Ever since I was young, the Birmingham skyline has always been fascinating. Being from Huntsville, Birmingham was the closest “big city” and I was always excited to have the oppotunity to travel south for a couple of hours and be in a world different than that of the one I was used to. None of the buildings in Huntsville tower over you the way the ones on Northside Birmingham do. There is something magical about things that are so much bigger than you. Its the same reason people like to visit New York City. All the tall buildings make you feel small and put the world into perspective. All the tall buildings make you feel like something is really going on because there is room for so many people. On top of that, “Downtown” in Birmingham had all this history. I knew it and felt it before I even learned about the Civil Rights Movement. After learning such a powerful revolution occurred in the heart of the city, a place so close to where I had been my entire life, I became even more attached. On top of that, my father had always been a centimental guy, and I feel like he successfully passed his interest/curiosity/appreciation for old things down to me.
The year is 2008. I was visiting Birmingham for my college orientation at UAB. I had some friends living in town that I knew from Huntsville, and we all got together one night after my college duties were done. My friend took me to her friends loft on Northside. It was one of my first times actually being among the buildings rather than just seeing them from the interstate. The loft was located in the Phoenix building, an old Bellsouth building that had been converted into living quarters. My mind was blown! A building built for one purpose, being utilized for a completely diffent use years later. The main doors even still had telephones as handles. The whole nights experience had me in awe. I was done with high school. I wasnt in Huntsville in my bedroom at my dad’s house. I was in Birmingham, among the old buildings, feeling very energized by the possibilities ahead of me. A fresh start. How appropriate to be in a place named Phoenix, a mythological creature known for starting a new life from the ashes of its old one.
The Phoenix Lofts building is located diagonally across from the Thomas Jeffeson tower – at the time we were all calling it the Leer Tower, because the signage that had been placed on the roof around 2005 depicted that name. It was a 19 story building that had been contructed as a hotel back in the 1920s. Upon my first interaction with the building, it was abandoned. It looked amazing at night – somewhat spooky – but very interesting. Who had stayed there in its history? What went on inside that place? Old buildings always tend to spark curiosity. The person living in the Phoenix Lofts became a close friend of mine, which led to me seeing a lot of the Leer Tower. Upon the roof of the tower sat a mooring mast for zeppelins – supposedly the last one in the world. Friends of mine would sneak into the builing and take pictures because everything in there was from a totally different time, so it made for great pictures. After the hotel closed, the building was used as apartments for residents of the city, thus there were interesting keepsakes all over the place like newspapers from the 1970s. I remember one friend telling me about a wall stacked with televisions to the ceiling, perhaps scrapped from the hotel’s glory days.
The fact that so much had occurred within the building was always just so cool to me. I know other buildings around town have histories as well, but there was just something about the Thomas Jefferson Tower that I tended to obsess over. I felt the same way about a buildng in Huntsville. It was an old textile mill turned shoe factory turned entertainment venue. Whenever I would go watch a band there I remember observing the walls and windows that surrounded me, imaginging a time where it was a factory, thinking about the workers that spent their days there. There is something incredibly special about abandoned places being given another chance.
As enticing as it looked, Downtown Birmingham, at the time that I moved down here in 2008, was actually not in a great place as far as thriving businesses go. The only things that were really going on were businessmen and women working in the big, shiny banking buildings. A lot of people stayed away from the area unless it was to attend events at places like the BJCC. I can’t say what eventually sparked such growth in the downtown area. I think part of the credit is due to the citizens that didn’t desert the area when it was failing. I figure many didn’t financially have a choice, but keeping a population that wasn’t just a bunch of men in suits was an important part of preserving the city’s true history. That being said, the bankers downtown were also a key factor, as they needed places to buy lunch. Places like Gus’s hot dogs have been around since 1947, providing lunch for people who commute to downtown and also for people who have lived around here their entire lives. And you can’t forget 2nd Avenue. Places like Urban Standard coffee shop and Pale Eddies came along and people began to explore more than just that one street that has all the food. Artists began utilizing office spaces as galleries. To add to the culture, Regions field was construced right in the heart of the city. Even more growth began to occur. More buildings began to be rennovated, rather than just a bunch of new ones being built. The city was starting a rebirth from its own ashes. It was a Phoenix.
Actually, it still is a phoenix. I see something new downtown almost every day. For instance, I recall taking pictures of the giant Empire building’s pink granite columns one sunny day in 2010. The building had been uninhabitated for quite some time, but you’d have hardly known it given how well the exterior seemed. Those columns were still shining in the day’s sun. Today the building stands as the Elyton hotel, complete with restaurant and rooftop lounge. I would pass the Pizitz building often but never thought much about it. Now I eat in the rennovated building’s food hall at least once a week.
After I finished college I found it hard to decide what I wanted to do with life. I held a job at a non profit during my last couple of years at UAB. Within that position I would take fresh fruits and vegetables to communities around the outskirts of the city. It was usually geared towards lower-income neighborhoods. The food those people would make was some of the best I had ever had. And they were using their own personal history to make it. Some women were using techniques they had learned as children, from their grandmothers. One lady in particular would make pound cakes once a week. They were so simple yet so delicious – I found my curiosity for baked goods to be growing. A few years down the road a pal informed me of a position as a baker in a local coffee shop. I had very little pastry knowlege but I knew I wanted to try it. I eventually faked it until I made it. If I had a question, Google and Youtube were there to answer things for me. Finally, my friend offered me a job as her assistant pastry chef in the kitchen of Roots & Revelry, a restaurant set to open in the second floor of the historical T.J. Tower. I took the gig, and I can still recall my first week of work – the excitement that came from walking into that beautiful building each morning. I honestly still can’t believe how amazing the renovated structure is. You can notice something new about the extrordinary old-ness of the building each day – be it the details in the dining room or the main lobby or the ballroom or even the terrace. There are so many intricate details all over that have been preserved, which interestingly helps answer the curiosities of how the building may have looked in its glory days of the 1930s and 40s- back when it seemed so glamorous, that famous people would come rent rooms when they stopped through the city. And now we get to serve amazing food that represents who we are in the kitchen, and we get to create a new history for the building, while still cherishing the old one.
I have watched the growth of the north side of town since I arrived in this city almost ten years ago. To be able to drive through all the businesses each morning is a gift. When I go to Railroad park I can see the tower I spend most of my days at. It is easy to point out because of its small Eiffle Tower-esque mooring mast on the rooftop. It is dear to my heart because I sparked an interest in the building on one of my first major nights in this city. Point being, new-ness has no history. Stories make history. Stories are interesting, and they are what contributes to us being who we are. You are who you are because of the things that have happened to you – the same goes for historical structures and the rooted communities around them.