, this isn’t just a set of apartments and buildings. There’s some community component to it that we’re very committed to. And there’s another nonprofit in Birmingham, ELI—it’s going to be heavily involved with Star-C in the wraparound services that we bring to the community and we hope that by reducing transiency in the local elementary school and providing stability for single moms that it can be a stabilizing influence in the community that is a step above. This will be Star-C’s first venture into the state of Alabama and we’re really proud that they're part of the network.”
Community support has been substantial, Parker said, and it will be important going forward with the project. “We hope we’ve done a good job involving the Ensley neighborhood, to date,” he said. “We will be back with them when we get to the architectural phase of the design to engage the community in presenting our deeper design architecture schematics. So, they have input and feedback from the community along the way, We want an ongoing partnership with the community.”
Despite concerns about concentrating poverty in the complex, Parker predicted that the EHS project--from the removal of the old building to the creation of the new development--will be an economic win for the neighborhood.
“We talked to the residents across the street,” Parker said. “I think from a macro standpoint, you can’t gauge the deadening effect of a 10-acre, dilapidated building in the middle of, in the heart of your community. You know, it prevents other people from buying smaller parcels of land. We think that when we get this going that it will reactivate, revitalize these parcels of land for single-family standalone housing that might be in the landbank currently or might be in arrears on taxes. If you can take away this giant negative from the neighborhood and it’s just going to lift a tide for all boats, we hope.”
“I know that it’s going to present opportunities for other smaller investors to come in and improve other parcels that might otherwise have to be looking at this old building. Right now, it just adds to the negative drag of the neighborhood. I think just changing that one dynamic and if you come back, 5 years, 10 years down the road and you say what was the impact of that project—it’s going to extend for blocks. It’s not just what we do for the parcel. It has a much larger community impact, and I think that the people that stare at that building every day get that.”
With such a prominent spor geographically, and historically in the community, the EHS site has potential to impact Ensley for years to come, Bullard said.
“We’re hoping that it becomes a hub to the Ensley community...and it’ll create some activity and interest in investing in the Ensley community that for years has been disenfranchised and not has its fair share of investment,” Bullard said. “We hope that we’re able to deliver on that and it’ll be hope for the residents in there for a brighter Enlsey future.”
For Ensley to have a brighter future, Rice said, it needs to have a stronger business community. Rice has struggled in Ensley. He is in an ongoing well-publicized struggle against low bank assessment of his properties. “The appraisers valued 43,125 square feet of land at $1.04 per square foot,” according to scholar and journalist Andre Perry of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, in his book “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.”
Rice contends that Ensley’s merchants will have to stand together to succeed. When he moved back to Ensley, he found that the Ensley Merchants Association had not been meeting consistently for years. Now, building on that, the Ensley Business Alliance is coming together to reforge their common bond, Rice said, noting that there are nearly 100 businesses operating in the community.
“We must communicate together as owners—we won’t ever get 100%—and we must plan together so we can identify funding opportunities and identify who we can recruit that can be a new anchor or new business to the district,” Rice said. “Most importantly, we have to invest in each other, and build this up from a Business Alliance point of view.”
Through the Alliance, Rice hopes Ensley’s merchants are “able to hyper focus on the needs of the business district...making sure we also have a plan to connect and grow our relationships with the community because the business district is the neighborhood. But we’ve got to get strong,” he said.
“Once we become stronger, I want people to feel like this is a resource whether they are a member or not. I want it to be a resource to say ‘Hey, how do I do this?’ Or ‘Who do I need to connect with?’ And we are still there to connect with them because they are attached to the Ensley Business District. To me that is critical.”
Article first appeared in the June 2021 Issue of Iron City Ink (https://issuu.com/280living/docs/ink_0621_issuu)