Some cities lure tourists with their legendary museums, historic architecture and drop-dead gorgeous panoramas. Others beckon with a bright lights, big city vibe. And some are just so famous that life wouldn't be complete without visiting them, at least once.
Birmingham is none of those places, though worthy of your should-see list. We came here on a hunch that this Southern city holds more appeal than its serious history suggests. It was here that some of the most famous struggles of the civil rights era played out. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham and wrote one of his most famous works from his cell. Four young girls lost their lives in a 1963 bombing at a Baptist church that was already historic, being designed 50 years earlier by the first licensed black architect in Alabama. During the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, the Magic City, as it's called, was renamed Tragic City. Or Bombingham.
The reminders of the struggle are commemorated in touching and educational ways. And the city has become a progressive gem of the South. It's a college town, and a funky one at that with a lively music scene and a penchant for turning out American Idol winners. It's a culinary mecca, with a bounty of local and seasonal produce on its fringes and a world-renowned chef spreading the good food.
Birmingham is more than its strong association with struggle. It is a city in 3-D.
Spend an hour or two at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church with parishioner Dennis Mallory and you'll learn how people move on after brutal devastation. Mallory is a member of the church's tour ministry that channels the story of civil rights through a place of worship. Sixteenth Street holds one service on Sunday, and if you bring an instrument, you're welcome to come to the front and join the band.
A steady stream of school groups and interested adults stroll through the sanctuary. The basement bathroom where four young girls were killed on Sept. 15, 1963, is now a small kitchen. A narrow room in the fellowship hall commemorates the tragedy with artwork, photographs and newspaper clippings. It's not slick but put together with respect. Dig into your wallet for a donation.
Mallory is serious about his task, but not sentimental. He deals in facts, which does not lighten the weight of the events. Interestingly, he has not seen 4 Little Girls, Spike Lee's 1997 documentary about the bombing. He believes liberties were taken with the truth.
The church is part of the downtown Civil Rights District, which is anchored by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute across the street. Nearby Kelly Ingram Park is a good place to wander and contemplate events that may seem faraway but were not so long ago. Statues of the struggle, especially those of vicious police dogs and children behind bars, provoke more deep thought.
Besides historic artifacts from the era — part of the jail cell from which King wrote and a re-creation of a burned-out Freedom Riders bus — the building itself tells a story. As you wind through the exhibits, you may notice you're moving at a slight incline. This represents the uphill fight for equality. At the end, the floor levels to a group of statues, in all-white plaster, representing people of all colors and ages joined together in daily life.
For most of your visit, you will be in exhibit halls, void of windows. Then you turn one corner and are greeted by natural light through floor-to-ceiling windows that frame Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the park. The past and present come into full focus.
And we move on.
It is Friday night roller derby at the Zamora Shrine on the outskirts of town and Lucy Ferocious has wiped out for the umpteenth time. She's a newbie on the Tragic City Rollers team and still finding her skates. Her teammates include Panama Jack You Up, Electra Shock Therapy and Dixie Thrash. They wear fishnets and knee pads. And very short, plaid Catholic schoolgirl skirts.
We found out about derby night from the Birmingham Weekly, a free tabloid newspaper you should seek out the second you get to town. Especially if you're interested in nightlife. There's plenty of it in Birmingham, thanks mostly to the 35,000 students and faculty on the University of Alabama campus. You'll see lots of folks walking around in scrubs; UAB has a prestigious and large medical school and hospital.
The university fuels the nearby Five Points South Entertainment District. The walkable district drips with restaurants and bars, many of them hosting live bands. You don't think music is important here? Then try to explain how a town of 250,000 people has spawned two American Idol winners (Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks) and two second-place finishers (Diana DeGarmo, Bo Bice, who actually comes from Huntsville but Birmingham claims him).
After watching the roller derby mamas, we head to Marty's, the joint where Hicks used to entertain locals before hitting it big on the Fox reality show. Bathed in red light, the band Roosevelt Franklin is getting ready to play some blues. It's spring break, so the joint is jumping, sort of, with older folks. Food is served until 5 a.m. and the doors close at 6.
Marty's isn't the only place pumping sound. As we leave, we hear rock and blues spilling out of several doors.
We're too tired to join the Tragic City Rollers' after-party at the Upside Down Plaza. Plus, we didn't bring our fishnets.
Frank Stitt tries to explain how Birmingham developed such upscale tastes in food and wine. Or why, for instance, on a Thursday night in March, in the middle of a lousy economy, a handful of restaurants are packed with patrons paying $100 for dinner for two.
He is too modest to say it's because of him, but it really is. Stitt, named the best chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation in 2001, has taught the city, and many of its chefs, the value of the food grown nearby. In May, he'll find out if his Highlands Bar and Grill will win James Beard honors as the best restaurant in the country. In Birmingham?
"UAB is the No. 1 employer here," he says. "Many of the professors and doctors have been courted at my restaurants. And they think 'if there are places like this here, I can live here.' "
We're sitting in Bottega Cafe, another of Stitt's popular restaurants, and the chef is recounting how he learned his love of local food as a philosophy student in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1970s. He worked there with Alice Waters, the legendary food pioneer, and then honed his skills and sensibilities in France. Twenty years ago, he brought all that back to his hometown, where he grew up on a family farm.
But it's not just the high-end restaurants that reflect Birmingham's love of food. At Dreamland BBQ, everybody orders the banana pudding after the ribs — even actor Will Ferrell, who ate here while filming Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby. The vast Fish Market is still jammed with locals well after lunchtime on Friday, and Southern ladies all dressed in pink regularly celebrate birthday lunches at Chez Lulu. (Make sure to order the daily bread pudding special.)
At Stitt's restaurants and the Hot and Hot Fish Club, the menus introduce farmers by name. This town knows where its food is coming from.
If you want to see for yourself, head to the Jefferson County Truck Growers Association Farmers Market. It's open all day and all night, every day of the year. Even if you don't want to lug produce home, it's worth getting up early in high season. Lined up in the parking lot are truck after truck full of fresh-from-the-field food. And people are lined up to buy.
"Go there between 5 and 6 a.m. to see it in full motion," Stitt says.
Stitt's restaurants, and those he has inspired, represent the Birmingham of the future. He recognizes that old scars still ache, and that not everywhere in Alabama do people live together peaceably.
"Pockets of idealism" are changing the city's image.
And maybe a roller derby queen named Snot-Nosed Kid.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.