Birmingham’s Woodlawn Regenerates Itself
One of Alabama’s oldest neighborhoods also is one of the state’s best examples of community revitalization.
Key players in the successful struggle to create a reinvigorated Woodlawn — Sally Mackin and Arnold King. Mackin is executive director of the Woodlawn Foundation and King is president of Woodlawn Community.
Tony Bayles, owner and chef of Bayles Catering in Birmingham’s Woodlawn community, gets to work early each morning — real early — usually around 4 a.m. The sun is not even a hint in the eastern sky when he opens his doors. Newly installed streetlights twinkle in these predawn hours, illuminating other early risers.
“I see it every day,” says Bayles, “when I open up my place. People are actually out here jogging, walking their dogs, riding bikes, at that time of morning, and they don’t think a thing about it.”
As a new business owner in one of Birmingham’s oldest communities, Bayles is the first to admit it wasn’t always this way. “At one point in time, I’m thinking you could actually forget about Woodlawn. New businesses would think about locating anywhere else besides here, because it wasn’t a safe place.”
“You’d be more likely to see hookers, drug dealers, drive-by shootings. That was back when a lot of crack and all that had really hit the streets. It was a drug-infested area,” says Wayne Honeycutt, who owns The Shop — a combination apparel, salon and barbershop — and also serves on the board of the Woodlawn Business Association.
In many ways, the story of Woodlawn, which was annexed into Birmingham in 1910, is the story of other small towns and neighborhoods that also came into the city around the turn of the century. Its tree-lined streets and stately homes were a welcome addition to a place already being called the Magic City. But by the ’70s all that had changed. Desegregation and subsequent “white flight” and “urban blight” all contributed to decades of inner-city decay.
Arnold King, Woodlawn Community president, has lived in the community his whole life. “It was wonderful growing up here. I had everything I wanted as a child, but the community started to change when the interstate came in, back in the early ’70s. It pretty much cut my neighborhood in half. A lot of folks I grew up with moved out. We lost a lot of businesses that ran along 1st Avenue. That was one of the first indicators that Woodlawn was about to change.
“Before that, we had a real sense of community. If I got in trouble two blocks away from home, my Mama knew about it before I even got home,” says King. “We had streetlights. When they came on, we knew we better be getting home.”
Today, King is happy to report that the streetlights are back on in Woodlawn and shining brightly on a community that’s making a comeback in a big way.
Public, private and philanthropic investments have kick-started a transformation that is now rolling and picking up speed.
“Woodlawn does feel and look different than it did even four years ago,” says Sally Mackin, executive director of the Woodlawn Foundation, a nonprofit focused on what Mackin calls “the holistic revitalization” of Woodlawn, a revitalization that actually began as a grass roots effort before the foundation was
As Mackin explains, the Mike and Gillian Goodrich family started the Woodlawn Foundation and helped revitalization get off the ground. Mackin says the Goodriches “have been very interested in place-based philanthropy — giving to one location to have an impact in that geographic area.”
Mike Goodrich is the former chairman and CEO of the Birmingham-based construction giant BE&K Inc., which sold in 2008 to KBR Inc.
The Woodlawn Foundation served as a catalyst for bringing like-minded groups together under one umbrella. “Their focus was a shared vision,” says Mackin, “a vision of Woodlawn being a safe and healthy community where children and families thrive. Each organization was delivering services and programs through the lens of their individual missions. The original members include the YWCA, REV Birmingham, Cornerstone School, South Woodlawn Neighborhood Association, Christ Health Center and Church of the Highlands Dream Center. Mike and Gillian Goodrich brought the group together and introduced them to Purpose Built Communities and began to solidify that shared vision and create a true collaboration — one that is unprecedented in our city.”
The results are readily apparent. Today, residents of Woodlawn are not only walking and biking on well-kept sidewalks, but families are renovating their homes; dilapidated buildings are disappearing; new businesses are moving in while old ones are expanding and updating their images; farmers are trucking in fresh vegetables, and sometimes folks are even dancing in the streets at neighborhood festivals.
People are coming back to Woodlawn to visit, to live, and perhaps most importantly, to do business. “I have people driving in from Forestdale, Gardendale, Hoover, Gadsden, Calera — just all over,” says Honeycutt. Motioning toward the street outside his shop window, Honeycutt says, “Several businesses are being renovated across from us, and they look good. You can really see a lot of things beginning to happen. When you start seeing homes being renovated and new businesses coming in; old businesses being revitalized — well, I’m excited as a business owner in the area. For a long time, I wouldn’t come out and get involved in a lot of things in the neighborhood, but when I started seeing changes, I started going to meetings to learn more. I decided, hey, I want to be a part of that. It’s contagious. The more people see what’s going on, the more people want to get involved.”
Much of that involvement today is centered around The Park at Wood Station, a two-story townhouse project with 64 units in 15 buildings, representing the first new housing construction to go up in Woodlawn in more than 50 years.
“This affordable housing development will anchor a major community revitalization effort in the Woodlawn neighborhood,” says Win Yerby, project manager with the developer, Hollyhand Development LLC. The Park at Wood Station will not only provide affordable units in Woodlawn, but the Foundation is laying the groundwork for market-rate housing and an Early Learning Center, among other initiatives, says Yerby. Some 400 people are already on a waiting list for the units, which should be available later this year.
Funding for Wood Station comes from the public and private sectors and includes some of Birmingham’s financial heavy hitters.
“Wood Station has a permanent loan commitment from Protective Life Insurance,” Yerby says, “and it’s providing permanent mortgage. That’s an unusual thing they’re doing. It is because of
their desire to support the initiative in Woodlawn.”
Regions also is a major investor, with the purchase of $11 million of low income housing tax credits and with the provision of $11 million more in construction and bridge loan financing.
According to Paul Carruthers, Regions’ regional community affairs manager, “Great things are happening in Woodlawn. You don’t have to look far to see new investments and new opportunities. Regions is proud to be a part of what’s taking place. This is an investment that goes beyond dollars and cents. For the people who will live at Wood Station, this is about having the opportunity to live in quality affordable housing — a place where they can raise their families, where they can be part of their community, and where they can build lasting memories in a vibrant neighborhood. As a company, we believe we can only be as strong as the communities we serve. And we make investments like this, not only because it strengthens the community but also because it is simply the right thing to do.”
REV Birmingham, the city’s economic development agency, likes to hear things like that. It is the agency’s job to act as “catalyst to revitalize and energize businesses to create vibrancy in the city,” says Elizabeth Barbaree-Tasker, chief operating officer.
REV Birmingham’s role in Woodlawn’s revitalization has been crucial. Their offices and those of the Woodlawn Foundation are housed in a recently renovated 12,000-square-foot warehouse that had been abandoned for 15 years. The building serves as what REV Birmingham calls SocialVenture, a co-working space and business community where entrepreneurs, freelancers, small businesses and others can establish their office in a collaborative environment.
The old warehouse also offers plenty of conference and meeting space, areas that can host 100 or more people in a classroom setting. Barbaree-Tasker says, “We see that as a marketing tool. We can bring audiences to Woodlawn that wouldn’t otherwise have a reason to be here. Attending a business meeting for a couple of hours gives people a chance
to come to Woodlawn and see it with fresh eyes.”
What they may be surprised to see is that Woodlawn seems to be headed toward development as “a hub for non-profits, music and art. The music vibe is definitely here,” says Barbaree-Tasker, “and two nonprofits moved in last week. That makes a total of five.”
Henry Panion has been invested in the community since 2006, when he opened Audiostate 55 Recording Studio.
Birmingham’s Henry Panion — internationally known composer, arranger, conductor and professor in the department of music at the University of Alabama at Birmingham — is the one most responsible for the music vibe. He opened his first Audiostate 55 Recording Studio there in 2006. Today, he has three more studios, with even more plans for expansion. Panion works with artists with names like Carrie Underwood, Ruben Studdard, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and with artists in training, local middle through high school students enrolled in his Music Tech Lab. Once he even had Yoko Ono’s educational tour bus rolling down Woodlawn streets. “The bus goes around the world. We had it come to our studio and invited kids to come and record. It was there for about a week,” says Panion.
“I’ve heard people say, and what I would like to think, it’s true,” says Panion, “that the attention we eventually brought to that area really started opening the eyes to what all Woodlawn has to offer. Right now we’ve got two more recording studios, in addition to ours on the street, an entertainment attorney, a modeling agency owned by the cousin of Sandra Bullock and, oh, yes, I almost forgot, a quilting artifacts shop. It really is becoming an entertainment hub, really a little arts colony. ”
Yerby, who has been in the community revitalization business for more than 15 years and who has worked in projects all over Alabama, calls Woodlawn “the most exciting community revitalization effort that has ever been done statewide. I would go so far as to say it will probably be the model for success.”
Birmingham Mayor William Bell dittoes that thought, saying that the city will be looking at what’s working in the Woodlawn area to try to transpose some of the success to the Ensley and the north Birmingham business districts. “Woodlawn is definitely a model we will try to replicate,” he says.
For Barbaree-Tasker, that model is based on “a really deeply committed community that invested early on in Woodlawn and then began the hard work of forming relationships before any outward looking work ever really happened. Before the first plan was drawn, there was a lot of assessment and relationship building that occurred from community partners who really put the community first, and that was crucial to its success.
“Eventually,” she continues, “people really did begin to put their money where their mouths were — everybody from private investors to nonprofits and their donors and the city of Birmingham, and, as a result, private citizens came forward willing to invest their money in commercial locations in Woodlawn. Neighbors began to see what’s been talked about really coming to fruition. They begin to feel affirmation of the dreams they’ve had for awhile and that all the conversations are real, not just pipe dreams. All that happening at the same time has built a level of momentum that has provided the tipping point for true success.”
Despite Woodlawn’s apparent success story, Barbaree-Tasker says she knows the community is still a work in progress. “We definitely have a long way to go. Woodlawn is not done, but I think we just can’t beat the momentum that has happened as a result of these people coming together to concentrate their resources in one geographic location.”
Linda Long and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.