Mr. Rogers would be proud of wonderful downtown Birmingham neighborhood

Michael Calvert
Michael Calvert

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).

Click here to sign up for our newsletter. (Opt out at any time)

Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham.

(Visited 2,060 times, 1 visits today)

10 thoughts on “Mr. Rogers would be proud of wonderful downtown Birmingham neighborhood”

  1. Hi, Mike– A very nice article! All true– and much of the credit goes to you and Operation New Birmingham.

  2. What a wonderful article by the kind and talented Michael Calvert! I am a neighbor and friend and I am enjoying the city very much. I am very impressed by the amazing stories and the work Michael and his team did at Operation New Birmingham. Our neighborhood is looking great and welcoming and I hope more and more people will move to downtown Birmingham.

  3. Birmingham still has a long way to go. I’m always amazed when I see a pot with flowers in front of a business. Most streets have only weeds around the the trees or pots with dead flowers. Lakeview entertainment district is a bad joke, most of it is just plain nasty.
    Avondale is trying to come up but still has a long way to go.
    The Uptown district is dead unless a special event is going on.
    Did I mention the trash on fences and under bridges?

    1. Fri., 8/4/23

      Hilde Camp

      Hear ! Hear !…”Mister Rogers”…???…The most convincing proof of desperation I’ve read in this blog !!

      ~ Ballard from Huntsville

  4. An honest question from a former Birminghamian (TBH Vestavia Hills) and fellow Kiwanian with Mike Calvert: What is the definition of “downtown”? I always thought the unofficial boundaries were I-65/I-59-20)/Red Mountain Expy/1st Avenue North, with possibly stretching south to University Blvd. Does it now include all of Southside/UAB—all the way to Red Mountain? Do the boundaries also stretch further west, north, and east? If so, when we visit them we’ll congratulate our Forest Park relatives for living downtown! LOL

  5. Great article Mike! John and have been downtown in City Federak since 2012 and wouldn’t live anywhere else. If you love diversity, convenience and good neighbors downtown is for you!

  6. Birmingham can be safe again once Mayor Woody decides to crack down on homicides. I will stay away until he does. He did nothing to quell the riots that recently destroyed many of the businesses in Birmingham. There are many areas that are unsafe after dark when the thugs come out. Time to take your rose tinted glasses off and see the real Birmingham.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *