A Tale of Two Neighborhoods

(Disclaimer: What I am about to write about Norwood is in no way meant to be a slight against the neighborhood and the people that live there and desire to make Norwood a great place. It is simply to recount the history of the neighborhood and discuss the difficulties that it has faced and how that history relates to other parts of Birmingham.)

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Norwood is a neighborhood just to the north and east of downtown. It was founded at the turn of the twentieth century as a neighborhood for the rising rich elite of Birmingham’s industrial complex. Much has been said about Norwood, especially recently with efforts to revitalize the neighborhood. My goal in this article is not to retread that ground but to compare and contrast Norwood with another Birmingham neighborhood, one that in many ways was developed as a mirror image. That neighborhood is Highland Park.

 

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Highland Park during Snowpocalypse

Highland Park, like Norwood, was a neighborhood developed for the rich of Birmingham. It sits across Jones Valley on the south and east side of downtown and developed shortly before Norwood. The original builders and owners of these places basically sat on the hills of Jones Valley across from each other, overlooking the industrial valley they created and owned. The design of these neighborhoods with the housing, central curving streets for use by the streetcar and shared park space are remarkably similar. The early history of these two places is also similar. With the rise of the automobile age the elite of the city realized they no longer needed to live in the polluted Jones Valley and quickly abandoned these neighborhoods for a new, more exclusive and less polluted neighborhood over the mountain. That neighborhood is of course Mountain Brook. Though the 1%ers left, this was by no means the end of these places. Middle to upper income whites moved in and continued to build houses, though they were more modest than the first grand estates. This abandonment by the elite did however create the first fissure, which was that the housing originally built by the rich was simply too large and ornate for your average person to want or afford. Today, ironically, it is many of these greatest and most expensive houses that have fared the worst in Norwood.

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Both neighborhoods continued along similar paths until the 60’s, when desegregation and white flight hit. This is where the paths of the two diverge and I want to examine why. Many black families moved into Norwood after whites left for the burbs. These black families had the same desires as their white counterparts, to live in a safe and prosperous community. However, their economic status along with their smaller numbers meant that they simply could not equally replace the much richer whites that had left. A large house is a large house and requires a certain level of income to maintain. Having fewer people with much less income will always lead to neglect and abandonment, regardless of race. Cities are great at scaling up but very bad at scaling down. This is of course a story repeated across much of the city and one I will deal with in a future post. In this regard, Highland Park is more the anomaly and Norwood the norm. But why was Highland Park able to continue to prosper and retain a large population when Norwood was not?

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The first and most obvious reason is that Highland Park was able to retain far more white residents that Norwood. This was most likely due to its location; it literally sits on the back end of Mountain Brook on the other side of Red Mountain. It also sits between Forest Park and Southside, other areas of the city that have retained high population densities. This does not mean that a place must have white residents to be prosperous, it simply means that you can’t have a total abandonment of a neighborhood by the majority population and expect the minority population to be able to fill that hole, especially not when that minority population is economically disenfranchised. This only can work if you have a large immigrant population that is able to come in after and fill the void, which Birmingham has not had.

 

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Redlining map from 1930’s. Even then the neighborhood was being written off as “declining”

 

The retention of population by Highland Park is in contrast to Norwood, which sits next to Druid Hills, North Birmingham and Collegeville, neighborhoods that have had significant population loss and struggled with crime and poverty. Highland Park is also much better connected to the rest of Birmingham than Norwood and this problem lies most directly with the negative impacts of the Interstate System on Birmingham. I-20/59 cut right through the south of the neighborhood, dividing it from downtown. Much has been made of this recently with the campaign to move I-20/59 and how the neighborhoods north of downtown were negatively affected by the interstate. In comparing Norwood to Highland Park I also thought of another disconnect that has not been discussed, and that is the industrial area just to the east of downtown. This is the area containing Sloss Furnace and once seamlessly flowed into Norwood but was of course cut off by the interstate. Why should this fairly bleak, industrial area have any value for Norwood? Well, look at the mirror image across the tracks and it becomes very apparent. Highland Park seamless flows downhill into Lakeview and then Pepper Place. This area was also of a similar industrial nature but is quickly turning into a vibrant mixed use area with apartments/condos, restaurants/bars and even one of the best farmers markets in the city. The Lakeview/Pepper Place section of Southside, which was once probably viewed more as a detractor to Highland Park is now one of its biggest selling points. In some alternate reality this could have been the case for Norwood, but whatever the different circumstances of that alternate reality, I am sure I-20/59 does not play a part.

 

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Nothing increases property values like an 8 lane highway

The final difference is that Highland Park was able to change. Today, it is the most dense, urban neighborhood in Alabama. This is in stark contrast to when it was first developed as a much lower density development for the rich. High-rise condos and apartments join million dollar mansions and small bungalows to create a truly diverse built environment. This is what allows is to still be affordable and accessible while at the same time desirable to a large segment of Birmingham’s population and is in part why it was named one of America’s 10 best neighborhoods in 2011.

 

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The division continues

Of course Highland Park was able to change because it always had a certain level of demand from people who wanted to live there. This was not the case with Norwood, which struggled to maintain demand. Absent enough demand, a built environment will simply remain static until it disintegrates. So I don’t want to blame Norwood for not changing and adapting, it probably just didn’t have much opportunity to do so. Nor do I think Norwood should be Highland Park. Norwood should be Norwood, however I think both can be dense, diverse, desirable urban neighborhoods that are great places for people to live.

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