Woodlawn For The (W)
All roads lead to Woodlawn, or at least 1st Avenue North. This was not always the case. In the early mid 1980's, Woodlawn begin to see the results and by products of white flight and the crack epidemic. The glory days of Tony Nathan leading the Woodlawn High School Colonels to being a football powerhouse in the mid-1970's had faded away into the pages of that era alumni's year books. The aging residents who lived through the industrial boom of the first quarter of the 20th century were dying off. Their offspring had opted for life elsewhere. Many of these otherwise legacy homes lay either abandoned or poorly maintained. Perhaps the two most beloved icons of the Woodlawn community were now beginning to reflect the surrounding demise.
Built in 1922, the gothic inspired, olde English reminiscent Woodlawn High School opened its doors. The school was nicknamed, "the castle", due to its architecture". The same English style structures could be seen throughout Woodlawn such as the Woodlawn fire station across the street from the high school, and structures in neighboring Avondale, English Village in neighboring Crestline, and the recently demolished Quinlan Castle off Highland Avenue. Along with Ramsay High School and Phillips High School, they were considered to be the ivy league of Birmingham High Schools. Woodlawn High School throughout the 1960s and 1970's made a name against Friday night football juggernauts Huffman High, Banks High, and then Berry High School (now Shades Valley). Woodlawn was also home to students of affluent parents and families whose influence could be seen throughout the community of Woodlawn and the adjacent East Lake and Roebuck communities. The community of Woodlawn, which initially began as its own city in 1815, actually predates the city of Birmingham itself. The community was settled by farming families and slave owners such as Obadiah Wood, in which Woodlawn derived its name. In 1870, rich mineral deposits were discovered in the area which birthed the industrial boom in Birmingham. The post-Civil War Reconstruction era ushered in the expansion of the railroad. Woodlawn found itself at a major railroad junction, and a bustling city that would soon earn the moniker, "The Magic City". With it came wealth and affluence for those connected to all facets of the iron and steel boom in the city.
Fast forward a century later. Racial strife of the Civil Rights Movement, a rusting iron and steel industry on its death bed, coupled with crime stemming from massive job loss, Woodlawn was a shadow of its former self. The once iconic fire house lay boarded up with plywood like many structures and homes in the community. Woodlawn High School, which once boasted of influential families and a breeding ground for the future professionals in the city had become synonymous with school violence, truancy, and academic poor performance. Homes that were once the reflection of the American dream and a higher standard of living, many sat abandoned and even inhabited by drug addicts and stripped of anything valuable such as metal and copper pipes. Woodlawn had become largely an eye sore, synonymous with urban residential blight.
Where others see depression, decay, and despair, others see opportunity. One such entity is that of REV Birmingham. In 2012, things began to change. REV is a place-based revitalization and economic development nonprofit working to make the city of Birmingham a more vibrant place and have an economic impact. REV focuses its work in Downtown Birmingham and the historic commercial district of Woodlawn. Headquartered in the Woodlawn commercial district, right across from some of its most prized results, the organization is working to make it a hub for equitable entrepreneurship. REV works with community facilitators to identify future and existing entrepreneurs in Woodlawn and lower the barriers in their way and set them up for success through initiatives such as the Woodlawn Street Market, community entrepreneur support systems and façade refresh projects. Ten years later, the fruits of labor are very vividly seen.
Given the state of health in the African American community stemming from improper and unhealthy eating, in July of 2018 Pinky Cole sought to promote the vegan diet to those who were concerned about their health. She began taking orders on Instagram in her apartment. A couple of months later, she then had her own food truck. By January of 2019, in 45-degree weather 1,200 people showed up for the grand opening of her brick and mortar in Atlanta, Georgia. During the Pandemic, most restaurants were closed however, people still needed to eat. The alternative was food delivery services such as Door Dash and Grub Hub and food trucks. In September of 2020, the Slutty Vegan food truck arrived in 5 Points West and was met with enthusiastic and massive support.
Without any traditional advertising, but by social media and word of mouth, hundreds lined up to get a taste. Birmingham was one stop on her 17-city tour outside of Georgia. Judging by the overwhelming turnout, it was then and there that Pinky Cole knew that she wanted Birmingham to be the home of her first brick and mortar Slutty Vegan outside of the State of Georgia. Woodlawn was the ideal location. However, given the obvious signs of dilapidation in some areas, overgrown lots, and blighted eyesores, some critics questioned, why Woodlawn?
Slutty Vegan and surrounding properties, which are across the street from the current Eastside Funeral Home (Formerly Woodlawn City Hall) are located in what was once considered downtown Woodlawn. The Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport is located approximately seven minutes away from Slutty Vegan. Its also five minutes away from Holiday Inn, the nearest major hotel. For someone visiting Birmingham and staying in the Holiday Inn and looking to taste local establishments over major chain restaurants,
Slutty Vegan offers a wider selection to the restaurants in the nearby entertainment district in Avondale. Furthermore, Woodlawn is largely in a food desert. Two sets of railroad tracks separate Woodlawn from Crestwood, a historically upper middle-class neighborhood. A few blocks away from the Woodlawn Market in Crestwood is the Filling Station, which is an old-fashioned gas station and repair garage converted into a restaurant.
The need for more restaurants and food choices are very much needed in Woodlawn. Pinky Cole saw a need and sought to fill it. REV Birmingham was there to meet that need. The mission of REV Birmingham is to “create vibrant commercial districts in two ways: getting rid of blighting influences and being a catalyst for a business mix that improves residents’ quality of life and provides a growth opportunity for small business owners, particularly minority/women-owned or disadvantaged business owners.” It is the vision of REV Birmingham that Woodlawn become the hub for equitable entrepreneurship. To complete this vision REV Birmingham has four strategies: first, to develop properties in line with this vision and in support of equitable and inclusive entrepreneurship. Second, to support the growth and recruitment of more equitable and inclusive business in Woodlawn. Thirdly, position diverse legacy business for future growth. Lastly, brand Woodlawn as a home for equitable entrepreneurship. REV Birmingham was right in line with what Cole needed. She reached out to one of the premier real estate agencies in Birmingham, Barnes Realty.
Located in the neighboring Avondale community, Barnes Realty has blazed significant trails in the local Birmingham housing and commercial real estate market and throughout Jefferson County. In the wake of helping to bring Slutty Vegan to Woodlawn, Abra Barnes, who serves as the Qualifying Broker at Barnes & Associates stated in a release that, "It has truly been an honor to work as the real estate broker on the team that brought the visionary Pinky Cole and Slutty Vegan ATL to the Magic City and the great state of Alabama”. Woodlawn, along with REV Birmingham, and Slutty vegan and the vision of Pinky Cole were an ideal combination. This was clearly seen on August 21, 2022 during the grand opening.
The line was wrapped around the corner with hundreds patrons seeking to get a taste of Slutty Vegan's unique menu as well as the culture. Dozens of local small business merchants were on hand to sell their merchandise in an open market setting. Local legendary DJ Chris Coleman of V94.9 WATV provided music and created a street festival atmosphere. People came from nearby communities such as East Lake, Avondale, and Crestwood, as well as across town communities. To reward those who came out and stood in line hours before the doors officially, Pinky passed out gift cards to those standing in line. This was a part of her desire to engage in philanthropy when attempting to build and shape communities. According to Abra Barnes, “Pinky understands the power of real estate ownership; it’s a requirement for her when she approaches any new market. By layering ownership with philanthropic work and small business mentorship, she goes into inner-city neighborhoods and uses the Slutty Vegan Concepts as a catalyst for revitalization.”
Pinky Cole is not the only entrepreneur to see the rewarding potential of opening in Woodlawn. Pearl's has become a cornerstone in the Woodlawn Marketplace. "What we wanted was a neighborhood haunt that everyone goes to. When you come here, not only do you get a wonderful meal and a great cup of coffee, but you also get to meet people who are actually in the neighborhood and a have a commitment to seeing a place like this work", says Jason Avery, a 20-year resident and neighborhood president of Woodlawn. Pearl's cafe is slowly becoming the hot spot place for local dining in Woodlawn.
In January of 2016, Armand Margieka and Kyle Campbell opened Woodlawn Bicycle Cafe. The concept for the cafe was built around the culture of cycling and cycle clubs in Birmingham that cycled along the Georgia Rd and 1st Avenue South route inbound to downtown. The cafe featured espresso drinks, pastries, fresh breakfast and lunch dishes, and a small assortment of cycling apparel for sale. In the midst of the global Pandemic, the Cycle Cafe closed in August of 2020. For the four and a half years that it was open, The Cycle Cafe showed what could be. Opening in its place was Pearl's Cafe.
Using the same approach as its predecessor, Woodlawn Cycle Cafe, Pearl's seeks to be the hub of community dining in Woodlawn. "We specialize in homemade food and friendly service", says owner Wendy Lawless. Local restaurants have always been the glue that held communities together. Throughout America in many communities after a big win, a long workday, or during a particular holiday, residents visit the local restaurant, diner, or bar that has probably been there for generations or decades. This is because local restaurants embody the local history, cuisine, the heart and soul of a community. There are major advantages over national chain and theme restaurants. They are more inclined to purchase local meats and poultry and to use local agriculture and farms such as those directly behind Woodlawn High School.
According to some small business experts, local business experts, local businesses and restaurants generate almost four times more economic benefits for the local economy. A local restaurant is more inclined to hire those in close proximity and have historical ties to that community. As community cornerstones, they serve as the places where teenagers get their first jobs. As opposed to national chains, local diners provide a sense of community belonging and identity. The culinary experience is different because local eateries tend to offer more of a homestyle menu. They're more personalized and tied to the communities they serve. On any given day of operation, you can find those meeting for brunch ranging from local up and coming artists to first time mom and dad's club, to intellectuals, college students, retirees, and small business aspirants. Collectively they represent a diverse range of citizens seeking to make Woodlawn the ideal community.
Inside of Pearl's one can find products made by local artists and merchants such as customed welcome mats, Afrocentric jewelry, candles, and coffee. Many of these products can be purchased from these merchants at the Woodlawn street market. "We wanted Pearl's to embody and personify the everyday citizen and have a community atmosphere. People tend to go where they are loved and see themselves", Lawless says. Named after her Aunt Pearl who had a development disability and actually grew up in Woodlawn, Lawless wanted to give back to the community by employing others with disabilities.
According to Wendy Lawless, people identify with location and locale. She desires for Pearl's to be such a community staple and mainstay that people travelling into the city would desire to visit and grab something "Birmingham". This adds to the authenticity of Pearl's and what it provides. The five principles of a great meal are: Adequacy, Balance, Variety, Moderation, Nourishment. What we eat greatly affects how we feel about ourselves. What Lawless seeks to accomplish with Pearl's is providing patrons with a unique menu that is cognizant of health choices and proper nourishment. A lot of love, heart and soul goes into the menu. This is what keeps regular customers coming to dine at this new peaceful establishment that offers a gathering for love. Wherever you have community gathering, you have community cohesion.
"You have people in Woodlawn now who are committed to living here. After this neighborhood suffered from white flight, still owning the homes but letting them deteriorate, that's now gone. The keys now are now getting the properties into the hands of people who really want to live here. Without that, you're still going to fight those same struggles", according to Woodlawn Neighborhood President Jason Avery. The idea and course of action now is to create affordable quality homes for qualified buyers who are able to maintain and sustain such homes over an extended period of time, perhaps generationally. the first three of sixteen new homes being constructed in Woodlawn as part of a new affordable housing development.
On March 9, 2023, the first three of sixteen new homes being constructed in Woodlawn as part of a new affordable housing development got new residents. Birmingham Mayor Randal Woodfin, members of his administration, and members of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition were on hand to cut the ribbon welcoming the new residents into their new homes. This project is part of a larger commitment to build 200 new homes around Birmingham, with Woodlawn and Oak Hill in Belview Heights as initial demonstrations of that plan.
According to Mayor Woodfin, "The black-white homeownership gap is higher now than during Jim Crow. We must break this cycle by ensuring more affordable housing in our neighborhoods. We look forward to continuing to expand this affordable housing model to other neighborhoods and continuing our work to close the racial wealth gap in our city. This is the power of investing in our communities" The benefits from homeownership have not been shared equally. In the second quarter of 2022, the homeownership rate for white households was 75 percent compared to 45 percent for Black households, 48 percent for Hispanic households, and 57 percent for non-Hispanic households of any other race. The gaps in homeownership rates have changed significantly over the last three decades. As a matter of fact, the racial gap in home ownership rates between blacks and whites was the same in 2020 as it was in 1970, just two years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which sought to end racial discrimination in the housing market.
The vestiges of a food desert are very much so noticeable in Woodlawn. Recently, the Messer-Airport Road/Airport Holiday Inn location of Hardee's at the Kingston-Woodlawn border, recently closed. The 1st Avenue North stretch in Woodlawn was once home to a variety of eating establishments. The present day Metro PCS was once home to Pizza Hut. The overflow lot to Magic City Motors was once home to Krystal's. At the East Lake and Woodlawn border during the 1970's there was once a popular hamburger restaurant, Kelly's along with a popular hamburger and ice cream shop called, The Spinning Wheel. The present day was once home to Lee's Chicken. A Captain D's once sat across the street from the current McDonald's. In 1988, Anthony Ray Hinton was convicted and sentenced to Alabama's death row on two counts of capital murder stemming from two 1985 robbery-homicides which included the murders of a Mrs. Winner's Chicken manager John Davidson and Woodlawn location Captain D's assistant manager, Thomas Wayne Vason. After spending 28 years on death row and in solitary confinement, his sentence was overturned and vacated because DNA evidence and fire arms ballistic tests could not link him to the crime. After he was released, he wrote a New York Time 's Best Seller, "The Sun Does Shine" and was featured on Oprah Winfrey, as well as awarded an honorary Doctorate. He now serves as a spokesperson for the Witness To Innocence Program.
Despite Anthony Ray Hinton's eventual exoneration 28 years after his initial conviction, in the mid 1980's during the peak of the crack epidemic and throughout the 1990's, crime still managed to be a problem in Woodlawn. The unsolved murder of Thomas Wayne Vason at Captain D's that night still has repercussions to this day. Repeated robberies led to the eventual permanent closing and demolition of the Captain D's. By this time, the depression and dilapidation of the community became all too visible and a dismal reality. Drug transactions and usage as well as public prostitution could be seen, even during daylight hours on 1st Avenue North, mainly in front of low budget motels next to where Captain D's once stood. Recently, due to vagrancy, homeless panhandling, prostitution, and a rash of violence and gunfire which included firing into the drive-thru, the McDonald's in Woodlawn which has stood since the mid-1970's has now closed.
"It's really sad and frustrating to see them go. They've been there for over 40 years. I can understand why the owners have decided to leave", explained Wayne Honeycutt, owner of the and Woodlawn neighborhood business president. Honeycutt, who has operated his barbershop in Woodlawn for 40 years sees the closure as a major setback for the area. He went on to express how while on the road to success, there will be setbacks and disappointments. However, that doesn't mean that they should be tolerated. " I was hoping that at the last minute, the owners would change their minds but when I saw the iconic Golden arches taken down, I knew then that the game was over", Honeycutt disappointingly expressed. Despite the disheartening sequence of events, Honeycutt is still optimistic.
"We don't know at this point what will eventually replace the McDonald's but what we definitely don't need is another convenience store and gas station. What we need is another sit own restaurant, something with longevity adding to the property value", he says. He went on to share sentiments that the future of Woodlawn does not rest in the closure of a McDonald's but in what is to come, which are homegrown establishments. However, as he said, there are some harsh realities that must be addressed. Honeycutt and others like him all agree that the root problem is poverty and its direct link to crime. According to a report by prisonpolicy.org entitled, "Arrest, Release, Repeat", at least 4.9 million people go to county and city jails annually and those who go more than once a year are disproportionately have incomes under $10,000. Each time a person is jailed, their economic prospects are diminished.
Black Americans are overrepresented among people who were arrested in 2017. Poverty is strongly correlated with multiple arrests. Low educational attainment increases the likelihood of arrest. People with multiple arrests are 4 times more likely to be unemployed. Many have serious mental health concerns. The people with multiple arrests are disproportionately black, low income, less educated, and unemployed. Honeycutt went on to further state that there should be a massive overhaul to address the mental health of residents in such marginalized and disenfranchised areas. "You have to engage people where they are. You have to get people to talking and open up avenues for dialogue, especially with the young generation because there is such a communication and generational gap", Honeycutt says.
Mr. Honeycutt often takes time out to speak with Woodlawn High School students as they walk home from school. It is at basic moments like these that Honeycutt feels that he's able to connect with the youth and young adults. "Often times, as adults we tend to look past and look over the youth. We really don't know what's going on in their world when in fact they have a strong ear to the streets and what's going on. Many feel, why should I talk to you, I don't know you. This is one of the unfortunate realities of social media where people digitally "talk" to one another whereas in my younger days, we actually spoke face to face", Honeycutt explained. He went on further to explain how he's learned about a lot of students who were in fact honor roll students and All-American athletes. "We've got to put the neighbor back into neighborhood", he said.
Recently Honeycutt, hosted a mental health forum, "Brothers Let's Talk", in his barbershop along with a host of African American mental health professionals. Members of the Beta Mu Nu Chapter of Omega Psi Phi, as well as men from all around Birmingham came to participate in a group session as to what have been some of the problem areas in their lives that have affected them emotionally and mentally. Afterwards, they were treated to a full course meal and medical screening from local health professionals. According to Honeycutt, "We've got to return to the grass roots of things. Many of these issues are people issues that can be solved by people, not politically. Many people around here are hurting and it shows. Only hurt people hurt people. We have to take the stigma out of mental health in order to get people to really strive for change. This is why so many turn to alcohol and drugs to cope.".
Over half of people arrested multiple times reported a substance use disorder in the past year. People with multiple arrests were 3 times more likely to have a serious mental illness There has to be substantial public investments in employment assistance. It is obvious that failed "get tough on crime" stances of past decades simply did not work and caused more harm than good due to the fact that massive numbers of people were incarcerated. People have to be trained for jobs that provide living wages. Such training must include income maintenance/wealth development and health awareness. People with multiple arrests were less likely to have access to health care. Individuals who were arrested and booked more than once were over 3 times more likely to have no health insurance. "You must invest in human capital. People have to be given the tools, education, and mindset to build the community that they should live in. People have to have a healthy space to move around in and change is definitely coming to Woodlawn", Honeycutt stated. Jason Avery takes a similar stance but delves into a more forward progressive stance.
"The closing of a fast-food restaurant has no effect on the long-term development of Woodlawn. There are already food venues in Woodlawn such as Pearl's, Slutty Vegan, Green Thumb, Two Dough Girls Pizza, and others on the way. Woodlawn is not the food desert that some suggest", Jason Avery stated. Some critics have chosen to use the McDonald's to reinforce the narrative of crime and poverty in the Woodlawn community. Avery countered by saying, "The loss of a fast-food restaurant is just that, fast food. What we want is access to healthy food and we see this through the partnerships with Woodlawn United Methodist, Grace Episcopal, and Jones Valley Teaching Farm. Burger King will be closing stores nationwide. McDonald's has closed restaurants nationwide. They even closed one right over in Homewood that didn't garner any negative attention, because its Homewood. Some just want to continue repeating negativity. I'm not with that narrative and nonsense", he further stated.
Jason Avey like any other visionary and optimist feels that the true trajectory of a thriving community, or one that desires to rebuild and brand itself begins not with the politician and government but the grass roots citizens. There are many persons involved on a host of levels and organizations of playing a vital role in the empowerment and development of Woodlawn. One such person is Myeisha Hutchinson.
When Myeisha Hutchinson graduated as class valedictorian of Woodlawn High School Class of 2001, there was a sense of stigma of being a student of the high school. Violence had long since plagued the school as stabbings often occurred as well as firearms being discovered on school grounds. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Woodlawn High School gained the nickname, "Eastside High", referencing the troubled school in the motion picture Lean On Me, starring Morgan Freeman as the former controversial principal Joe Clark who once patrolled the hallways with a baseball bat. After graduating from Talladega College four years later, Ms. Hutchinson would return to Woodlawn and serve on a host of organizations, committed to improving the quality of life in Woodlawn, including becoming a former neighborhood president. Myeisha Hutchinson embodies the compassionate leader that exists to serve the people.
As a founder of MDH Strategies and fellow of WE Lead which stands for Woodlawn Effect, she's worked with a gambit of community, civic and corporate leaders and organizations including Mashonda Taylor, Woodlawn United Executive Director; Meghan Ann Hellenga, Woodlawn United Deputy Director; Joe Ayers, Woodlawn United Real Estate Director; and Precious Freeman of the Measures for Justice Director of National Engagement, as well as Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and Birmingham City Councilors. WE Lead, a partnership between Woodlawn United and MDH Strategies, is a leadership program for community-focused leaders in Birmingham. Myeisha Hutchinson is one of the dozens of the "fabulous under 40" leaders that are deeply and genuinely committed to improving the quality of life for Woodlawn and its residents, her alma mater and current student body, and the city of Birmingham as a whole.
According to Jason Avery, "she's the definition of the homegirl next door that made the neighborhood great. She's always trying to improve the community". Woodlawn, like so many other communities saw a viable demographic leave such communities without leaving any type of playbook behind. What people like Myeisha Hutchinson have done with compassion is salvage viable segments of Woodlawn and resurrect them into vibrant safe places and green spaces. Too many chose to criticize obvious signs of progress and repeat the often slow pace of change in some pockets of Birmingham narrative. However, Myeisha Hutchinson has chosen a plan of action. That plan includes changing how people in Birmingham and Woodlawn see themselves. Second, it involves preparing future young leaders to receive the baton and torch when passed to them.
Where there is a lack of vision, the people will perish. What was needed were people and entities who not only cared but were emotionally involved to the point of investing their heart as well as capital and other resources. Kecalf Sharp remembers a time during his childhood in Woodlawn where basically everything that he and is family needed was right there in Woodlawn. Downtown Birmingham was within three miles away just across the Sloss Furnace overpass. His mother could purchase cloth to sew clothes for the family from Hancock Fabrics as well as shop at A&P in neighboring Avondale. Being a born and raised native of Woodlawn, a 1988 graduate of Woodlawn High School, as well as a realtor with Barnes and Associates Realtors, he's seen the high and lows of changes within his community.
"In the 1970s & 1980s, the area was bustling with generations after generations of families, raising their kids, grandparents, great grandparents, and a plethora of kids playing in the areas that comprise Woodlawn", according to Mr. Sharp. On Division Avenue and 1st Ave South beginning behind the present day Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store on Christmas mornings, the streets were crowded as children were outside riding their new bicycles, and roller skates which were popular Christmas items for children of that era. The Woodlawn of that era resembled a Norman Rockwell painting. However, as Mr. Sharp explained, "as the younger residents in all of the Woodlawn communities started moving away and the elder residents began to transition or move into elderly care facilities due to age, the Woodlawn community became somewhat empty and faded. Coupled with the drug epidemic at that time, this is when Woodlawn began its downward trajectory. Despite this unfortunate history, there were those who were willing to invest capital, and other resources into the community.
What Woodlawn needed was love, a vision, and financial investment in both monetary and human capital. People in the community had to be first taught about the value of homeownership and how to properly maintain good property value. The citizens of Woodlawn had to take control. Old homes had to be either renovated, if not torn down completely and new and affordable homes had to be built. "Now, with the affordable housing programs, and new planned affordable residential construction being implemented by the City of Birmingham, growth and restoration appears inevitable", Mr. Sharp further explains.
One of the first developments was the renovation of Wood Station, a mixed income housing development and nearby affordable single-family homes. The Irondale based Church of the Highlands invested heavily in the community by acquiring the old Woodlawn fire station that was converted to the current Dream Center. In 2009, Dr. Robert Record and Dr. John Fischer opened the Christ Health Clinic. The old Gibson Elementary was purchased by the Church of the Highlands, after which it was demolished, making way for the new Church of the Highlands Woodlawn campus.
There are seven components that go into building a strong community: vision, leader, people, passion, content, platform/gathering place, and trust. A community must have a vision and that vision should be a long term because time builds strength and a community's character. From that initial vision, leaders have to emerge. "As a 28-year veteran of the US Air Force, I know the importance of visionary and inclusive leadership and building a unit based on a broad diversity of individuals that are committed to a unified goal of mission accomplishment", Kecalf Sharp explains. It has become increasingly clear that all of Woodlawn's residents, despite their diverse backgrounds, all want the same thing. Perhaps the final nail in Woodlawn's coffin decades ago was that of a brain drain.
For those that are defined as Generation X, many chose to attend college. After college, many would relocate to regionally more progressive areas and cities such as Atlanta, Nashville, and Charlotte. Many of the close proximity plants that provided jobs to several generations of men such as Chicago Bridge, Connor's Steel, O'Neal Steel, and Stockholm Valves and Fittings closed for good. As a result, the industrial era of Birmingham died. What happened in many communities such as Woodlawn and neighboring Avondale, Kingston, and some parts of East Lake were revolving doors of temporary tenants in many of the homes in those communities. Temporary residents do not invest in long term visions. What has to happen is that people, particularly low income residents have to be taught is financial literacy and fiscal responsibility. Second, they have to be taught People, especially low-income residents will have to be taught about the power of home ownership and the benefits of establishing low term roots.
"This new homeownership outlook should restore what was once a place with deep family roots and hopefully spearhead future generational growth, for residents who didn’t think homeownership was possible" Sharp explains. According to the 2020 National Community Reinvestment Coalition Home Mortgage Report, home loans granted to majority-minority neighborhoods declined to 18.5% in that year from 19.1% just two years prior. In January of 2022, data also revealed that the homeownership gap between Black and white Americans is currently the widest it has even been in the past 100 years. In many pockets in Woodlawn, just as through much of Birmingham, many residents live in government subsidized housing and otherwise low rent districts. Coupled with low skilled jobs that do not provide a living wage income, cyclical and generational poverty is inevitable. These types of areas are labelled credit deserts.
Such areas provide little access to mainstream credit, which results in low or absent credit scores for its residents. This in turn makes it very difficult to become homeowners. Based on 2019 Census data, 72% of white families are homeowners in contrast to 42% of blacks being homeowners. The average first home purchased by a black buyers is valued at $127,000 but accrue $90,000 in mortgage debt. However, first time white homebuyer's homes are valued at $139,000 with a $75,000 mortgage debt. As a result, this positions Black home buyers to accrue more debt for a less-valued asset, which in turn weakens their return on the initial investment.
"Despite these unfortunate realities about the homeownership gaps, there are those who are aggressively seeking ways to bridge these gaps. Also you have a couple of generations that are better armed with economic, financial, and realty knowledge, as well as a serious commitment to commercial growth and development", Sharp explains. The Woodlawn street festival and market has become a new tradition. With COVID-19 becoming increasingly A host of new venues are coming into the area, particularly along the 1st Avenue North artery through Woodlawn such as the Woodlawn bar. New and unique stores such as and consignment shop. "To see my community, so heavily engaged in business, residential, and economic growth warms my heart. From what I see, a few people thoroughly engulfed in true residential economic empowerment and generational growth, are far greater than a mass with lukewarm enthusiasm. New history is being created, in Woodlawn, and I’m anxious to see it unfold. Woodlawn is back!", he declares.
One obvious sign of the "return of Woodlawn", is the very high school itself. In November of 2021, Birmingham Public School Superintendent Dr. Mark Sullivan and the Birmingham Board Of Education unanimously approved a bid of $8.7 million to build a stadium and field house at Woodlawn High School. This move gave a much-needed sigh of relief to a school that for several decades was the poster child of Birmingham neglect. Dr. Sullivan, who is also a Woodlawn alumnus, felt especially proud that the BOE approved the necessary funds. With the new construction of the football field, the property value of surrounding blocks which consist of vacant lots, dilapidated, and charred abandoned homes. Some people outside of the community may ask, what is the value of the new stadium and school altogether?
In the American south, Sunday professional football, Saturday afternoon college football, and high school Friday night lights are basically a regional cult like tradition. Sports are the one thing that brings an entire community together, especially during winning seasons. As depicted in the motion picture, "Woodlawn", perhaps the greatest or at least most memorable high school football game ever played in Birmingham was between Woodlawn and Banks High School. "Schools are the heart in any community and being an alumnus of Woodlawn High School provided me an incredible opportunity as a teenager to learn how community works", say Clifford Kennon, a 1986 graduate of Woodlawn High school.
In the middle 1970's, Woodlawn's games were moved to nearby Lawson Stadium approximately 3 miles away. It is believed that as a cost cutting measure and to accommodate larger game attendances, the home games for Woodlawn, Banks, often Hayes, and Huffman were condensed into Lawson Stadium. "While I attended Woodlawn, none of our games were at the actual school. However, Lawson was nearby. On game nights, for the people that lived right at Woodlawn High, in Wood Station, Dansby Court, and along Georgia Road into Gate City often walked. Now, home games will actually be home games and it adds to the quality of life for the school", according to Kennon who is currently employed at UAB.
Clifford Kennon also feels that the new football field should be just one aspect of investing in the school and overall community. "During my tenure at Woodlawn, the football program perhaps wasn't as legendary as previous decades. But what we were known for was our marching band, The Marching Colonels. Our halftime performances were legendary and were basically battle of the bands, he recalls. Keenon was a trombone player in the band and took his craft seriously. In Birmingham, many of the predominantly black high school marching bands were breeding grounds for talent acquisition. For many schools with lack-luster athletic teams, for what they may lack in athletic notoriety, a premier showcase savvy marching band more than makes up for it. "Just as with then and now, many people live hard lives and at the end of the week, they want a great game and half-time show that makes them feel good about their community", he proclaims. Mr. Kennon goes on to express that what "he received from Woodlawn was invaluable despite many of the challenges that still face the school and surrounding neighborhoods today.
"Under the direction of band director Mr. Edward Maddox, we learned music theory and how to master the classic selections of top-heavy brass bands such as Earth, Wind, and Fire, the O'Jays, the Tuskegee's very own, the Commodores". What Kennon was learning was not just school pride, but discipline, precision, and leadership. Clifford Kennon went on to further explain, "Woodlawn High School has served the neighborhood of students, parents, residents and neighborhood leaders since its founding over 100 years ago. Quality education, extra-curricular activities, student-sports along with community activities have all served the community well". Clifford knows first-hand because he was one of those who benefitted tremendously from having attended Woodlawn. Upon graduating from Woodlawn, Kennon would attend Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida after which he would transfer to UAB and became a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated.
"Of course we saw the obvious signs of poverty and crime as with many underserved and underprivileged communities and schools and we didn't let that define us. However, not all was doom and gloom in Woodlawn. There were those who wanted something out of life and I was one of them", he reflects upon his teen years. He has been deeply involved throughout Birmingham in a host of organizations including the local chapter of the NAACP. Recently, he was awarded and inducted into UAB's Master's of Public Administration's (MPA) Hall of Fame. Each year, a UAB MPA Alumni is inducted into the MPA Hall of Fame for outstanding contributions to the field of public administration as well as the community. He attributes his education at Woodlawn High school as being the foundation of the path that he would ultimately dedicate a life's work to improving the quality of life in the Greater Birmingham area.
"What I perhaps gained the most from having graduated from Woodlawn was character and a keen sense of accomplishment. This is why Woodlawn High School and the neighborhood has to succeed because when I look at the opportunities and resources that are available today that weren't around decades ago, although success may be slow, failure should not ever be an option. Throughout Birmingham, and even across the nation in many places, we've accepted failure for far too long" he commented. It will take a committed and consistent collective effort on the parts of those such as Clifford Kennon, Kecalf sharp and Barnes Realty as well as REV Birmingham and current merchants to truly bring about the desired results.
As the Bible says, charity starts at home, and spreads abroad, to homegrown Woodlawners and "Colonels" such as Sharp and Kennon feel that it also begins with the school itself. "We are proud of our legacy, for all of its highs and lows. Some of the best and brightest to influence Birmingham and even the world came from Woodlawn. We're proud to boast of legendary FSU Coach Bobby Bowden as well as NFL legends Tony Nathan and now Karlos Dansby", Kennon says. Karlos Dansby is a former Buffalo Bills player who's attempting to open up grocery stores in Birmingham to address the food deserts in the city. "We are also proud of the many doctors, educators, scientists, and lawyers that are alumni. We are also proud of alumni politicians such as Hank Erwin that helped to make the motion picture, "Woodlawn". Kecalf Sharp says. Perhaps the most recognized alumni and Woodlawn neighborhood native is actor and comedian Rickey Smiley.
Rickey Smiley, who started out in 1996 at local WBHJ 95.7 Jamz, can now be heard on the nationally syndicated Rickey Smiley Morning Show. In the midst of trying period in not just the neighborhood of Woodlawn but the city of Birmingham, Rickey Smiley took his experiences along the way and parlayed them into standup comedy in the early 1990's. His urban style of comedy, minus a lot of vulgarity, spoke about life in Birmingham, his black church experiences, and being a young black man in America in his early 20's. He would often appear at local improv nights not even earning $50 a show.
Earning the reputation as a "local joker", he would eventually land appearances on BET's Comic View, Showtime at the Apollo, and Def Comedy Jam as well as the college circuit. His first major length break came in 2002 when he co-starred in Friday After Next with Ice Cube, Mike Epps, and fellow actor and comedian Kat Williams. He would go on to also appear in First Sunday and Baggage Claim, as well as his stand up movie, Casket Sharp and his own sitcom, "The Rickey Smiley Show on the TV-One Network. Upon Tom Joyner's retirement, Rickey Smiley would replace Joyner and now reaches millions across the world every morning. Staying humble and true to his roots, everywhere that he has gone, he always let people know that he's a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, attended HBCU's such as Alabama State and Tuskegee, and that he's from Birmingham, specifically Woodlawn.
Perhaps the greatest sign of what Woodlawn is becoming is the monthly Woodlawn Market. One weekend every month, local merchants, food trucks, street vendors, dance troupes, artisans, and performing artists convene in the parking lot. Decades ago such an event was unimaginable. Such an event is intended to create a community festival event designed to give small business owners to showcase their merchandise ranging from scented candles, confectionary treats, t-shirts and apparel, jewelry, books, and a host of other types of wares. Now in its 10th year, it has become a staple event in the Woodlawn community.
What it has also shown is what can happen when diverse members of communities come together. Public markets such as the one in Woodlawn serve as public gathering places for people from different cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic communities. When this happens, everyone wins and walks away with something.
Public markets operate in public space, serve locally owned & operated businesses, and usually have public goals such as improving the quality of life in an area. This is accomplished by encouraging community and economic development by keeping money in the local neighborhood. The overall theme is shop where you live.
Neighborhood markets also offer low-risk business opportunities for small business/mom & pop and those who basically operate from their basement or even out the trunks of their cars. Street markets have fresher products and usually involve local people or farmers selling their products, whereas supermarkets sell more commercialized products. The products that are sold in neighborhood markets have lower prices. The products that are sold at shopping malls tend to have higher prices. Setting up a shop at a mall requires higher investment. Selling at a neighborhood market gives greater visibility and increased opportunities and the likelihood of sales.
At a May 2023 Town Hall meeting held in the Woodlawn Gymnasium many residents from area neighborhoods and neighborhood presidents came to express their concerns and issues. Birmingham City Councilor of District 4, Councilor J.T. Moore and Community activist and organizer Ms. Deanna "Dee" Reed were on hand to facilitate the numerous questions and concerns. This came on the eve of Woodlawn being nominated by the Neighborhoods USA (NUSA) for its Neighborhood of the Year award. The fact that Woodlawn was among 500 other neighborhoods nationwide that were nominated, including Birmingham's Five Points West community, Jason Avery didn't think that Woodlawn had a realistic chance at winning.
In June, NUSA named Woodlawn as its Neighborhood of the Year at its national conference in El Paso, Texas. In addition to this prestigious accomplishment, Five Points West received 2nd place for the Multi-Neighborhood Partnership category as well. Neighborhood president, he attributed Woodlawn winning this award to a host of factors. "many times, in order to change the view, you have to change your view", he said. Jason Avery attributes the success of the community to the Litter and Trash Abatement Movement. This movement is comprised of four elements: the Team Up 2 Clean Up initiative, piloting the smart trash receptacle for Birmingham, Woodlawn's Subcommittee for illegal dumping, and the Way, which is a mural gallery of 11 artists. Earlier in the spring, Jason Avery along with other community resident teamed up with officials at Regions Bank to remove litter from the streets of Birmingham, as well as place trash cans on the sidewalks.
"Being recognized as Neighborhood of the Year at NUSA is a great honor and serves as great reminder that all the seeds we have sown over the past 20 years have begun to sprout and take root. But now is not the time to let our joy make us complacent", Avery said of Woodlawn's recent award. There is still much more work to be done to anchor Woodlawn as the premier catalyst for change and transform the community into a complete economical and commercial powerhouse. In order to accomplish this, other problematic areas within Woodlawn will have to be addressed as well. The blueprint for success has been drawn. Some still doubt. However, Jason Avery is very visionary in his next phase of expectations. "I prefer to look ahead to the game changing projects, new partners and collaboration we can forge in the next twenty years. Using this award as a base for even greater honors is what we are looking to achieve in Woodlawn", he says.
Many current residents and Woodlawn alumni are very much so aware of the tremendous gains that Woodlawn has accomplished in the past 10 years. This was the tone of the recent Woodlawn School reunion. People want to know that they are connected to a winning formula and legacy that is bigger than themselves. This is why graduates of Woodlawn that left the state return to the hallowed and sacred grounds of their alma mater to reconnect with former classmates. When one ventures into downtown Birmingham, South Side, particularly UAB, the Lakeview entertainment district, and Avondale, much of Birmingham would be unrecognizable to those who left fifteen to twenty years ago.
Clearly a new direction with various new pathways to success are being constructed by a newer generation with traditional expectations. People still desire clean and viable neighborhoods that are crime free with quality schools for their children, devoid of food desserts, complete with access to modern conveniences and amenities. Through the collective efforts of local politicians, neighborhood leaders, community activists, business leaders, merchants, land banks/developers, clergy, and concerned residents, Woodlawn is on a new trajectory of influence.
The foundation and bedrock of any society is a strong community. Strong and viable communities provide the stability that is necessary for a community to thrive. It has been thoroughly proven and determined by psychologists and social scientists that the well-being of children and families is directly impacted when they reside in strong, stable, inclusive, and supportive communities. Children who come from healthy ad stable homes, often two-parented, are more inclined to promote and propel an upward bound society that is an extension of the homes and communities that they derived from.
The work that is needed to make a community a viable asset to the overall municipality requires that of a community effort. When a community unifies, they're able to build relationships that give that community a voice. The power of that voice drives change. People are more inclined to get involved when they feel that they have a voice. Feeling as if a part of an engaging community gives citizens a sense of belonging. It enables people to share personal relatedness and support perpetual growth of the individual, the collective, and the environment. A community helps people develop a stronger sense of personal and collective identity. The identity in this case will be emboldened by Woodlawn High School.
In a few weeks, Coach Clarence Williams will begin Woodlawn's 2023 Football season by leading his Woodlawn Colonel's football team into their new home stadium. This will be the first time since the mid-1970's that an actual game will be played in this exact location. This will also begin perhaps a new era because with it will be a new sense of school pride. Playing their games on a home field will boost the student's and community's self-esteem and passion about not just the school, but the community as a whole. People need to have something to rally behind.
"The new stadium will allow us to start a new tradition at Woodlawn that students can be proud of. It will allow alumni to come back and feel a sense of ownership in their school", says Mr. Demetrius Turner, one of the current Assistant Principals and Men's Basketball Coach. Psychologists have suggested that our love for football has much to do with our need to be social and the need for a sense of tribalism. Sports is an easy catalyst for community identity. When fans are able to adorn themselves in school colors, team jerseys, and body/face paint, it is because they have a strong sense of commitment to a winning tradition, and everyone loves a winner.
Mr. Turner also went on to state that, "the attendance will provide much needed revenue for the school having an on-campus facility and increase traffic that will positively affect the business community". Although there is a lack of brick-and-mortar restaurants in the immediate vicinity, on game nights, food trucks should presumably generate substantial profits. When asked what role the community play can in empowering the school and rebuilding the brand, Coach Turner replied that they would like to see Woodlawn residents establish not just a connection but partnerships. "We want to see lasting community partnerships which include a community adopt a program within the school. We would like to see businesses in the area invest in the school such as buy ads for the Jumbotron, etc. and to help facilitate a Friday night football game day atmosphere to bridge gap between community and school Come out and support the athletic departments!", Coach Turner explained in detail.
Schools are how communities regenerate themselves. When the community engages the many facets of schools, the school reaps numerous benefits. Studies show that community involvement improves academic engagement, which in turn motivates students. When communities, schools, parents, families, and students work together to support learning, students tend to earn higher grades, attend school more regularly, and there is a reduction in truancy and dropout rates.
Facing the challenges of post-COVID-19 in education, Woodlawn under the principalship of Ramika Davis is increasingly prepared to move the school forward through a host of endeavors. If one was to inquire about the current climate and academic culture of the school, they will see that there are a plethora of programs and extra-curricular activities that empower the modern student and scholar. It is the objective of the Woodlawn High School faculty, administration, and staff to prepare a Woodlawn High School graduate with the education and tools to meet the challenges and demands of modern society.
Woodlawn now serves as a good example and template of what happens when a community collectively unifies to successfully improve the quality of life for all of its residents. Woodlawn has undergone significant changes that as recent as ten or fifteen years ago were unthinkable. Of course, there are areas within the community that need immediate attention. However, much of the blight and dilapidation did not manifest itself overnight. Therefore, it will not be rectified and eradicated overnight. The fact of the matter is that citizens have banded and bonded to make drastic improvements that propel a community forward.
Mistakes of the past must be addressed and learned from. Learning from these mistakes, a new chapter is being written. This new chapter consists of a new focus and direction. Residents will have to feel that regardless of socio-economic standing, educational backgrounds, and racial ethnicity, Woodlawn can be a healthy safe space for all to grow and prosper. This in turn invites potential investors, merchants, and developers. The foundation has been laid and key progress has been made. Now remains a commitment to progress. The future spells success. Woodlawn for the big "W".