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October 2019: The Magic is Back in Birmingham—Part One, Return to the Past


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Downtown Birmingham skyline with University of Alabama Birmingham in the foreground. Image via flickr user Katchooo

Part Two: The Turnaround Begins

My husband and I visited Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer of 2016 to figure out if it made sense for our family of four to move there. We had been living in San Francisco for 11 years and loved it, despite sharing a one-bedroom apartment and raising two young children in one of the most expensive cities in America. Although my husband and I had both been born in Alabama, we always felt we’d found our people and our preferred way of life in the Bay Area. As we visited over that long weekend, the answer for me came not because of Birmingham’s good coffee and food, the allure of the affordability, or the opportunity to be close to family, but because of the buildings and the sense of opportunity there.

The “Heaviest Corner on Earth,” at 20th Street and 1st Avenue North in downtown Birmingham, has four of the tallest buildings in the South, the 10-story Woodward Building (1902), 16-story Brown Marx Building (1906), 16-story Empire Building (1909), and the 21-story John Hand Building (1912) which is seen across the intersection. The John Hand Building is now the home of Shipt, one of Birmingham’s biggest new (tech) companies. Image: David Baker Architects

Even though my grandmother had grown up in Birmingham, and I’d lived there myself for a semester in college, somehow I was surprised to discover that Birmingham is a real city. Its boundaries encompass 148 square miles, with the downtown core just under three square miles. Returning as an architect, I was struck by the walkable street grid, rich historic building fabric, bursts of active street life, extensive trail and park system, bike and scooter share system, and wonderful, affordable housing stock. The three- to 20-story brick and terra cotta buildings built in the early part of the 20th century define a public realm that is understandable and urban.

20th Street in downtown Birmingham and the location of Urban Studio, a teaching and outreach program of Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction. Image: David Baker Architects

When I returned to San Francisco, I talked with my co-leaders in my firm, David Baker Architects, about my family’s need to move back to the south. Together, we hatched a plan to open DBA’s first satellite office in Birmingham. We hoped that Birmingham and other cities in the southeast were ripe for a new way of thinking about mixed-use, mixed-income, sustainable, walkable development.

Our Craftsman bungalow in the Crestwood neighborhood. Image: David Baker Architects

Four months after that visit to Birmingham, my family moved into a loft downtown. For $1,600 a month—the same rent we’d been paying for our 500-square-foot rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco (after our discount for being building managers)—we now had 1,650 square feet to stretch out in. With a newborn and a four-year-old, loft living eventually proved impractical, so we relocated to a streetcar neighborhood about 15 minutes from downtown. For what might have been a down payment in San Francisco, we purchased a 1930s three-bedroom, two-bath Craftsman bungalow in the Crestwood neighborhood and have thrived ever since. The houses are about 20 feet away from each other, with generous front porches within conversational distance to the sidewalk, and those characteristics enabled us to know and befriend our neighbors almost overnight.

The Pittsburgh of the South

Founded in 1871, Birmingham was built on steel, grit, and ambition. There was no economic, agricultural or political activity until the three ingredients for steel—coal, iron ore, and limestone—were discovered there. In the course of its first 40 years, Birmingham laid railroad lines, established a well-planned city grid, and cast the world’s tallest iron ore statue and sent it to the World’s Fair to demonstrate that Birmingham was on the map. This industry attracted those with an appetite for opportunity: farmers from near and far, natives, and immigrants from all over. Its rapid population growth earned it the nickname “The Magic City” as its population reached 178,806 by 1920, only 50 years after it was founded.

Vulcan Statue, a fifty-five-foot-high cast iron statue of Vulcan (the Roman god of fire and metalworking) sits on Red Mountain overlooking Birmingham. Image via flickr user Nicholas Henderson.

Birmingham had earned its place in the economy and another nickname, the “Pittsburgh of the South,” by becoming a major industrial center in the United States. Iron and steel production were the heart and backbone of Birmingham industry, enabled by cheap, nonunion labor. In steel mills and coalmines, working conditions were deplorable. Workers tried to strike but were overcome multiple times. By the 1920s, segregation began to emerge, along with a great disparity of wealth between the upper and middle class. “There were the company towns in the valley and grand boulevards and estates higher up on the mountain,” according to David Fleming, chief executive officer of the economic development organization REV Birmingham. As in other places in the United States, racially based zoning and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan further fueled injustice toward minorities and the impoverished. Due to these conditions, Birmingham was known as “Bad Birmingham.” It was one of the hardest-hit cities in the Great Depression and one of the slowest in the country to recover. These factors made the city fertile ground for the rebellion and turmoil of the 1960s.

Sloss Blast Furnaces, which produced Iron from 1882 to 1971 and is today designated as a National Historic Landmark. Image via flickr user Ron Cogswell.

In 1963, Martin Luther King said of Birmingham that it was "probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States." It was here that Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” defending nonviolent resistance to racism. Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists protested in the thousands, despite attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other violent mobs. The Klan’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four girls and injured 22 others, spurring public outrage and contributing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Kelly Ingram Park, the site of student demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement. A statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is in the foreground. 16th Street Baptist Church can be seen in the background, which was bombed by the Klu Klux Klan in 1963. Image via flickr user wyliepoon

After reaching its all-time population high of 326,037 people in 1950, by the 1960s, white families began to flee Birmingham, creating suburbs just outside the city limits. Between 1960 and 1970, Birmingham lost 70,000 people—at least 50,000 of them white (and this population decline would continue until 2010). Multiple initiatives came to the ballots in those areas with the option to annex into Birmingham, but white voters turned them all down. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and established clean air rules that hit the steel hit industry hard. At the same time, the price of Japanese steel began to drop.

 

In the wake of the civil rights turmoil, Atlanta was seen as the more progressive city and a safer bet for investment, and Atlanta was selected over Birmingham to host the site of the south-east’s international airport. Birmingham lay dormant. In some ways, that was a good thing, because the city’s many older masonry buildings did not get knocked down in the name of urban renewal, as happened in Atlanta. It wasn’t until the University of Alabama at Birmingham began expanding in the 1970s that the city began to turn around.

This is Part One of a three part series about DBA Principal Amanda Loper’s journey from San Francisco to her native state of Alabama. Part Two: The Turnaround Begins

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Amanda Loper, AIA, LEED AP, established and leads DBA_BHM, our southeastern office in Birmingham, Alabama. Amanda joined the firm in 2006 and was made Principal in 2014. Her diverse projects include affordable housing, market-rate housing, commercial buildings, and policy studies. Amanda focuses on the big-picture potential of sites as well as overseeing details that create unique built environments.  You can contact Amanda here.

Downtown Birmingham skyline with University of Alabama Birmingham in the foreground. Image via flickr user Katchooo

The “Heaviest Corner on Earth,” at 20th Street and 1st Avenue North in downtown Birmingham, has four of the tallest buildings in the South, the 10-story Woodward Building (1902), 16-story Brown Marx Building (1906), 16-story Empire Building (1909), and the 21-story John Hand Building (1912) which is seen across the intersection. The John Hand Building is now the home of Shipt, one of Birmingham’s biggest new (tech) companies. Image: David Baker Architects

20th Street in downtown Birmingham and the location of Urban Studio, a teaching and outreach program of Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction. Image: David Baker Architects

Our Craftsman bungalow in the Crestwood neighborhood. Image: David Baker Architects

Vulcan Statue, a fifty-five-foot-high cast iron statue of Vulcan (the Roman god of fire and metalworking) sits on Red Mountain overlooking Birmingham. Image via flickr user Nicholas Henderson.

Sloss Blast Furnaces, which produced Iron from 1882 to 1971 and is today designated as a National Historic Landmark. Image via flickr user Ron Cogswell.

Kelly Ingram Park, the site of student demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement. A statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is in the foreground. 16th Street Baptist Church can be seen in the background, which was bombed by the Klu Klux Klan in 1963. Image via flickr user wyliepoon