Validating our humanity on various levels
As we’ve discussed before, Birmingham has a poor record of supporting public art. While other cities large and small use public art as a routine component of urban revitalization, we have no comparable strategic program here (pictured above is “Chat” in downtown Brisbane, Australia by the sculptor Sebastian di Mauro; the whimsical knit bombing is by others). The absence of a good public art program is ironic given the local artistic talent that the City has, as well as the ability of institutions like UAB and the Birmingham Museum of Art to attract all sorts of international talent to their stages and walls on a regular basis.
One of our readers alerted us last week to the public art project (above) at the base of the Brown Marx Building. For several years ugly, protective scaffolding has been erected around this large, historic vacant building at the corner of First Avenue North and 20th Street (several plans for mixed-use conversion over recent years have fallen through). Art students with local visual arts non-profit Space One Eleven were sponsored by the City and Operation New Birmingham to create art across the long expanses of plywood. It’s low on budget but high on creative energy.
Now that's attention to detail
Particularly satisfying was the portrait of Mayor Bell (detail, above), whose fingernail reflects an image of the downtown skyline. We love that.
Feast for the soul
For a major building to present such a forlorn aspect to such an important public intersection is disheartening. The art project goes some way to brightening this condition (and will soon by joined by a pilot project, also sponsored by the City and ONB, to install more art in vacant storefronts along 20th Street). Demonstrating the power of temporary public art is a good start towards implementing a permanent public art program in targeted areas of the City.
That last image of the burger-for-the-soul brings us to a nice tangent–John’s City Diner (above), one of downtown’s oldest extant restaurants, and around the corner from the Brown Marx. The facade experienced an unfortunate renovation–guessing the early 1970’s–with tile and metal siding. Over the last weeks the owners have been partially renovating the frontage, revealing the beautiful art deco detailing still remaining at part of the top floor. Fingers crossed that the canopy and storefront can also be renovated. And that the iconic neon sign can remain lit for many more decades to come.
[thanks to trowzers for the Brisbane shot]
Not anymore at a corner near you
Chalk it up to the ubiquity of national chains such as Walgreen’s and CVS; to the low prices and convenience of in-store pharmacies at Walmart or Publix; to the poor economy; or to causes less obvious and more mysterious. Whatever the cause, or combination of causes, MedTown Pharmacy closed its doors this week. As the sole surviving full-service drugstore on the northside of downtown (within the 200 block of 20th Street North), this comes as a blow to not only the daytime business population in the CBD, but to the many downtown residents (including this author) who chose MedTown as their drugstore of choice. MedTown joins the ranks of other downtown drugstores (such as Dewberry’s, at the corner of 2nd Avenue North and Richard Arrington Blvd., pictured above in 1939) which have closed over the last couple decades. As recently as 1998, there were still 4 independent drugstores operating within a few blocks of MedTown (itself formerly a Big B Drugstore). Now there are none.
Another blow for 20th Street
The closing of MedTown is sadly in sync with the generally haggard feeling of Birmingham’s “Main Street”. Despite some bright spots–Trattoria Centrale, Brick & Tin, Cafe Dupont, the private residence designed by Appleseed Workshop–recent years have seen the shuttering of the old First Alabama Bank building (and the failure of the proposed Marriott Renaissance Hotel there); the departure of SouthTrust/Wachovia from their 2nd Avenue Branch, leaving an entire half-block of empty buildings; thwarted redevelopments of both the Empire and Brown-Marx buildings; and of course the very, very tired and dated “Birmingham Green” of 1970’s era plantings, concrete benches, and low concrete walls that’s in desperate need of renovation.
Sign of the times?
It seems emblematic of Birmingham, in a way, that our “Main Street”, symbolic center of town, has been allowed to become so frayed. Other areas of downtown are brimming with promise and interest–but the energy dissipates where it instead should be united in full force on 20th. An encouraging sign: I heard members of the Mayor’s staff and the Horticulture department walked 20th Street last week discussing how to overhaul the landscaping to bring it in line with more modern, sophisticated efforts such as Railroad Park and the proposed streetscapes around the Pizitz project. And just seeing the crowds spill out of Trattoria for lunch, dinner, or brunch–no matter how desolate the immediate surroundings–also gives hope. Hope that other entrepreneurs will take initiative to renovate buildings and bring new businesses; hope that the Mayor will continue to search for ways to improve the City; hope that other nearby developments will exert pressure on 20th Street to revive.
Of course, some of us also hope that a drugstore will open up in the neighborhood again, and soon.
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged Appleseed Workshop, Big B, Birmingham Green, Brick & Tin, Brown-Marx Building, Cafe Dupont, CVS, Dewberrys Drugstore, Empire Building, First Alabama Bank, Marriott Renaissance Hotel, MedTown Pharmacy, Pizitz Building, Railroad Park, SouthTrust Bank, Trattoria Centrale, Walgreens