Outside of downtown Birmingham itself, Avondale may be the crown jewel of the Magic City’s material and emotional revitalization. Like Birmingham as a whole, Avondale has overcome a reputation for crime and poverty to emerge as one of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods for home renovation and investment, as well as a burgeoning entertainment district whose vacant spaces are filling out with such restaurants as pizzeria Post Office Pies and a brick-and-mortar location for grilled cheese food truck MELT Birmingham.
The neighborhood has also garnered a great deal of national attention. A Southern Living profile from June of last year focused on Avondale’s restaurants and nightlife, calling it “Birmingham’s next great neighborhood.” In late 2012, FastCoExist.com lauded the brewery in particular for turning around the perception of the neighborhood with its Occupy Avondale project, which originally brought Freshfully Market to 41st Street. Earlier this year, Avondale was even voted by Gawker readers as the Williamsburg of Birmingham — referring to the Brooklyn neighborhood seen by many as the epicenter of hipster culture in the US — thanks, no doubt, to the bohemian tastes on display at places like Parkside Café and the Bottletree Café.
Yet there are some in the neighborhood who question the direction in which Avondale is heading, and the tastes to which its restaurants and pubs are catering, even as they acknowledge with pride the impact they’ve made on redefining outside perceptions. Others with equally deep roots in the community defend the renewed investment in the business district and revitalization of the surrounding area.
Two earlier entries in Weld’s Gentrification Series by Katherine Webb, providing oral histories of their respective neighborhoods, were entitled “Who is Crestwood?” and “Who is Ensley?” As Avondale writes its own destiny as a neighborhood, culturally and demographically — and as divisive issues like class and race inevitably creep into the conversation — the question may well become, “Who is Avondale for?”
A special relationship
Before considering residents’ answers to that question, it’s helpful to clear up some misconceptions about Avondale itself. To crib from Julius Caesar, all Avondale is divided into three parts: North Avondale, built along Messer Airport Highway; East Avondale, an island of generally poor housing near Woodlawn; and South Avondale/Forest Park, including the south side of 41st Street and Avondale Park, which many people think of as Avondale proper.
The City of Avondale was divided in 1974 as part of the Birmingham Community Participation Program, creating three of the city’s 99 neighborhoods. They have remained divided politically (with separate city councilors and separate school districts), geographically (East Avondale is separated by the Continental Gin factory, while North Avondale literally lies across the tracks) and even demographically, as the uniformly poor and uniformly black North and East Avondale evolved as distinct from the comparatively mixed-race, mixed-income South Avondale/Forest Park.
South Avondale’s unique trajectory can be primarily credited to its association with Forest Park, which emerged not long after the redistricting as one of Birmingham’s most desirable and affluent neighborhoods. Not that that was a quick or easy transition; Forest Park’s blossoming into prominence took the work of a tightly knit community committed to renovation and activity. It also had to resist an attempt to run Highway 31 through the residential district, which would have involved demolishing most of the area’s housing.
Sam Frazier, a local attorney, frequent president of the South Avondale/Forest Park Neighborhood Association and chair of Birmingham’s Design Review Committee, played a crucial role in avoiding that fate. Picking up from the work of Chervis Isom and Bill Cather, Frazier helped Forest Park become listed in the national historic registry, giving the neighborhood the wherewithal to resist the expressway.
Frazier, who hails from Decatur, initially moved into Forest Park in the early 1970s because of the affordability and character of the homes in the area. Although Frazier was encouraged by his realtor to look for housing in Mountain Brook, Forest Park has emerged under his watch as an answer to that suburb’s attractiveness for professionals, in no small part because it draws, as Frazier said, “house nuts…[people who] very much like houses.”
Martha Jane Patton, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Birmingham, has lived with her family in Forest Park since the early 1980s for the same reason: it was nice, and it was cheap. “It was always a good neighborhood and an accessible place for people to live who worked at UAB or downtown,” Patton said.
In a plaint that should be familiar to contemporary Avondale residents, Patton added, “Really, the only reason people would leave was schools. Now, we said, ‘No, we’re not going. We want our kids to go to our neighborhood school.’ But not everybody felt that way. A lot of people just [said], ‘Well, it’s Birmingham schools,’ and they just packed up and left when their kids hit 6, or they sent them to private schools if they could do that.”
Patton’s commitment to public education in Avondale helped her establish friendships with her Forest Park neighbors, who held similar convictions for their children. That group of “mamas,” as Patton put it, eventually incorporated into the Friends of Avondale Park in 1989.
Patton, like her fellow park renovator and longtime Forest Park neighbor Catherine Browne, remembers Avondale Park fondly from her youth. Unlike Browne, Patton was actively involved with the impromptu music festivals and hangouts that took place in the park in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, laughing as she recalled “Hippiedom, U.S.A.”
After the park fell into disrepair, Browne, Patton and the rest of the Friends of Avondale Park went to work trying to fix it up and rejuvenate it as a source of community pride. That involved extensive work canvassing both Avondale and its adjacent neighborhoods, as well as commissioning architectural drawings, grant-writing and countless hours of tidying up — Browne even recalled one man who went out on a canoe to fish trash out of the lake. Decades of hard work paid off in 2011, when the park officially reopened.
The relationship between Avondale and Forest Park was further cemented when the merchants’ associations of the two areas merged under Richard Stewart. Stewart opened his business as an industrial contractor, S & W Electric, on 2nd Avenue South in Avondale in 1980. Since then, he’s been committed to giving back to a neighborhood that is only tangential to his actual business, which he primarily conducts downtown.
For Stewart — as well as his simpatico partner in Forest Park, Silvertron Café owner Marco Morosini — the key to revitalizing Avondale has been to change peoples’ perceptions of it. “My philosophy was that holding events would be able to show truly what an area is. … The perception of Avondale was just that it was a center of crime and that you’d never want to drive through here, which, when you’ve been here as long as I have, you know is false.” Indeed, “Avondale area safe” is one of the top Google searches for the neighborhood.
By organizing events like an antique car show in the park, Stewart sees opportunities to get people excited about Avondale — and to encourage outside investment. “The highest politicians in the area are recognizing Avondale [by attending the car show],” Stewart said. “So when we come to them and say, ‘We sure need this done,’ or ‘We’d like to have this,’ and they see the tax base we’ve created with all the new merchants, the housing is ballooning in value and the homes are really selling — it’s just a win-win all the way around.”
The final key, of course, has been the redevelopment of the business district since the opening of Avondale Brewing Company, which Frazier described as “nothing short of miraculous.” Mike Mazer, who formerly directed Avondale merchants, tried to dedicate the area to home improvement, according to Patton, since “nobody really saw it as a viable restaurant area.” Coby and Hunter Lake, the brothers behind Avondale Brewing, certainly appear to have dispensed with that notion.
This process of revitalizing the area and turning around Avondale’s reputation has also included efforts to drive out perceived bad elements from a community long associated with high levels of crime. “We have met with the owners of those apartment buildings [across from the park],” Stewart said. “To help their business, to help their image…they’re cleaning those apartments out pretty well.” Starting in mid-2013, “They’re getting a whole better crowd of people in those apartments.”
As the conversation drifted toward gentrification and displacement, Frazier said he had seen little change in the racial composition of South Avondale. Yet there were, he noted, apartments near the Piggly Wiggly on Clairmont Avenue that were torn down in the middle of the last decade.
Those apartments “were described by the senior partner at my law firm as ‘Sin City,’” Frazier said. “At one point, before they were torn down, it became a big drug problem, and I think that the largest drug bust we ever had in Birmingham — certainly in the neighborhood — was there. They were torn down, and I’m sure that there were some people who’d lived there for a long time who were displaced and who were not happy about that, and I’m sure there were some lower-income people — although never Section 8 or anything like that — who were displaced. But I have to say, as neighborhood president, I was delighted to see them go. I mean, it was a crime problem.”
The other side of the story
Andre Calhoun was in the process of graduating from high school when his family was forced to leave those apartments. “The people holding the leases were told not to renew anybody’s lease, so when your lease expired, you had to go,” Calhoun said. “It was supposed to be some condominium development or something, but then the economy issues in 2008 happened. To me, that’s the situation in a microcosm: honest people trying to make a living, but the system is telling them that ‘We want a nice condo in that spot, so, hey, we’re gonna move you out to some other place, and we don’t really care where.’”
Calhoun, who grew up in Avondale in the ‘90s, is one of the few people interviewed for this story who remember the area fondly. “It was like its own little Mayberry,” Calhoun said, admitting to having a nostalgic streak. “I don’t remember any crime; I don’t remember our cars getting broken into, and our house never got broken into. Everybody looked out for each other. It was definitely a close-knit neighborhood.”
In addition to his own fond memories of playing cops and robbers with his friends in the neighborhood, playing little league baseball in Avondale Park and riding his bike up and down the hills of what he remembers as a walkable neighborhood, Calhoun also credits growing up in Avondale with creating his current interest in social justice.
“I got to view different lifestyles firsthand in a five-block radius,” Calhoun said. “I could go across the street to Forest Park, and my neighbors were doctors and staff writers for The Birmingham News, and then I could go across the tracks, and my neighbors were the poorest of the poor. Growing up in that environment, it was eye-opening, the disparity in such a small space. It makes you wonder, ‘What creates that? What makes it so different?’”
Once his family moved to Clairmont Avenue in the early 2000s, that disparity grew personal for Calhoun. “I remember one time talking to a guy about some apartments we lived in — he didn’t know we lived there — when we were kids,” he recalled. “He was in some kind of real estate, and he was like, ‘This is a nice neighborhood, except for Sin City down the street.’ He called it Sin City — where I lived. That kind of sticks out to me as the view of people — of some of the people — in Forest Park, when they look at the poorer parts. And where they live? It’s paradise.”
Now a student at UAB, Calhoun hopes to one day teach history in Birmingham high schools, while also focusing on social justice issues. In his spare time, Calhoun also coaches at the same Avondale Park little league where he played ball as a child, and he even encountered issues of displacement in that arena.
While recruiting kids from the neighborhood for the team, especially those who wouldn’t be able to afford equipment, Calhoun visited apartments across from the park. “I went right across the street to those apartments right next to Munchie’s — and all of them were empty,” Calhoun said. “I’d maybe run into one or two that somebody was actually living in. You can tell that nobody lives there. And it’s weird, to have that many apartments empty in Avondale. To me, it was a bit eerie.”
That is the displacement Calhoun sees happening in a neighborhood that grows less and less familiar to him — individual by individual, apartment complex by apartment complex, people leaving. Moreover, longstanding problems like flooding near the tracks, which were a fact of life in Calhoun’s childhood, changed rapidly after complaints from people with more influence, like the Lakes at Avondale Brewing, demonstrating further shifts.
“I don’t mind new people moving in!” Calhoun is quick to note. “But any time you talk about Birmingham, you have to talk about the history of Birmingham, and that history includes…mass amounts of money being taken out of the economy at one time, and you have to include that when you talk about poor neighborhoods being depressed. Literally, depressed. So, to me, if you want to fix that problem, you first have to admit that that happened — that the parents of the segregation [era] moved out, and their kids or grandkids are moving in. But I think you have to admit that that caused a problem for 90 percent of what’s left of Birmingham. It has to be addressed. Programs have to be established to fix that problem — it’s not going to happen magically. The sons and daughters of segregation moving back in is not going to magically solve that problem — it’s just going to move the problem somewhere else.”
As passionate as Calhoun is when it comes to trying to mitigate or outright avert the gentrification he sees happening in his old neighborhood, there are equally passionate advocates for revitalization on the other side of the issue.
If the burden of proof of demonstrating gentrification in Avondale is on the anti-gentrification side, then the data is of little value, simply as a matter of timing. When the 2010 census was released, what we now think of as Avondale’s business district was in its infancy, its long-term effects even harder to determine than they are now. Even if the timing were better, South Avondale’s census tract information skews with the inclusion of the city’s most affluent neighborhood, Forest Park, in the 35222 ZIP code. The little meaningful data that can be drawn from the census — including the fact that the vast majority of black homeowners in Avondale are elderly, corroborating a common notion that their homes are being bought as they pass away — or from real estate websites, which indicate longstanding interest in South Avondale, is hardly conclusive.
Sam Frazier, who has watched South Avondale’s housing market grow over 30 years, self-identifies as pro-gentrification, simply for lack of an apparent alternative. A firm believer in the value of home ownership and the value it adds to a community, Frazier cited Mayor Arrington, saying, “He answered that better than anybody else: ‘You don’t have to move to live in a better neighborhood.’”
Marco Morosini, current head of the South Avondale/Forest Park Business Association and owner of Silvertron, is skeptical of gentrification in Avondale and has faith in local business owners to support their communities and in hard work as a viable solution for poorer residents in the area.
“If you have a neighborhood that supports the local merchants, and you have local merchants that support the neighborhood, what you’re having is the neighborhood involved in local activities, in merchants’ events,” Morosini said. “It’s a two-way street. No property owner will kick out people who support the businesses. What incentive do I have to raise your rent right now if I don’t have any clue who’s going to come in, but I know that you are supporting local activities?
“I know most of the property owners in the area,” he added. “Not all of them, but the ones I know are not looking to drastically raise rents just to make some money. Businesses, it’s a different case. But neighborhoods, I haven’t heard this. What you’re hearing is other neighborhoods around town where the neighborhood isn’t actively involved with local businesses. That’s where you see the businesses crumbling. That’s where the problem is.”
Morosini has hired three people who live within two blocks of Silvertron, and takes pride in his business both as a job creator and as an avenue for hard workers, like the current head of his kitchen, to hone their skills and improve their personal and familial situation. “And I would say that if you are a so-called ‘poor person’…jobs are created down the street from you — opportunities to make money, ultimately.”
Like many other Avondale residents, local architect Bruce Lanier moved his business, Standard Creative, to Avondale because it was affordable, bad reputation be damned. After setting up shop in 2010, Standard Creative was broken into three times, including on a Sunday afternoon in broad daylight, briefly devastating the company. Since the brewery opened, however, Lanier feels he can’t overstate the difference in safety, comfort and possibilities on 41st Street.
“When you think of gentrification, you think of displacement,” Lanier said. “That’s sort of the whole point, right? You’re having one community that had all sorts of interlocking networks — including commercial networks, family networks — that are being disrupted and displaced to the degree that the culture of the community is being messed with. Use 41st Street as an example: there’s nothing that’s really been displaced over the course of this exercise. … None of these locations were vibrant, active businesses that just, property values ran up to the point that they had to leave.” Lanier does not find the sort of issues in Avondale that he’s seen firsthand in Boston and Atlanta.
“Right now, you’re not disrupting a balance,” Lanier said. “Right now it’s filling voids. And I know that there are scales here, and that it’s important to understand that at some point they’re gonna tip, but…this is what I think is effective about Avondale, for better or worse, and I can only see for better: you’re bringing commercial vitality to a once-dead area; it’s created foot traffic and activity and, more importantly, awareness and comfort among people in a place that was a very sketchy place when I moved in three years ago.
“The crowds that the brewery brings in, whether it’s an Over the Mountain crowd or not, are comfortable in a place where they would have never, ever, ever even slowed down for a red light before,” Lanier continued. “And that’s good. There’s no way to characterize that except as good. If it hasn’t displaced existing businesses to parts of town where they can find cheaper rent, and if it’s ultimately drawing people in there to a place for locals — both North and South Avondale — to go to, that’s good. Now if it gets to a point where somebody wants to come in and buy up all that multi-family between the park and 3rd Avenue, and raze it and turn it into a SoHo? That’s when I think you need to start worrying.”
A difficult dialogue
The Reverend Angie Wright, the pastor of Beloved Community Church, understands the nuances of the situation. Her background in community organizing and public housing make her keenly aware to issues of poverty in Birmingham — many of which are personally relevant to members of her congregation — while her background at Beloved Community Church, which has had a physical location on 41st Street since 2000, makes her keenly aware of the progress that the area needed.
“I don’t know that any of the merchants give much thought to the people who live here,” Wright said in an interview in June of last year. “I think there’s an assumption that what’s good for business is good for residents. And given what was here before, it is better for everybody. It was dangerous; it was an eyesore; every one of these buildings was vacant and boarded up — it was deplorable. People were living here, but they were living in commercial buildings. It was just awful. And so what’s happening now is just so much better for everybody. Having business here is better for the residents, but I think the issues I’ve found are problematic.”
For Wright, mitigating gentrification in Avondale boils down to preserving diversity. “There’s some very cool housing stock here, and young people want to move in and renovate houses, which is great, because many of the houses here are in terrible condition,” Wright said. “I just hope that we can keep the diversity, and I hope that there can be some respect there. … One issue with the gentrification is that when I hear people come in recently and talk about the vagrants, or the problem people, those are my church members.
“There’s a diversity there, and a lot of people moved into the neighborhood because of that diversity,” Wright continued. “One of the roles that we’ve tried to play since moving in has been to help try and preserve the affordable housing. You don’t want to preserve the indecent, unsafe housing, but you do want to find a way to preserve the affordable and decent housing so that people who are here can stay.”
Although State Rep. Patricia Todd, who represents Avondale, believes that growth in Avondale’s business district has been organic and positive, she also sees a potential downside. “You had people who lived there who really made that change happen and, slowly but surely, they’re turning things around there,” Todd said. “But whenever you displace people — or run them out, if you’re razing apartments where there was prostitution or drug activity going on — they feel like they succeeded, because they moved those people out. Well, you just moved them to another neighborhood. … You’re not addressing the problem.”
Wright and Todd are very aware of the difficulties of exploring and addressing the nuances of a subject as sensitive as gentrification. One of the issues is how the debate, which is properly a discussion of matters of class, easily shifts into a much thornier and less productive conversation about race because of the city’s demographics.
“We all want to get past this conversation of race, to get to a point where it’s about something greater than that, you know?” Bruce Lanier said. “But it always seems to stop here. … Efforts to recontextualize it into a discussion of class, because those two things are so closely related in the history of this town, are difficult.” Lanier’s comments represented the thoughts of nearly everybody interviewed.
Todd has had to deal with those issues firsthand while representing a majority-black district, seeing fear and mistrust on both sides. “The minute you throw the race card into it, it cuts the conversation off,” Todd said. “To have an honest-to-God, serious conversation about race? It doesn’t happen. It does not happen. And if you’ve got white folks who are trying to do the right thing, and trying to reach out and help, there’s still the problem of old-school black leadership who don’t want white help.”
Martha Jane Patton was aware of those issues during the revitalization of Avondale Park. “We may have been a progressive-thinking group, but the Friends of Avondale Park struggled to have black board members,” Patton said. “We were the Forest Park/South Avondale people. What we wanted was a community of people who worked together, but I remember there was a woman on our board who lived at the apartments across from the ballfield. And she knew I was a lawyer, and she called me one day, and said, ‘Here in this apartment, there’s some guys who are dealing drugs, and I’ve talked to the police about that, and now I feel that my life is threatened, and I’m gonna have to move out of here. I just thought I’d call and let you know that you won’t see me at the next board meeting. I’m not telling anybody where I’m going.’
“It’s just a never-ending conflict,” Patton mused. “It’s so hard to break those barriers. … It was hard for the Friends group to bridge that divide, and I don’t think it’s still been bridged, but I know the intent is to have cultural diversity there and in the park. It’s sort of side-by-side — there are black people, obviously, who come to the park. But they’re not involved in the governance and deciding what’s going to happen here. And we still have people who are moving to another school district. It’s certainly not a problem where we can say, ‘Mission accomplished! Check!’”
With regard to the impasses that racial divides pose, Patton said, “I think that at some point, people just go forward as they are. You just keep on and go forward, and you hope that somebody notices and likes what you’re doing, and that they want to join in.” In that case, the difficult dialogue, so rife with historical baggage that people would prefer to leave in the rear-view mirror, never happens at all.
Andre Calhoun expressed the dangers he saw in foregoing that dialogue, citing concerns from more well-to-do residents in Avondale about a dog park. “That’s the kind of thing that people who are established in the world want. They want a place to take their dog, let them off the leash and have them run around. … If the neighborhood dynamic changes, the needs of the neighborhood change. That’s what scares me the most…that the issues will never be addressed, because the issues have moved to another address.”
Hope for the future
So who is Avondale for? As potential conflicts arise in this discussion — renters vs. homeowners, haves versus have-nots, even the specter of blacks vs. whites — the overriding hope for most people in the Avondale community is a single, unifying answer to that question: Avondale is for everybody.
Avondale’s history of tolerance gives roots to that hope. Sam Frazier, who has kept a close watch on Avondale’s process of rejuvenation as a residential area, saw it begin in an ostracized community. “It started out with mixed couples — and by mixed I mean both black and white, and also gay couples, moving into a place where they could be more, if not accepted, left alone — and that’s how it began its revitalization.”
Moreover, Frazier’s own views in favoring homeowners are universal to those who move in and try to have a stake in the community, to take pride in it. “It’s sort of like saying, ‘Do you want the value of your house to go up, even though you realize it may cause your taxes to go up?’ Well of course you do. That’s just part of it. If somebody buys a house next to me that’s run-down and they fix it up, that’s in my best interest. I don’t care whether they’re polka-dot.”
Calhoun believes that solutions will have to be found in active governance. “It has to be policy,” he said. “That comes from opening of the debate of social justice, of the need for programs in the minority communities, from just looking at it from their perspective and not simply growing the city for the Over the Mountain community.”
When asked what he would do himself, were he making policy, Calhoun said, “If I had any say-so, I would say, let’s keep it mixed-use. Let’s not homogenize. Let’s keep the diversity of characters. … Let’s have some affluent apartment complexes, but let’s also make that part of town affordable for everyday people. Let’s make it an example of what could happen for the entire city. Let’s keep Coby and them at Avondale Brewery, but let’s also bring in some livable wage jobs that are walkable in the community…something like a co-op, where we’re supporting each other. … There’s a way it can be done, we just need someone to take a chance. But that’s easier said than done.”
For Richard Stewart, who’s been trying to give back to the Avondale community for 30 years in addition to his involvement with the Birmingham Pledge, there’s hope in the example set by the inclusiveness and simple, decent kindness of Beloved Community Church.
“Beloved Community Church set my attitude a lot about how to approach the merchants’ group,” Stewart said. “Beloved really takes in the vagrants that nobody else wants. They take in the blacks, the gays, the crossdressers, and I think that’s what we need in our whole area. … I welcome anybody, regardless of who they are. And I think Beloved sort of sets that precedent for our entire area.”
Catherine Browne, who helped Martha Jane Patton revitalize the park and who has long been a proud member of Forest Park’s famously active neighborhood association, understands the difficulties people have in talking about sore subjects. Yet she also believes in the power of hospitality.
“It’s hard to go in to a group where you don’t know anyone,” Browne said. “You might not feel welcome. Everyone’s had that feeling. … I promise you that when I see someone come in to an association meeting, even if I don’t know who they are, I’ll say hello to them. And we want everyone to come, regardless of whether they live in an apartment or a house, so they feel like they’re a part of the neighborhood.”
However simple that may seem, sentiments like Browne’s are a beacon of positivity amid a sea of divisiveness. Despite the many systemic issues and historical legacies facing the neighborhood and Birmingham as a whole, as long as attitudes like Browne’s are present, there remains the hope that Avondale — a place so long struggling against its own bad reputation, yet also a place centered around fellowship, whether at the park or at the bar — really can be welcoming for anyone who wants to live there.