Man In A Suitcase

Birmingham, Alabama

What was an urban sophisticate like me doing in a place like Birmingham? Well, if you must pry (I must, I must), it was all because of Mensa, an organization I joined in my more innocent youth and which has provided me with the occasional diversion. Each year around the Fourth of July some lucky local chapter gets to put on a nationwide gettogether known as the Annual Gathering (presumably because it happens once a year and people all gather in the same place for it; see, I do belong!)

Anyway, the 1997 AG took place in Birmingham. And a combination of soon to expire frequent flyer miles, an opportunity to capture some pictures for my web site and no other plans convinced me to go. And in among the many intellectual pursuits for which such events are famous, I managed to spend a little time capturing the city for posterity.

From a distance, Birmingham looks like many other cities of its age and size. The skyline shows a nice combination of modern skyscrapers and older buildings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There's a lot of brick, which makes a nice change from earthquake-prone California. It's as you wander around on a sunny Saturday that you realize that something is wrong. All those beautiful new buildings empty out for the weekend. And the older buildings emptied out a long time ago. On this particular Saturday, downtown looks like a movie set that's waiting for the cameras to show up. No cars, not many people, no reason anybody would want to be there.

Birmingham's history really began with the end of the Civil War. Before the war the area had a few small communities, large cotton fields and some elegant homes for the idle class. The one on the left was a summer house, saved from Sherman's torches by some horse trading on the part of the quick thinking civic leaders.

Everything changed when an enterprising gentleman named Sloss decided to take advantage of the arrival of two railroad lines and abundant local supplies of iron ore, limestone and coal. Within a short while he had turned a sleepy agricultural area into a major center for the manufacture of steel. At one point there were around a thousand steelmaking furnaces around the new city. Birmingham became known as the Pittsburgh of the South and the Magic City because of the speed with which it grew. It was also known as the entrance to Hell, with perpetual smog and the gentle smell of sulphur wafting on the breeze.

The Sloss plant shut down in 1971 and is now a tourist attraction, a sort of monument to the city's roots. It's a horrible place, a reminder of long hours, backbreaking work, unbearable heat and noise and danger to life and limb with every step. These days the major industry in town is medicine, with a particular emphasis on sports medicine. The air is certainly better for the change.

I get the feeling that Birmingham (and Alabama as a whole) was always a carefully segregated place, from its antebellum days and continuing unabated through its growth as an industrial center. So it isn't too surprising that it was here that the Civil Rights movement had its greatest challenges. The struggle to win equal rights for black Americans is recorded and told at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. It's a solemn place marking an important part of our recent past and, as it would hasten to point out, our present. The Institute's location is part of its history, sitting across the street from one of the churches bombed by racists during a time when newspapers called the city Bombingham.

It's interesting what a town's locals think of as the most interesting landmarks. The Sloss Furnace, the Civil Rights Institute, an antebellum mansion, the botanical gardens. And this guy, the iron statue of Vulcan that sits atop Red Mountain to the south of the city and honors (if that's the right word) Birmingham's industrial history. Vulcan, as the guidebooks point out, is the largest iron figure ever cast and second in size only to the Statue of Liberty in the category of metal sculptures. Which description leads to expect something a bit more impressive than this chubby fifty-five foot tall fellow. I have to give him credit for inspiring those cool Moon Over Birmingham t-shirts. Although it seems only right to point out that he's not really mooning the city; he's pointing the wrong way for that.

On our tour we passed the castle on the right a couple of times. During a long walk around the city I finally found out what it is: an apartment building! Nice to know that someone around here has a sense of humor.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California