Neighborhood Comeback

This is where I grew up, on 53rd Street North in Woodlawn. Much of the block is now in ruins.

Grandmother washed these windows all the time.  Now the glass is gone. 

The aluminum siding that for a railroad family was a big investment, is now ripped off.  This is where I grew up. In Woodlawn, a historic Birmingham neighborhood not far from downtown and near the airport.    

This is where we rode our bikes all day and most of the night.

This used to be a pretty street, lined with oak trees.

In summer, we shelled peas from the Finley Avenue Farmers’ Market and swatted mosquitoes on the front porch. And my strong and agile grandmother washed that front porch every two weeks in the summer, whether it needed it or not.  This is the house where folks came in from out of town to stay on weekends and holidays.  It’s where we spent cold winter Saturday evenings warmly snuggled inside, watching Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett and the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Run-down basketball court covers part of the old sandlot ballpark we played in.

Behind our house was Willow Wood Park, where we played endless games of football, softball, and basketball.  The Park has seen much better days, but it’s still there.  

This was once "Riashy's Delicatessen." A Lebanese man and his wife ran the store for many years. A favorite stop on the way home from school for a candy bar.

Around the corner, as we walked home from school at Gibson Elementary, we would stop off at Riashy’s Delicatessen.

Riashy’s really wasn’t a deli in the traditional sense.  It was a convenience store.  Mr. and Mrs. Riashy were always friendly to us. But many times, we would walk in the store and they seemed to be arguing with each other, in Lebanese where we couldn’t understand them.  It was pretty tight quarters and I guess it was tough to hang out with each other like that all day and not get testy.

This was the Woodlawn of the 1970s.  A neighborhood in decline but still a decent place to live.  The last of us left there by the mid 1980s.  It had become unsafe for my grandmother to live there alone.  She got mugged one evening walking up to her own front door on that squeaky-clean front porch.  So we made a way for her to get out while she could.  We all went on to new lives in other places.

Woodlawn continued to decay over the decades.  We thought the death knell had come when the beautiful, gothic-style First United Methodist Church on 1st Avenue North went up in flames.

What a beautiful new building for this "comeback" church! The old 1880s church had burned down a few years ago.

Yet the seeds of redevelopment had been coming up out of the ground even prior to the church fire.  And the remarkable rebuilding of First United Methodist is truly symbolic of the cross-cultural rebirth of Woodlawn, led by numerous churches, concerned citizens, and key nonprofits such as the YWCA of Birmingham. 

Today, parts of the neighborhood like my childhood home are still in bad shape. But, the main core of Woodlawn along 1st Avenue continues to revive.  

YWCA Housing

What a great start this is, improving the “front porch” of this part of town. It’s happening with the help of efforts such as Woodlawn United, the YWCA, Church of the Highlands, Cornerstone School, First United Methodist, and countless other individuals and organizations who are making a huge difference.  

YWCA's Woodlawn Community Building

Below are a couple of great links to coverage by the Birmingham News. 

Woodlawn United Methodist Church Rebuilding

YWCA Housing in Woodlawn


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About

Bill Todd, APR, is President and Partner at o2ideas, a creative advertising agency in Birmingham, Alabama. His career spans Business Management, Advertising, Public Relations, and Journalism. He has also served as a spokesman for one of the nation's largest telecommunications companies and as a TV news reporter in Birmingham. He has a B.A. in Communications from the University of Alabama, an M.A. in European History from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and an M.B.A. from Auburn University. He is also Accredited in Public Relations (APR).

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