Elements of Urbanism: Birmingham

November 2, 2009 20 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville explores Alabama's Magic City: Birmingham

Birminham Population 2008: 228,798 (City); 1,117,608 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1871)

Jacksonville Pop. 2008: 807,815 (City); 1,313,228 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Birmingham (326,037)

City Land Area

Birmingham: 149.9 square miles
Jacksonville: 757.7 square miles

Metropolitan Area Growth rate (2000-2008)

Birmingham: +6.21%
Jacksonville: +15.86%


Urban Area Population (2000 census)

Birmingham: 663,615 (ranked 55 nationwide)
Jacksonville: 882,295 (ranked 43 nationwide)


Urban Area Population Density (2000 census)

Birmingham: 1,692.5
Jacksonville: 2,149.2


City Population Growth from 2000 to 2008

Birmingham: -14,042
Jacksonville: +72,312


Convention Center Exhibition Space:

Birmingham: Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (1974) - 220,000 square feet
Jacksonville: Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center (1986) - 78,500 square feet

Adjacent to Convention Center:

Birmingham: The Sheraton Birmingham (838 rooms)
Jacksonville: N/A


Tallest Building:

Birmingham: Wachovia Tower - 454 feet
Jacksonville: Bank of America Tower - 617 feet


Fortune 500 companies 2009 (City limits only):

Birmingham: Regions Financial (280)
Jacksonville: CSX (240), Winn-Dixie (340)


Urban infill obstacles:

Birmingham: Downtown is completely boxed from surrounding neighborhoods by three expressways and a railyard.
Jacksonville: State & Union Streets cut off Downtown Jacksonville from Springfield.


Downtown Nightlife:

Birmingham: Five Points
Jacksonville: East Bay Street, located between Main Street and Liberty Street.  


Common Downtown Albatross:

Both cities have great historic urban assets that they have not been able to take full advantage of.

Who's Downtown is more walkable?

Birmingham: 92 out of 100, according to walkscore.com (DT Birmingham, AL as keyword)
Jacksonville: 88 out of 100, according to walkscore.com

Downtown Birmingham Photo Tour

The McWane Science Center is a science museum and research archive located in downtown Birmingham, Alabama (USA). The state-of-the-art science center, aquarium and 280-seat IMAX Dome Theater is housed in the historic and refurbished Loveman's department store building. It opened to the public on July 11, 1998.

Inside are more than 9,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, including the Challenger Learning Center of Alabama, created in memory of the Space Shuttle Challenger Flight 51-L crew. The World of Water exhibit showcases more than 50 species of marine and freshwater aquatic life.

The Alabama Collections Center is the home for more than 500,000 artifacts from the former Red Mountain Museum. The center houses precious minerals, fossils and Native American artifacts. Highlights in the collection include the world's fourth-largest collection of mosasaurs; the Appalachiosaurus (similar to Tyrannosaurus); and the state fossil of Alabama, the Basilosaurus cetoides (an 80-foot fossil whale).

The McWane Science Center is named after the McWane family and McWane, Inc. both of which helped fund the center.

Charles Linn Park

Charles Linn Park (formerly Woodrow Wilson Park, Central Park, and Capitol Park) was one of three parks included in the original plans for Birmingham. It was built in what would later become downtown during the city's early boom days. It was given the name "Capitol Park" initially because Birmingham's early boosters planned to lobby for moving the state capital from Montgomery to the new city.

The park was first renamed, for Woodrow Wilson, after World War I. It was later renamed Linn Park to honor Charles Linn, who created the first landscaped park in the city near the Relay House.

Linn Park is surrounded by the original Birmingham Public Library bulding, now the Linn-Henley Research Library, the Jefferson County Courthouse, Birmingham City Hall, Park Place Tower and other office buildings. It is bounded by 20th Street North to the west, Park Place to the south, 8th Avenue North to the north, and both Linn-Henley Research Library and the Jefferson County Courthouse to the east.

The park contains several statues and other monuments, including a marker designating the official center of Birmingham.

As Birmingham's primary civic space, Linn Park hosts numerous events such as the Birmingham Christmas tree lighting ceremony, City Stages, the Magic City Art Connection, Magic City Blues Fest and other gatherings.

Park Place is a Hope VI mixed-income housing development built on the site of the now-demolished Metropolitan Gardens low-income housing projects.  When fully complete, the 12-block infill community will feature 560 apartments, 56 town homes, a K-8 school in a refurbished Phillips High, a culinary school, and a youth development center for the YMCA.

The Tutwiler Hampton Inn and Suites was originally constructed as the Ridgely Apartments building in 1913.  In 1986, the building was converted into a luxury hotel named after the original 13-story Tutwiler, which was demolished in 1974.  A $9 million preservation project that includes new interiors, finishes and furnishings was completed in April 2007.

Built in 1925, the 114-room Redmond Hotel is Birmingham's oldest operating hotel.

The vacant 20-story Leer Tower was a residential high rise building constructed in 1920.  The building features a moorage mast which was designed to tie down zeppelins and balloons at the time of its completion.

The Birmingham Central Station located at 1735 Morris Avenue in downtown Birmingham. The station is constructed atop the site formally occupied by the Banana Warehouse demolished in 1996. The two story, gold domed facility designed by Volkert & Associates was officially dedicated on June 25, 1999. The facility serves as the headquarters for the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority as well as the main terminal for all MAX buses.

In June 1999 a resolution to name the soon-to-be completed facility "Nina Station" in honor of former City Councilor Nina Miglionico was submitted and withdrawn without a vote.

Future expansion of the hub are planned to serve Greyhound buses and Amtrak passenger rail as well as the BJCTA and a dedicated airport shuttle. In 2008 the City of Birmingham approved $9 million in matching funds to release $23 million in federal allocations for the $32 million project. Approval of a contract with Goodwyn Mills and Cawood to design the expanded facility was delayed after questions arose about the relationship of Jeff Pitts, who was Larry Langford's campaign manager for the 2007 Birmingham mayoral election, with the company.

Birmingham's Amshak station is located across the street from Birmingham Central Station.

The Heaviest Corner of Earth

The Heaviest Corner on Earth is a promotional name given to the corner of 20th Street and 1st Avenue North in Birmingham, Alabama, United States, in the early 20th century. The name reflected the nearly-simultaneous appearance of four of the tallest buildings in the South, the 10-story Woodward Building (1902), 16-story Brown Marx Building (1906), 16-story Empire Building (1909), and the 21-story American Trust and Savings Bank Building (1912).

The announcement of the latter building was made in the Jemison Magazine in a January 1911 article titled "Birmingham to Have the Heaviest Corner in the South". Over the years, that claim was inflated to the improbable "Heaviest Corner on Earth", which remains a popular name for the grouping.

A marker, erected on May 23, 1985 by the Birmingham Historical Society, with cooperation from Operation New Birmingham, stands on the sidewalk outside the Empire Building describing the group. The buildings have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the Woodward Building was listed on June 30, 1983; the building on the southeastern corner of the intersection, now named the "First National-John A. Hand Building," on September 29, 1983; and the remaining buildings, on August 11, 1985.

The Alabama Theatre was built in 1927 by the Paramount-Publix Corporation.  It was the first public building in Alabama to have air conditioning.  It is the only remaining of its size from that era in downtown.

Second Avenue Loft District

The historic loft district is centered on 2nd Avenue North, between 24nd and 24th Streets.

The Civil Rights District

The Birmingham Civil Rights District is an area of downtown Birmingham, Alabama where several significant events in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s took place. The district was designated by the City of Birmingham in 1992 and covers a six-block area.

Landmarks in the district include:

16th Street Baptist Church, where four young African American girls were killed and 22 churchgoers were injured in a bombing on September 15, 1963.
Kelly Ingram Park, where many protests by blacks were held, often resulting in recrimination by Birmingham police that included famous scenes of policemen turning back protesters with fire hoses and police dogs. News coverage of the riots in this park helped turn the tide of public opinion in the United States against segregationist policies. Several sculptures in the park depict scenes from those riots.
The Fourth Avenue Business District where much of the city's black businesses and entertainment venues were located; the area was the hub of the black community for many years. The business district includes A. G. Gaston's Booker T. Washington Insurance Co. and the Gaston Hotel, a meeting place for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Alabama Christian Movement during the early 1960s.
Carver Theatre, once a popular motion picture theater for blacks in Birmingham, now renovated as a live-performance theater and home of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum which chronicles the struggles of the civil rights movement, opened in 1993.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is a large, predominantly African American Baptist church in Birmingham in the U.S. state of Alabama. In September 1963, it was the target of the racially motivated 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls in the midst of the American Civil Rights Movement. The church is still in operation and is a central landmark in the Birmingham Civil Rights District. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

Kelly Ingram Park is a four acre park bounded by 16th and 17th Streets and 5th and 6th Avenues North in the Birmingham Civil Rights District. The park, just outside the doors of the 16th Street Baptist Church, served as a central staging ground for large-scale demonstrations during the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference directed the organized boycotts and protests of 1963 which centered on Kelly Ingram Park. It was here, during the first week of May 1963, that Birmingham police and firemen, under orders from Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, confronted demonstrators, many of them children, first with mass arrests and then with police dogs and firehoses. Images from those confrontations, broadcast nationwide, spurred a public outcry which turned the nation's attention to the struggle for racial equality. The demonstrations in Birmingham brought city leaders to agree to an end of public segregation. In addition, they helped ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Civil Rights laws.

The park was named in 1932 for local firefighter Osmond Kelly Ingram, who was the first sailor in the United States Navy to be killed in World War I. In 1992 it was completely renovated and rededicated as "A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation" to coincide with the opening of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an interpretive museum and research center, which adjoins the park to the west.

The park is the setting for several pieces of sculpture related to the Civil Rights Movement. Besides a central fountain and commemorative statues of Dr. King, Rev. Shuttlesworth and other heroes of the movement, there are three installations by artist James Drake which flank a circular "Freedom Walk". They bring the visitor inside the portrayals of terror and sorrow of the 1963 confrontations. One corner of the park remembers other "unsung heroes"' of Birmingham's underrepresented.

The park hosts several local family festivals and cultural and entertainment events throughout the year. The Civil Rights Institute provides audio-tour guides for the park which feature remembrances by many of the figures directly involved in the confrontations. Urban Impact, Inc. also provides guided tours by appointment.


Unique Birmingham

- Birmingham is located in two counties: Jefferson and Shelby Counties.

- Greater Birmingham contains roughly one quarter of the population of Alabama.

- Early Birmingham's rapid growth earned it the nicknames "The Magic City", "The Song of The South," and "The Pittsburgh of the South."

- Birmingham is the only place worldwide where significant deposits of iron ore, coal, and limestone (the three principal raw materials used in making steel) can be found in such close proximity.

- In the 1950s and '60s Birmingham received national and international attention as a center of the civil rights struggle for African-Americans. Locally the movement's activists were led by Fred Shuttlesworth, a fiery preacher who became legendary for his fearlessness in the face of violence, notably a string of racially motivated bombings that earned Birmingham the derisive nickname Bombingham.

- The population of Birmingham peaked in 1960, with 340,887 residents.

- Birmingham was developed as an industrial town.  The city's streets and avenues were unusually wide, purportedly to help evacuate unhealthy smoke.

- In 2008, with a new mayor demanding streetcars within 18 months of being elected, Birmingham appeared to be on its way to joining the ranks of cities with fixed rail transit.  Unfortunately, before the plan could get traction, Mayor Larry Langford was recently convicted on 60 counts of conspiracy, bribery, fraud, money laundering, and filing false tax returns in connection with a long-running bribery scheme.  Former Mayor Langford is currently awaiting sentencing.


The Southside encompasses the southern half of Birmingham's downtown area from the Railroad Reservation to the crest of Red Mountain and from Interstate 65 on the west to Elton B. Stephens Expressway (U.S. Highway 31, or "Red Mountain Expressway") on the east near Green Springs Highway. It is considered to be the Midtown area of the city due its relationship to Downtown.

Southside contains many of the prominent points of interest of the Greater Birmingham area such as the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the adjacent medical center district. It also hosts Birmingham's liveliest entertainment district at Five Points South and a large number of notable homes and churches from the early twentieth century. Highland Avenue connects Southside to the Lakeview area, another center for nightlife.

It also is the most culturally diverse of all of the neighborhoods while the dense residential districts surrounding UAB and the medical center house a very diverse community of all classes, the Red Mountain neighborhoods are dominated by elegant mansions for affluent residents. Culturally, both groups enjoy the amenities of this urban community.

Five Points South in Southside is also the home to several historically and architecturally important churches and synagogues: St. Mary's on the Highlands, South Highland Presbyterian Church, Southside Baptist Church, Temple Beth-El, Temple Emanu-El, and Highlands United Methodist Church.

For the purposes of Birmingham's citizen participation program, the Southside community comprises three neighborhood associations: Five Points South, Glen Iris, and Southside. Most residents would also include the Highland Park and Redmont Park neighborhoods in the broader definition of Southside.

Cycles of urban reorganization and gentrification have challenged the architecture of much of Five Points and the rest of Southside and Highland Park. Generally, the diverse, bohemian nature of the area is meshing with the young upper middle class creating an area of diversity.

Notable points of interest in the area include the Frank Fleming Storyteller Fountain anchoring the central business district. The thriving main area contains restaurants, shops, stores and sidewalks for the residents to enjoy. There are many venues for music, art and personal expression provided for residents.

University of Alabama at Birmingham

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (also known as UAB) is a doctoral, public research university covering 83 blocks in the heart of Alabama's largest city Birmingham, Alabama, USA. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education classifies UAB as an institution of RU/VH or "Very High Research Activity," the only university in the state of Alabama to meet that definition. UAB is one of only 96 universities in the nation with the designation. UAB is a vital economic engine of the state of Alabama with an estimated $3 Billion annual impact. UAB is currently the states largest employer with more than 18,000 faculty and staff and over 53,000 jobs at the university and in the health system. Almost 10% of the jobs in the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Area are related to UAB.

In the Fall of 2009, the University of Alabama at Birmingham enrolled a record 18,047 students from over 110 countries including 1,517 freshmen.  The medical center which is located on the east and north sides of campus closest to downtown contains buildings mostly dedicated to healthcare, research, and support of those enterprises. Also located in the medical center district are non-UAB hospitals, such as the VA Medical Center Birmingham, Children's Hospital of Alabama, and Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. The west campus area near Interstate 65 and the Glen Iris and Southside communities is mostly dedicated to the non-health related schools, student housing, and athletic facilities.

Since 1969, UAB has undergone extensive growth and is sometimes jokingly referred to as "The University that Ate Birmingham."

Southside Infill

Anchored by Five Points, UAB and the medical centers, the Southside is a place where a number of urban infill projects have been recently completed or are underway.

Five Points

This Southside district is anchored by the intersection of 11th Avenue South, 20th Street South and Magnolia Avenue.  Like Jacksonville's Five Points, it is an urban cultural center known for its dining and nightlife offerings.

*-Unforunately during Metro Jacksonville's short trip to Birmingham, the weather conditions did not allow for a more elaborate photo tour.


The suburb of Homewood is a short distance from downtown Birmingham and the Southside.  It has one of the highest population densities in Alabama with over 25,000 residents living within 8.3 square miles of land area.

Article by Ennis Davis