Norwood could have been one of Birmingham’s best neighborhoods if people had given it a chance.
It’s a 10-minute walk from the BJCC, a 20-minute walk from Linn Park, smack between the airport and downtown, and a short drive away from whatever else one might want in Birmingham.
But after decades of white flight and neglect, it might be a difficult task for Norwood to capture the hearts and minds of Birmingham’s citizens and live up to its potential.
Norwood has fought a losing battle against urban decay since the 1960s but might be poised to experience an economic and cultural rebirth, similar to that experienced by Forest Park the past few decades.
A lack of community amenities, a need for significant renovation and little economic development in the neighborhood all stand in the way, but the nonprofit Norwood Resource Center (NRC) is doing its best to build a brighter Norwood.
First designed as an affluent planned neighborhood in the 1910s and 1920s, Norwood — which celebrated its centennial in 2011 – served as a home for Birmingham’s doctors, lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs.
After Interstate 20/59 cut off Norwood from the rest of the city and white citizens began to migrate to the suburbs, the neighborhood fell into disrepair.
Many of Norwood’s homes and buildings now sit with shattered windows and graffiti-covered walls.
Today, the NRC is trying to bring back some of Norwood’s old appeal and turn it into a viable neighborhood. Melodie Echols, NRC executive director, and Robert Gilmore, president of the NRC board of directors, are both working on several projects.
To help direct these efforts, the Norwood Neighborhood Association commissioned Auburn University’s Urban Studio in 2006 to design a long-term plan. The plan focused on three concepts: strengthening the neighborhood’s “fabric and re-investment viability,” developing a Village Creek greenway and reviving the business district along 12th Avenue North.
Norwood was recently named a historic neighborhood by the city of Birmingham, and securing the community’s federal historic designation could do even more to strengthen it. According to Echols, Norwood Boulevard is already on the national historic register, but the application for the entire neighborhood is still being processed by the state agency that submits such requests to the National Register of Historic Places.
The NRC is pursuing the historic designation because of the value it would add to the neighborhood. “That will probably make us the largest historic district in the state,” according to Echols, who said their application includes 750 homes. “When you look at other examples of that across the country, that usually helps preserve… and increase property values. It makes it a district that is desirable. Because of the designation and recognition, it’s important.”
Norwood is also a food desert, an area without ready access to fresh food. To gauge the feasibility of a farmers market for Norwood, the NRC held single-day pilot markets in 2010 and 2011. After their success, the NRC is trying to host these markets more often.
“We are planning farmers markets for some time, maybe in May,” Gilmore said. “This area is a food dessert, so we are trying to provide fresh vegetables for the people living in Norwood.”
According to Echols and Gilmore, the NRC is still in the process of finding the sponsors, volunteers and funding necessary to make the market a regular event.
To provide another method of fighting the food desert, the NRC is working on creating a Norwood community garden. Not only would the garden provide fresh produce, it would get the children of Norwood involved with something positive. “We want to start a garden that’s going to get the kids involved,” Gilmore said. “We’ve already picked the spot, and we’re working on getting volunteers to work on the garden. We’d like to get started on it sometime in April.”
The NRC’s community garden and farmers market are two parts of a bigger food picture for Norwood. “There are not any grocery stores in the area,” Gilmore said. “Most of our people have to travel some distance to get fresh vegetables, fresh food. Our long-range goal is to bring some type of supermarket into the neighborhood. Until we can do that, we’re planning to work with farmers markets.”
With many buildings in a state of disrepair, the NRC is trying to attract new homeowners to assist with renovation. To that end, the NRC has held several “hard hat” tours – so called because they often show homes in the process of renovation. “That brings people in to see the homes and see what we’re doing here, to really come into the core of the neighborhood and get into the houses,” Echols said.
No home tours are planned for 2012, she said, but the NRC is planning a walking tour of the neighborhood later this year.
Gilmore is working to make the second concept of the Urban Studio’s plan, a Village Creek greenway, a reality. The greenway would provide an opportunity for condo and park-side home development in an area now known as “the bottoms,” an area of cheap, low-rent housing in Norwood.
As of now, the greenway is still in its early planning stages. “We’re working with the [Freshwater] Land Trust, but we’re also working with the Village Creek Greenway Committee to try to make something happen,” Gilmore said. “We’re still seeing what kind of things we can do to actually get that project moving.”
The final obstacle the NRC faces is bringing business into the neighborhood. “We need to develop the business district along 12th Avenue,” Gilmore said. “We think we can get positive things to happen along 12th Avenue and a positive solution to the Carraway problem, something that is beneficial to the neighborhood there.”
The “Carraway problem” refers to the need to redevelop the old Carraway Hospital campus in Norwood.
The Lovelady Center, a non-profit, faith-based prison re-entry program for women, bought the property in 2011 and was planning to move in by January 2012 before the Birmingham Board of Zoning Adjustments ruled that the property was not zoned for such a facility.
Don Brockaway, the attorney of Brenda Spahn, Lovelady’s Director, said that the decision would be appealed to the Jefferson County Circuit Court, but an appeal has yet to be filed.
The NRC and many of Norwood’s residents are opposed to Lovelady’s move to the Carraway Hospital.
“We as a neighborhood did not feel like that was a good fit,” said Gilmore. “We wanted something that brought economic development to the neighborhood. Basically that would have been a prison re-entry program, and we don’t think it would have been a positive thing for the neighborhood.”
Andy McWhorter is a Weld Local correspondent. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.