Birmingham, Alabama has a secret.
It isn’t something the natives like many people to know, but despite some negative publicity in the past, this is actually a beautiful place. Now, no one who lives here wants anyone to know that because some of us live in fear of our secret getting out. After all, we don’t want to be another Atlanta – an urban megalopolis with millions of people and snarling traffic. No, let everyone think it is very dangerous here and not a desirable place to visit or live.
But, since you and I are cool, I’ll share the truth with you.
Birmingham had it’s beginnings in the late nineteenth century. It became a boom town of sorts due to the discovery of iron ore, coal, and limestone in the vicinity. In fact, this is one of the few places on earth where the three exist close together in large quantities. Birmingham’s steel boom had begun. This led to an explosion of construction – both of blast furnaces and housing for workers being recruited from all over. Today you can still visit Sloss Furnace, one of the earliest built. By the turn of the century, the railroad had found Birmingham, and the rest, they say, is history.
You can still see some of the vestiges of those early days in places like cobblestone paved Morris Avenue or in some of the older skyscrapers like the City Federal Building. By the 1920’s, Birmingham had added theaters like the Alabama and the newly restored Lyric. They hosted vaudeville performances and served as movie palaces. Beautiful old theaters on par with anything found in New York or Boston at the time.
During the 1960’s Birmingham found itself again in the national spotlight during the Civil Rights Movement. Demonstrations downtown often turned violent as police brought in dogs and water hoses to subdue the crowds. My mother attended high school in downtown during this time and recalls being in class and hearing the clashes unfold nearby. She remembers the sounds of the dogs barking the the high powered hoses being turned on demonstrators. Scary times for Birmingham that were followed by a tragedy and loss of life.
In 1963, on a Sunday morning, a loud explosion rang out across the western part of the city. The 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in retaliation by members of the KKK, and four young girls were killed in an instant. Today the church still stands and still has a very active congregation. People come here to see where the bombing happened and remember. Nearby is a park with a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. He stares across at the church in remembrance.
Today Birmingham is a city going through a Renaissance of sorts. Stores and buildings that have been deserted for decades are being refurbished and downtown is being reborn. We as a city have traveled a long path, but we wouldn’t be who we are today with that journey.
Birmingham is a wonderful place to visit, but I’m proud to call it my home.
All photos by author.