You might not have begun to think of downtown Birmingham as being like America’s favorite mythical small town. But some of those who live here do.
Chatham Hellmers, owner of the accessories boutique Charm, says downtown has developed such a strong sense of community among residents, it could even be described as having – wait for it – a “Mayberry feel.”
“Everybody looks after each other’s pets, hangs out together, [and] has potluck dinners,” Hellmers says.
She’d get no argument from Patty Pilkerton, president of the Central City Neighborhood Association, who calls downtown “more like a neighborhood than any other neighborhood I’ve ever lived in.”
That kind of thinking is a dream-come-true for Operation New Birmingham (ONB), where Pilkerton also serves as secretary for the executive committee of the board of directors.
Founded in 1957 as the Birmingham Downtown Improvement Association, ONB’s focus has always been on the realization of the city center’s full potential. Over the past half century, the organization has, according to the mission statement on its website, “initiated or partnered in virtually every significant effort designed to revitalize the city’s downtown.”
One such effort has been the development of the city center’s loft district. Though sparsely populated in previous years, loft dwellers such as Pilkerton have watched the downtown area grow in “huge leaps and bounds.” Pilkerton is happy to report that the district now enjoys an occupancy rate of more than 90 percent.
Aimee Scottland, development information specialist for ONB, believes that the loft district plays an important role in downtown Birmingham: “It adds vitality that [ONB] has strived for over the years.” The more people that there are living downtown, the more aspects and services they both require and contribute to the area. This will become more apparent as the city center grows with the addition of developments such as the new Barons baseball stadium.
“[Downtown] doesn’t shut down at 5 p.m. anymore,” Scottland says, a fact which Pilkerton cites as one of the reasons she chose to move to the loft district in 2001.
“I just always wanted to live downtown,” she says. “It’s interesting to be in an area that’s ‘on’ twenty-four hours a day.”
Pilkerton is not alone in her attraction to the vibrancy of downtown living. Of the approximately 4,400 people living in the city center–an area stretching from 12th Avenue North to Arlington Avenue South–over a quarter of these (about 1,400) reside in the loft district.
Hellmers, who opened Charm for business in September of 2009, has been living in the Wooster Building on 1st Avenue North, a scant block’s walk from her shop on 2nd Avenue North, since the summer of 2011. She has no intention of leaving downtown anytime soon; she says with a laugh that one of the benefits of her floor-level domicile is that it will prevent her and her husband from having to climb many stairs in their old age.
As to why she chose to move downtown, Hellmers, a Long Island native and longtime resident of concrete jungles such as Manhattan, Atlanta and now Birmingham, says, “I like to live in the most vital part of a city. It’s where you’d visit.”
Only a few steps from the lively bustle of downtown, the open space of Hellmers’s quiet loft, which she and her husband share with their three cats, is transformed by her unique style into an eccentric wonderland that is both smartly modern and charmingly vintage.
On a clear Wednesday morning, muted light filters through the gauzy white curtains which hang over the huge bay of windows at the far end of the room. From his perch on a metal support column, a taxidermy peacock keeps watch over the cavern-like space, with its walls lined by many and varied paintings, photographs, vignettes, and panels, along with shelf upon shelf displaying other knickknacks, art, and trinkets that Hellmers has been collecting piece by piece since she was 15 years old.
Hellmers’s home is but one example of the potential for comfort and self-expression that the downtown lofts provide. While Pilkerton acknowledges that some people may find issue with the parking and potential for noise, she says “it’s a tradeoff” for the vitality and excitement that downtown living provides, and Hellmers dismisses the notion that downtown is more dangerous to live in than any other place in Birmingham as being “silly” and “short-sighted.”
“It’s, like, the biggest crock ever,” she says. “I can see how that impression was fostered up to even five years ago, [but] I feel safer here than when I was in Southside.”
Although there are no new large-scale lofts in development since the completion of the 29Seven project in Lakeview, Scottland states that there is a good outlook for growth in the downtown population density in the future. As the baseball stadium, Westin hotel,and other ventures provide draws to the area, new loft development will be essential to accommodate the anticipated rise in occupancy. Those interested in viewing available lofts may do so on ONB’s website, www.yourcitycenter.com.