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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

Your thoughts on the Siegelman & Scrushy sentences

My Birmingham is actually about your Birmingham; what your thoughts and opinions are on issues affecting the city and the greater metropolitan area. This particular story also seems to have captured the interest of the state and the country.

So, let’s hear from you: What do you think about last night’s sentences?

Don’t forget to vote on the front page, but we’d like to see some of your thoughts.

We’re looking forward to the responses.

BTW: If you have an idea for a My Birmingham question, send them in to

Droughts can teach us unexpected lessons

I was two years old when the 1977 New York City blackout added the extra burden of climbing 16 flights of stairs onto an already sweltering heat wave. My parents can still recall scenes of looting and mayhem as they were trying to get home from grocery shopping. The power apparently went while we were out. I’m still wondering how I handled the stairs. We also had one of several water emergencies that plagued the city during the late 70s and early 80s.

Crime spiked during both of those events; it’s an unfortunate result of hot weather. You’d think that people would stay indoors and hide out in air conditioning to avoid the heat. Instead, they’re trying to break into businesses and homes, holding up residents throughout the city and turning to more fatal activities due to what all call “boredom”.

A quick scan of Myspace bulletins and other news sites over the last 3-4 days would tell you that the issue is reaching a boiling point among residents and property owners, particularly in areas where people are just joining the urban fabric that is the city center.

In a city as defined by the single-family home as Birmingham is, enforcement of the water emergency may be what’s needed. Now that of course sounds crazy. But it is something to consider.

Every elected official interviewed about the emergency, no matter what city they’re in, says that officers will be responding to complaints instead of purposefully seeking out perpetrators. That being said, if officers are conducting their normal patrols of beats with the added awareness required to spot people watering illegally, they may in fact notice things that are not supposed to be going on that are more in line with what people expect officers to do nowadays.

Part of the problem is that people are quite willing to turn in a neighbor for running the sprinkler on the wrong day of the week yet they are scared to call the police if something more sinister or severe is going on. Perhaps we can take this time to practice how to call when we see someone or something suspicious happening in the future.

Water emergencies tend to make people claim ownership of their city and take control of the situation. If people are concerned about what officers will be responding to, make sure that they’re responding to a necessary call. You can always call 311 and report the water violation and save 911 for things like robberies and muggings.

It also does not make sense for people in the neighborhoods to turn a blind eye to the issue and simply state that it is normal. There are many things that some tend to accept because they’ve "gotten used to it"; no one should ever get used to crime or any other annoyance in their community. No, urban living is not just how they make it look like on television, (meaning don’t expect utopia; it is a city after all), however there are certain things pertaining to quality of life that should be expected and available. That includes not worrying about sitting out on your porch or being able to walk through your own neighborhood with friends. It is still the city though, and some caution should be taken.

The region is facing a problem if they do not begin to curtail water usage, however it may face a larger problem if people bored during the summer heat begin to start using live walking targets for shooting practice. As stewards to our region, we must consider just what must be done to provide us with a proper quality of life. We do elect our officials to take care of many of these problems, but perhaps every once in a while, a water emergency reminds us that we have to do our part to take care of it as well.

Let us know what you think.

André Natta is the managing editor of The Terminal. You can reach him at

If you’re interested in submitting a piece to My Birmingham, check out the submission guidelines and send it in to

City Stages 2007: Some thoughts for the future

George McMillan walked out onto the Legacy Credit Union Stage on Saturday evening just before Dr. John was ready to take the stage. McMillan incidentally decided that he would be at this stage for most of the festival; while he did move, he was rarely ventured that far away.

He did not introduce himself (though most in the crowd knew who he was) but went on to say something that many did not expect and some began to talk about immediately. He said that he had not taken the mic at this stage since it had been moved a few years ago during the revamp of the festival site. He went on to thank the crowd personally saying "we know that without you, the supporters of the singer-songwriter stage, there would be no City Stages." That comment was met with applause, but also some questions. The guy standing next to me asked if McMillan believed it so much then why wasn’t he buying everyone at the stage a drink.

That statement is one that is interesting. I’ve never seen crowds on a Sunday afternoon at the festival like the ones I saw at the Legacy and Coke Classic stages. The first thought was that "they may have finally figured it out". The festival has been more about the ability to see emerging acts than it’s been about big name top tier acts taking the stage for the masses.

That’s perhaps the best piece of advice that I can offer this festival. I figured I’d throw my two cents worth in since everyone else has or plans to do so. Despite the apparent success that City Stages enjoyed this year, there’s always room for improvement. The day that this festival tries to become Bonnaroo then it will be DOA and those that predicted its demise will still be somewhat upset, since many of them truly do not want to see it go.

There are some things that can be done to create the positive buzz that Chuck Geiss eluded to in his Naked Birmingham submission last month. Among them:

Find new ways to make people aware of the music available. They have blatantly said that they are not trying to serve only one group (though some groups will be easier to serve than others), but times have changed. The first year I attended, as I drove into town, there were three different stations doing live remotes from the CS site. While that would in fact be the ideal situation, the current terrestrial radio landscape makes it a little different. Stations still plug the festival, but maybe in this modern age of iPods and Myspace profiles, the music should be brought to the masses. Provide links to artists’ Myspace pages, provide downloadable podcasts of musical acts on a weekly basis through other sites than just the official site. It’s also fairly cheap to burn CDs nowadays. One sponsorship of a CD that could be mass-produced and distributed for free all over town. The logistics are probably the one holdup but there should be enough acts that would agree to it that it could work.

One of the reasons that people thought there were more headliners was because there were more opportunities to be familiar with the music before the gates opened on Friday night. Find ways to get that feeling back.

Investigate breaking the festival out of the box. I will begin this one by saying that I have never been able to attend SXSW. It’s on that list of things that I need to do soon, before the opportunity escapes. I am familiar with the energy of those types of festivals though, and finding ways to expand the sphere of activity would be an incredible asset to City Stages.

Mary Carluso eluded to this idea in her list of opinions last week, but the idea of including venues and bars in the festival may just provide the additional buzz that’s needed. It may even be possible to create a secondary festival that allows CS to feed off of it. There would be a lot of things that would have to go right in order to do it, including improving transportation options for at
the very least during the event as well as a partnership among area bars and clubs. But imagine seeing bands at Bottletree, Westside Lounge, Speakeasy and Metro Bistro, not to mention countless other venues. You could even get some of the larger venues in the downtown area in on the act like the Alabama & Carver Theatres & the Boutwell Auditorium. The possibilities are endless. Allow for people who buy one ticket to get the other one for a discount or offer a joint ticket. For those that see it as a citywide cultural event, this is one way to truly involve the entire city.

Move the date to the end of summer. I am aware of the fact that moving the event from Father’s Day weekend has been ruled out by McMillan. The ability to become the official end of summer concert event just may enough to meet City Stages’ tagline as a world class music festival. The guys who head up Bonnaroo are never going to move theirs (and they did put that 150-mile radius/60 day clause in there for a reason. The next best thing to do is to move it and make it a destination event, if that’s truly what you want it to be.

Run it like a for profit. Even if you don’t want to become a for-profit, the idea of running it like one is a principle that many non-profits embrace. I was lucky enough to work for two people that embraced that philosophy and it benefited those organizations tremendously to date. It’s something to consider.

Those are my ideas. I’m hopeful that they’ll listen and consider, even with the obstacles that present themselves with each one. They seem to be starting to dig out though, so they may just keep doing what they’re doing. Hopefully though, the dialogue will continue for some time to come.

What are your thoughts? Post them down below.

André Natta is the publisher of The Terminal. You can reach him directly at



City Stages is here… well?

City Stages rolls around and I remember the first time I ever visited Birmingham in 1998. That year is known among those that have attended the festival for some time as the year that Phil Collins didn’t sing (among other things).

He headlined the Coca Cola Classic stage that year, back when it still sat in that weird position next to City Hall so that you were looking at the signage of Boutwell Auditorium while you were trying to figure out who was playing next. I remember how Collins was almost booed off-stage since he didn’t sing any of his hit songs with his orchestra, much less perform one until late in the set.

It’s become more about being sentimental and contemplative than anything else. When reminiscing, I must also remember one of my more nervous moments in 2000 just because I wanted to see James Brown. I remember using CS to sell my girlfriend on letting us move here in 2004, even though we had no idea what we were going to be doing or where we’d live once we got here.

I’ve had the opportunity to have conversations with off-duty county sheriffs, construction workers, bankers, college students and lawyers. All of them were downtown safely enjoying the sounds of one of the few remaining large scale music festivals in the Southeast. Some of the other ones are no longer with us.

Music Midtown met its fate in 2006 and there are those that would like to predict a similar fate for this festival.

The better question to ask may be "what kind of festival does Birmingham, Alabama want, if we really want it to continue?" Continue reading