The recent report in the Birmingham News that Cotton’s department store in downtown Ensley is closing after 90 years of business gives us the chance to think about Ensley’s downtown district and its future (19th Street at Avenue F looking west, above). A reminder of Birmingham’s industrial boom, the historic district was once a thriving node of commerce, entertainment, and business in the western part of the City. Its scale and density startles the visitor today: not only was it the center of a neighborhood of more than 20,000 people, but others from surrounding neighborhoods would visit to shop, dine, or attend a show. That all of this could flourish in a place only 7 miles out from Birmingham’s city center testifies to the population base that was thickly spread within the city limits decades ago.
The former Birmingham-Ensley Land Company headquarters building (above at 19th Street and Avenue H) architecturally symbolizes the confidence real estate developers had in the area in the 1920’s, when the Ensley Works were producing steel at full blast and employed thousands of workers. Today, more than 30 years after the last steel plant closed, less than 4000 people inhabit the neighborhood. This statistic, and similar ones in surrounding neighborhoods, means a commercial district designed for a much larger population now serves a much shrunken one. Despite its surface charm, no new paradigm has arrived to help fill the storefronts.
Part of the charm of downtown Ensley is the relative narrowness of certain streets, like 19th Street seen above in the early 1920’s; note the streetcar tracks which allowed people to move between Ensley, adjacent neighborhoods, and central Birmingham and beyond. The streetcars stopped in the 1950’s in conjunction with the spread of car culture across this country. Suburban flight and decline of heavy industry hollowed out much of Birmingham proper.
The West Precinct of the City of Birmingham Police Department (above, 19th Street and Avenue G)–while architecturally a creature of the 1960’s with its suburban-style setback and sculptural massing–is in scale and expense a reminder of the importance of Ensley as a hub of the City’s west side. Unfortunately this west side has seen its share of problems with crime over the ensuing decades. While much of this issue has improved, the perception still lingers, which of course can be equally as challenging for any neighborhood.
For a myriad of reasons, one by one many of the buildings in this district have lost their occupants. While the 10-story Ramsay-McCormick Building is perhaps the most famous empty building in the district, many other significant structures also cry out for new purpose (above, commercial structure at Avenue F between 19th and 18th Streets).
Some buildings in the district have found new purpose: the Volcano ‘gentleman’s club” (above on 19th Street between Avenues E and F) is an adult entertainment complex that joins a few other nightclubs, beauty salons, barber shops, and churches that have filled some of the buildings. This is hardly a recipe for a vibrant district of course. A more diverse mix is needed.
One long-time business that remains is Gilmer Drug Company (above, 19th Street between Avenues D and E), which although its posted hours declared it open on a Saturday afternoon, nevertheless appeared shut. Not a great sign for ongoing viability of any business.
This brings us to Cotton’s (above, looking east on 19th Street from Avenue D). This somewhat old-fashioned, family-run “clothing department store” is the last retailer of note in the district. While sad it’s closing after 90 years of service to Ensley, we should be grateful they managed to hang on as long as they did. They used to be in the middle of other retailers, theaters, offices, restaurants. When all those fell away, Cotton’s remained, supported by a loyal clientele that continued to shop there even if they no longer lived close by.
For anyone interested in the history of retail and shop windows, it’s worth traveling to Cotton’s before it closes just to see the fantastic shop windows (above), that are arranged around a U-shaped outdoor passage so that you can “window shop” from dozens of different angles. This type of display was once common in downtown Birmingham and across the country, but it’s very rare to see one survive today. The mannequins, the spatial quality, the views all add up to an urban experience that was once commonplace, and is now virtually lost. Not just here, but anywhere.
Whither Ensley? Organizations such as Main Street Birmingham have worked hard to identify possible rejuvenations; the new Birmingham Comprehensive Plan highlights Ensley (and the massive amount of adjacent, formerly industrial property) as a focus area. But time is working against us. The Ramsay-McCormick building, in its art-deco glory, stands open to the elements. Building after building along 19th Street is endangered structurally–and some have already succumbed: above on 19th Street and Avenue G all that remains of a historic structure is the steel frame of its storefront. Other entire blocks have been demolished and sit gathering weeds. So many other cities would kill to have this sort of authentic urban environment within their limits. I hope we can figure out a way to make this district thrive once again.
[thanks to Birmingham Public Library for the historic photo]