Birmingham was built by and for industry. Founded at the crossing of two rail lines near rich mineral deposits, the city became known as “The Pittsburgh of the South” due to iron and steel production.
“BUNS OF STEEL”
A visit to Vulcan Park on Red Mountain underscores the significance of iron to Birmingham.
Vulcan, the Roman God of Fire and Forge, looks out over the city, newly-made spearhead in one hand, hammer in the other, resting on an anvil. He wears sandals and a blacksmith’s apron and nothing else. He is muscular and bearded. He would not stand out at a gay dance club.
His bare arse points toward Homewood, whose citizens have complained over the years about the constant moon over the burb.
Vulcan, created as Birmingham’s exhibit in the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis when Birmingham was only 33 years old, won the grand prize. At 56 feet tall, it is the largest cast iron statute in the world (and the second largest statue after the Statue of Liberty). It sits atop a 123 foot stone pedestal.
Yes, Birmingham is serious about its iron, and its Vulcan. Like Seattle’s pigs and Cheyenne’s cowboy boots and Berlin’s bears, mini Vulcans are decorated by artists and installed around town.
An equally imposing figure on the Birmingham skyline is Sloss Furnaces, which churned out pig iron made from coal, limestone, and iron from its blast furnaces for 90 years, from the 1880’s to the 1970’s. Here’s a photo from its heyday:
It folded due in part to environmental regulations. Today it is a National Historic Landmark and is the only blast furnace restored and preserved for public use. Birmingham is protecting and celebrating its iron heritage.
Birmingham embraces its forging past. The weekly entertainment magazine is “Weld.” There are welding and metalwork and ironwork classes all around town, including Sloss Furnaces, which has an artist in residence. There are still many decorative ironwork companies in the city. Steel City Pops makes delectable popsicles from all natural ingredients.
FORGING RESOLVE AND RIGHTS ON THE ANVIL OF ADVERSITY
Birmingham may have been famous for iron and steel, but it was infamous for human rights violations. It was a sobering experience to tour the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute,
directly across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church.
On September 15, 1963, the church was bombed, killing Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all age 14, and Denise McNair, age 11. The church can be seen from the windows of the Institute.
In Kelly Ingram Park on the opposite corner,
a moving tribute faces the church. Bronze and steel statues of the girls were erected on the 50th anniversary of the bombing, when they were also given the Congressional Medal of Honor by Barack Obama.
Kelly Ingram Park was formerly known as West Park, where fire hoses and police dogs were turned on Birmingham’s own citizens – most of them children and high school students.
While the murders occurred in 1963, two of the perpetrators were not convicted until 2001 and 2002 (one of the KKK assholes was convicted in 1977, and the other died before being charged). If you’d like to learn more, Spike Lee’s documentary, “4 Little Girls” is a good source. He opened the documentary with Joan Baez’s “Birmingham Sunday:”
Birmingham is outliving its past, and that’s a good thing. The town has a lot to be proud of, past and present. At Milo’s they’re still churning out the same burgers with secret sauce and crinkle cut fries, since 1946, and don’t forget the sweet tea!
At Bogue’s, opened in 1938, you can still get a diner breakfast with a smile and a go cup of your favorite nonalcoholic beverage. No more syrup is being made at the Dr. Pepper plant, but the boutique shops and the Saturday farmers’ market at Pepper Place attract people in droves.
Birmingham is now home to distilleries, food trucks, and microbrews. There is Morris Street
and Five Points. Sky Castle is mixing up craft cocktails and serving nouveaux Southern cuisine. You can rent a Zyp bike for the afternoon. Downtown, derelict high-rises are slowly being restored.
Lofts are for sale. Newly constructed Railroad Park
is next door to Regions Field, home of the Birmingham Barons, a Southern League Chicago White Sox farm team, where Reggie Jackson got his start. The Alabama Theater, built in 1927, still packs them in for movies, concerts, and other events.
Across the street I saw Chris Isaak in concert at the Lyric Theater, a vaudeville venue restored and reopened in January 2016; Southern Living Magazine named it one of the 50 best places in the South.
With medical services, the University of Alabama, and banking as the big industries in Birmingham, its future is pretty bright. It will be a very different town in 10 years.