It’s spring break, and the university is closed. Most of the students have returned home or are off adventuring on a beach somewhere. The town is quiet and peaceful: squirrels play in the empty side streets and I can hear the birds, no longer competing with a host of human noises, liquidly warbling as they sit in the trees and on the telephone wires. Looking around, one can tell how many cars the students bring by how relatively car-free the area is now that they are gone. I too head out of town, or try to, riding up to Birmingham with a friend. I have a list of sights to see, including the Birmingham Art Museum, the Civil Rights Museum, the Botanical Garden, and, hopefully, a trip to a fabulous bakery, given the sad lack of bakeries in the town in which I live.
As it is, however, I only get a bit of the last: joyfully consuming an amazing scone with bits of cherry and the fragrant scent of rosemary at the one café that I find open: the Trattoria Centrale. It turns out that Sunday morning is a quiet time in downtown Birmingham—a very, very quiet time. Everyone is probably in church or spending times with their families, leaving only alienated singletons such as myself to pace the downtown sidewalks and read the markers that commemorate the Civil Rights Movement and Birmingham’s role in it. This glimpse into Birmingham’s history is fascinating, but I wish I could learn more. I’d ask someone, but there really isn’t anyone to ask given that the area seems so deserted. Yes, downtowns do tend to be deserted on weekends, with all of the commerce of the week stilled; however, as I walk around the city, Birmingham feels surprisingly empty, like a scene from one of those horror films in which something has happened and this is the aftermath. I had thought I’d see at least a few open restaurants and cafes or hear the sounds of people spilling into or out of church. I’d also looked forward to sighting some prosperous clothing stores and other sites of consumption, albeit perhaps shuttered till Monday. However, what I saw was blocks of building that appeared, in places, completely abandoned: windows shuttered rain from the storm of the previous night leaking through gaps in the overhangs over the street, and broken windows. The only sights and sounds in some areas were pigeons flying in and out of the buildings: they, at least, have found their own urban lofts.
As I wander, I discover that some of the buildings are beautiful, their gleaming white exteriors still fancifully decorated. I guess that they were once shopping hubs or humming commerce centers, but they are now closed and empty. There’s an incredible Art Deco building with a modish clock, famous as a meeting place according to a nearby plaque. It was a renowned department store, but it is now transformed into, in part, a daycare center, though what is housed in the rest of the magnificent structure is a mystery. The giant Lyric, an old vaudeville theatre, massive in size near its ornate neighbor the Alabama Theatre, waits for restoration. According to the results of an online search, work is going on to restore it—that is if money can be raised to do so. Down other blocks I find more businesses, some of which are more prosperous than the ones I’ve just described. Yet I still wonder: where are the people, where are the jobs, and where is the money? I’ve puzzled over the past of the town I’m in, and now I wonder about Birmingham’s history and the glimpses of prosperity and community, conflict and dissolution that remain.