Francesca Mereu likes to use the word “energy.”
It’s entirely appropriate, of course, because the longtime political journalist’s effervescence is unmistakable after only a few minutes’ worth of conversation. Her brown eyes aglow with enthusiasm, she speaks with her hands in an expressive, and distinctly Italian, semaphore.
Hailing from the tiny island of Sardinia to the west of Italy, Mereu was entranced with Birmingham’s energy when she first moved here a year ago with her Russian husband and his job designing lasers at Innovation Depot. She was so taken with Birmingham, in fact, that she wrote a short play about the Magic City that debuted in Milan last November.
The Theatre No’hma, where the play Birmingham Calling premiered, puts on free shows for the public. “They think that art should be accessible to everyone,” Mereu said. After writing and selling the bones of her story to the theatre, the English director, Charlie Owens, built up a show around it. In the case of Birmingham Calling, “there was a band playing the blues with the Alabama sound, because we wanted people to get the feeling of this special place.”
When asked about the structure of the play, Mereu replied that “At the beginning, we talk about the history of the city, built in the middle of nowhere in this beautiful place, and it was this dream from the start to build a modern city…raising up from nothing. Of course we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, about how important Birmingham was to it and the role it played in American history.
“And then a little about downtown, this beauty. There’s a little bit of decadence, but when there’s a sunset” — her eyes flash wide again — “you can see the beauty from the Heaviest Corner on Earth. The American Dream, you can feel it. There was nothing here, and they built this city. And I’m sure that Birmingham will get back up.”
Mereu’s fascination with Birmingham is tied as much to its musical history as its political and social history. Enamored of jazz and the blues—she and her husband spent New Year’s in some of Clarksdale, Mississippi’s finest juke joints—she quickly realized that she was living amid a secret cache of jazz lore in Birmingham. “I went to the Carver,” she said. “I went to Ensley and saw Tuxedo Junction. It’s another thing that you only find out about when you come here.”
Though disappointed with the shabby state of the buildings she’s found in her various pilgrimages, Mereu remains characteristically undeterred. “If I had the money, I would buy it all. Some buildings are so beautiful—you can still feel the feeling of those times, why people gathered there to play music, if you look very carefully. What you’ve got downtown” – as opposed to the malls she finds littering the suburbs – “is what makes a city a city.”
A true adherent of the faith, Mereu wrote an in-depth article on Fess Whatley’s legendary tenure as jazz teacher at what was then known as Industrial High School, and which is now Parker. Mereu makes semi-regular visits there. “It was the most segregated high school in the South, but they had the best jazz teacher,” she explained. “Frank Adams was one of his students, and so was Sun Ra. You should be very proud of your jazz history.”
“Don’t change anything, don’t touch anything,” Mereu finds herself saying to the curators of jazz sanctuaries like the ones at Parker and at the Carver. “These things have the old life, the old America in them. You have it here.”
Though much of the appeal of Birmingham is historical for her, Mereu and her husband also love the city for simple reasons of Southern hospitality. After years living in busy Moscow and New York, she appreciates Birmingham’s more relaxed pace of life.
“You don’t notice, but the people here are so nice and so kind, and you feel so welcome,” she said. “Everyone, black and white, is really welcoming in this place.” Though not a fan of American food in general, she’s come to enjoy Bettola, and she and her husband are regulars at Ona’s Music Room. Her first trip to Gip’s Place, the renowned juke joint in Bessemer, didn’t disappoint her either.
Mereu loves the Magic City because it’s suffused with its history, not suffocated by it. She groans at the mention of Florence, where she spent seven years in school: “It’s so aristocratic. It’s like, ‘You know, Dante was right.’” For her, Birmingham is a place that’s both classic and energetic, a place that needs to fight for its heritage.
“The most beautiful thing is the energy,” she told me. “You can feel it. When you go to some places, like Florence, it’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous, but it’s so cold. In Birmingham, you feel this kind of energy here, from the buildings, from the people, and you feel very welcome. Me and my husband, we feel at home here.”
Can Birmingham really compare to the preternatural beauty of a place like Rome? “You know, Birmingham is interesting in another way. Think of downtown Birmingham: it’s so beautiful. It’s a pity that it’s so run-down now, in places. I met some people” – referring to Operation New Birmingham, now REV Birmingham – “that are working to revive this area. And I hope that one day it becomes like it used to be.
“Because it was so beautiful. It’s a different kind of beauty, but it’s beautiful. It’s not Rome, but I wouldn’t like to have Rome here. I’d like to have Birmingham the way it was.”