One of the ironies of the success of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and elsewhere is that once the Jim Crow laws fell and African-Americans could live as fully enfranchised citizens, some of the institutions they had created under segregation began to crumble.
“Before Birmingham was integrated, we had our own neighborhoods, own entertainment districts and own business districts,” explained Hattie Barnes, the director of the city-funded Urban Impact. The non-profit agency was founded nearly 35 years ago to help revitalize black institutions, especially the Fourth Avenue Historic District where it has offices at 1701 4th Avenue North.
Once a thriving area that included restaurants, barber shops, churches, movie theaters and other businesses catering to African-Americans, the area (which includes 3rd, 4th and 5th Avenues and 15th through 18th Streets north) was once a hub for urban life.
“You could say it was the heart of black Birmingham in the ’40s, ’50s and into the ’60s,” Barnes said as she strolled down Fourth Avenue, waving and calling out to business owners up and down the street. “But once African-Americans got their rights and could go and live just about anywhere they wanted, the area began a slow decline.”
In fact, by the time Richard Arrington, the city’s first black mayor, called Urban Impact in to help revitalize the area in 1980, there were fewer than 20 businesses still open.
“Now we’ve got well over 50 businesses up and running and more on the way,” Barnes said.
Urban Impact acts as a referral agency to federal, state and local governments and private organizations that have expertise in small business concerns.
Early on, the non-profit also helped establish a federal Land Bank Program designed to provide low interest loans to local people who wanted to establish businesses in the area and borrow money to improve existing enterprises.
“One of the problems we had was that much of the land and many of the buildings in the district were owned by absentee landlords who did not really see the profit in keeping businesses opened or their properties in good shape,” Barnes said. “Now, every one of our businesses is locally owned and operated and a real sense of community is being reestablished,” she said as she popped into the Touch of Elegance Barber Shop on Fourth Avenue, where Sylvester Dawson waited for a customer to show up.
“I bought this shop four years ago and I’m still here,” he said with a grin as he lounged in one of his reclining chairs. “This recession has hurt, but people always need a haircut and I am here to provide that service.”
As in the movies, Dawson’s establishment often serves as an informal town hall for the neighborhood, he said.
“Oh, people get to talking in here, all right,” he said. “They take up every subject under the sun that men like to talk about and it sometimes gets loud in here until everybody has their say-so.”
The boundaries of the Fourth Avenue District include many black Birmingham cultural landmarks, including the old Carver Theater, now home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame; Kelly Ingram Park, where so many civil rights marches of the ’60s originated; the adjoining Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were killed a 1963 bombing that stirred the nation’s conscience.
The old Famous Theater Building on Fourth Avenue is one of the district’s best success stories, Barnes said. Several years ago, Nolanda Bearden, a local entrepreneur, renovated its ground floor into office space and turned the upper floors into a loft where she lives.
The A.G. Gaston Motel, founded by perhaps Birmingham’s wealthiest black businessman, was once a site of many civil rights planning sessions. Now owned by the city, the landmark still stands in the district, as do the Nelson Brothers’ Café and the old black Masonic Temple.
But perhaps the most unique feature of the district lies at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 18th Street — the Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park, named after one of the founding members of R&B superstars the Temptations.
The tiny park, which is almost hidden from the street by thick bushes and trees, features a full-sized iron statue of Birmingham native Kendrick, as well as bas-relief likenesses of four of the other Temptations.
Created about 15 years ago by Donald McDowell, a traveling artist who also has works on display in Kelly Ingram Park, the Kendrick park provides seclusion from the bustle of the city, as well as rest on a couple of wrought iron benches.
And if while sitting and contemplating Kendrick captured in full voice at the microphone, you begin to actually hear songs by the “Tempting Temptations,” well, it’s not just your imagination.
“I guess you could say part of my job description is disc jockey, too,” Barnes laughed. “We’ve got several CDs with nothing but Temptations music on them, and one of the first things I do when I get in the office in the morning is put one of them in the player and turn on the music down at the park.”
Mounted inconspicuously in the trees are speakers over which Temptations hits are played throughout the day. The wires from the speakers lead back to the Urban Impact offices a block away, where Barnes sees to it that the music rarely stops.
“I keep them going all day,” she said, “and the last thing I do when I leave in the afternoon is put on another CD so the music continues for another hour or so. I think the park and the music is one of the things that helps define this street and the district.”
For more information on Urban Impact, visit urbanimpactbirmingham.org.