In the city, time becomes visible…
— Lewis Mumford
Way back in the dawn of time (1997, it was), when I was working for Black & White, I penned a column bemoaning the dead zone that was downtown Birmingham on weekends. On any given Saturday afternoon, I wrote, you could fire a cannon the length of 2nd Avenue North and not be in danger of hitting anything other than Gus Koutroulakis’s yellow Mercury station wagon parked in front of his place of business, Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs.
I got to thinking about that column Saturday evening, as I drove home through downtown with my children. Along with 60 or so other folks, we had spent the couple of hours just after sunset in Oak Hill Cemetery, watching the harvest moon rise over Birmingham. Early cloud cover made the lunar show less than spectacular, though my kids and the new friends they found at Oak Hill made an adventure of that as they hopped among the headstones, one or another of them yelling out every time the moon shone through the gauzy billows that ringed the skyline.
For those who don’t know, Oak Hill is an underappreciated local treasure. It’s the oldest burial ground in the city proper, predating the founding of Birmingham by a couple of years. Situated just northwest of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, it is the final resting place of many of Birmingham’s most distinguished early citizens. The two men who can be said to be most responsible for the fact that Birmingham is here at all — John T. Milner and James Withers Sloss — are buried there, along with a couple of Alabama governors, a like number of mayors — including our first, Robert Henley — and a slew of others whose names — Caldwell, DeBardeleben, Jordan — still adorn streets, buildings and institutions around the city and county.
My single favorite thing at Oak Hill is the modest brownstone mausoleum that houses the remains of Charles Linn. Founder of one of the city’s first ironworks as well as its first bank — the First National Bank of Birmingham, forerunner of AmSouth, which merged with Regions in 2006 — he’s also the namesake of Linn Park, which was the city’s first official public green space, dedicated in 1883 as Central Park (it also was known as Capitol Park, then Woodrow Wilson Park before being named for Linn in 1988).
On one side of Linn’s mausoleum is a plaque that includes something he said when fewer than 4,000 souls called Birmingham home and its very survival was open to question. I’ve visited this spot, the door of which looks directly upon downtown, and read this plaque probably no fewer than 40 times. Every time — including when I read it aloud to my kids Saturday night — I get a lump in my throat.
Bury me on the high promontory overlooking the city of Birmingham, in which you men profess to have little faith, so that I may walk out on Judgment Day and view the greatest industrial city in the entire South.
Maybe it’s because my children were with me, but the lump pretty much stayed there for the rest of the evening — sitting back in my camp chair as they scampered around with the other kids; thinking about my good fortune when they came to sit — my daughter in my lap, my son on the ground next to us — to talk and gaze skyward with me for awhile; feeling the hint of fall in the night air as we gathered our things and made our way back to the car. If there was a better way that I might have spent a Saturday night, I can’t say what it was.
And it only got better on the short drive home, through the streetscape that brought to mind those words I wrote 15 years ago. Fifteen years is an eternity in some ways and the blink of an eye in others, but I found myself feeling the same sort of wonder and gratitude I’d felt up at Oak Hill. Wonder that the downtown that 15 years ago seemed as dead as the surface of the moon we’d just been watching has been, if not yet completely transformed, then at least given a new heart, a new sense of vitality and possibility. And gratitude that not only have I been here in Birmingham to see and mark it, but that I have children to share it with and, hopefully, to whom I can pass on my love for it.
There are two kinds of change in the world — revolutionary and evolutionary. The former is relatively rare. The latter takes place every day, before our eyes and yet, too often, unnoted and unappreciated, like the growth of a tree or the maturation of a child or the passage of our own brief time upon the earth. Or, as it occurred to me Saturday night, driving through the streets of Birmingham with the windows down to take the cooling air — streets alive with activity that only a few short years ago seemed improbable at best — like the visible transformation of a city.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write him at email@example.com