Weld’s “Neighborhood Voices” series features interviews with the presidents of each of Birmingham’s 99 neighborhood associations about the strengths and challenges facing their communities. If you are a neighborhood leader and would like your neighborhood to be included, you can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The neighborhood of North Titusville has often been described as emblematic of some of Birmingham’s biggest problems. A 2009 Associated Press article, for example, described the neighborhood as “home to the state’s worst vacancy problem,” referring to the fact that 37.4 percent of houses in the neighborhood were considered to be abandoned. An article from The Birmingham News in 2012 quotes Enrique Penalosa — a former mayor of Bogota, Columbia, who has since become a well-known urban policy advisor for various cities — as calling Titusville “one of the most depressed areas I have ever seen.”
But North Titusville is making progress, says Neighborhood President John C. Harris.
The neighborhood stretches west from Interstate 65 to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, between Sixth Avenue South and the Alabama Great Southern Railroad, and, according to the Birmingham Housing Study, is home to 2,228 residents. It’s part of the city’s sixth district, represented on the city council by Sheila Tyson.
In 2011, the council allocated $21,991 of city funds to formulate a “framework plan” for North Titusville, which proposed ways to address issues such as urban blight and crime in the area. In many ways, Harris says, changes are being made.
There are still some points of contention, particularly regarding the former site of Trinity Steel, which occupies a 30-acre area of the neighborhood. Harris stands firmly in opposition to current plans for the Birmingham Humane Society to move into the property (more on that debate can be found in this issue).
To Harris, the future of North Titusville is linked tightly with the rest of the city: “To neighborhood officers and citizens of those neighborhoods who are forming framework plans, keep your eyes on how the city treats this predominated [sic] historical black community,” he says. “You can expect the same.”
Weld: Why did you decide to become your neighborhood’s president?
John C. Harris: I was asked by some of the residents to run for neighborhood president. We’d had a president who had been there for 18 years, and a few people felt it was time for him to go. Because I had always been active in issues concerning the neighborhood, they asked me to run. That was in 2002; it’s been 15 years. I’m staying to try and get this framework plan done to try and see some changes in my neighborhood.
Weld: How would you characterize the community involvement among members of your neighborhood?
Harris: Well, we lost that involvement after the city got rid of the neighborhood notices about the neighborhood meetings every month. When I became neighborhood president, [participation] increased, but most of those people were elderly people. A lot of them have passed; a lot of them are sick. So we went from 12 to 20 [attendees], and now we’re down to about five or seven. Young people are not coming to the meetings.
Weld: What are the biggest problems facing your neighborhood?
Harris: The biggest problems facing our neighborhood are abandoned properties, crime, and people not wanting to take ownership of the neighborhood. We need new homeowners to come in. We have a lot of room, and we need people that will be willing to take ownership of the neighborhood. The types of crime have to deal with drug addicts — users, sellers. That is the biggest crime problem that we have in the neighborhood.
Weld: What are some ways in which you would like to see your neighborhood improve?
Harris: We’re making progress. We hired the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham to come in and make a plan for North Titusville. The city began to do a comprehensive plan for all 99 neighborhoods, and that comprehensive plan basically suggested that the neighborhoods do framework plans.
[Some major goals of the plan are to] condemn and demolish dilapidated structures, acquire tax-delinquent properties through the Land Bank to reduce blight and stabilize the community, allow mixed-use development, and encourage more services and retail within walking distance.
Weld: In what ways do you think the Birmingham city government could help your neighborhood improve and flourish?
Harris: The city has already started. Part of our framework plan is for them to hit the [crime] hotspots in the neighborhood. They have dedicated additional police patrols to areas that are near crime hotspots, and also around vacant properties [and] dilapidated structures.
The Birmingham Land Bank has also started acquiring tax-delinquent properties. We’ve had 114 abandoned houses demolished in our neighborhood as well.
[And by] cutting the density [during the planned rebuilding of Loveman Village, the neighborhood’s housing project] down from 500 units to 196, I feel that is going to help because new people will have to have a job; they can’t have any felonies. That will help to eliminate these young girls bringing their gangbangers and dope-dealer boyfriends in there with them.
Weld: What do you want Birmingham citizens outside of your neighborhood to know about your neighborhood?
Harris: One thing I want people to know is that Titusville was one of the first majority-black neighborhoods. It has a rich history. We’ve produced three city council presidents [Eddie Blankenship, William Bell, and Carole Smitherman]. Two former residents have been mayor — Larry [Langford] and [William] Bell — [and] two state senators [Fred Horn and Roger Smitherman], doctors, lawyers, nurses, … all those professional people who went to college. Even Condoleezza Rice. Hopefully, with the framework plan, Titusville will again be a place of significance, a black-majority neighborhood in the city of Birmingham.