What I found while walking in downtown Birmingham

Charles Kinnaird
Charles Kinnaird

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Charles Kinnaird.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

We are bombarded with news of political discord at the local, state, and national level. One can get disheartened watching news broadcasts these days, wondering if we can safely navigate the political shoals ahead. Recently I found a place where everything seemed to be working, in spite of what the news media may report.

I received a summons to jury duty which led to an opportunity to walk the downtown city blocks of Birmingham at lunch time. During that short walk, I re-discovered the city and found a vibrant and hopeful America.

A City on the Move

After waiting all morning at the Jefferson County Courthouse without being called to a jury, the court official granted us all an hour and 45 minutes for lunch. It had been a while since I had walked the streets of the city. I had driven through many times to go to the library or on a single errand here and there, but there is something about walking the sidewalks that allows one to truly see the town. The first place I passed coming out of the courthouse was the Central Library on 21st Street. It is a marvelous structure which I still think of as the “new library,” though the current building has been there for many years now.

The next big landmark I came to was the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Advent with its beautiful courtyard opening onto 20th Street. The first time I sat in that lovely garden was around 1971 when I went to my first Beta Club State Convention. Our Dadeville High School club stayed at the old Tutwiler Hotel. The convention was held at the Boutwell Auditorium, and the walk from our hotel to the auditorium took us past the Cathedral Church courtyard. I stepped into that courtyard out of curiosity as a high school student and found it to be calm and inviting. It looks just as calm and inviting today as it was all those years ago.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to eat. Sitting in a large jury room waiting to be called had not generated much of an appetite. As I walked along, I saw a variety of eateries that showed me that downtown Birmingham was attracting new businesses. There was Jimmy John’s, Roly Poly Sandwiches, and Brick & Tin, but none of that was want I wanted that day. Continuing my walk I passed some more upscale establishments with young adults in their business attire dining al fresco at sidewalk tables – very fashionable and appealing, but not exactly what I was looking for.

My midday stroll had already taken me past a number of landmarks that bore the city’s history. There was the Harbert Center, newest and grandest of the downtown structures, with business towers that would bring pride to any city. There was Bon Ton Hatters Shoe repair that has been on 20th street for as long as I can remember. There were markers in place along the Civil Rights Trail, commemorating our city’s important role in the movement for racial equality.

The short downtown walk was a rush of old and new, a mixture of generic chain stores and historic establishments. I could see where the city had come from and where it was going, all within a few blocks.

I continued to walk, and there was still the matter of lunch. Coming down to the corner of 20th Street and Second Avenue North, I saw a sandwich board sign advertising “Pita Loco Deli and Grill.”  On the menu I noted a falafel pita roll up – I’m always on the lookout for good falafel. I decided to make the turn and walked into the little shop where I would find America.

Diversity at the Lunch Counter

It was a small diner with walls of red and white tile and several small tables for dining. You could walk up to the counter to place your order for carry-out or dine-in.  The lady behind the counter was a nice middle-aged lady with a heavy Middle Eastern accent. By her head scarf, I assumed she was Muslim. I quickly looked over the menu which offered a variety of Mediterranean dishes, but I had already decided on the falafel wrap. The lady took my order and I took a seat at a small table near the counter.

While I waited for my order, a smartly dressed older man came to the counter to place his order. Judging from his appearance, he could have been a lawyer, a banker, or an insurance executive. He was obviously a regular customer as he asked the lady about her husband. “Oh, he’s out making deliveries,” she told him. The two briefly joked together before he placed his order.

Looking about the small deli, I saw young and old, black and white; I saw people who were casually dressed and some with neck ties and cufflinks. I was happy to see this family-run business operated by Middle Eastern immigrants doing so well and so thoroughly accepted by the community. It was not the picture one gets by watching the news on television where there is so much noise about keeping out Muslims, so much fear generated by politicians, and so much talk about terrorism.

Granted, there are problems at the local, state and national level that need to be addressed, but what I was looking at on my lunch break from jury duty was a snapshot of what America is about: hard-working law-abiding immigrant families who are providing a service and being welcomed by the community. Such an image is also a part of my city’s history.

A City that Welcomes Immigrants

During the heyday of the steel industry, many Italians, Greeks, and Lebanese came to Birmingham. Some worked the mines and the steel mills, but many did just what this family was doing: keeping the city humming and productive by preparing and serving lunch to workers all over the city.

While I ate my falafel, a young man who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, dressed in a business suit, came up to the counter to place an order. He also had a heavy accent, but his was a southern drawl. He might have been a descendant of that earlier wave of immigrants.

It was a joy for me to turn that corner on 20th Street and 2nd Avenue and step into the real America. I hope this industrious Middle Eastern family will be among us for years to come. I hope the future sees their children and grandchildren finding good work, living a good life, and worshiping freely.

This city has seen such things before. In generations past, Italian, Greek and Lebanese immigrants came to the heart of Protestant America and established Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communities that have thrived within the city of Birmingham. It did not happen smoothly or easily or without prejudice, but in the end, we have seen a diverse community arise and we have lived to talk about it with a southern accent.

I hope that one day we will hear Arab Americans speaking with a southern accent as they gather for prayers at the Mosque. That will be a sign that they have found a home here. My prayer is that they will find an America as hopeful as the one I found that day in downtown Birmingham.

Charles Kinnaird has made a home in Birmingham with his wife and daughter for over 30 years and works as a registered nurse at UAB Hospital. His work experience includes cardiac nursing as well as psychiatric nursing, so he calls himself a “heart-and-soul nurse.” He writes about poetry, politics, and the common good on his blog, Not Dark Yet, at http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com/.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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