The Reinvention of Birmingham, Alabama: How Magic City Is Moving Forward
The slow but steady reinvention of Alabama’s largest city has finally come into focus.
If you’d asked me how I liked living in Birmingham five years ago, I would’ve responded with a practiced diplomatic answer. “There’s hardly any traffic,” was a go-to. Or I might have praised the city’s proximity to other destinations: “If I leave in the morning, by lunchtime I can be in Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, or Asheville.” But with each passing year, I grew to see how lucky I was that the cosmos dropped me off here instead of any other place.
There’s a line from a song by the Birmingham-born band Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires that goes, “Encase my tongue in steel in case I ever dare to say I’m stuck.” This city, which made its name by forging steel from the surrounding iron-rich mountains and got its reputation during the Civil Rights Movement and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, is definitely a complicated one to love. But what has changed it for the better is a group of residents who are claiming it again, past and all—a past that doesn’t feel stuck. They want to stay and conscientiously change its legacy.
The people here will be the first to tell you that this iteration of Birmingham has been a long time coming, but it’s worth it. We don’t have gaggles of glass towers or scooter apps. National chains don’t dot our downtown. We like that. What we have isn’t perfect, but it’s homegrown.
That might also be the reason why, these days, my phone lights up with more messages from friends planning to visit Birmingham, not drive through it. This is my piece of the city to share I like to joke that Birmingham feels like 300 square feet despite a sprawling metro area and hundreds of square miles of the forests, mountains, and rivers that make Alabama one of the country’s most biodiverse states.
The city feels most like a small town to me when I start my morning at Woodlawn Cycle Cafe, where locals line up for sweet potato biscuits and James Taylor spins on the turntable. I rarely have to make any weekend plans to hang out with friends, because I know I’ll see them there.
A historic neighborhood with multigenerational residents near the Ruffner Mountain nature preserve, Woodlawn has a mini downtown that has become a hub for new businesses and initiatives. Birmingham native Mashonda Taylor, who’s the chief community relations officer for the Woodlawn Foundation, works to make sure everyone will benefit from its growth. “We get to carry out the vision of our community, and they want thriving businesses,” says Taylor. “Together we are creating one of the most economically, socially, and culturally diverse neighborhoods in the city.”
Across from the cafe, Jake Carnley, known for his Great Bear Wax Co. candles (his best seller is Succulent), has founded Bungalow Bungalow (the area’s first refill shop, where customers can purchase Castile soap, all-purpose cleaner, and laundry detergent in reusable containers, along with other sustainable home goods). Around the corner, chef John Hall will open his long-awaited Italian-inspired bistro next door to Club Duquette, a boutique owned by musician Duquette Johnston and his stylist wife, Morgan, who stock hard-to-find Levi’s jeans, house-printed bandanas, and other design-oriented basics. It was at the shop’s regular block parties that I began meeting people like Taylor and others who are like-minded in taking on the responsibility of building a better Birmingham. “There’s this new wave of energy here, and we all see the potential for what could happen,” explains Duquette. “We all want the city to have more equitable entrepreneurship.”
“We may be in retail, but we’re also in the service industry,” says Morgan. “We want to be everyone’s Southern grandma. She may not know you, but she’s going to offer you a beverage, see what you need, and show you love.”
It’s an ethos that I feel in so many of the city’s independent businesses, whether I’m digging through the crates at the vinyl-and-barber combo shop Seasick Records and Newman’s Classic Cuts, enjoying a scoop of Cullman Strawberry from Big Spoon Creamery, wandering through the philodendron-filled greenhouse at Shoppe, sipping a cold brew at Domestique Coffee Cafe in the space-themed music venue Saturn, cracking open a can at new-old dive bar Mom’s Basement, slurping Spicy Miso Ramen at izakaya Shu Shop, or browsing the racks at Basic.
Ask around town, and you’ll hear a consistent reason for the city’s energy shift: Birmingham’s 38-year-old mayor, Randall L. Woodfin, who was elected in 2017. “I think there’s a collective spirit here,” says Woodfin, who notes he’s had family living in at least 20 of the city’s 99 neighborhoods. “I’m just fortunate to be its cheerleader.”
The mayor has homed in on the less glamorous but long-needed work of neighborhood revitalization by creating a blight-removal fund and, most recently, opening a new fresh produce market at a downtown transit facility. “I remember feeling like the city wasn’t a place for my generation, but I realized in law school the only way to change it was to get involved,” he says. “We’ve committed to promoting the good in Birmingham—because despite all the bad, there’s a lot more good.”
The mayor is among the city heroes who appear in an enormous folk art-style interpretation of The Beatles’ album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that hangs over the counter at The Atomic Bar & Lounge. Owners Rachael Roberts and Feizal Valli love it when out-of-towners visit their shotgun shrine to the city. They often get to introduce newcomers to the regulars for whom their cocktails are named. “We want you to immediately feel like a local here,” says Valli.
Fittingly, in Paul McCartney’s position on the Sgt. Pepper mural is chef Frank Stitt. With his flagship James Beard Award-winning restaurant Highlands Bar & Grill and two others, Stitt became not just a Birmingham talisman but a pillar of the South’s culinary community. He was just 28 when he opened Highlands in 1982, and the full sweep of his impact has never been more visible than now.
One of the chefs who read Stitt’s cookbooks as a young line cook and hoped to start his own restaurant back home in Alabama is Adam Evans, who recently opened the ambitious Automatic Seafood and Oysters. Designed by his wife and co-owner Suzanne Humphries Evans, Automatic represents a sea change in Birmingham’s dining scene. The menu here reflects the glory of the Gulf (just a few hours’ drive south) and shifts with each day’s catch. Murder Point oysters fill an ice tray at the onyx-tiled bar, and guests sitting in cane-back banquettes order plates of crispy fried fish collars and Adam’s signature dish, Fish Ribs, painted with barbecue sauce. Not far down the same street, Pete Halupka and Lindsay Whiteaker, the owners of Harvest Roots Ferments, will open a kombucha taproom. Meanwhile downtown, two Stitt alumni have reinvented a beloved Italian cafe into Trattoria ZaZa, where you’ll find the only brunch line I will gladly stand in.
In the nearby suburb of Mountain Brook, Brandon Loper and Trent Stewart have built one of the most unique natural wineshops in the country, Golden Age Wine, with over 750 different retail bottles and a by-the-glass bar—a feat both say wouldn’t have been possible without Stitt’s influence. Loper, also a filmmaker, moved back to his home state with his architect wife (she designed the space in terra-cotta tones) and daughters after living in San Francisco for a decade. When he found out that starting a wine bar in Birmingham would cost “a thousandth of the price” and he met Stewart, a lifelong resident and professional buyer, the duo started ordering wines the state had never been able to access previously.
“I really enjoy introducing people to new things,” says Loper. “I wanted a place where I could share that with everyone the same as if they’d come over to my house.”
“It’s surprising to people what a big wine market we have,” echoes Stewart. “It has really been fun to stick it out here because the town has changed so much.”
In a few days after I finish writing this story, I will be moving to Austin, Texas, to start a new job. It’s a temporary relocation—just a few months. And while I’m excited to have more breakfast taco options and a new city to explore, I’m just as eager, if not more, to see where Birmingham will be when I come back.