Some would have gone to Disney or Vegas to get away from the stress of everyday life; not so for us. My wife and I took the opportunity to use a pair of frequent-flyer tickets to visit our old hometown. Birmingham is a place of beginning for us - we started our married life here, had our first jobs here, owned our first home here and gave birth to our first child here. Often compared unfavorably to other metropolitan southern cities, anyone who has spent considerable time in Birmingham would agree that it is a progressive city with a unique sense of pride; acknowledging a troubled past while celebrating its old world charm. There is an appreciation for style and beauty in everything they do.
Railroad Park (www.railroadpark.org), which opened in September 2010, epitomizes the community spirit that we love about Birmingham. On the Saturday afternoon of our recent visit we found it to be alive with people enjoying a perfect spring day. The 21-acre park with a nearly 1-mile trail is filled with wide green spaces, lakes, streams and playgrounds.
People were enjoying the park in just about every way. From adults dozing off in the warm sun to kids chasing dogs, flying kites and playing in the stream (which amazingly they were allowed even encouraged to do!) to people walking along the elevated trail next to the active rail yard. The sound of trains slowly rumbling through added to the industrial mystique.
What began as a dream during the 1970s while the community worked to preserve the Sloss Furnaces (www.slossfurnaces.com), became more real in 2001 with the formation of the Friends of the Railroad District. Initially, the goal was to create a railroad museum celebrating the influence of the railroad junction in Jones Valley that ultimately gave rise to the Magic City.
Tom Leader (www.tomleader.com), the mastermind behind the eventual design, had a slightly different vision. His first task was to convince the city to scrap the idea of a design-competition and hire his firm. Second was to make the park more of a direct experience with the railroad and a celebration of the industrial materials that shaped the city. In our world of fast evolving (and often uncertain) high-technology, there was a sense of stability that came from being surrounded by steel and stone. This permanence offers a link to the past and a reminder that our ups and downs are temporary. Seeing the park begs the question: What could we do in Jacksonville to experience our past in this way?
The project is touted as a success in Public/Private Partnering, something we hear repeatedly as a solution to issues in Jacksonville (how many times was it said in the debates?). Out of a total cost of $25 million, $12.5 million was committed by the city of Birmingham. The remaining funds were obtained by the Friends of Railroad District. The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, lead by Kate Nielson, joined in the effort with a fundraising campaign known as the Three Parks Initiative. In addition to Railroad Park, the city was also working to create Red Mountain Park and Ruffner Mountain Park. By early 2008 they raised $15 million with $8.7 million going to Railroad Park. This speaks to how powerful a community-wide effort can be. Has Jacksonville seen this since the days of trying to attract an NFL team?
Nielson credits the success to listening to the community through a visioning process conducted in 1997 with continued surveys and forums, through which the citizens expressed three major desires: education, job creation and green space.
Noticeably missing from the park is a perimeter fence. The official hours are from 7 am to 11 pm with security cameras operating 24 hours/day. Free WiFi is available throughout. Pets are welcome, but must be on leash. Basically, the message is clear: Come enjoy the space!
Across the street from the park, a guerilla skatepark took shape. I didnt see any signs of a sponsor and I dont believe it was part of Railroad Park, but there were clearly several permanent ramps and other features that required an investment of time and materials. I can only imagine that it was created by the users and that the city wisely looked the other way.
Birmingham News is keeping track of the land in the 10 blocks adjacent to the park. The majority of properties have been purchased by investment groups with several in the process of redevelopment. The city is getting in the game, too. In December 2010, current mayor, William Bell, released preliminary plans for building a new baseball stadium nearby with the purpose of pulling the Birmingham Barons back to the urban core. The team currently plays in the growing suburban city of Hoover in nearby Shelby County.
Of everything that I witnessed, what impressed me most was seeing the mix of people. Some were from the surrounding wealthy urban neighborhoods and some from the inner city neighborhoods. Many were college students from UAB (only a few blocks away) and others looked as if they had been in Birmingham since the industrial heyday at the turn of the century (and Im not talking about 2000). What a difference from the citys darkest hours of the civil rights movement when the world knew them only by fire hoses and police dogs. On this spring day, that past was nowhere to be found in the souths best kept secret.
Article and Images by Doug Skiles