Why go to Birmingham, Ala.? Because the city with a difficult past will surprise — and even delight

Nov. 5, 2018

Sloss Furnace operated from 1882 to 1971, helping establish the Birmingham economy.

I am wandering inside the Pizitz Food Hall, past grand pillars, under a soaring ceiling, trying to decide what to have for lunch. In the center of the sleek space, a colorful tower of bottles rises behind a marble bar, where at midday, small groups of people are enjoying cocktails. I settle on Nepalese dumplings, which have won out over Israeli falafel, Ethiopian injera, Vietnamese banh mi and something a tad more traditional around here: Southern biscuits.

This dining experience — a collection of globally inspired food vendors in a repurposed 1923 department store — is not what I expected to find in downtown Birmingham, Ala.

I lived in this Southern city more than a decade ago and back then, about the only dumplings in town were bready and came atop chicken stew. They certainly were not the ginger- and veggie-filled steamed pockets that I had for lunch. Downtown was sleepy and the food scene leaned toward barbecue and meat-and-threes, cafeterias where patrons decide which trio of sides they’d like with their protein.

When I moved to Birmingham from Washington, D.C., I dove right into the barbecues and meat-and-threes (and, fortunately, my favorite old restaurants are still thriving; tradition is a powerful force here). But from friends in the nation’s capital, this is what I heard — a lot: “Why are you going there?”

It’s the same question I got from Minnesota friends when I decided to spend a long weekend in this icon of the 1960s civil rights movement.

My answer remains the same. Birmingham — part Southern charm, part chilling past — strikes me as the perfect city for exploring the quintessential American South. Atlanta? Too sprawling. New Orleans reflects its own unique history. In Memphis, music dominates. But Birmingham strikes just the right notes, and it’s evolving in surprising ways.

The city of 217,000 is compact and easy to navigate. The vibrant food and cultural scenes reflect its standing as Alabama’s largest city. In the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the landscape is hilly, splashed with the kinds of flowering trees and bushes that epitomize the South. Most significantly, the city played a pivotal, and tragic, role in raising the country’s consciousness of the struggle for equality. This is a city where visitors can steep themselves in that gritty history.

The first opportunity is no more than a few minutes from the airport. On the main airport access road, a historical marker stands beside a chain-link fence. Gravestones dot the ground behind it, some majestic with winged angels rising into the sky, some simple stone blocks sinking into the ground. “This cemetery is the final resting place of three of the four young girls killed in the September 15, 1963, church bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church,” it begins, and then names the three, who were in the church basement for Sunday school: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson (Denise McNair was the fourth victim, buried elsewhere). Planes overhead cast shadows as I read.

Back in the car, a piece of Minnesota propelled my drive into town. Prince’s “Controversy” blared from the radio: “I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.”

Here are five must-sees for your own visit to the city, Prince soundtrack optional.

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1. Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument

Everyone’s first stop should be the Birmingham Civil Rights District, which became a national monument in 2017. The area on the edge of downtown was the hub of the civil rights campaign of 1963. Police turned high-pressure water hoses and attack dogs on demonstrators that year. For anyone who has seen them, the images are indelible; they are also memorialized in statues of snarling dogs in Kelly Ingram Park, where marchers congregated.

The park sits across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum that shines a light on the struggles of African-Americans. One exhibit displays the bars of the cell in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was held, along with a presentation of his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” written while he was imprisoned there. The institute is sandwiched between the 16th Street Baptist Church, bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and the A.G. Gaston Motel, where King planned the peaceful protests. (The motel is awaiting renovation.)

The National Park Service’s brochure about the national monument notes the key role the city played. As shocking images of the violence in Birmingham spread throughout the country and beyond, “civil rights were elevated from a Southern issue to a pressing national issue,” and ensuing public pressure ensured the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (1-404-277-5217; nps.gov/bicr; the institute, 1-866-328-9696; bcri.org).

2. Vulcan Park and Museum

Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, presides over Birmingham atop Red Mountain. The 50-ton statue represented Alabama at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, touting the city’s industrial might as a major producer of iron and steel. A museum on the grounds explains that natural deposits of iron ore, coal and limestone, essential ingredients in iron, helped Birmingham grow so fast that it garnered the nickname of Magic City. At its hilltop home, visitors can climb the 159 steps inside the Vulcan or take an elevator to the observation platform for a bird’s-eye view of Birmingham — or a close-up look at the god’s behind (1-205-933-1409; visitvulcan.com).

3. Sloss Furnaces

To see a blast furnace where iron was made for nearly 100 years, stop by Sloss Furnaces. Now a National Historic Landmark, the machinery and industrial buildings, which bear a ruddy patina, are home to an expansive interpretive museum. The landmark also hosts concerts (think Alabama Shakes) and classes such as blacksmithing and iron forging (1-205-324-1911; slossfurnaces.com).

4. Birmingham Museum of Art

There are many reasons to visit the city-owned Birmingham Museum of Art. One of the most compelling is its English Wedgwood; the museum’s collection is the largest outside of Great Britain. Far beyond dinnerware, the pieces include elaborate vases, cameos and a neoclassical mantelpiece in white and light green decorated with a small army of Greek figures and a clock framed by astronomical figures. This quiet gem of a museum — with free parking and no entrance fee beyond a donation — also showcases works by Alabama quilters and folk artists (1-205-254-2565; artsbma.org).

5. Railroad Park

This park — a former industrial rail yard turned into a communal green space — embodies Birmingham’s new energy and modern outlook. A bio-filtration pond reflects the sky, streams cut across the grassy fields, a skate park rises in curves. In a thoroughly contemporary touch, repurposed and recycled bricks and other materials uncovered as the park was built now form dividing walls and benches. The whole park is ringed by a pathway, which leads to the ballpark for the minor-league Birmingham Barons and offers views of the downtown skyline beyond the railroad tracks. It makes for a great place to rent and ride one of the city’s bike-share Zyp bikes (railroadpark.org).

Once you start cruising, there are so many places to go.

 





 


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