Category Archives: Birmingham

Changing the South means changing the attitude

NOTE: I wrote a response to a post shared on Facebook earlier today and felt the need to write this (exceedingly long) addition to/explanation for it.

I almost didn’t go out at all on Friday night. The plan was to crash on the couch after a week of attempting to prove to my laptop who was boss — and losing. A night at home would help me regroup and be ready to play catch up over the weekend.

This meant I was choosing to skip the first Art on the Rocks! of 2015 (complete with preview access to the Hale Woodruff exhibit fresh off a visit to the Smithsonian); three chances to see Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood at the BJCC (or a musical); three Barons home games (though I did see the fireworks post-game on Friday from the porch); a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the Alabama Theatre; and buying a ticket for the first ever heavyweight title fight held in Alabama. That was just what was available in greater downtown (Beer on the Back Porch at Ruffner Mountain was pretty tempting as well on Friday).

Then, Mike Fourcher’s face popped up on my phone:

“Hey, man,! I’m in Bham. Where should I go out?” His phone number followed.

Mike is one of the folks behind Aldertrack, a must-read for political junkies in Chicago, IL. He’s also part of a group of peers I often forget are accessible as I continue to maneuver through the world of journalism, first meeting during the inaugural Block by Block Community News Summit in Chicago nearly five years ago.

I sent a message back saying he’d picked one of the craziest weekends to be visiting. Before I could get the next sentence started (stupid thumbs), he replied:

“I’m here for the Wilder-Molina fight.”

Forty minutes later I find myself sitting on the patio in front of Carrigan’s Pub with Mike and four others. There was a married couple from Texas, another woman, and a guy I later found out was from Queens.

I was asked what I did for a living. I told them about this site and then mentioned my new job working for the Southern Education Desk project. There was some interest in The Terminal, but most of their eyes looked intrigued by the work of the SED — then I found out what they all did for a living…

This is how I ended up having a conversation about the current and future state of Birmingham and issues involving education across the south with Eric Molina’s wife (an A.P. History teacher) and two of their friends (both principals). The guy from Queens was Molina’s attorney. There was no pomp, no fluff. Just a party of six enjoying great local beers (Good People and Cahaba, for the record) and great conversation.

I grew up in a city natives refer to as “the Greatest City in the World” and spent eleven years soaking up life in “the Hostess City of the South.” This September will mark eleven years in Alabama’s Magic City, though I often refer to it as “the City Built to Change the South.” It has done just that on numerous occasions, for better and worse. While some of the episodes many would like to forget were mentioned during the 2+ hours on the patio, most of it was focused on the potential, the progress, and the lessons Birmingham still teaches today.

They enjoyed what they’d already seen and hoped to do things like the Civil Rights Institute as well, wanting to see the important places of history, but also the progress. They felt privileged to be here, excited for the opportunity.

We live in the youngest major city in the southeastern United States, but one with a legacy and road map continuing to influence communities much older, albeit not without some longing for it to live up to its original nickname. Time can often be a brutal and unfair thing as it must pass for things to move forward. The city and the region is still positioned to change the South while still being Southern, leading to conflict among those wishing that wasn’t exactly the case.

There is a scarcity still faced by many in the community, leading some to question our priorities as we continue the process of remaking our city. There’s a fight though — a willingness to change the script and forge ahead, to leading or find a way to do something better. It’s still a scrappy community making big waves, and while many of us are the better for it, many more hope we continue to find ways to include more in the progress and the conversation.

Starting down the slippery slope of whether or not we’re a destination city isn’t necessarily where the conversation needs to currently live. Perhaps it’s about whether or not we’re worthy as a city to continue to dream and push forward so we have the attitude that accompanies being the destination actually shared by more than a few select people. Talking about our place in history should be accompanied with what we’ve done to build on it (& what still needs to be accomplished as we truly start to move forward).


It’s catching though, this positive attitude. This photo shows the property catty-corner of Cotton’s in downtown Ensley. There’s a community willing to dream big enough to think of respected artists designing murals for the wall of the Bethesda Life Center, the building of flower beds, and the belief a place is what you think it can be. It’s everywhere you’re willing to look for it — and tap into it. It may take a lot longer than you’d like, but it’s there for the taking — and for feeding off of if you ever begin to worry.

The energy from the conversation on the porch reminds me just how much fun it can be around here — when you want it to be. Do some egos need to be checked at the door? Yes. Does a can-do attitude need to see the light of day in the hearts and actions of the community as a whole? Absolutely.

We’ve changed the South before. Perhaps feeding off the excitement and the potential while finding opportunities for all will help us do it one more time and continue to help us do so for as long as we’d like.

Why is the downtown Publix really a game-changer?

newPublixbldgThe term “game-changer” has been batted about metro Birmingham a lot in recent days as news of a planned mixed-use development anchored by a Publix grocery store on the city’s Southside spread like wild fire. For those who haven’t heard yet, an article in the May 18 edition of The Birmingham News revealed the Lakeland, FL-based grocer as the main tenant of a $30 million development proposed to sit on the northwest corner of 20th Street and 3rd Avenue South.

Now, I’ve lived in the greater downtown area since 2004, and I’ve always had as few as four and as many as six major options available to choose from within 2 miles, but I had to drive to them. When people ask me “Where and how do you get groceries?” I admit I’ve long ago started replying by asking them, “Well, where and how do you get yours?” I get a stunned look, but most times they seem to get what I’m saying. That said, it’s not an option readily or easily available to a significant number of our city’s residents.

This leads to my first reason why it’s a game-changer:

It’s more about WALKING now than DRIVING. Yes, there’s a parking deck that will sit between the ground floor space and the 36 “loft-style” apartments planned for the top the building. The vehicles using these spaces though will be off-street and out of sight. The idea of needing to circle forever to find a spot or the installation of a surface parking lot to handle capacity doesn’t even come up in conversation – and that’s a great thing. It suggests developers realize there will be enough people within walking distance to support its operation. It takes away reliance on an automobile to make a development like this one work.

It means it should be easier to get other national and regional retailers to consider locating a business downtown. It also makes it easier to get those same retailers to start looking at options in neighborhoods throughout the city. It could potentially make the issue of placing parking immediately adjacent to their business less of a sticking point. Dare it be suggested it could also be the first step toward a re-write of the city’s parking regulations and a rethinking of its minimum requirements?

It’s downtown. Actually, this may be an even bigger issue for me and one I’m excited about watching evolve. The proposed building is sitting along 20th Street South. When I first moved here nearly ten years ago, I referred to that area as being downtown while having a conversation with a native; I was chastised immediately because “it was not downtown, it was Southside. Downtown starts on the other side of the tracks.”

It was weird, as most New Yorkers refer to pretty much all of Manhattan as “downtown” no matter which of the other four boroughs you live. I’d also moved here after working for an agency charged with the revitalization of “greater Downtown” Savannah, not just its famous historic district. As a result, I’ve long considered the areas surrounding the city center part of greater downtown Birmingham. It makes sense especially when you get a chance to see just how small the expanded area still is in relation to the rest of the city.

The announcement of this grocery store lends itself to a new approach involving population growth in the urban core focused on eventually seeing people choosing to live in the single-family home dense portions of Druid Hills, Fountain Heights, and Norwood (in addition to others like Titusville, Smithfield, and College Hills) after spending a couple of years living in an apartment located nearby in the city center. Every major news outlet in the city referred to the project’s location area as downtown, suggesting the shift in perspective (one long championed by REV Birmingham and its predecessors) is finally starting to happen. The change in perspective also means a realization about the choices available to someone thinking about their next move.

The changes that come as a result of this and other projects will be quick. The changes at face value will be good for the city. The question right now as we get ready to start watching this happen is “Are we ready for what we’ve been asking for all of these years?”

André Natta is the stationmaster for

An open letter to Al Roker

Mr. Roker:

Pardon the formality, but the folks at Mt. St. Michael Academy in the Bronx would be upset with me if I didn’t maintain it to a certain degree while writing this note. The previous sentence would suggest correctly that I’m a native of New York City, one who can claim to have grown up watching your forecasts on WNBC-TV until heading off to college in Georgia in 1993. I’ve been a fan for a long time and have appreciated the frankness over the years (I’m specifically thinking about our freak snow storm in early March 1993).

I’m writing not to question your comments about the recent handling of the winter storm in Atlanta – that seems fairly spot on given the information at hand – but to question the generalizations made during the start of the 9 a.m. ET hour of Today on January 30 that while probably not intended, lumped many Southern cities together in a broad characterization of the situation. I’m particularly interested on how those comments reflect on what happened in Alabama, where I’ve lived since late 2004. I only wish I could link to a video of the segment in question – it only seems fair. I’ll just write from the heart though and see how it goes.

01272014 Area ForecastThe image to your left is representative of the graphics used by many media outlets in north central Alabama on Monday evening. As you can see, Birmingham and the majority of its surrounding area was only forecast to see a “dusting” of snow. The area that was predicted to receive the brunt of the storm was the southern portion of the state (mostly areas south of Demopolis), one that received a state of emergency declaration by Gov. Bentley earlier Monday. Most of the resources needed to tackle what would normally be a minor mess were sitting well to the south of the state’s largest city – the area that was eventually most affected. It was an area that was still expecting less than an inch as late as the 5:35 a.m. graphiccast post made to the NWS Birmingham’s page on Facebook.

Are there things that could have been handled differently? Yes. But, in our case, it was a case of Mother Nature making a last minute change and everyone being caught flat-footed. That would be what the folks at USA Today reported yesterday, about half way down the page in their wrap-up. The meteorologists at our television stations have been taking it on the chin – more than they probably should considering part their job is to predict something that isn’t always easy to understand. Among them:

Considering the circumstances, it went about as well as could be expected. Those parts of the state originally scheduled to receive snow were able to cope with the change in forecast, most notably Mobile. Those areas up here responded admirably considering the circumstances, demonstrating what Birmingham News columnist John Archibald properly described a chance to “marvel at the human spirit.” It’s something still on display today as we await the thaw.

Perhaps we’ll figure out a way to do staggered releases from school and work in the future. Maybe the opportunity to look at how sprawl played a role in the large numbers of cars stranded on interstates and highways will be taken advantage of as we recover. I live in the southeastern United States, but I specifically live in the state of Alabama. It handled it as well as it could.

I saw on your Twitter timeline that you like it when articulate points are presented. I only hope you’d consider this one as we continue through what’s already been a crazy winter across the country – the need to measure the use of words carefully and not to lump folks without recognizing the weight that comment may carry. I’d just say Georgia, and not “the South,” but that’s just me.

Anyway, have a safe trip to the Olympics, and thanks for taking my comments into consideration.

André Natta started The Terminal in 2007.

Believing leads to caring, Birmingham

Legion Field Lion. lensman20/FlickrI recently stumbled across an online discussion that included what turned out to be an issue of semantics. It hinged on the understanding of the words believe and care.

I had my own thoughts on the discussion, but figured I’d do some research first. It helps to know the definitions of the words we’re talking about. The definitions I’ve included here seemed to fit the context of the discussion best (though I did link to the full lists of definition for both words just in case):

Believe – to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something
Care – to feel interest or concern

It was interesting to me how believe was a verb showing faith or acceptance, while care was one showing action. It got me thinking about a phrase that’s appeared several times in both the spiritual and civic realms:

“Faith without works is dead.”

We who believe in the future of Birmingham must also be able to show what we’re able to do to support that belief. That’s the difference between believing and caring. I’d argue you can only believe or not believe; there’s not much grey area. There are, however, many ways to show how much you care about someone, or in Birmingham’s case, something. You’re basically demonstrating the extent of your belief – something I’d argue is desperately needed locally as we prepare to move forward.

I care enough to write about my beliefs and dreams for the future of Birmingham here and elsewhere. There are others who leverage the power of critical mass via petitions and online forums to demonstrate concern about issues they believe affect the future of the city. A few brave souls have decided to throw their hats into the proverbial political ring hoping they can show residents and school children just how much they believe in the city by not caring about the messiness that comes with municipal campaigns in Alabama’s largest city. Still others choose to cheer on every positive development in the metro area while willingly doing verbal and digital battles with those not as eager to admit changes are coming. Sometimes when local businesses show how much they care about a new effort underway, you can even give someone reasons to believe in Birmingham all over again.

It’s important as this cultural revolution continues to evolve in Jones Valley to point out that how you choose to show you care shouldn’t matter as much as the fact that you do. It’s tough to show concern for (and possibly tougher to disagree with the common opinion about) something you don’t have a strong opinion. It’s nice to also remember that if everyone went about doing the same thing, life (and this city) would get pretty boring – quickly.

You have to believe in Birmingham before you can truly care about its future. Luckily, it ends up becoming a viciously grateful and encouraging circle of action – thank goodness for that!

André Natta is the stationmaster for

Photo: Legion Field Lion/ lensman20/Flickr.

Looking at Birmingham through a mirror

NOTE: This is an annotated and edited version of a piece published in the current (April 2013) issue of B-Metro Magazine.


One of the unexpected results of watching the city as it reacts to increased media coverage during the commemoration of the events of 1963 is how it tends to look at itself. I spent 11 years of my life in Savannah, GA, including most of the quirky “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” era. I find myself shaking my head wondering what would have happened if Facebook, Google+, and Twitter existed back in 1994 and what a difference it would have made in the development of that city and its culture.

I’m getting to watch a similar era unfold in Birmingham, as we bask in recognition of our food and music scenes while piles of dirt are moved throughout the region showing signs of progress and growth. It’s fun to guess whether or not the person writing the article about our being a top vacation getaway or an up and coming city has actually ventured into Jones Valley.

Recent months have seen us recognized by several media outlets — via the web, print, and television — for various innovations and accolades. It’s been easy to point to any of these pieces as proof of progress when someone talks about how there’s nothing going on in the city. It’s also a welcome way to surprise locals and long–time residents alike when they learn how some outsiders view their fair city – positively. Nothing fights pessimism better than a good long look in a mirror being held up by someone who is removed from the situation.

It’s a funny world when you look at social media being treated and observed as “so me” (a useful abbreviation) and personally focused. It’s a requirement of sorts since it’s basically your journey through life as you engage those who have chosen to follow you via one or several of your digital profiles online. It is a window into who you are and what makes you tick. It can be molded by you to convey whatever you think is appropriate. It does make it tough to know what’s going on nearby, or even across the room.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoy those moments when we use it as more of a mirror to empower and engage a community to do better. Today Birmingham serves as a shining example of that approach towards social media, courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library. Universities, high schools, performance venues and cities across the country and around the world have already signed up and pledged to read an important document in the civil rights movement — Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Many who have learned of the efforts to invite as many people as possible to read on April 16 will participate as a way to elevate a discussion. This is mainly due to the complexity and difficulty normally preventing such an important conversation from happening in the first place. It’s also hard to tackle something folks try hard to lock away since “it’s history.”

2013 is as much about the need for Birmingham to tackle this conversation internally as it is to remind the world it still needs to happen. It’s an opportunity for the community to use these digital tools not just as a way to shine the light on itself, but as a tool to hold a mirror up to society to remind them we’ve got a lot more to tackle as humanity’s march continues. It’s a chance to paint a picture of the city’s future by embracing what’s happening now and questioning those things seen as messy and clunky.

Perhaps it’s fitting to think that “if not for Birmingham,” — and our digital present — we wouldn’t have this chance to continue to shape the future, for us and our fellow man.

Just think — we’ve still got just over seven more months to go, too.

Photo: untitled. Dustin Gilmore/Flickr.

André Natta is the stationmaster for

Support a plan to move Birmingham forward

Signing inThere is sure to be a rather large crowd sitting in City Council chambers on the third floor of Birmingham’s City Hall starting at 6 p.m. tonight (April 4) – at least, that’s the image I have in my mind.

It will not be for a council meeting, though the eventual result will have a significant impact on the future of Birmingham, AL. It’s the scheduled public hearing being held by the Birmingham Planning Commission focusing on the working draft of the city’s new comprehensive plan. It’s a process many hope will lead to adoption of the first such plan in the city’s history.

Before someone begins to split hairs about that last sentence, several plans have been commissioned in recent years, including one for the region ( a la the former Region 2020), an update focused on the city center, and individual commercial revitalization and residential districts. A previous comprehensive plan process was undertaken in 1961, getting to the draft process. Parts were implemented, but it was never fully adopted. This is a chance to truly take a holistic look at the city and its future.

The current draft document was revealed on March 4 and has been available since at City Hall, Birmingham Public Library branches and online for review.

I had the privilege of serving on the plan’s steering committee for the last 18 months as we tried to make sure everyone’s interests were heard and addressed. I’d say we were pretty successful considering there were ten community meetings, two public forums (including this one), three open houses, and fifty small group gatherings that crisscrossed the city. The initial public comment period associated with the process has taken place over the last month, with many of those comments and concerns scheduled to be addressed this evening.

Birmingham has gained a significant amount of media attention in recent months, partially due to the ongoing commemoration of the events of 1963. The most recent accolade is courtesy of Forbes Magazine; the publication included the city in a list of downtowns to watch. Based on some of the buzz online, the path this document takes moving forward will keep the spotlight on Birmingham as we wait to see if we’re willing to adopt it.

Is it a perfect plan? No – anyone who suggests there is such a thing really doesn’t understand its true function. It provides a framework city officials, the private sector, and the general public can use to move the city forward. The message we are sharing with ourselves and the world this year is one of progress and advancement. This plan lets us show we’re serious about that message.

It is one that contains the voices of the city’s future, ones we need to be listening to as it is their home we’re planning and not ours. It’s those conversations I’m looking to as drivers of this site’s focus in the coming months and years.

Adoption and passage of a comprehensive plan matters as much as any other effort currently underway in this city. It could even mean more as it demonstrates to interested parties a commitment to consistently improving the city. I’m excited about the conversations this document will and needs to encourage about the future of Birmingham and what it will take to get there – conversations many of us look forward to covering in the future.

If you’ve got some time this evening, stop by City Hall and make sure your voice continues to be heard. We owe it to the future of the city to make sure it’s the true voice of the city, its general population, and not those fearful of change, that’s heard.

André Natta is the stationmaster for

Is it time for a cultural river through Birmingham?

There are a lot of people looking to tomorrow, 12/12/12, as a day of significance. It could be a day that marks a new chapter and an evolutionary leap for a community.

I’d argue a decision of that significance for the future of Birmingham was made late Tuesday morning when the Birmingham City Council reconsidered agenda item 34 at the end of their meeting.

That’s when they decided to unanimously approve the sale of Lot D, the site used as the muse for the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham‘s Prize 2 The Future idea competition last year, to Alabama Power for $2.95 million– based on a recommendation from the city’s Budget and Finance committee. The redevelopment project that has been hinted at when talking about this purchase could include a conversion of the soon-to-be dormant steam plant currently operated across the street by the utility.

Many would find it hard to not agree the property’s location is not ideal or pivotal to the current level of activity underway south of the railroad tracks. Despite years of some disliking when Southside was referred to as downtown, it may become an essential part of its genetic makeup fairly soon. Those who remember the residential development known as The Standard originally slated to go across from Railroad Park at 18th St. well before the urban oasis was completed may notice soil is being moved, perhaps suggesting it may yet move forward, in some form, soon. Keep in mind that Rev Birmingham (formerly ONB/MSB) has promised upcoming announcements about two residential projects close to the park in their recent newsletter.

It got me wondering about what kind of project could be capable of continuing the transform the City of Birmingham. I started thinking about the areas surrounding the parks that Railroad Park are often compared with and found a common theme – one that could lead to a proposal as transformative as the ones considered during last year’s idea competition.

While folks like to compare Railroad Park to New York City’s Central Park, there are many native New Yorkers who’d find Bryant Park a better comparison and one that leads to far more potential. The park acts and looks like more of a living room than most, allowing for an outdoor reading room, movie screenings, fashion shows. The first use included in that list is made possible in part because of the park’s next door neighbor, the main branch of The New York Public Library.

A similar situation is found at Chicago’s Millennium Park, as its eastern edge is defined by The Art Institute of Chicago. There are other examples of civic cultural institutions anchoring gathering spaces throughout the country.

This is why seeing two people who were in attendance at today’s meeting made me think of a crazy idea for  Alabama Power’s rumored project – Kate Nielsen, the Community Foundation’s executive director, and Gail Andrews, the director for the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Ms. Nielsen spoke in support of the sale of the property at Monday’s committee meeting, with the Foundation posting a supportive statement on its site yesterday afternoon. Ms. Andrews enjoys overseeing the largest municipal museum of art in the Southeast, though at times at least 60% of the collection is not available for viewing. An expanded home or an opportunity to establish a second location (similar to what the Guggenheim Museum was able to do in New York years ago), would be extremely beneficial, especially as the eyes of the world turn to Birmingham in the coming months.

Birmingham's Railroad SkylineThere are others that could benefit from such an opportunity – including the Birmingham History Center (though it would still be pretty cool to see them end up at The Powell School long term). All in all, it would enable a cultural stream to run through the middle of our greater downtown area – the ballpark, Railroad Park, Line Park, Sloss Furnaces – connecting our city’s present (an expanding medical-based economy) with the heart of it’s central business district. Now think about it expanding west…

You may not be able to float down that stream per se, but imagine the potential dreamers such an idea could influence and inspire in our fair city? It’s potentially enough to help drive a transformation…

André Natta is the stationmaster for