I FIND Niki’s West on Birmingham’s industrial north side, maybe a mile from an old pig-iron foundry. It’s a windowless room with linoleum floors that has been serving meat-and-threes—an entrée and a choice of sides—since before George Wallace first ran for Alabama governor. I join the cafeteria-style line, which is jammed tight for a Tuesday lunch, feeling as if I’m stepping back half a century. I emerge with heaping plates of chicken, turnip greens, black-eyed peas, butter beans, corn bread, and cherry pie. Halfway through my meal, I finally look up and realize this can’t be 1963 because I see roughly the same number of black customers as white.
That checkerboard of faces reveals how far Birmingham has come. Once so committed to segregation that it was called America’s Johannesburg, Birmingham has loomed large in my consciousness. Throughout my Connecticut childhood, its name served as code for racial intolerance. Now, five decades after the civil rights movement’s most galvanizing events—Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” the Children’s Crusade, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church—I’ve come down to see how much has changed.
I’ve found a modern city that has retained its pace and charm, one with many of the accoutrements and attitudes of the New South but without the shiny facelessness common to too many cities around the region. You can do a billion-dollar banking deal in Birmingham. But you can also still eat at Niki’s.
I ask my waitress whether Niki’s started off serving the white or the black community when it opened in the ’50s, since at that time it wouldn’t have been possible for them to gather together. Eyes wide, she runs off to fetch one of the owners, then returns to say that they’re both working the line. She scrawls a phone number on a scrap of paper place mat. And that’s the last I see of her.
When I call that evening, a woman tells me that both Teddy and Pete Hontzas, who inherited the restaurant from their father, are too busy to talk. They won’t be able to talk in the morning, either, or the next afternoon, or anytime in the foreseeable future. Today’s business and civic leaders have made their peace with the city’s past. But that doesn’t mean they want to discuss it.
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO VISIT BIRMINGHAM, with a population of some 212,000, and not confront the struggle for racial equality. Civil rights is living history here. The city doesn’t let itself forget.
Walking around downtown, I’m never far from one of the seven-foot-high Heritage Trail markers, more than 200 of which are spread throughout the city. One on 19th Street between Sixth and Park has a photo of King getting arrested at that spot. “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle,” it quotes him as saying.
Turning a corner, I see the 16th Street Baptist Church. The staging area for marches and protests over the years, it’s where the Ku Klux Klan planted bombs that killed four girls on September 15, 1963. This is a national historic landmark, built of sturdy stone more than a century ago, and—as much as any inanimate structure can be—a major protagonist in the civil rights movement. Yet for decades it has been hidden in plain sight. I don’t recall ever seeing a picture of it.
At the Civil Rights Institute across the street, I spend two hours immersed in old news footage. There’s a replica of King’s jail cell, and interviews with participants in the city’s protests and boycotts, mostly ordinary people who were living and working amid the tumult. Especially poignant is a display of the shoes, doll, purse, and other belongings of 11-year-old Denise McNair, the youngest of the four church bombing victims.
I step out of the museum into a far different place: a thriving metropolis with a black mayor, dozens of black corporate executives, and a list of accomplished native sons and daughters that includes Carl Lewis and Condoleezza Rice. Birmingham’s university hospital is now a leading center for health care and medical research. The city has the region’s largest public art museum, manicured public parks, and small but significant communities of Latinos and Kenyans and Russians.
As in other American cities, race relations here remain a work in progress. Fifty years on, Birmingham’s challenges are anything but unique. But in part by memorializing its past and in part by transcending it, the area has refashioned itself into a place both livable and relevant, part of the national conversation in unexpected ways. “You’ll be surprised by what you find,” Scott Mowbray, the editor of Cooking Light magazine—which is based in the city—told me when I said I’d be visiting.
One night Mowbray drives me to Ona’s Music Room. It’s part of a commercial complex in a renovated Dr. Pepper plant, the kind of repurposed development that’s usually home to the same national chains as any shopping mall. Here, though, there are local boutiques, small businesses—and Vittoria, a new Italiansalumeria that cures its own charcuterie. When we arrive at Ona’s, a jazz quintet is playing for an audience of young and old, well-dressed and grungy, attentive and distracted. “You probably don’t think of Birmingham this way,” Mowbray says, “but some of the music that passes through is amazing. And the crowds that go hear it are as eclectic as you can get.” I see his point.
What would have been radical, even sometimes illegal, in the early 1960s is taken for granted today.
I have the same feeling at Highlands Bar and Grill, renowned as the city’s best restaurant since the 1980s. Chef and owner Frank Stitt worked at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and in Europe. Then he returned to raise the level of fine dining in his home state. Dishes like braised duck with chicory and pork chops with roasted sweet potatoes and escarole bring French sensibilities to familiar southern flavors. “The restaurant still remains the best reason to move to Birmingham that I can think of,” author Pat Conroy once wrote.
With white tablecloths and waiters in semiformal dress but a warmth that I’m finding most everywhere I visit around the city, Highlands is classy without feeling unapproachable. Mayor William Bell eats at Highlands nearly every Tuesday night when he’s in town. Sitting at the bar, I meet politically connected attorney Michael Choy, the son of a Chinese father and an African-American mother. Over braised rabbit and Pinot Noir, we start to discuss race, but the conversation soon strays: to wine, southern politics, and then the University of Alabama football team. We end up debating the merits of country club golf versus public courses, and, finally, the consummate artistry of Highlands’ signature stone-ground grits, which we contemplate ordering with a nightcap before learning that the kitchen has closed.
WHEREVER I GO IN BIRMINGHAM, I orient myself by looking for the 56-foot-tall representation of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge, that looms over the city. The largest cast-iron statue in America, it’s visible almost everywhere in town. Now I’m off to visit it. I head south out of downtown and up Red Mountain and wind my way toward the iron giant, which is the centerpiece of the Vulcan Park and Museum.
After an elevator ride up to the base of the statue, I see Birmingham laid out before me—cradled in the Jones Valley, framed by twin ridges of the western end of the Appalachians. It’s a geographic setting that emphasizes the separation between the city and its suburbs—and though the hills are easily traversed these days on highways, they’re still a psychological barrier to suburbanites returning downtown in the evening.
Inside the museum, rooms representing the different phases of Birmingham’s history underscore the crucial role that mining played in building the city, which is one of the few in the Southeast that didn’t exist before the Civil War. Until recently, Vulcan was a symbol of better times. During the industrial era that it represents, Birmingham was the South’s second largest metropolis. U.S. Steel employed as many as 30,000 residents, white and black, and paid them well, creating a thriving—though decidedly segregated—middle class.
Then steel collapsed, and the local economy went with it. “We got left in the dust by other cities in the region,” says Richard Arrington, Jr., who served as Birmingham’s first black mayor, from 1979 to 1999. A former anodyne marketing slogan epitomized how low the city’s reputation had sunk: “Birmingham: It’s Better Than You Think.”
But later, driving through its neighborhoods, I come to understand what those marketers were trying to get across. In Highland Park, on the city’s southern rim, the shops and restaurants along the graceful streets seem desirable yet not snooty or exclusive. In Avondale, I stop at a watering hole with the somewhat preposterous name of 41st St. Pub & Aircraft Sales and find a bar full of true believers in America’s craft bourbon and rye revival. As pleasant days segue into balmy nights, I realize that Birmingham is better than I’d believed. The University of Alabama at Birmingham hospital not only drives its economy but, by recruiting employees from around the world, has helped create the texture of a major city. Yet the city’s scale has remained manageable.
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“We missed out on great opportunities in the past,” acknowledges John Hudson, the 43-year-old president of the Alabama Power Foundation. “But the fact is, we don’t want to be Atlanta. Bigger isn’t always better. We like the size of our city. It’s small enough that someone who wants to can make a positive impact.”
One of the most tangible that I see is the remaking of downtown. A few brave entrepreneurs who glimpsed potential in the burned-out storefronts and abandoned buildings lead the effort. I’m impressed by Regions Field, which opened last spring downtown. It’s one of the prettiest minor-league baseball parks I’ve seen, offering the game at its pastoral best, captured in a sleek, industrial setting that harks back to the city’s past. It even succeeds in getting suburbanites to linger downtown at night.
Some are doing more than lingering. “We sort of woke up one day and there were lofts,” is how Jim Noles, a local attorney, describes it when I meet him for oysters at the Fish Market on 22nd Street. Thousands of new arrivals now own or rent apartments in renovated buildings. With them has come a wave of youthful and urbane bars, restaurants, and cafés, such as El Barrio and Urban Standard, both on Second Avenue. Urban Standard is the kind of postmodern, ecologically minded neighborhood coffee shop typically found in thriving college towns. At breakfast there one morning, I watch the city come to life. There’s a hipster talking college football, a university student typing on her laptop, a twentysomething forking a tofu scramble while nodding with the hip-hop thump of the sound system.
Downtown is drawing people together, but the other unifying factor in the city might surprise me, Noles says. It’s religion, which for decades served to do exactly the opposite. As Martin Luther King, Jr., famously noted: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” But like patriotism, meat-and-threes, and Alabama football, the worship of God in today’s Birmingham cuts across every demographic. “Head downtown on a Wednesday at noon,” Noles advises, “and see what I mean.”
It’s lunchtime the next day when I visit Linn Park and run headlong into a church service taking place under the maples and oaks. As the Episcopal bishop for the Alabama diocese preaches from the Gospel of Matthew, I spot a wildly assorted group around him. A gray-haired man in a conservative suit stands beside a young woman in a puffy down jacket. One woman could be headed to the opera, or at least Neiman Marcus. Several men appear to be homeless. But when they break into “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” their voices blend in … well, not quite harmony. But close.