Norwood, a once-booming neighborhood in Birmingham, is on the rise again. Thanks in part to a donation from a longtime resident, Robert Nygren, and the Norwood Resource Center (NRC), residents are rebuilding the community. Executive Director Mélodie Echols is at the helm of that operation, working out of Nygren’s former home, now “the community house,” in the winding neighborhood that sits north of downtown.
In 1912, the Birmingham Realty Company began developing that neighborhood along Flint Ridge. The neighborhood attracted upper-middle and upper class members of Birmingham’s industrial community. Norwood Boulevard meandered its river-like way through the residential grid of family homes, and the neighborhood bustled with trolley streetcars and traffic from schools, churches and a hospital.
In the 1950s, though, Interstate 20/59 bisected Norwood, sundering it from downtown, and in the 1960s, white flight began. “The neighborhood went through a transition from a white to a predominantly black neighborhood,” Robert Gilmore, president of the Norwood Neighborhood Association (NNA) and board president of the NRC, says.
Originally, the people moving in were black professionals, Gilmore says. “People were able to keep the properties up.” That changed, though, when the neighborhood population aged and died, and people who inherited the properties were not able to or did not maintain them.
“The community district has been destroyed,” NRC Board Member Chervis Isom says. “When I grew up here, there were small groceries, barbecue joints, barber shops, sandwich shops. Now they’re nothing but fast food restaurants. It’s all gone.”
Some residents did not leave. Robert Nygren, born in East Birmingham to Swedish immigrants, moved to Norwood in 1926 when his father built a house at 1501 27th St. N. He stayed in the house throughout his life, very much a part of the community.
“He was the best man you ever met,” 40-year resident Sarah Dates says. “He was very nice to every neighbor, no matter what color.”
Nygren was known for his garden of vegetables and fruit trees, food he shared with neighbors.
“Whenever I turned by there, he would always have something he wanted to give me, like some tomatoes or jam,” Gilmore says.
When the friendly neighbor was diagnosed with melanoma after already living with Parkinson’s disease, his neighbors returned the favors, especially before his daughter Deborah was able to move home to care for him. Next-door neighbor Mrs. Jones took Nygren’s daughter Lisa, who had Down syndrome, to school. Other neighbors cut his grass and raked his leaves.
When Nygren passed away in 1998 after two months in Carraway in-home hospice, Deborah, who had previously purchased the house from her father, wanted to donate it to a good cause. She considered Carraway Hospital.
“The hospital couldn’t guarantee to me that they would use the house for hospice,” she says. (At the time Carraway usually razed buildings and cleared properties.)
“Mr. Gilmore could guarantee that he would use the house,” Nygren says. “So I gave it to him and the [Norwood Neighborhood] Association.”
Gilmore says, “We didn’t want to lose that house in the neighborhood so we asked her to donate the house to us, and she would get the same tax benefits.”
Gilmore, then vice president of the NNA, was interested in the house after attending the Neighborhoods USA Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, two years prior in 1996. (Birmingham hosted the conference in ’82 and ’95.) There, he witnessed Little Rock’s neighborhood houses.
According to Gilmore, those neighborhoods houses had an inspector, sometimes police officers, and they always had representatives in the house who acted as liaisons between the neighborhood communities and downtown city hall.
“He had that in the back of his mind,” NRC Executive Director Echols says.
Gilmore, along with then-NNA President David Green and others, founded Team Norwood 2000 in 2000 with funding from then-City Councilperson, now-Mayor, William Bell.
“We started the nonprofit to try to address some of the issues in the neighborhood. We didn’t have a place. We were just an outreach of the neighborhood association,” Gilmore says.
Team Norwood 2000, which around 2003 was operating out of the Norwood Community Center, needed to raise $150,000 to renovate the Nygren house. The team embarked on a 10-month capital campaign, partnering with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
At that time, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was involved with Preschool Partners, a private preschool program. One of the program’s requirements was a Monday meeting between school staff and the parents or caregivers of the children. Those adults then often needed services of their own, and there was nowhere to go. The partnership between the developing Norwood Resource Center and St. Luke’s made sense.
Along with St. Luke’s, McWane Pipe Shop and the Crisis Center partnered, and Team Norwood 2000 raised the needed money. In 2005 the house opened.
“I was quite pleased,” Deborah Nygren says of visiting the house after it opened, though she was disappointed that some of the original architectural details of the house, such as sconces over the mantel and a built-in bookcase going up the stairs, had been stolen in burglaries.
In 2009, the Nygren house officially became the Norwood Resource Center, according to tax documents, and today the center bustles.
Catherine Houser, a 40-year Norwood resident, says, “I can come here five times a day, and there’s always someone coming in or out.”
Houser participated in one of the center’s main programs: Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA).
“We prepare taxes for people as if they’d gone out and spent $85 or $100,” Tom Creger, volunteer in the program and NNA vice president, says.
Ronald Williams, another VITA volunteer, says the service compares to Jackson Hewitt or H&R Block, and that his time was appreciated.
He says of a couple he helped, “They got their money back that Saturday, and they wanted to take me for a drink. But I don’t drink,” the preacher’s son adds with a smile.
In addition to the VITA program, the center hosts computer classes at the Computer Learning Center.
“No one case is the same,” NRC Program Coordinator Jasmine Little says of participants. “It can start from learning to turn on the computer to browsing the internet.”
Other learning projects include the Norwood Learning Gardens (NLG), which won a Community Health and Innovation Award (CHIA) in October of 2012. The grant was awarded by the One Great Community council, part of UAB’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science.
Out of eight applicants, four were funded, and the NLG project received $25,000 of the $50,000 available.
“We liked the project because it’s getting people interested in eating fresh fruits and vegetables, addressing issues created by food deserts, and getting young people interested in gardening, working with their hands and practicing entrepreneurship,” One Great Community Program Manager Shauntice Allen says.
Sarah Bettinger, master gardener of Norwood Learning Gardens on the Boulevard, agrees. “It will get people out, not only exercising because gardening is a physical thing, but also meeting neighbors.
“Part of community gardening,” she says, “is community.”
As of now there are four gardens for the community. Three of the four have eight families, and one garden has six families. Each plot is 100 square feet, and families must apply and sign a lease.
“It is free to garden,” Bettinger says. “We will pay for water. We will pay for seeds. We will pay for tools, but we require sweat equity.”
In addition to grounds maintenance, each garden has a certain community crop that is required, mostly fruit, and the excess is sold to pay for the gardens’ expenses at the Norwood Market at the Trolley Stop.
Norwood Market at the Trolley Stop, another NRC program, runs every Saturday 10 a.m.-2 p.m. from June-September.
The market is an important place in a food desert — a geographic area with limited or no access to healthy, fresh food.
“You can’t just tell people, ‘Eat healthy food’ when they don’t have access to a grocery store,” Echols says.
Isom agrees. “When I was a young kid, we had trolleys on tracks. Then you had buses: the 15 Norwood or 23 Birmingham, and they’d run all the time. Now the bus service is sporadic. If you don’t have a car, you’re really socked in without anywhere to get your groceries.”
In addition to providing some access to fresh fruits and vegetables, the market has become a community gathering place.
“[Neighbors] get a chance to talk to each other,” Echols says. “I think that’s part of what makes it a strong community and makes it attractive to move into.”
One new resident is Richard Dabney, who moved from Highland Park, the area his father’s family has called home for four generations.
Dabney, author of Birmingham’s Highland Park, started writing a book on Norwood and then decided to move there.
“I just fell in love with the neighborhood,” he says.
He admires the neighborhood for its uniqueness, proximity to downtown and for its historicity.
“There are people who think the neighborhood is crime-ridden, but that’s a misperception. That’s old news,” he says.
In recent news, Norwood’s historical value received national attention when This Old House cited it as one of the best “Old House Neighborhoods” in the country.
The article named the Norwood Learning Gardens and the Norwood Market at the Trolley Stop as two assets of the community.
“That was just great to see that the work we’ve put into those programs is being recognized and is making an impact on the community,” Echols says.
For many in the community, Echols herself is an asset.
“She brought a lot of passion and purpose,” NRC Board Member Martha Bozeman says.
Creger agrees: “What Mélodie does here benefits all of Birmingham.”
Echols never intended to have the NRC executive director position at all. Though she knew of the resource center because she lived in the neighborhood, in 2007 she was working for Alabama Lions Sight Conservation Association and not looking for another job. On a day off, she was still trying to attend a work-related meeting when there was an address mix-up.
“So I took some quiet time,” Echols says, “after I was frustrated about all that, and I was like, ‘God, what am I supposed to do?’ It came to me, ‘You’re going to want to go by the resource center.’”
When she arrived, the building was locked and dark in the middle of the day.
“Do you really believe that this is what you’re supposed to be doing? Is this a test?” she wondered.
She returned to her car and waited. A few minutes later, a man arrived and began unlocking the NRC front door.
“I said to the guy, ‘I’m just coming by to get some information about the resource center.’ He said, ‘I don’t work here. I’m a board member.’ I asked for the director. He said, ‘She’s not here anymore. That’s why I’m here. I’m here for a meeting to talk about hiring a new director.’”
By the time Echols started, the NRC had been without a director for six months.
The computer classes were sporadic, when happening at all, so Echols first worked to organize and computerize information and then to develop the best processes and systems for their needs.
About six years later, what Echols encountered is hard to imagine as neighbors, volunteers and supporters alike gather at the NRC’s Open House, Tuesday, Dec. 3. The tidy, bright rooms buzz with conversation as people greet one another, sipping wine and water, sharing food from crunchy crudités to Mr. Gilmore’s homemade cream cheese pound cake.
The participants seem to know the atmosphere is a rarity.
Williams says, “I mentioned to a friend that I was going to the community house. ‘How does your community have a house?’ he asked.”
“It’s a wonderful group of people,” Isom says. “[Norwood’s] got challenges, but the attitudes are great.”
Bozeman, who grew up in the area, says of the challenges, “There was a point when Norwood began to degenerate, but I think the [Norwood Resource] Center came in and created a lifeline.”
One way the center functions as a lifeline among the Norwood community’s 8,034 members is by sharing information. When one Interstate 20/59 plan cut off major accesses to the area, the center was able to call volunteers, local civil engineers, and have them come explain the plan. The center then disseminated the information.
Says Echols, “We’re sort of like a hub.”
The center also works as a point of contact when organizations want to do something in or with the community.
“Other agencies know there’s actually a place, bricks and mortar, and a staff to contact here,” NRC Board Member Nancy Long says.
The NRC is not just for Norwood, though. Anyone is welcome, and so far the center has documented helping Birmingham residents from 48 ZIP codes.
“We serve the Norwood community, but we don’t only serve the Norwood community. We serve anyone who shows up at the door,” Gilmore says.
Bozeman adds, “And they genuinely care.”