I don’t necessarily wish to date myself, but when I was a youngster growing up in northwest Alabama, the last leg of the route into Birmingham from our part of the country was not Interstate 65, but U.S. Highway 31. This probably seems quaint now, but I still recall the thrill my brothers and I got whenever we rounded the curve coming into North Birmingham and spied the skyline of downtown Birmingham in the distance. Our trips to the big city were fairly infrequent, so I’m sure what we saw was close to being on par with what we imagined New York City to be like.
I know better now, of course. But to me, that sight still brings a rush — and it’s even more impressive now, with several buildings having been added downtown since the late 1960s. If I’m driving back into town from points north and I’m not in a great rush, I usually opt for 31 instead of the interstate, though not just for that glimpse of skyline. I also have deep-rooted feelings for North Birmingham, partly because of its association with my pleasant childhood memories, but — and, of late, increasingly — for other reasons, too.
North Birmingham was one of the first industrial suburbs to flourish around the burgeoning iron-and-steel giant of Birmingham. Originally part of a 2,000-acre plantation owned by the grandson of one of the pioneer settlers of Jefferson County, it was developed as a manufacturing and residential community beginning around 1886, with the formation of the North Birmingham Land Company.
By the following year, as historian Marjorie White noted in her book, The Birmingham District: An Industrial History and Guide, an impressive commercial district was “located in brick and masonry structures along 27th Street, the route of the streetcar line which became the business heart of North Birmingham.” The solidly working class community was described by one local newspaper — yes, Birmingham had several at one time — as a place of “tasty cottages and [a] park unsurpassed in arrangement and taste by anything in Birmingham.” The same account called it “Birmingham’s prettiest suburb.”
In 1902, with its population nearing 5,000, North Birmingham was incorporated as a city. Its largest employer was Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company, which had two pig-iron furnaces there; the new city also boasted several pipeworks and foundries. In 1905, the American Cast Iron Pipe Company relocated from Georgia to the western portion of North Birmingham, where, in White’s words, “the separate community of Acipco eventually developed.”
In 1910, the Alabama Legislature approved what was known as the Greater Birmingham bill, clearing the way for a merger of eight suburbs — Avondale, East Lake, Ensley, North Birmingham, Pratt City, West End, Woodlawn and Wylam — and several unincorporated areas into the city of Birmingham. According to White, North Birmingham came in “despite emergency sessions of the aldermen and much protest,” and continued to consider itself a separate community well into the 1920s.
It was after World War II when the widening of U.S. 31 to the north and construction of the 26th Street overpass from Birmingham’s Norwood neighborhood created a new commercial district in North Birmingham. White characterized this stretch as “distinguished by neon lights, plastic hamburger joints and chicken stands” that “vied with the 27th district one block over,” to the detriment of the latter. The new arrangement “alleviated many traffic congestion problems,” she wrote, “but also contributed to a decline in the relative attractiveness and vitality of the older commercial and residential sections.”
White’s book was published in 1981, and things surely have not gotten better for North Birmingham. Still, there is a good residential base, along with a core of vitality along both 26th and 27th streets. The latter is by far the more interesting, with several small businesses situated in historic buildings that, while perhaps in need of refurbishing, remain beautiful examples of early 20th century architecture. Other buildings are empty, but most of the facades are very much intact. Walking on certain blocks, one gets the sense of being on the set of a film set in the 1930s or ‘40s — or of having been dropped into a town abandoned all at once and now just waiting for people to come and repopulate it.
Which gets me back around to my long-held feelings for North Birmingham. If ever an area was ripe for community-based revitalization, this is it. Standing on a corner of 27th Street, across the broad onetime thoroughfare from the beautiful old North Birmingham Trust & Savings Bank building, I can look at the star atop the abandoned Carraway campus in Norwood, a mile or so away, and see a time in the not-too-distant future in which both of these historic communities are thriving once again.
That vision would be set decidedly in the direction of fruition by the plan, now kicking around between City Hall and the Alabama Department of Transportation, to demolish I-20/59 through downtown and reroute it along the current Finley Boulevard. As the plan — I have not been able to ascertain whether it is yet an actual proposal by Mayor Bell — put it, an interchange in the vicinity of the current 26th Street overpass would provide “increased exposure for [the] North Birmingham Business District,” and for the “Highway 31 Corridor north of downtown; especially for the former Carraway Hospital site.”
As I’ve written again and again over the past several months, I believe that this project would do those things and much more — for North Birmingham, for Norwood, for the city of Birmingham, for our region as a whole. I believe it would transform the landscape and fuel growth and development for at least a half-century to come. I believe it would give future generations of children a reason to look at that landscape, and the skyline at the center of it, with the kind of excitement on which lasting civic pride is built.