Growing up in a Sherman Heights home that her family has owned for generations, Deidre Clark proudly calls herself “a daughter of Ensley.” From 2013 to 2018, she ran Kuumba Community Art, an organization providing after-school art classes for Ensley youth. Kuumba is a Kwanzaa principle encouraging people to use creativity to leave their community in better shape than when they inherited it. And that’s exactly what Deidre is determined to do despite the fact her brother, who she and her family affectionately called Pee Wee, was killed in Ensley when he was only 18 years old and she was 12. “I can’t do anything about Pee Wee, but what about the kids that are in Ensley right now that are just like him? They’re full of talent, but they don’t have a lot to do,” Deidre says of why she started Kuumba Community Art.
Deidre continues to work with other organizations striving to shift the narrative that Ensley is just crime stories and statistics. “If I can come to realize that this isn’t a horrible place after losing my brother, then I think the rest of the city can pause for a second to be much more curious,” she says.
“So long town. I’m heading for Tuxedo Junction, now.”
Founded in 1886 and formally incorporated in 1899, Ensley was annexed into Birmingham in 1910. At the height of Birmingham’s iron production, Ensley was a booming place known for its industrial development and was just as famous for its music venues.
Tuxedo Junction, the intersection of Ensley Avenue and 19th Street, was the heart of social life for Birmingham’s black residents in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. People would come to dance and listen to music, and many musicians began their careers playing at Tuxedo Junction. Jazz legend and Ensley native Erskine Hawkins immortalized his hometown when he wrote the 1939 hit song “Tuxedo Junction.”
Ensley was one of several Birmingham communities that suffered from the decline of the steel industry, causing many neighborhood residents and merchants to relocate. George McCall, president of the Ensley Neighborhood Association, has lived in the town all of his life. Born in 1943, George has memories of seeing musicians play at Tuxedo Junction. He and his friends couldn’t afford instruments, but they would make music of their own with cans, baseball bats, broomsticks and whatever else they could find.
Segregation kept George and his peers from having many of the opportunities and resources white children enjoyed. Nonetheless, he says hardships only brought the Ensley community closer together. “Everybody helped one another to make sure that the essential things people needed, they got,” he says, recalling the days when students shared their lunches with others to make sure no one went hungry.
George has hope Ensley will be a thriving area once again. “Ensley will come back because of the potential that it has,” he says. “The people who are working to make this happen are bright people who have a future in mind of what they want the area to look like.”
Bettina Byrd-Giles is one of those people. She’s the CEO of The Bethesda Life Center, an Ensley health clinic serving people regardless of their ability to pay. (She was also a FACE of Birmingham.) When she took the job, she was shocked by the negative responses from others outside of Ensley. “They almost felt they needed to protect me from the community,” she explains. “I had already been coming over here as a board member before I took the job, and I don’t live that far away. That just wasn’t my experience when I came over here.”
Not only did Bettina find a warm and welcoming community, but she found opportunities and activities for kids. “When my son was of age to start playing sports, I started looking for opportunities on the west side of town, and I was really happy and pleased with what I found once I went to McAlpine and Ensley Rec Centers and the libraries,” she says. “There were a lot of opportunities. They just weren’t made public. On all the mom blogs, they didn’t include the west side of town.”
Soon Bettina helped launch Ensley Alive, an initiative highlighting Ensley’s community life, public art, cultural arts programming and more. Deidre Clark is also one of the organization’s co-founders, along with Brian “Voice” Porter Hawkins, Brian Gunn and Hank Layman.
Bettina is also a recent fellow of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Leaders program. Through this, she launched her latest project Branding Ensley, an organization working to increase foot traffic to downtown retail spaces by highlighting Ensley’s jazz heritage.
Ensley is also home to several businesses, such as Tres’ Fine Clothing and Heritage Coffee, which are located in the historic Cotton’s building. Event spaces are also available, including the Goldstein and Cohen Building, Ensley Soho and Ensley Live Entertainment Loft, which often host noteworthy events like Magic City Fashion Week. Green Acres Café is another favorite of locals, serving up some of Birmingham’s best fried chicken. The area also includes Ensley staples that have been serving the community for years, such as Gilmer Drugs, Marino’s Market and Ensley Beauty Supply.
“There are good quality businesses out here, good quality people out here in this area and opportunity to start a business,” says Tres Washington, owner of Tres’ Fine Clothing. After working in the clothing industry since 2000, he opened his own store in 2014. And when the Cotton’s building became available, Tres jumped at the chance to start his business there. “I would love for every building that’s vacant in Ensley to house businesses,” Washington says.
Coffee & Community
If Deidre Clark were giving you a tour of her hometown, she’d make sure you checked out the newest coffee shop Heritage Coffee. “I like the way community comes together around coffee,” Deidre says.
Josh Brenneman opened Heritage Coffee in November 2019. Originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana, he worked in Gulfport, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, for several years helping families affected by Hurricane Katrina before moving to Birmingham in 2011 to help those affected by Alabama’s April 2011 tornadoes.
“I have a heart for community and seeing things rebuilt and coming back,” Josh says. He describes Ensley as a “comeback area” that’s been neglected for far too long, but he’s excited to be a part of the renaissance. “I love that everybody is rooting for each other,” he says. “There’s a strong sense of community in the area. We’re all in this together.”
Deidre also won’t let you leave Ensley without stopping by the Ensley Alive mural on the side of The Bethesda Life Center building or the jazz-inspired mural by artist Jamie Bonfiglio on the side of Gilmer Drugs. (Jamie was also a FACE of Birmingham.) The art symbolizes the beauty that already exists in Ensley and the hope for what’s to come. “There’s a different story,” Deidre says. “The people who live there have a story that’s so much different than anything you’ll ever see in mass media.”
To learn more about how you can be a part of the rebranding of Ensley, check out the Ensley Neighborhood Association’s Facebook page HERE or attend a monthly meeting. Meetings take place the third Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. at the Ensley Recreation Center, 2800 Avenue K, Birmingham, AL 35218.
All photography by Javacia Harris Bowser unless otherwise noted.
Want the best of everything local? Download our SB App. It’s FREE!