Today’s guest columnist is Michael Calvert.
A few years ago, there was no neighborhood other than public housing in downtown Birmingham.
Pioneering loft residents created a vibrant, social life to make “wonderful days” and wonderful nights, too, in Birmingham’s downtown neighborhood.
Like Mister Rogers, they said to each other, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
The early Loft District residents adopted Mister Rogers’ theme and made their neighborhood a “wonderful” urban neighborhood. They welcomed new residents who soon knew more of their neighbors than they had in Forest Park, Homewood, or other suburbs before they moved.
Newcomers were greeted on the sidewalks, in restaurants and bars, at small impromptu gatherings, and at big parties with live music. Everyone was invited to participate in this vibrant community.
The appeal of this active social life was a major factor in the growth of the Loft District and urban living throughout downtown Birmingham. This lively atmosphere continues to resonate. It was particularly attractive to suburban people without children at home and those living alone in houses with extra bedrooms and demanding yards.
This social dynamic continues to drive the robust market for condos and apartments. The recent opening of 180 apartments in The Frank, the former Frank Nelson Office Building, and the commencement of construction of The 600 in the former AT&T Building attest to the continuing demand for this lively neighborhood that began with loft living.
One person widely credited for establishing the neighborhood’s reputation for great parties was Jerry Melton who literally brought new residents off the streets to join in his legendary events with live music in his loft. Another beloved leader in developing the rich social life was the gracious Virginia Rekoff. She hosted a wide array of cocktail parties, elegant dinners, and special events in the former store where she made her home on Second Avenue North. Jerry relocated to Dallas and Virginia has passed away. Both made a major contribution to urban living in downtown Birmingham.
New residents exchanged information on plumbers, plasterers, and contractors as well as historic tax incentives. There was chatter about buildings sold and renovations planned. Many realtors like Leda Dimperio, an early resident of Wooster Lofts, brought prospective buyers to these events that showcased the vitality of the Loft District. Powerful word of mouth marketing spread throughout the Birmingham community.
Dog walkers introduced themselves and their dogs. People moving here for positions at UAB and other companies were informed about downtown living. Operation New Birmingham, REV’s predecessor, maintained a list of loft apartments and condos, and helped with permits, loans, and grants.
One example of the loft residents’ special events was the “1040 Festival” across from the Post Office on April 14th when a long line of weary taxpayers waited in their cars to mail their taxes before midnight. Coffee and some stronger refreshments were offered along with snacks and information on the emerging neighborhood downtown.
In the mid-2000s, The Wine Loft on First Avenue North began an informal Downtowners Dinner every Wednesday evening. People considering a move to downtown mingled with residents, realtors, and developers, to explore opportunities for downtown living.
In 2007, the Urban Standard coffee shop became a favorite place to schedule informal meetings, have coffee, or work on a laptop. It has been succeeded by the Frothy Monkey which has a full menu, a bar, and an outside dining area.
Of course, the award-winning restaurants at Five Points South and elsewhere on the Southside have been joined by numerous excellent dining establishments on Second Avenue North and elsewhere downtown. Several additional hotels and bars have added to the activity level downtown.
City Walk, the skateboard park and pickle ball courts under I-20/59, adds to the Railroad Park and Rotary Trail as recreational resources for downtowners.
More and more people are joining the community of over 11,000 people now living in downtown and the Southside. Construction is underway for an additional 1,000 residents and even more lofts, apartments, and condos have been announced. The downtown community could easily double in the next ten years. In addition, there are now 3,400 UAB students in dorms, an increase of 22% since 2015, and they certainly contribute to downtown’s vitality.
The vibrant social life initiated by the early loft residents has become a hallmark of downtown Birmingham. One resident described downtown as a “happening scene.” This urban vitality is the secret sauce that continues to stimulate growth and development in downtown and the Southside.
Like Mister Rogers, the downtown residents continue to say, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Michael A. Calvert, is an urban planner who retired in 2011 after 28 years as CEO of Operation New Birmingham, REV’s predecessor. He and his wife, Susan Matlock, live downtown in the John Hand Building.
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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