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 email@example.com.
The neighborhood of Thomas lies north of Interstate 20-59, just to the west of the Acipco-Finley neighborhood and just southeast of North Pratt. It’s home to 1,021 people, according to the Birmingham Housing Study, and is part of District 8, represented in city government by Councilor Steven Hoyt.
Recently, Thomas’s neighborhood president, Alonzo Darrow, explained the changes coming to his neighborhood and how they will impact his plan for slow, measured growth.
Weld: Why did you decide to become your neighborhood’s president?
Alonzo Darrow: I didn’t decide to become neighborhood president; I was selected. They had a meeting, and I went to the meeting and voiced my opinion on different issues, and the people decided that they wanted me for neighborhood president.
For one, we had trucks running up and down this street — big trucks hauling gravel — and we didn’t have any sidewalks for the kids to walk up and down the street to catch the school bus. Plus, this neighborhood hadn’t had any kind of upgrade in like, 40 years, and everybody was thinking that the people that were in office weren’t doing anything. They would talk about getting things done, but nothing would really get done. Back then, we didn’t have a playground for the kids — we had no activities for the kids out here.
So after I spoke at the meeting about some things that we could do — small things to bring the people out and get the neighborhood involved, and how we need to address certain issues in the neighborhood like sidewalks — [I was asked to become president].
Weld: How would you characterize the community involvement among members of your neighborhood?
Darrow: You have to realize, this is an old, old neighborhood. I think it was established in the 1880s, somewhere in there. And basically, people that had these houses out here, they’ve left them to their kids, and their kids have moved out, and some of them don’t care about the [houses] and they’re falling down. Slowly but surely, we are trying to rebuild thanks to the Mexican population that’s now moved into this area. They have gotten about five houses that they’re redoing. We’re slowly coming back.
So this neighborhood is in transition. The few people that are still here, they come to the meeting. But anytime that you’ve got a lot of rental property, and you’ve got immigrants moving in, then you won’t have that kind of participation in your neighborhood meetings. We usually have about 15 people.
We redid the redevelopment plan for Thomas, and we had to have two separate meetings: one for the 15 people that understood English, and one for our Mexican population. And they had to use a Mexican radio announcer to translate for us to tell them exactly what we wanted to do and get their opinion on what they’d like to see done, because they’re becoming homeowners and they have an investment in it, too.
[But] there’s no division. We welcome everybody, and we all want the same thing. People need to stop [saying], “There’s a division between these people.” Basically, everybody wants the same thing. Everybody wants to go to work, come home, have a decent place to stay, food in their stomachs, and clothes on their back. And that’s it! No one is looking for strife. We’re just trying to make it.
Weld: What are some of the biggest problems facing your neighborhood?
Darrow: One of our biggest problems was that we needed an access road. Thomas was known as having one way in and one way out. That has changed now. We’ve got a road that should be open by the end of the month.
The reason that we have a lot of vacant lots is because people die out. They don’t leave a will, and their families just leave the houses there and let them just go down. And nobody wants to move here because you’ve only got one way in and one way out! And if a train [is] on the track [blocking that road], you’re at the mercy of the railway to move. Sometimes, you’ll be blocked in for 35 or 40 minutes. Emergency vehicles couldn’t even get in. People have died waiting for the train to get off the track.
But now, we have the road that will be open, and people can come in and out. I spoke to [Birmingham Community Development Director] John Colon, and we’re going to drive the neighborhood and find the best place to put some affordable housing. But it didn’t make any sense to build some houses or apartments if nobody wanted to move in!
Weld: What are some other ways in which you’d like to see your neighborhood improve?
Darrow: One thing we have on our agenda is getting some more sidewalks out here. Once we get the sidewalks and some curbs on a few streets and get some more houses or apartments or duplexes built, then we’ll take a look at the economic part of it. Over here, off Highway 78, you don’t have a grocery store unless you go up to Piggly Wiggly, which is almost in Adamsville. So we’ll just have to do things in steps.
Weld: In what ways do you think the Birmingham city government could help your neighborhood improve and flourish?
Darrow: When you’re dealing with limited resources, you only can get, maybe one project done every so often. It’s not like, “Hey, I need 15 houses. I’ll go talk to the mayor and the city council, and next year they’re going to do it.” If you notice, a lot of times the only things get done is when they go to the bond market. Once they go to the bond market, that’s when you can try to jump in and get some of your biggest projects done. But when the city comes out with its budget, there might be a little bit of money in there for capital improvements, but you’ve got 99 different neighborhoods to try to scrap around and get something out of that. You can’t get too much out of it.
Right now, this is our plan, to get the small sidewalks, to get some houses built — and that’s it. The park is built. We built a little playground. We got the help of the city. [But] it’s just a struggle. You have scarce resources, and you basically have to make the best out of whatever is available to you. The city is doing a tremendous job of taking scarce resources and making sure that every neighborhood gets something out of it.
Weld: What do you want Birmingham citizens outside of your neighborhood to know about your neighborhood?
Darrow: That Thomas is a quiet, little neighborhood. It’s very quaint. It’s a great place to raise your family. It’s really small, and the people are just plain, common, hardworking people just making the best with what they have. You could go to a whole lot of other places, but there’s nothing wrong with Thomas.