Why Alabama's biggest city is loaded with small-town charm
By Charles Gaines
If you lived in Birmingham in the 1950s, it was a glumly accepted fact that to get to heaven you were going to have to fly through Atlanta—probably with a four-hour layover. Compared with Atlanta (and the comparison was as irresistible as touching a sore tooth with your tongue), our airport, our hotels, our highways, and our restaurants all seemed pretty much third-world. And comparisons to smaller, slower Old South cities such as Charleston and Memphis were not much happier: In them we came off as brash and inelegant as Borat.
Then in the early sixties the city’s low-grade inferiority flu turned into a life-threatening pneumonia of shame—a feverish nightmare of fire hoses, police dogs, and the heartbreaking deaths of four young black girls that left my hometown with the national nickname of Bombingham. To more than a few of its residents it seemed that the city itself had been blown apart in the detonation of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eloquent “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was its eulogy.
But, as it happened, Birmingham has a tough talent for surviving near-fatal blows. The first was from a cholera epidemic that hit the city in 1873, only two years after its founding at the crossing of two railway lines in a valley surrounded by some of the southernmost ridges of the Appalachians. After barely pulling through the epidemic, Birmingham went to work trying to become a replica of its grubby namesake city in England. Aided by a natural abundance of coal, iron ore, and limestone, its production of steel and iron through the early 1900s so quickly grew it into the foremost industrial center of the South that it became known as the Magic City.
When the funds fueling that growth dried up during the Great Depression, Birmingham nearly expired again. Resuscitated this time by wartime demand for steel and the postwar building boom, the city went back to being a one-trick pony, doing nothing much more with itself than supplying that demand and grousing about having to fly through Atlanta. Even after the terrible chastening of the sixties, we remained an Okie from Muskogee kind of place, at the same time smugly parochial and envious of more cosmopolitan cities. Our air was foul with steel mill smog, our museum was so second-rate that I was curator of it for a year or two, and if you didn’t care for barbecue or fried catfish it was hard to find a decent meal—but by God, it was home.
Then in the seventies a sea change began for the Magic City. The leading wave of that change was the development of the University of Alabama at Birmingham into one of the best medical and research centers in the country. Other hospitals and medical businesses soon sprouted up around UAB, smart people moved into town to run and staff them, and suddenly (it seemed like overnight) Birmingham had a large, sophisticated, well-heeled international population to inform and color it. Major growth in banking and the service industries throughout the seventies further diversified the city’s steel economy and gestalt. New commercial buildings started to appear downtown for the first time since the 1920s. Art galleries and music clubs blossomed. Then in 1982 a young chef named Frank Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill, and the Birmingham renaissance had truly begun.
Like many Southerners, I unapologetically tend to attribute historic importance to food: What Stitt did with Highlands (and the three other fine restaurants he later bestowed on the city) was announce to Birminghamians with a megaphone that we were through sucking hind tit to Atlanta or anyplace else where food was concerned. More important, his elegant adaptation of local, down-home food, such as shrimp and grits, into high culinary art was a powerful metaphor for how we could, so to speak, have our community cake and eat it too.
In becoming one of the most livable and lovable cities in the nation, that is exactly what Birmingham has done: taken the best of the old life here (the inexorable friendliness, the lack of stress, the easy access to outdoor recreation, the quiet, leafy neighborhoods) and transformed it into something au courant, piquant, uncopyably delicious. The metropolitan area is now over one million people, but in many salubrious ways Birmingham still feels like a small city. Walking down 20th Street or waiting for a plane in the (now much improved) airport, it is hard not to run into someone you know or are kin to; in the middle of downtown there are at least four places where my dogs can take an undisturbed leak.
We now have one of the finest art museums in the country (with a permanent collection, by the way, twice the size of Atlanta’s), a shout-out civil rights museum and almost fifty art galleries. We have state-of-the-art performance and science centers; an excellent symphony orchestra; opera and ballet companies; world-class art, film, and music festivals; five live-performance theaters; and vibrant film and music scenes. We also have kick-ass gun and boat shows, turkey-calling competitions, NASCAR races at nearby Talladega, an utter city-wide mania for college football, and a museum housing the world’s largest collection of motorcycles.
In this city that has more green space per capita than any in the country, you can shoot a deer or catch a stringer of bass and crappie fifteen minutes out of town, then go to a Yo-Yo Ma concert that evening. For lunch that day you could eat some of the world’s best barbecue at Demetri’s or the Golden Rule or Dreamland, or fried chicken and field peas good enough to make you want to slap your mama at Niki’s West or the Irondale Café; then after Yo-Yo you could have a meal—at one of Frank Stitt’s restaurants, or the equally superb Hot and Hot Fish Club, or a half dozen (I counted them and I’m picky) other white-tablecloth restaurants in town—and a bottle of wine worth flying into town for from, say, Seoul, South Korea.
There may be other cities in the South where that particular yin and yang of good living, past and present, town and country, are so enjoyably mixed as they are now in Birmingham, but I don’t know of one. Yes, Charleston is still older and more refined, and Atlanta still has a bigger airport and more highways; but in Birmingham these days we don’t believe we have to fly through anywhere to get to heaven.