Sparks fly and smoke billows skyward from massive furnaces downtown in 1920s Birmingham, a booming steel town filled with the noisy chatter of Model T Fords on dusty main streets, the screaming whistle and chug of railroad cars and the bustling daily business of Greek, Italian and Lebanese immigrant families, who came to the boom town seeking opportunity. Farther north, a mercantile district boasts glamorous, high-end hotels, the glittering marquees of theaters and an array of shops.
This was the Magic City, so named for its seemingly “magical” overnight growth around its bustling factories and businesses. The poor workers and immigrants set up camp in shotgun houses in the shadow of the furnaces and warehouses, while the mercantile business owners and managers lived just north and the captains of industry lived and oversaw the city from high on the hill above the smoke, noise and heat. It was this spike in big business and the influx of boisterous diversity that cemented downtown’s socioeconomic compartmentalization.
In 1924, in the face of this intense downtown growth, city leaders commissioned an urban design by the renowned Olmsted brothers, whose father Frederick Law Olmsted, “the father of landscape architecture,” designed such projects as Central Park, Niagara Falls reservation and the Biltmore Estate. The Olmsted drawings included a Central Park of sorts for the Magic City with a massive swath of green stretching across downtown. However, a side effect of the Steel City’s fast and furious growth was that leaving green space for parks in this successful enterprise city seemed like a waste of space at the time. So the Olmsteds’ plans were scrapped.
But they were not forgotten. Passed down, mulled over, debated and reimagined for almost 100 years, the Olmsteds’ vision is finally coming to fruition, as Railroad Park and Rotary Trail begin to form Birmingham’s greenway.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, laws were created to clean up the air, which were difficult to comply with and drove up production costs for the then-faltering furnaces, making imported steel cheaper than domestic. As a result, many of the businesses simply shut down during a time when Birmingham was receiving negative national attention for its racism issues. During this time, an international airport was awarded to Atlanta rather than Birmingham, sister cities that were the same size at the time. “It really was the best thing that happened to us, though,” says Jane Reed Ross, landscape architect and owner of Jane Reed Ross Landscape Architecture. “Now, we would be the size of Atlanta, and instead, we’ve been able to preserve a lot of our local history and stay a good size.”
“Downtown went dormant for about 10 years, and the decision to put UAB and their research and medical facilities here, instead of Tuscaloosa, really saved us,” says Cheryl Morgan, semiretired professor of architecture and director of the Urban Studio, Auburn University’s Center for Architecture and Urban Studies. “There was a bit of a renaissance in the ’80s, and a lot of the resource potential for our green spaces came from health-based funding here.”
Around 1982, forward-thinking community planner Larry Watts, FAICP, of Goodwyn Mills Cawood, was working with the city, the county and then the regional planning commission, really championing the concept of a green space downtown. In 1991, he and others became involved with the Urban Studio. About once a year, Urban Studio would do a project about Railroad Park and this green quarter. “The thought was that we’d put up a project of proposed plans for downtown development that always included a park,” says Cheryl. “Then we’d put them on exhibit and invite people from the city, county and region to our jury and reviews of the proposed plans, so that if a green space downtown must be on the back burner, we can keep the idea of it bubbling.”
The Urban Studio seemed to stir the pot and two years later, the city of Birmingham teamed up with Operation New Birmingham, now REV Birmingham, and hired Urban Design Associates out of Pittsburgh, PA, to develop a master plan for downtown. In the meantime, the Urban Studio held public meetings for each quadrant of the city: northeast, southeast, southwest and northwest. “We held these meetings and asked people, ‘What are your dreams and aspirations? What’s important to you? And what should downtown look like?’ And this kind of green space came up in every meeting,” says Cheryl.
The Pittsburgh team’s renderings and diagrams of the new face of Birmingham also included a central green space, further validating this idea of a park at the heart of the city. “I still remember them saying to Mayor Kincaid that great cities have great parks, and we don’t have one,” says Cheryl.
The validation from the Pittsburgh team along with the local meetings added fuel to the fire, and in 2006, the mayor attended the Mayor’s Institute, a summit geared toward presenting architectural design. He presented the proposed plans for Railroad Park to an overwhelmingly positive response. A friends group called FORRD, Friends of the Railroad Reservation District, formed around the cause, and when the mayor came back, more influential people with deeper pockets became involved as well. “That was the real turning point,” says Cheryl. “At the same time, the historical society published a book about the Olmsted plan and the development of the Creek in Homewood, the Shades Creek Greenway and Red Mountain Park. So, we fundraised as part of this Three Parks Initiative, and we used research that shows how much green space improves physical and mental health.”
The Big Picture
“That’s the other piece of the puzzle we haven’t talked about. As Railroad Park was getting underway with its final designs in 2006 and its opening in 2008, the Freshwater Land Trust was thinking of this countywide trail system concept. Freshwater Land Trust Director Wendy Jackson secured funding from the CDC out of Atlanta based on Alabamians’ high rate of obesity and diabetes,” says Cheryl, who was part of the initiative to create a corridor of connected parks and trails, called the Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System, a 750-mile network of multiuse trails, sidewalks and bike lanes linking people and communities throughout Jefferson County. But nobody knew quite what to do with “the cut,” the old Line Park on First Avenue South between 20th and 24th streets.
“Again, Wendy Jackson knew that the Rotary Club of Birmingham was looking for a project for their centennial celebration of the city, and she suggested this project for the cut,” says Cheryl. The Rotary Trail opened to the public in late April of this year and features a near-replica of the iconic “Welcome to the Magic City” sign, creative seating and walkways, a small amphitheater, solar-powered charging stations for personal electronic devices and a state-of-the-art drainage system.
There is no doubt that these green spaces have a positive impact on our environment, economy and our physical and mental health, but they also raise citywide morale through a strengthened sense of community. “When you think of most types of infrastructure, they serve a very particular need,” says Lea Ann Macknally of Macknally Land Design, the award-winning design firm behind Railroad Park, the Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children and Regions Field. “Green infrastructure, such as parks and greenways, serves multiple needs. They have value for personal health, environmental wellness, transportation and, most importantly, can provide a source of civic pride.”
“We’re getting a national reputation for our work here in Birmingham,” says Wendy. “The first time I got the invitation to speak at a national conservation event at Yale, I thought, ‘What in the world am I doing, going to Yale University to talk about what we’re doing in Birmingham?’ But I got up there and listened to other stories from across the United States, and I have never been so proud of this community, because I realized that we are on the cutting edge on this new national conversation around health and nature. Whether it’s a rippling stream, a foot-worn trail or a shady forest, having access to the outdoors in our daily lives reduces stress, renews the spirit and improves our well-being.”
“When we started working on some of these projects 25 years ago, we took our teams to Chattanooga to see what they were doing with their greenways,” says Jane. “And I will never forget Davy Crockett, a councilman for Chattanooga and a relative of the legendary Davy Crockett, said, ‘No seminar, no conference, no meeting or whatever, did more to help with racial reconciliation that the parks and green space in Chattanooga.’ He said that green space brings people together.”
In a way, the greening of Railroad Park not only lent renewed fertility to the land, but brought a healing touch to the physical dividing line between north and south Birmingham, which represents our city’s race relations, but also the socioeconomic chasm that began when Birmingham was reactively designed around its factories and furnaces.
“What is important psychologically and functionally about where the park is located is that it didn’t belong to anybody before. Nobody was getting displaced by the park or felt ownership over it,” says Cheryl. “Everyone could think of it as theirs. It didn’t have a history of belonging to a certain neighborhood or class of the city. I think that place with neutral history was really important.”
Lea Ann sees civic green spaces as an opportunity to heal communities and neighborhoods that have experienced disinvestment or faced other challenges. “The creation of a valuable green space begins with the voices of the community. If these voices are built upon, they provide a solid foundation for a valuable community asset that can catalyze a neighborhood,” says Lea Ann, adding, “and there is no doubt that Railroad Park has been a catalyst for downtown. The Parkside District is booming! This transformation has been so exciting to watch.”
Economically, the parks have drawn massive growth not just to the Parkside District, but to the greater Birmingham area. From the award-winning Regions Field and the adjacent LIV apartments in the Parkside District to the Pizitz Building and the Lyric Theatre in the Theatre District, nearly $800 million is going into the whole of downtown Birmingham right now. Zyp bicycles and Uber cars dot the landscape, and soon joining the mix is a new, more centrally located intermodal facility, which will serve Amtrak passenger rail, Greyhound and Megabus buses, the BJCTA’s MAX buses and a dedicated shuttle to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. This super hub will make downtown travel more accessible to all, further uniting our city and attracting a younger, more urban-minded audience.
Of all of the advantages of Birmingham’s new green spaces, one probably never occurred to the committees, planners and donors making these parks come to life. “Parks raise the self-esteem of children. I’ve learned that from working on other parks and green spaces — that children feel good about themselves when the adults around them invest in a space that they like,” says Jane. “And that really struck me.”
Visit Railroad Park and the Rotary Trail today and you’ll feel the new Birmingham, a place where people from all walks of life are playing, having picnics, wading in the stream, rolling down the hills, jogging along the trail, riding their green Zyp bikes, taking Zumba classes or walking their dogs while a baseball game announcer from nearby Regions Field can be heard in the background or a free concert by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra takes place on the green. And these are just the things that you can see when you visit. Perhaps what’s most important are the things that you cannot see — the excitement that builds in the heart of a child as she realizes her parents are taking her to a park, to to let her run wild and play, to spend time together in the grass and to enjoy a picnic under the wide open sky.
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