Sirens ring, the shots ring out
A stranger cries, screams out loud
I had my world strapped against my back
I held my hands, never knew how to act
- Wallflowers, Sixth Avenue Heartache
|The Fourth Avenue Business District -- nothing but memories from... a segregated era|
In trying to celebrate 50 Years Forward, the city of Birmingham (a now 74 percent black city -- roughly 61 percent white 50 years ago) must take a most un-nostaligic look back on all that has been lost in the city.
For that matter, the Birmingham black business district. Where once black entrepreneurs created and maintained businesses, a ban on new payday loan, title pawn, and cash checking stores has been instituted by the 77 percent black City Council.
And the Fourth Avenue black business district is nothing but derelict buildings and blight. [Fourth Avenue business district, booming under segregation, still works to rebound 50 years later, Al.com, 3-17-13]:
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – It was a jewel. And a jail.
Visitors to Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue business district in 1963 could buy dresses or be fitted for a suit, hire a lawyer, go to a concert, see a physician, stay in any one of half a dozen hotels or do any of the things people do in a busy urban center
Most had little choice but to conduct their business and seek entertainment there.
They weren’t allowed to do so alongside whites just a few blocks to the east.
Birmingham’s Jim Crow-era black business district, centered on Fourth Avenue North between 15th and 18th Streets, was so consistently packed with its captive audience of shoppers, revelers and businesspeople that it earned a nickname.
“They called us the Little Harlem down here,” said Jessie Nelson, whose family has operated Nelson Brothers Cafe since 1943. “It was just full all the time. It was going on here.”
Today, 50 years after the childrens’ marches, fire hoses and bombings that moved a nation to adopt the Civil Rights Act, the black business district is a shadow of its former self. A row of businesses along the north side of Fourth Avenue is gone.
Barbershops and restaurants line the south side of the street, most other retail long ago vanished. Only three merchants who were there in 1963 remain, according to merchants and development officials: Green Acres Café, the Magic City Barber Shop and Nelson Brothers Café.
Development advocates and business owners don’t mince words when talking about the convoluted forces that held the district in balance under Jim Crow, and started its downward slide even as its residents were freed.
“Blacks, once they could go to Pizitz, they abandoned this district,” said Nathan Hicks, who runs the district’s development organization, Urban Impact.
In 1963, whites owned virtually all of the black business district. The landlords lived as far away as California and as near as Mountain Brook, and they rented their buildings to black business owners, many of whom were driven to entrepreneurship out of necessity.
“They had to have businesses because they couldn’t get jobs” with white employers, said Bob Dickerson, executive director of the nonprofit Birmingham Business Resource Center and a former executive at A.G. Gaston’s Citizens Federal Savings Bank.
When black customers were freed to patronize white businesses that had been off limits, they did so, prompting of a flood of cash. But that money flowed in just one direction.
“There’s never been a migration of white customers to black companies,” Dickerson said.
As money was drained from the black district, its businesses suffered, and ultimately nearly all closed their doors. Eventually many of the white absentee landlords stopped maintaining the buildings and the district deteriorated. By mid the 1970s, Hicks said, the streets were overrun by pimps and prostitutes.
“The johns were mostly white,” he said. “Bankers and lawyers.”
After more than a decade of despair in the historic district, Birmingham in 1979 elected its first black mayor, Richard Arrington, and the district’s champions found their advocate. Arrington helped to create a land bank, a nonprofit holding company that could buy real estate from its white owners and then sell it to its black tenants or investors, backing the deals with low-interest loans. The same land bank was empowered to award grants in the form of rebates to new landowners who made improvements to storefronts.
Land owners in the district still can qualify for rebates of up to 20 percent of what they spend on exterior improvements. Private investment in the district has totaled $4.5 million since Urban Impact began tracking it in the 1980s, including $300,000 last year. And in its 30-year history, the land bank program has never had a bad loan.
“Not one,” Hicks said.
Slowly, as the ownership of the buildings shifted to black investors and tenants, the district started to rebound. Today, there’s live music in Kelly Ingram Park the first Friday of the month from April until November, there’s a Christmas parade, and theTaste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival, now held in conjunction with the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival.
“We changed that 95 percent white ownership to 98 percent black ownership today,” Hicks said. “Blacks have an ownership position. They can pass that down to their children.”
Now business owners and other advocates for the district say they’re seeing signs of another wave of revival. The downtown loft district has crept close enough to make real estate more desirable, and merchants speculate that the recently-sold Booker T. Washington Building may be developed into condos or apartments. Tourists – touring civil rights sites is big business – often walk the district. And there’s talk of a pedestrian bridge connecting 16th Street North to Railroad Park.
At the Magic City Barbershop, where Percy Hornbuckle has been cutting hair since 1956, Hornbuckle and customer Novatus Waites said the district has momentum for the first time in recent memory.
“It’s going in the right direction,” Waites said.
Around the corner at the Nelson Brothers Café, Nelson is seeing new faces in line, waiting to buy his egg custard pie.
“We have a new clientele with a sprinkling of white folks who are regulars,” Nelson said. “I see it getting much better.”But it's not just the Fourth Avenue black business district that is gone -- Tim Hollis' book (published by Arcadia Publishing) "Birmingham's Theater and Retail District" is a pictorial journey into the once-mighty past of a thriving Birmingham.
|A pictorial history of all that was lost when Birmingham fell to the forces of Black-Run America (BRA)|
Part of the 'Images of America' series - which either this government will one day ban or a future government will use text-books to show what happened to America - the back text of Hollis’ book includes these telling wording:
From the 1890s to the 1970s, the thriving area of Birmingham between Eighteenth and Twenty-first Streets along First, Second, and Third Avenues were the bustling heart of this quickly growing city. Before the age of shopping mall, the downtown was the center of retail and entertainment in Birmingham.What happened in the 1970s again?
Although my family lived about 25 miles outside the city limits, I have always claimed that I grew up in Birmingham, and for good reason. We spent most of our time there, doing our shopping or eating or, when in season, taking in the Christmas scenery. Even tough our visits were a regular occurrence, they were still special.
Nighttime downtown was extra special, and at the time no one thought of getting mugged… one landmark that stood out above all others, no matter where we were, was the City Federal building. Prior to the early 1970s it was the tallest structure in downtown, and the huge letters spelling out the City Federal name along the roofline flashed alternatively red and blue.
In recent years, that building has fallen into severe disrepair, yet the neon City Federal letters still sit at the very top. (p. 7)
What immediately comes to your mind when you the word “downtown?” Do you think of a blighted urban neighborhood filled with decaying, empty buildings covered in graffiti? Or do you think of an avant-garde type of areas where artists and other creative types live in loft apartments and chum around like the characters on a TV situation comedy? If you are under 40 years old, those are probably your most immediate mental images.
However, if you are past that magic age, you probably think of downtown as the place to shop in elegant department stores, with each floor groaning under the weight of more merchandise than the last one; or as the place to take in a movie at a theater that is as much a part of the show as the film itself; or as a magical Christmas wonderland where multicolored lights twinkle and Santa Claus has come to town to stay.
You may notice that one thing is consistent about nearly all the businesses [in the book]. With the notable exceptions of Parisian and Bromberg’s, every single one of them is out of business, and they have been for a number of years. This in itself is enough to give the whole chapter a melancholy flavor, but as long as memories and photos survive, we will have at least some way of remembering these retail kings of the not-so-distant past. (p.9)
So what ultimately happened to kill of downtown as a retail and entertainment scene? There is no simple answer to that question. Certainly the decline of Birmingham’s downtown was not unique; the older city centers in scores of other communities faced the same problem.
There is always the hope that more people living downtown will spur retail, food, and entertainment projects to take root, but certainly not in the form with which the area is still identified in people’s memories. About 40 years from now, those individuals will be gone, and whatever guise downtown is wearing by that time will be considered the one it has always had. Books such as this one will be all that is left. (p. 123)