Downtown Birmingham was really cool when I was growing up

"Let's meet under the clock at Loveman's (Now McWane Center) when people wanted to meet downtown
“Let’s meet under the clock at Loveman’s” (Now McWane Science Center) where people used to meet when downtown

By David Sher

I grew up in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s and the number of contemporaries I can share my memories with is shrinking.

I feel compelled to tell my story of growing up in Birmingham—specifically downtown—because it was a unique time that young people today will find difficult to comprehend.

During my childhood everyone went downtown, and I mean everyone.

There were no shopping centers, strip malls, or big box stores. You might say downtown Birmingham had a monopoly.

So anybody and everybody was downtown.

Folks shopped there, ate there, and socialized there.

Walking along the streets of downtown, I ran into relatives, neighbors, and schoolmates.

At times there were so many pedestrians on downtown sidewalks that I made up a game. People were lined up on the curb three or four deep waiting to cross the street. When the light changed, I would walk as fast as I could to the upcoming curb to compete in an imaginary race. I won most of the time, but of course, no one else knew they were in a competition.

Many a day, particularly around Christmas time, there were so many automobiles downtown that there was a policeman at every corner to direct traffic.

When folks wanted to meet friends or family members downtown, they’d ask them to meet under the clock at Loveman’s Department Store—that was everyone’s meeting spot. (It’s now the clock at the McWane Center).

The block bounded by 19th & 20th Streets North and 2nd and 3rd Avenue North had so much pedestrian traffic, it was called the ‘Race Track,’ and landlords likely charged the highest rents for those stores.

The eating options were limitless–Joy Young, John’s, Britling and Morrison’s Cafeteria, La Paree, Pasquale’s; the counters at J.J. Newberry, Kress, Woolworth or Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs. You could buy a Krystal hamburger for 12¢ and fries for a dime and then walk to the Krispy Kreme around the corner for hot melt-in-your mouth donuts.

The movie theatres were bustling—The Alabama, Ritz, Lyric, Melba, and Empire.

The retail stores went on for blocks and blocks—Pizitz, Loveman’s, Parisian, Blach’s, Burger-Phillips, New Ideal, and scores of others—big and small.

I attended the University of Alabama, but came home most weekends. One Saturday night my girlfriend (now my wife) and I went to the Alabama Theatre. The next morning I got a call from my upset father. He received a call from a good friend who wanted him to know that he had seen me at the Alabama Theatre without a coat and tie. By the way, students wore coats and ties at Alabama Football games.

Another unforgettable memory was in 1956 when my family decided to go to the Elvis Presley movie, Love Me Tender, which had just opened at the Alabama Theatre. The line for tickets was so long it wrapped around the block.

I remember eating lunch with my mom on the balcony at the Pizitz Department Store, sticking my feet into an X-Ray machine at Parisian to measure my feet for shoes, and eating the best fried chicken dinner and yeast roll I’ve ever eaten in my life at Joy Young, a one-of-a-kind Chinese-American Restaurant.

My parents bought me my first pair of grown-up shoes at Porter’s Department Store and my first suit at Blach’s.

I saw a color television for the first time in a display window at Pizitz.

On occasion, my father took me to get my shoes shined at Bon Bon Hatters. It made me feel like a real grown up.

But nothing came close to downtown Birmingham at Christmas time.

The Christmas display windows at Pizitz and Loveman’s made my imagination soar, and the Enchanted Forest inside Pizitz was a winter wonderland I will never forget.

I recently came across an article written in the ‘80’s predicting the demise of downtown Birmingham and the huge growth of Brookwood Mall and Century Plaza–both malls are gone now.

Downtown Birmingham may have had some bad days, but it is making quite a comeback. If you don’t believe me, try finding a parking place downtown on weekend evenings.

Downtown will never look like it did when I was a kid—but with more and more residential properties and a demand for walkability—downtown will continue to grow and reinvent itself.

You may also enjoy reading:

Or this column written by an African-American women about growing up in Birmingham:

My childhood memories of Birmingham may be difference than yours

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. 

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

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24 thoughts on “Downtown Birmingham was really cool when I was growing up”

  1. My generation grew up going to the suburban malls this writer mentioned.

    The Pizitz building and other downtown structures have been renovated and preserved without much change. They have done this based on the false claim that these older buildings are historic. Century Plaza on the other hand has been demolished despite being much younger than these downtown buildings.

    The memories of those who grew up going downtown are being protected, but the memories of those my age are not.

    1. I must agree with Pat as I am also of this generation. Century Plaza and Eastwood Mall are gone. Riverchase Galleria was the place to be as it had the high-end stores as well as the homegrown Just For Feet flagship store right outside. Downtown was at this point run-down and a haven for vagrants. There were some stores I remember lingering on, such as Newberry’s and Big B Drugs and even Woolworth for a brief while. I remember Jeans Glory and the California Fashion Mall being located downtown. There was a hotdog shop there – I do not remember it’s name (probably Pete’s or Gus’) and I remember the shoe shine parlor. Downtown is making a comeback, but the suburban mall has been considered a dinosaur and an emblem of problematic sprawl and excess and conspicuous consumption. Big box retailers have swooped in to replace these malls, but the quality of the merchandise and the service and the experience is lacking.

      I’m a late Gen X/early millennial; the Gen X crowd is being overlooked as the ‘forgotten’ generation, the generation that’s rarely mentioned or doesn’t matter.

  2. David’s walk down memory lane is
    right on target! The bustling downtown traffic included CUSTOMERS! So many,
    that Birmingham’s shops and stores prospered and Downtown eventually became known as the apparel fashion center of Alabama and beyond! THE CLUB was built to further promote this attribute as its elegant ballroom included a special raised ramp for fashion shows which were recognized nationally. Then, the Interstate Highways came along and made it very easy for many of Birmingham’s citizens to move to the suburbs.

  3. Thanks for the memories, David. It sounds exactly like the Charlotte in the 1950s where I grew up. Exactly! Different store names but the experiences were the same. It was quite a different world than today,

  4. https://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/birmingham-campaign-of-1963/

    I grew up in Tuscaloosa and have similar fuzzy memories of a bustling downtown. However, if I were to think long and hard about downtown T-town in the late 50s and early 60s, and then publish my memories, I would owe it to myself and my readers to consider which of my favorite eateries and retail outlets were segregated at the time. Did the theaters have segregated seating? In his entry on the Birmingham Campaign of 1963 for the Encyclopedia of Alabama, distinguished Civil Rights historian Glenn Eskew calls attention to the fact that part of the Campaign included desegregation of such establishments. Which of the ones in downtown Birmingham mentioned in this blog post were segregated and targeted in the Campaign? Probably a subject that our parents failed to tell us white kids. But not a subject we should avoid as grownups today.

    1. I was raised for the first 12 years of my life by a Black housekeeper. Race was not an issue in our house. I accepted Pearl as my mom and never heard racist talk in my house. I supported Pearl for many years financially when I was grown. I was lucky not to be inoculated by racist hate. Yes, we had segregated facilities, but it was never discussed. Such is White privilege, about which I still fell guilty.

      I was Christian, but dated girls who were White, Chinese, and Jewish. It never seemed like an issue at the time.

      1. My point is simply that in 2023 a blog post about downtown Birmingham’s retail and dining establishments in the 1950s and early 1960s should at least pay lip service to the topic. Regardless of the author’s personal experience at home or downtown, and whether or not he passes judgment on the city of that era. The essay feels incomplete without it.

  5. Thanks. I missed that link, though I had read her essay when you posted it last spring. I look forward to Mr. Townsend’s column.

  6. I didn’t grow up in Birmingham but moved here in 1977. You did a great job of depicting downtown Bham in the 50s! Nothing stays the same, but learning about history gives us perspective!

  7. The predominantly retail use of downtown in the post-WW II decades gave way to an office use in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s.

    Now downtown living, restaurants, shops, and entertainment uses have changed the character of downtown and may become the predominant use if work-from-home continues to reduce the office use.

    Downtown will continue to adapt and evolve as a unique center serving Birmingham.

  8. My nostalgia comes to a screeching halt when I realize that my husband and children, my whole family wouldn’t have been welcome in the seemingly idyllic landscape of bygone Birmingham. So there’s that. But I’m a fan of lots of things downtown currently and always interested to hear what’s coming. I think we’ve done a terrible job of tearing down important old buildings, though. People who stay in the suburbs and lob darts at downtown without enjoying CityWalk or Railroad Park or our great restaurants and charming coffee shops, etc. can make that choice to stay in the suburbs while some of us enjoy city life.

  9. I really enjoyed reading your story and appreciated the way it was written. Three years ago, I arrived in Birmingham and saw the contrast between its beautiful past and its unfairness. However, I also witnessed Birmingham’s resilience and determination to come back stronger and more equitable. It is a city where, hopefully, everyone has a place.

  10. This column brought back many great memories. I didn’t grow up in Birmingham, but my wife and I moved to Birmingham in June 1970 when we were married. My first job was at Arthur Andersen, which was then located in the Brown-Marx Building. Even then, downtown was a very busy, sometimes very crowded spot even though Eastwood Mall was the spot that was drawing some of the crowds away. The intersection between Pizitz and Loveman’s (and Newberry’s) was always packed with pedestrians trying to cross the street often more than three people deep as you mentioned.
    The only thing that I have to point out is that you (or someone) misspelled Blach’s Department Store. That was my go-to store for suits. My good friend, Philip Benefield, a native of Birmingham, had introduced me to the store and I shopped there for years.

  11. David, this is perfect and truly accurate, bringing back many memories. I remember a time when my mother and grandmother would dress up and wear hats and gloves to go shopping downtown. And my birthdays growing up often included dinner and a movie downtown. The night after Thanksgiving would be for the Christmas tree lighting in what is now Linn Park and the enchanted forest at Pizitz. I remember meetings at the Loveman’s clock, but the original Tutwiler lobby on 20th Street was another favorite. No egg rolls will ever match Joy Young’s. And, O, to be back at the original Smith & Hardwick bookstore again.
    This comes as a shock to younger generations, but growing up on the west side of town, my Mother would sometimes opt to stay closer to home and she still fondly recalls shopping at good stores in Fairfield, Ensley, and 5 Points West. A sales clerk, Rose, at the 5 Points West Parisian would put aside clothes that she thought Mom would like to consider for me.
    It’s good to see downtown has become “cool” again, but it’s also worthwhile to remember what used to be.

  12. As I said above, I didn’t grow up in Birmingham. From the comments I read, however, it seems that what folks miss the most is the lively street scene. Downtown residences and restaurants can’t recapture the daily bustle of retail businesses can they? Shoppers rushing in and out of stores, looking at the storefront advertisements, greeting friends on the street corner, stopping for street vendors. In that regard, and because my memories of downtown Birmingham date from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, here’s what I remember that perhaps best replicated the crowded streets that everyone remembers from the 1950s-1960s: City Stages. Of course, if Birmingham could recreate City Stages all year long, it would be like here in downtown Nashville. I’m not sure you’d like it. 🙂

          1. W.C., I’m so glad you found information of Bhamwiki. It was insightful, but for some reason it didn’t have homicide numbers for several years. It appears current years are documented and much older years are also documented.

    1. It depended on your race. In the 60’s if you were white downtown Birmingham was safe. However if you were a minority then safety was a big issue. Its all about the lens in which you view the world and experince life.

  13. Loved the article. Thanks for bringing back memories. How I loved those windows at Christmas. I grew up near Decatur and we’d drive down to shop several times a year before the interstate was built. But my favorite visits were at Christmas and looking at the windows. Downtown is bustling now but it’s not the same.

  14. I grew up on southside and attended grammar school at St. Paul’s downtown, Most of those years I rode the # 33 Mountain Terrace city bus to and from school. We had a bus driver named Mr. Ricky who was named “Man of the Year” for the city of B’ham, Sorry I can’t remember the year. I, like you, have many fond memories of those years and of downtown. I remember the Melba, Empire, Ritz, Lyric, and Alabama theaters. I remember the sidewalks being jammed with people watching the Veterans Day parade. Workers would leave work early to view the parade. And especially I remember what a treat it was at this time of the year for a young child to see all the wonderful animated Christmas displays in the department store windows. Thank you for the memories you share with all your articles.

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