Growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, K.D. McDaniel says he thought Ensley was a regular, middle-class neighborhood. “When you’re living it, you don’t know it’s bad. As a kid, I thought it was normal.”
Coming from a two-parent home, McDaniel says the other kids thought he was abnormal, and it took leaving to play football at Alabama A&M for him to realize that his old neighborhood, the violence and drug use, didn’t have to be “normal” for anyone. Today, in addition to owning an independent record label, K.D. says he works for “corporate America” in Huntsville and dreams of the day he might return to Ensley as an investor and community leader.
In the opening scene of one of his YouTube videos [Ed. note: link features NSFW language and Lil Boosie], called “Welcome to Birmingham: West Side, Ensley,” McDaniel drives through the Tuxedo Terrace apartments, explaining, “This is the former home of ‘the brickyard,’ the most notorious projects on the west side of Birmingham. Call it gentrification or whatever, but this isn’t the projects.”
The brickyard, which sat prominently along the 20th Street corridor, was, according to McDaniel, “Notorious.” The projects were plagued by crack cocaine in the 1980s, he explains. “Low income plus drugs — it’s a place to ignite those fires, when it’s the biggest neighborhood with the most people and the most poverty,” he says.
“So you had drugs, high crime, robbery, people who…never left the brickyard except to go to the store. They had babies, and the babies never left the brickyard.”
In 2008, the mixed-income apartments, Tuxedo Terrace, replaced the housing projects that were built in the 1960s to accommodate the residents whose homes were razed in the wake of Interstate 20/59. Diane Buchanan was a young girl when her family moved to the brickyard, their home one of those torn down. She says those residents were mostly working-class, black families.
“What’s happening now is happening in a lot of American cities. It’s happened before. People are being displaced,” McDaniel said.
As an entrepreneur, he recognizes what makes Ensley’s rebirth conceivable — proximity to downtown, cheap real estate and a rich history — and he believes ending the cycle of displacement begins with community-driven revitalization. Namely, locally owned businesses, or as he puts it: “The money needs to stay in the community. Businesses owners can’t make money off of Ensley and take it back to where they live. That’s it. Keep the money in the community where you can build a real community. That’s the only way.”
As part of the gentrification series, Weld is recording oral histories in an attempt to understand the ways in which neighborhoods change and what catalysts create that change. “Gentrification” is the shift in an area from low-income to middle-class residents, often along racial lines.
Because research (like recent reports from Colombia University’s Urban Planning program) presents contradictions as to whether or not that displacement occurs at levels higher than regular population shifts, and because “gentrification” generally carries negative connotations, the term sparks controversy among residents on both sides of the line — those with the upper hand in the class system, and those without. Last week, for instance, in San Francisco, protestors of gentrification blocked bus systems.
While many residents see Tuxedo Terrace and the opening of new business in Ensley as signs of positive change, McDaniel is worried that a certain model of growth will ultimately drive out residents who have struggled through decades of hardship in the neighborhood. Buchanan and others, however, hope these changes are signs of a return to the prosperity Ensley once knew.
Now and back then
The largest neighborhood west of Interstate 65, Ensley sits less than five miles from downtown Birmingham and was once a thriving industrial city, thanks to Ensley Works steel mill, which operated from 1888 to 1976.
McDaniel and other residents say the neighborhood is now largely known for the media’s grim reports. (Ensley is regularly featured on The First 48, an A&E reality series that trails police in the first 48 hours after a murder.) McDaniel and others say the local media often labels all of the west side of Birmingham as Ensley, perpetuating the belief that criminals run amok.
“I can promise you that even the media has been instrumental,” 73-year-old A.G. Callins, real estate agent and home inspector, says of Ensley’s notoriety. “Even if the incident doesn’t happen in the metro area of Ensley, it’s labeled as being Ensley.”
Kamiliah Gray and her husband are both from the neighborhood and are now raising their three daughters there. “We don’t see this stuff happening,” she says. “The way the news blows it up, it’s like we could walk outside and see someone getting shot, or that you’re always going to be mugged, but I feel safe.”
That reputation as an unsafe place, and the reality of the area’s very real descent, is tragic to people who have spent their lives in Ensley, like Gray and her mother, Diane Buchanan. Those who remember the days of the mill and the accompanying booming business district say downtown Ensley was lively, prosperous.
“The stores!” remembers Buchanan. “J.C Penny’s, Sears, Cotton’s…all those stores were downtown. Basically, back then in Ensley, the sidewalks and streets were always bustling. We didn’t have to leave Ensley to buy anything.”
Her daughter adds, “We have to leave to buy anything we want. We have to drive to Hoover, go far away, just to get the things we need.”
Now, on the main drag down 19th Street, few merchants remain — salons, an arcade, a shop called A Lil’ of Everything and Then Some. The deterioration of some downtown structures is so complete that wildlife has taken over, and you can peer inside a mail slot and find rubble and shrubbery.
Much of the commercial property has sat empty for more than 40 years, says Callins, who owns and manages a number of buildings in downtown Ensley.
“We have a lot of barbers and a lot of beauty shops and a lot of storefront churches,” he says. “Some income is better than having it totally abandoned. But those kinds of businesses don’t always sustain the livelihood or viability of the community.”
Near the heart of downtown are a few dollar stores and fast food restaurants. A Honda dealership sits near the interstate exit at 20th Street, not far from Tuxedo Terrace.
Before the mill closed, residential areas were home to quaint, tree-lined streets.
“We lived on 12th Place, and every Christmas,” Callins remembers, “kids from all of the city would come. The city would block that area off and allow kids to skate up and down the streets for about a week or so. No fighting at all. That’s the way it was.”
Architecturally, the homes still standing in Ensley resemble that of other historic Birmingham neighborhoods, with craftsman bungalows, brick Tudors, and white-columned manors alongside newer mid-century, modest ranch houses. Now, those homes, too, are plagued by blight — for every well-maintained house on a block, another sits partially burned, caving in or coming apart.
“When the steel plant left, everybody else left. The only way they didn’t leave, they couldn’t leave, weren’t able. It was like a ghost town,” Magnolia Cook, Ensley neighborhood association president, says. On a recent Saturday morning, young boys in go-karts ran red lights in downtown. The only person standing on the strip was a furniture store employee, smoking. Cop cars departed, returned and departed again from the police station.
“But it’s coming back now, slowly,” she adds. “Ensley is coming back.”
Diane Buchanan was born in Ensley. “My father worked for the city of Birmingham. My mother was a maid,” she says. “Ensley was a tight-knit community. It was fun until the interstate came through, and we moved to the projects in the early ‘60s. Things changed some for everybody.”
Things kept changing, she says. “Once the steel plant closed down, money just went away. It was sad. Most of Ensley worked at that plant. Men’s pride went away. They didn’t have money. They couldn’t take care of their families.”
Now, in Buchanan’s sunny living room in Ensley Highlands, three generations of women sit (Gray’s teenage daughter quietly thumbing her iPhone). On the walls hang photos and painted portraits of their family. Although the women tease one another over old stories — getting caught picking fruit from neighbor’s trees, wearing outfits that are retrospectively ridiculous — each is also serious about her devotion to Ensley.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable no place else. It’s home. My mom was from the country. My daddy was born and raised in Ensley. It’s these people. I really love the people,” Buchanan says.
Gray, who has three school-age daughters, says they’ve stayed so long in their house in the downtown avenues — despite her girls getting bussed to Roebuck and Southside for school and despite her and her husband’s daily commutes to work outside of Ensley — because of their close-knit group of nearby friends and family.
“Jobs left, but your best friends didn’t leave,” Buchanan says as her childhood best friend, Shirley Russell, stops by for a visit. “We met in elementary school. Somewhere, younger than that, maybe.”
As Russell settles in, there is great laughter and talk of the books she’s picked up at the library on her way over, books about Ensley. “For me,” Russell says, “it’s the trees. The neighborhood feels like a neighborhood. It just feels warm. There are things that need to be done, sure. We are hopeful.”
Talk returns to the days of when the mill was operating. “It was so vibrant growing up because of the steel plant. Money was flowing then,” Buchanan says, remembering life in the brickyard before drugs and crime were prevalent. “We had guys that called themselves ‘gangstas’, but nobody was shooting. They fought with their fists. We walked everywhere. We didn’t lock our doors. We didn’t have to lock our doors. If I had to go to work, the neighbors watched over my daughter. Big Diane. She kept them out of trouble.”
Gray recalls how much her grandmother, who lived in the brickyard for four decades until the Tuxedo Terrace project began, loved to walk to the strip known as Little Italy to buy groceries. “Mr. Marino knew all of them,” Buchanan says. “He was wonderful to them. They could go to them if they didn’t have money, and they would keep little books with names, and when folks got their money, they went back to pay them.”
Gray shakes her head. “Now,” she says, “We only have chicken places. We have an Applebees and Lena’s in Five Points West. Other than that, it’s just fast food.”
The women from the older generation laugh, reminiscing about late night walks to the jazz clubs, refraining from shivering when they got inside no matter how cold it was so that people wouldn’t know they didn’t have a car.
In 1977, when Buchanan’s family left the projects for the home in the hills, she said they were overwhelmed by pride. “When we first moved in this house, the alley was so clean and so pretty. All of these houses [were] filled with people. It was so beautiful up here,” Buchanan says.
“Even the trees looked like they were singing,” Russell adds.
The view from the their neighborhood is undeniably beautiful. At the crest of 32nd Street Ensley, homes overlook both Five Points West and Ensley proper, and in the distance, green hills roll.
“It’s changed from when I was little. Totally different,” Gray says, who was born two months before her mother bought their home. “A lot of the homes are Section 8 now. That happened when the projects closed in 2006. My husband makes jokes: ‘Y’all grew up in the suburbs. We grew up in the projects.’ He used to think people who grew up here were rich, but it was working class people.”
The women talk about the problems in their neighborhood now — littering, overgrown lawns, roaming dogs. They acknowledge that many of their neighbors are without the financial means to make major repairs. “You don’t need money to go outside and pick up trash from your own yard,” Buchanan notes.
For Gray, leaving Ensley is the hardest part of living in Ensley. “When you’re out at your office, or you’re out, and someone asks you where you live, and you tell them you’re from Ensley, and you have to defend it, that makes you mad. You get: ‘Oh, you’re from Ensley? You don’t look like you live in Ensley.’ They think everybody in Ensley is on welfare or lives in section 8. They think your parents are not married or you don’t know your father. That’s just what they think.”
“The people who are still in the neighborhood are the older people, just holding on,” Russell says. “Honestly, I’m not waiting on it [to come back]. I’m just here. I’m not leaving. We’re not going anywhere.”
That’s different for Gray. Many Ensley residents from her generation did leave after high school. “My friends from high school moved to Helena, Pelham, Trussville to get their kids in a neighborhood with better school systems,” she says. “They still love the neighborhood. They’d come back if it becomes vibrant again.”
The first and the last
One of the first black families to arrive on Avenue I in 1960, the Cooks are now the last of a generation of working class Ensley residents in the Tuxedo district. (Tuxedo, which sits near the heart of downtown, is one of six small neighborhoods that make up Ensley.)
But this summer, Magnolia Cook will resign as Ensley neighborhood association president, a position she has held for 35 years. Cook, a retired nurse, isn’t happy about resigning. Wearing a T-shirt that pictures famous Ensley resident Erskine Hawkins blowing his trumpet (Cook has also coordinated the jazz festival for 29 years), she says she and her husband can no longer justify staying in the neighborhood.
“This whole block is empty,” Mrs. Cook says in the stucco-walled dining room of their historic brick Tudor. “Nobody’s here but us. So you know what? I’m fixing to leave, too. If something happened to my husband, I can’t stay here by myself. He can’t stay here by himself.”
Although Cook is coy when asked her age, seven decades are detailed in her stories — of a brother and father who worked as miners for Ensley Works, of graduating from nursing school in the mid-‘50s, of moving into the predominantly white district and then trying to stave off the urban blight and crime that followed the closing of the steel mill and resultant departure of business and affluence.
Sitting at her dining room table, smattered with Ensley pamphlets and her grandson’s homework and toys, Cook points east. “See that market? See those men?” Across the street stand a dozen or so men, all ages, smoking, arguing loudly. “They’re fussing and fighting and hanging around all the time, and they live in these abandoned houses.”
A few months ago, the Cooks’ neighbor passed away, the last of the old-timers, as she calls them. When the Cooks moved in 1960, their neighbor was the only black woman on the street. “All the rest of them were white. It was very segregated,” she says, recalling trouble with the corner market clerks and neighbors who weren’t happy to have them on the block.
With her neighbor’s recent death, the Cooks remain the only homeowners in a few-block radius, she says. “When I was living here, it wasn’t projects. It was a booming town.” Cook recalls where Tuxedo Terrace now sits that “all the black folks had businesses. They had Moon Café, shoe shops, clubs galore. On every corner you had a restaurant, a filling station.”
A generation older than Buchanan, Cook remembers the booming music community. “Ensley is known for its talent. They would get together in the clubs and sing together, which is how Tuxedo got its name. You would go across the street to rent a tuxedo from the cleaners then go to the club.”
Cook explains that Erskine Hawkins wrote the famous “Tuxedo Junction” in the Nixon Building, the junction where the streetcars met: “Number 6 from Pratt city. Number 7 from Wylam. Number 38 from Birmingham. That’s where they changed, right there in Tuxedo,” she says.
Back then, Cook kept a closet of sequined dresses for the dances hosted by clubs. She recalls the chandeliers and champagne, the shine of it all. “I don’t know what happened to the clubs. You very rarely find one that’s so high class. Now, we have about 10 or 12 biker clubs in Ensley. One thing about it, they don’t last long. We also have these striptease clubs, low class clubs. I don’t have a chance to wear my dresses.”
After the mill closed, Cook says working class families moved on to her street; the Smiths, the Browns, the Roosevelts — a couple who could neither read nor write, but who worked all their lives. “All these people bought these homes. They cherished their homes. They kept them up,” Cook says, remembering days of neatly manicured lawns. There wasn’t great affluence, she says, but there was pride.
Decades passed. As levels of poverty increased, drug use and crime rose, and when the elderly residents of her neighborhood began moving or passing away, Cook says their younger relatives abandoned most of the houses, either unable or unwilling to deal with the property, which is how the homes came to be occupied by transients. “We have some beautiful old homes here, and the children don’t want them. Ensley has always been a close-knit neighborhood. Everybody knows everybody. Now, everybody knows which house is selling drugs,” she says.
The homes now used as drug houses are “too good to just tear down or demolish,” she says, “but the owner’s not there, and other people are living in them. And that’s a threat to the whole neighborhood, because when they get cold, they’re going to start a fire.”
Unlike McDaniel, who sees the Tuxedo Terrace apartments as systematic gentrification, Cook sees the development as the beginning of renewal and as a better model for living. “If everyone is poor, what are they going to do? … Mixed income, you can help your neighbor. Your neighbor can help you. You can go next door and get something to eat.” She hopes the nicer apartments will encourage residents to better tend to the surrounding homes.
In spite of Ensley’s current state, and in spite of her own pending departure, Cook believes the neighborhood will attract investors. “Because this is a good location,” she says, “It’s near the freeway. It’s near downtown. It’s a beautiful area. The businesses are coming back. And now the people are coming back. … When he wrote that song ‘Tuxedo Junction,’ he put Birmingham on the map the world over. Birmingham history is here.”
What could be
A.G. Callins left Ensley for the Marines during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and when he returned in 1985, he says it was like returning to a ghost of his hometown.
Born in 1940, A.G. Callins was the first of nine kids. After raising her nine children, Callins’ mother returned to school to be a nurse. His father worked in the mines, owned rental properties and a grocery store — “but I don’t think it was for profit,” Callins says. “If you knew him, you could get food on credit.”
Memories of those days are mostly good. “I must say it was pretty much segregated at the time,” Callins says, echoing others whose rose-colored and nostalgia-filled childhood memories are tinted with the harsh realities of segregation. Walking on a windy afternoon from his office on 19th Street through downtown Ensley, he adds, “But in my family, we never went without.”
All of the Callins children played in the band, and A.G.’s brother, Jotham, was a world-renowned trumpet player who directed a music program for local kids.
“His life truly was music. He had a center in this next block where he could teach music, and the kids went all over the world to play music. A lot of them are bandleaders now, and a lot of them are leaders in their community. Those kids have a different image of Ensley, because they were out here, playing music, and knew that they enjoyed it.”
Callins says the neighborhood now needs more programs like the one his brother directed. Because much of commercial downtown Ensley has been empty for 40 years, young people, Callins says, don’t see any potential there. “I have five kids. Even though I own the building, and my older son is familiar with the trade I’m doing, because of the devastation, it’s hard for him to have a vision of what could be. It takes an awful lot to see beyond what’s actually here.”
As a realtor and investor, Callins works with nonprofits to try and bring people into downtown. “I’ve had more luck with investors from outside the area than the local ones,” he says, adding that the regular negative media attention is often detraction.
Standing on the corner in front of the Ensley mainstay Ideal Furniture, Callins points down the street toward the vacant 10-story Ramsay-McCormack tower two blocks away. He works his way down the line of storefronts, listing the names of businesses and organizations come and gone. “All of this. I’m representing from the alley on, and really everything on the right-hand side. The first building is 100-feet wide and 100-feet deep, and it’s for sale for $60,000. … You can’t find that in downtown.”
Further down the street, is the Ellis Building, for sale for $180,000. “It has six commercial establishments on the ground floor. A lot of the business owners lived on the second and third floor. There are 12 lofts there, and none of them have ever been lived in by blacks.”
Here, he recalls being 17 and applying for a job at a white-owned jewelry store in the once impressive Ellis Building. When he didn’t get the position — his father was unwilling to lie and say he was 18 — Callins says he cried. He talks about the lack of opportunities for local young people now, scanning the vacant storefronts. “I don’t know what’s sadder.”
Still, there’s a lot of potential here, he says. “If we could find something that was more of an assurance than what’s here, creative ventures, high tech businesses, then they could survive and really help the neighborhood.”
How to get there
Buchanan believes change will come when more Ensley residents are active in the groups seeking revitalization. “If we could get everybody who cares to go out to the neighborhood meetings, maybe we could make change. But as long as we all sit in the house and complain, sitting’s not going to jump up and fix nothing. They’re not going to clean the alleys. They’re not going to fix the streets, because we don’t care.”
For years, Callins says he’s tried to coordinate that kind of community action, but Ensley’s problems are bigger than unkempt alleyways. “It’s a dilemma, but you can’t give up. You have to try to find sources and resources to invest in the area. That’s really one of the big problems that we have with the folks who live here now. There’s only so much you can do to force them to make changes.”
It’s a matter of change in policy for Russell, who says, “If people keep up a home for a year or so, they should be entitled to that land. The property owners have abandoned it. … If they’ve been gone 10 years, just give the neighbor a year of doing it. If nobody comes, then it’s automatically theirs.”
The change, though, is already underway, according to Cook, who says in addition to two businessmen revamping buildings downtown, the city is removing the asbestos from the 10-story tower with plans to open a senior citizen center.
“It may not seem big to somebody who doesn’t know Ensley, but me knowing Ensley so well,” Cook says, “I see the beautiful side – those new beautiful apartments. Up in Ensley, we’ve got an architect who’s living there who converted a building into a loft. He lives there. It’s so pretty.”
McDaniel knows it will take more than revamping houses and opening small businesses to heal what ails Ensley. Like Callins, he believes focusing on young people is essential to ridding the neighborhood of blight, crime, despair — and a reputation that exceeds reality. “What’s going to help is all about education. People need to be exposed to different things. You are a product of your environment.”
If McDaniel gets his way, and the community is able to reign in revitalization efforts, he sees an opportunity for a new identity in Ensley. “The people who are moving to Birmingham for the banking industry or medical industry,” he says, “they don’t know this is Ensley, that this is the home of The First 48. They’ll just know this is a home in the city. A home in a good, little neighborhood.”