Old Times There Are Not Forgotten


There is another edit.

In this edit, I miss the boat on that television show the same as every other overhyped TV show. I don’t get interested enough to look for things about it online. I don’t find a mailing list, or the mailing list spun off from it. I don’t subscribe. I don’t have those people backstopping me, providing moral support. And when everything finally goes off the rails, I wind up washed out of school, broken up with the girl who ruined everything, living at home and commuting to my $9-an-hour temp job in the HR department of a company so stodgy that Casual Friday means you can omit the necktie if you like. I’ve got a four-year-old Saturn with 100,000 miles on it already, a 3-year-old Power Macintosh that’s already starting to show its age, a cell phone I don’t need and can’t afford, and thousands of dollars in credit card debt.

No Ohio girl to put me up for the summer waiting for things to happen. No Notre Dame grad willing to talk me through snapping SIMMs into a logic board or take a chance interviewing me for his old job. No Metro. No Quake. No Sign of the Whale or Ireland’s Four Provinces. And no life-altering wedding weekend in Santa Cruz. Just me, and Birmingham, and no future.

It could have gone a couple different ways. In the best case scenario, I find a better job, find a way to live downtown somewhere, meet someone (possibly an alumna of my old high school?) and carve out a little blue bubble of my own in the sea of redneck. But it’s just as likely I end up over the mountain, married to some ex-sorority girl whose Greek letters still decorate the back of our SUV with the two car seats in it, regular doses of Alabama football and the occasional Atlanta getaway for shopping and fancy stuff we don’t have at home. 

A life lived as a medium-sized fish with its fins clipped, in a not-particularly-fresh pond. A life of lying awake at night, wondering what I’d missed out on by so rarely venturing outside the confines of my childhood, of staying stung and bruised by the failure of my one limited escape attempt. A life measured out in Panther basketball games, in too many helpings of Milo’s fries, in family arguments and gritted-teeth smiles and quiet desperation.



I’ve said it before, over and over: had Birmingham in 1990 been more like Birmingham in 2010, I would have felt better about staying around.  More restaurants, better beer selection, places like Bottletree or Iron City.  But how much of that depends on the Internet? Had there been Facebook and Twitter and Yelp, maybe I would have done a better job of finding what was there already.  But I would have had to live downtown, because there wouldn’t be any hopping transit over from someplace else. The buses don’t run that way and there hasn’t been a streetcar since the early 1950s. And despite the presence of a new bike share that just opened last week, there’s still no indication that transit is going to be a thing anytime soon.  Avondale and Lakeview are exciting new neighborhoods to go along with Southside in general and Five Points in particular, but getting back and forth might be a trial. 

I distinctly remember living in DC when the state quarters first started to emerge, and being surprised that I saw them when I went back to Alabama at the holidays. And being surprised at South Park references on the radio, as if they didn’t get Comedy Central there. The Internet came to Birmingham just the same as anyplace else, and people line up for the new iPhone at the Summit just the same as they do in Palo Alto or Clarendon. Geography alone doesn’t make the change happen, and I would have moved right along with the rest of the world – on the leading edge, certainly, relative to the people around me, but I would have still gone out and bought the first iPhone the day it landed, most likely. I would have had my phone on Powertel just so I could be on GSM. I would have signed up for BellSouth DSL at the earliest opportunity. Even in those dark days in early summer of 1997, I was already plotting to figure out how I could replace that PowerMac 6100 with a PowerBook 1400. So some of what helped me along would have come to town – not so much and not so quickly, but some of it.

And there were things there already. City Stages was the event of the year. The SEC played its football and basketball championships in town – not permanently, but it happened. Not one but two independent coffeehouses were open in Southside by 1994. That little stretch of Highland Avenue had a Frank Stitt restaurant, and Charlemagne Records and McNolia’s and the Lion and Unicorn comic book shop. By the end of my undergrad time, Red Mountain Red Ale was on sale, the first new beer to be made in Alabama since Prohibition. There was enough there to tempt my appetite for more, which is probably what helped propel me to Nashville in the first place.



Much has been lost, as much as gained. City Stages is no more. Bottletree folded, as did Freshfully. The Mill is gone, where you could first buy Red Mountain Red Ale. Both of the coffeehouses vanished, one replaced with a bar that’s been there ever since. Gorin’s Ice Cream, Dugan’s, Jonathan Benton Booksellers, Dexter’s on Broadway, the Tired Texan BBQ, Eastwood Mall, the Birmingham Bulls hockey team: all gone. Century Plaza: closed and empty. The Riverchase Galleria, the Colonnade, Wildwood: sparse and dying. My old high school: decamped to the suburbs and turned into a resume line for the heavily striving instead of a redneck-Hogwarts refuge for the gifted. Parisian and Pizitz have both become Belk and the old Pizitz building downtown is being gutted for condominiums. Neither the school my father attended nor the one where he worked are in the same building anymore. Gussied-up strip malls predominate and have metastasized at every major freeway on all sides of town. And while the Barons have a new stadium in the heart of downtown, the old stadium – which had the misfortune to be five years too early for the new-old retro-park look – sits empty except for high school football and the SEC baseball tournament.

There are newer and better things, and they are more likely to appear downtown than in Hoover, but there aren’t necessarily more of them. Frank Stitt has three restaurants now, and you can find unrelated places like Saw’s (three restaurants) or Babalu (tapas and tacos) or Revelator Coffee across from the Alabama Theater, and the bikes will take you from Lakeview to Uptown to Railroad Park. But the transit situation is still inferior to what it was sixty years ago, and the schools haven’t gotten materially better, and the city is still divided on whether to allow Uber to operate. And Birmingham’s biggest handicap remains Alabama: a state where the doctrine of “I got mine; fuck you” is written into law at almost every level alongside a pervasive sense that allowing something to change and be different is a danger to be prevented and obstructed at every turn.

I didn’t have twenty years to wait: that’s my refrain, my excuse, my justification for why I had to leave for someplace with more trains and fewer Finebaum callers. But upon further review, looking at what’s around now, it’s tough to say that things have been altered that much relative to anywhere else. You can get Apple products there, sure. You can get Amazon Prime. You can get DirecTV and U-Verse and access the internet. Twitter and Instagram and Slack and Yelp and Swarm work just the same there.

But you’re going to need a car and you’re going to have to drive it. You’re not going to be summoning a ride with an app and you’re not going to be checking timetables and stepping onto the light rail. You’re not going to find Indian food or Brazilian rodizio or a half hour jaunt to the beach or a winery. You’re going to have to be prepared to do a lot of online ordering. And if you can live with all that, you maybe can get an approximation of sort of what you’d have in DC or Silicon Valley. 



I wonder where the black folks are.

Not in Birmingham generally. In a place where the airport is now named for a civil rights leader whose national recognition is shamefully thin, in a place that still suffers internationally for the sins of its fathers and grandfathers fifty years ago and its shameful slowness in coming to terms with that sin, you can find plenty of African-American folks. The question becomes: can you find them in Railroad Park, at the Uptown, at lunch at Babalu and in the lobby of the Aloft at the XYZ bar and riding the share bikes on 20th Street? Is all this Birmingham change just another chapter in the gentrification story, or is some of this money and building and newness going to be sown in North Birmingham and the West End?

On early evidence, it looks like the potential is there.  The nonwhite population in Birmingham is certainly a majority, and if you look for a nonwhite presence in the restaurants and coffeeshops and other new modern cool places, you see it. The proportions may not be quite what you see in the gentrifying areas of Silicon Valley, but that’s as much an indictment of the extent to which the Valley has elevated its own historical minorities as opposed to people of color who just flooded in to attend Stanford or just arrived fresh from IIT Kanpur.

You look at the Valley, though, and the spread was up the Peninsula and into San Francisco. SoMa isn’t any better for the people who were already in SoMa, not that there were that many, and it’s possible to say the same in Birmingham. When so many old buildings were sitting abandoned because it wasn’t worth the money to pull them down if no one wanted to build over them, there’s not a whole bunch of folks there. Uber may be controversially going into Oakland, but the East Bay hasn’t had nearly the caliber of tech colonization. Mountain View may find that Castro Street is being turned into the methadone Mission, but Fremont and Newark and San Leandro are same as it ever was.

It’s possible that there isn’t a Southern-fried version of the New Urbanism – maybe this is just bog-standard Millennial twentysomething-ism, same as everywhere else where people have suddenly decided they can only live in the city. Portlandia with a gravelly drawl, the overflow room for the new-look Nashville with dark beers instead of hot chicken. Maybe in the twenty-five years I waited, Birmingham evolved into…Birmingham twenty-five years on. And yet that isn’t an indictment, necessarily. Birmingham’s improvements aren’t coming from a geyser of venture capital in search of a unicorn, they aren’t coming from the loose money chasing a bubble economy, they’re slow and steady alterations that nonetheless alter the fabric of the city. Eleven acres of green space with free wireless and bike share, a brand new baseball stadium, derelict light industrial space turning into restaurants and apartments and nightlife…these are changes that are persistent and will hopefully stick for a long time.

And in another ten or twenty years, maybe it gets attractive enough that people downtown start to agitate for the things that will seep deeper into the fabric of the city and its surroundings. Maybe instead of pulling up sticks and moving to Vestavia, they agitate for better schools downtown and the taxes to pay for them. Maybe they get tired of driving and lean on MAX to run buses in a way that you can actually use, or even implement bus rapid transit. And maybe that’s just the way things would be heading anyway, maybe that’s what Generation Z will demand everywhere, but if it gets better, it hardly matters why, right?

Is it a place I could live now? Under what circumstances?  I don’t know any more than I did two weeks ago, but for different reasons now. And it’s forcing me to take a closer look at where I live and how I live now.  And for that alone, it was worth the trip.

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