Today’s guest columnist is Bryson Stephens.
(Illustrations below show what is possible for our Red Mountain Cut)
On a chilly winter day in 2015, my 11-year-old daughter and I climbed the eastern wall of the Cut in Red Mountain.
A few months prior, a businessperson had told me that the Cut “looked like crap.” The last time I had physically been there was on an elementary school field trip in the early ‘80s, so I wanted to see it for myself. And it seemed like a good father-daughter excursion.
As we clambered over vegetation, navigating around piles of trash and vandalism, I became full of disbelief — what I remembered to be a place of wonder and exploration had diminished into an inaccessible, valueless space. I couldn’t help but think that we possess an unparalleled, world-class asset that has the potential to change the face of Birmingham. Yet, instead of maximizing its potential, we are allowing it to languish.
When the Expressway sliced through the mountain, the project unearthed around two million cubic yards of Red Mountain ridge, which exposed geologic strata dating back over 500 million years. The interpretive walkway, opened in 1978 as part of the Red Mountain Museum, was one of only three such walkways in the entire US. In 1987, the importance of this unveiled history earned the Cut recognition as a National Natural Landmark, an area that the National Park Service deems a significant example of the nation’s natural heritage.
On any given day almost 100,000 cars pass through the Cut, more than any other roadway through Red Mountain except for I-65. A connection and a gateway between downtown and suburbs, this central space, this hub in the middle of Birmingham, is seen by tourists, site selection teams, residents, visitors and investors every day.
It’s a short drive or walk from Mt. Brook Village, the Botanical Gardens, the Birmingham Zoo, English Village, Rosedale, downtown Homewood, Vulcan Park, 5-Points South, Highland Avenue, Southtown and UAB.
The Red Mountain Cut has the potential to be a captivating tourist attraction, providing a showcase unmatched anywhere, telling stories of our planet’s history as well as our great city’s industrial founding. This place, vastly different from a book or screen, has the potential to connect Jones and Shades valleys, to educate people and to enhance our important outdoor recreational infrastructure to people’s mental and physical benefit.
Let’s build an ADA-accessible pedestrian trail through the Cut, connecting the excellent and ever-growing Red Rock Trail systems being developed on both sides of Red Mountain. The rewards from walking, biking, running, pushing a stroller or just getting outside all positively impact our physical, mental and environmental health.
Let’s bring back the incredible educational experience many of us enjoyed on school field trips. Imagine embarking on a journey through time with self-guided exhibits telling the stories of Earth, Alabama and Birmingham. White flight, experienced by most cities in our nation, was accelerated by the 1970 opening of the Cut, and an investment presents an opportunity to tell the story of race relations and inequity of opportunity on a local and national level. We could use technology to connect people with videos and downloadable lesson plans to educate future generations about our city’s rich and complex history.
Let’s manage what we build through a non-profit entity with the governance system to oversee it for the long term. Many of Birmingham’s most popular community assets, such as Vulcan Park, Railroad Park and the Birmingham Zoo, are supported by 501(c)(3) ‘s, providing fundraising and management services.
The revitalization of the Red Mountain Cut is not merely an investment in tourism or a historical endeavor; it’s an investment in our identity and the well-being of our community. It’s a declaration that we value our unique heritage, environment, and ability to unite. This is a chance for Birmingham to come together, put its collective strengths to good use, build on our momentum and invest in a project that can have a lasting positive impact.
A thoughtful person said to me, “Any city can have an aquarium. Only Birmingham can have the Cut.” My daughter, now a college sophomore, remembers the challenge of our hike that day, and supports making this unique and beautiful place accessible to future generations. The Red Mountain Cut is an opportunity to connect two sides of our mountain in a new way, a geological wonder hidden in plain sight, just waiting to be rediscovered and revitalized.
This is an idea, a possibility. It would be hard, but if we want to meaningfully improve our community, it will take tackling hard projects. The Cut is ours. This is possible. It is our choice.
Bryson Stephens is Executive Chairman of EBSCO Industries. He recently founded the non-profit Red Mountain Cut Foundation to explore opportunities to improve educational and pedestrian access to the Cut and surrounding neighborhoods. In May 2022 the Foundation financed the pre-World Games clean-up of 25 years of accumulated vegetation and trash in the Cut. The Foundation is currently working on improvements in pedestrian access and safety on 21st Ave South (Diaper Row).
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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