Today’s guest columnist is Katrin Brand.
Last year, on a bright October day two German travelers arrived tired and weary from their long car drive through the south.
They were late, opening hours were almost over, but they were allowed half an hour to roam around.
The sun was already low, and in front of them the derelict reminders of the long gone age of iron and steel were glowing in a bright and rusty red under a clear blue sky.
What a beautiful sight!
The two travelers were my husband, Jörg and I, and the place where we were was Sloss Furnaces. What might surprise you is we immediately, in a nostalgic kind of way, felt at home. The part of Germany where we´re from – the Ruhrgebiet – has experienced the same boom and bust history of coal and steel as Birmingham, the need to reinvent ourselves and the question of what to do with the remnants of its industrial past.
As a reporter, I was curious: how did Birmingham, Alabama, cope with all of that and what kind of spirit would I find here when I came back and dug deeper?
I came back some months later and – spoiler alert! – I found confidence, pride, a lot of energy, dynamic and historic awareness, serenity, resilience and different shades of faith.
What did I do to reach that conclusion?
I spent a day at Protective Stadium for the Alabama High School Football Championship; I witnessed the re-opening ceremony at Legacy Arena and talked to Cornell Wesley of the Department for Innovation and Economic Opportunity; I had a very nice lunch a Helen´s and got a bit tipsy at the Shu Shop.
I had a long talk with David Sher, who showed me some scenic neighborhoods; I spent not enough time at Jim Reed´s Museum of Fond Memories; I visited the sites of the Civil Rights Movement; I went jogging at Railroad Park, and well, a lot more.
What I found were a lot of people who loved what they were doing and who they were doing it for. Take Emily and Rob McDaniel, the couple behind Helen´s. Opening a new place in the midst of the pandemic, not losing faith and making it an immediate success. How amazing!
Take Cornell Wesley, who explained how this city will take the two branches of its history – the Civil Rights movement and the Industrial Revolution – and talk about its vibrant future – without leaving anybody behind.
And take Nonhlanhla Jones, the young manager at the Central Market next to the transit station. This market provides affordable fresh food for people living in the downtown food desert. Instead of complaining about social injustice she showed me a list of the people she had served that day, and without hesitating told me that Birmingham is the perfect place to live. There´s so much to do, she said, and you can´t get lost.
As a German, that´s the spirit I wish we had in my homeland.
Germans tend be overly cautious, pessimistic and concerned about everything. We clearly belong to the glass-half-empty-faction of the world, just the opposite of what I experienced in Birmingham. So kudos to you all: this was a really uplifting and educational adventure!
So, is Birmingham a city I would recommend as a travel destination to my fellow countrymen?
Of course! It might not be considered a Southern belle like Natchez, Mississippi, but its overflow of history alone makes Birmingham a worthwhile stop for history-loving Germans. The “Heaviest Corner on Earth”? They´d find it interesting. The Civil Rights Institute and the Civil Rights Heritage Trail? Fine examples of how to make history tangible. Railroad Park? That´s how Germans, too, would like to revitalize the left-overs of their industrial past.
The best is this: Birmingham is a city on the move, obviously in the right direction. That makes it a perfect place to learn a lot about the US.
So thanks to everybody who talked to me and showed me their city!
Katrin Brand, radio journalist from Germany, now based in Washington, DC, covers American politics and life for the listeners at home, travels the US as often as possible (accompanied by her husband Jörg), and loves American football.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. 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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