On one side of First Avenue North, Bayles Restaurant and Catering serves everything from thick hamburgers to lentil soup for a steady stream of residents, workers and even police officers. Across the street, other people flow into the soup kitchen offered by Grace Episcopal Church. A few blocks down at Woodlawn United Methodist Church, volunteers load boxes with meat, dry goods and vegetables for a regular food distribution to needy families.
You don’t have to look far to see both the success of redevelopment and the challenges that remain in Woodlawn.
The Health Community Assessment Tool compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ranks Woodlawn among the top tier of Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods in business retention and economic health. The community ranks near the bottom on public safety and blight.
Neighborhood leaders say change is coming and Woodlawn has seen rebirth in recent years – thanks to nonprofits, public-private partnerships, and a community of residents who refuse to let their neighborhood die.
“We just had to stand up,” said Donna Hall, a former officer in the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association.
She’s lived on 50th Street for about 30 years and was annoyed by what she could see from her yard. Prostitutes would connect with clients on the street before going to nearby motels, she said.
“I never disrespected them, but I said, ‘I’m not trying to stop you with your business opportunity, but you can’t do that in front of my home,’” Hall recalled.
When developers came to the neighborhood association with their ideas, Hall said she and the residents had directives for them, too.
“We’d tell them, ‘We don’t need another convenience store. We need something that benefits this neighborhood,” she said.
Woodlawn has a storied past. Back in the early days, it was its own city with lots of stores and busy streets.
Here’s what history books and websites say about the start of Woodlawn.
The Wood family moved into the area in 1824 and owned about 1,200 acres in what was then called Rockville. The name was changed to Wood Station in 1870, around the time the Alabama Great Southern Railroad was built in the area. The railroad grew, and the town did, too. Soon, Wood Station changed its name to Woodlawn and was incorporated in 1891.
By the turn of the century, Woodlawn’s population had grown to 2,500 residents. It had sidewalks and even a library. Woodlawn was annexed into Birmingham in 1910.
Today, bits of the community’s rich history figure prominently in the community’s redevelopment. Woodlawn’s second City Hall is used as business space. Across the street, Woodrow Hall was restored and now is an event space, preserving many of the features of the early days.
Around the mid-1950s, Woodlawn began to decline, and it continued to do that well into the 1970s. Instead of the bustling business community of the past, Woodlawn became awash with boarded-up storefronts, cracked sidewalks and graffiti along First Avenue. Some of the homes left vacant in the neighborhood fell prey to vandals who broke windows and littered the yards. The roofs and porches on many other homes sagged or caved in.
According to a Woodlawn Revitalization Plan presented by the City of Birmingham in 2012, Woodlawn had about 7,000 residents in the early 1970s. About half of the homes were occupied by the people who owned them. But by 1975, home ownership was less than 20%. Woodlawn’s demographics were changing, too.
Up until the early 1970s, a majority of the residents were white, according to city records, but Woodlawn, like many communities in Birmingham, experienced white flight. Some studies attribute the change to the court-ordered desegregation of Birmingham City Schools that was fully implemented in the early ‘70s.
The city made one of its first attempts to reverse the decline in 1988 with streetscape improvements around First Avenue North, First Avenue South and other nearby streets.
Woodlawn includes a long strip of First Avenue North, one of the busiest corridors in Birmingham. It’s a short distance from downtown, and it has access to a major interstate. Developers say that makes it attractive for residents and businesses. But before the most recent wave of redevelopment started, someone had to make that first step. In this case, it was the YWCA Central Alabama.
In about 2006, during Suzanne Durham’s tenure as CEO of the YWCA, the organization was asked to take over a program in Woodlawn operated by Interfaith Hospitality House. That property needed major repairs. The YWCA board, led by Yolanda Sullivan, together with the executive board decided to raise money to build a new home for parents and their children in transition, Durham said. At the time, there was need for mothers with teenage boys and single fathers with children.
“We had a goal of $6 million and we raised $15 million,” said Durham, who retired from YWCA leadership in 2013.
The YWCA, with the support of the City of Birmingham, the Junior League of Birmingham and several other public and private partners, converted a 24-unit apartment complex into affordable housing for families. The new Interfaith Hospitality House opened in 2009 with housing suites for families and the program space that Durham envisioned.
Since renovation of that first 24-unit complex, the YWCA also has developed other housing initiatives – Dansby Court, Kelly Court and Sullivan Square. The YWCA also developed a Family Resource Center for the campus to provide programs and social services in the community.
Gillian Goodrich of the Goodrich Foundation was on the YWCA’s board as it made its entrance into Woodlawn. She lived in Woodlawn as a child and wanted to see its return to a more vibrant community.
She and her husband, Mike, were familiar with a model for redevelopment in Atlanta called Purpose Built Communities and the East Lake Community.
“We got interested in thinking about this Purpose Built Communities model as a way to help move families out of that long-term, generational poverty,” Goodrich said.
“Think of the difference it makes just bringing hope to families that never before thought they could go to college or maybe that their children could go to college. Or maybe there is someone else who could get a job that would allow them an affordable home,” she said.
Through the Woodlawn Foundation, residents get assistance with navigating toward homeownership. Some homeowners also get assistance for large repairs that allow them to maintain their residence.
“People don’t want to sell their homes, but if the roof is caving in – what?” Goodrich said. Once they get the assistance and stabilize the homes, residents also can take classes through the foundation to help them keep the homes up.
The Woodlawn Foundation has been involved in support for traditional public schools in Woodlawn and is a major supporter of a new charter school that will open in August in the former First Baptist Church of Woodlawn.
Change Follows Change
As the housing landscape changed in Woodlawn, other developments happened. The Church of the Highlands opened a Dream Center in 2008 to help provide support to community residents. It also operates Christ Health, a community clinic providing primary health care, dental care, counseling and pharmacy services, according to its website.
Dr. Henry Panion, a UAB music professor who has worked with Stevie Wonder and other contemporary and classical artists, opened his AudioState55 studios in Woodlawn on 55th Place South. In the center of the business district, DISCO (Desert Island Supply Company) is a hub for young writers.
The Park at Wood Station apartment complex has 64 units, and they all are occupied.
Duplexes, townhomes and individual homes built recently in Woodlawn also are popular in Birmingham’s housing market, said Mechelle Wilder of ARC Realty.
Some of the homes cost from $200,000 to $250,000, she said. With the proximity to downtown and the interstate, young professionals find the homes attractive, and they enjoy the amenities of Woodlawn. There’s a child care facility, a coffee shop and restaurants.
The construction of new homes and apartments, coupled with the extensive repairs to existing homes, is driving up home values in Woodlawn. But it’s also driving up property taxes.
Donna Hall, the former neighborhood officer, said her property tax doubled in the past three years, going from about $200 to $400. Darlena King, another Woodlawn resident, said she’s seen a big increase in her property tax, too.
King welcomes the changes in Woodlawn, but she says the community needs even more improvements.
“What does it do for our kids when people just drop in and give them a hotdog or some cookies and then leave,” King said. The children and residents need more programs to effect long-term change, she said.
Woodlawn Is Home
Myesha Hutchinson graduated from Woodlawn High School. She was the valedictorian in 2001, and she still lives in the neighborhood.
“I’ve always been excited about where I live. I’ve never given in to this stigma that people tried to put on me being a resident of a certain neighborhood,” said Hutchinson, who sits on several civic boards as well as being the Jefferson County outreach manager for U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell.
Hutchinson has lived through the changes. Major crime numbers have gone down in Woodlawn over the years, but crime still happens. In January, an off-duty Birmingham police officer was shot as he responded to a robbery call. He was working security for Church of the Highlands, which meets on Sunday at Woodlawn High School.
She wants to see continued transformation in her community.
There’s energy with the new businesses, but Hutchinson says she wants to see Woodlawn develop even more into a walkable community. “A walkable community means that revenue stays here when I grab something to eat or get my hair done,” she said.
Valencia King is president of the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association. The 36-year-old works in the neighborhood with a program that helps provides food for needy families.
King said that, as the community transforms, she wants Woodlawn to hold on to some of the pillars that have sustained the community over the years.
“I’m stressing unity,” King said.
Residents decorated a tree near the neighborhood hub for the holidays. King encouraged people to place ornaments on the tree to reflect their culture or background.
“The community is more diverse now,” King said, “but we are all Woodlawn.”