Signs make a city: Birmingham’s history of neon

They blink in storefront windows, illuminate historic theaters and glow in the corners of basement man-caves.  From the first experiments in the early 1900s to their use as road-signs in the mid 20th century and now as a revitalization tool for historic buildings, neon lights are a central part of Americana.DSC_0229

For Birmingham native Tim Hollis, neon signs are more than an indication of whether or not a store is open.  In his book “Vintage Birmingham Signs,” Hollis gathers decades of old photos of iconic Birmingham locations and the decorative neon signs that made them famous.

“In the memories of people who are still alive, neon probably plays a really big part in it,” Hollis said.

Many of Birmingham’s most iconic locations have a place in neon history, such as the Alabama Theatre, the City Federal building and others.

Even the Vulcan statue’s torch was wrapped in neon from 1946 to 1999. As what Hollis deems the most visible use of neon  in the city, the statue’s torch was used by the Jefferson County Safety Committee to encourage traffic safety around the city. Vulcan’s torch glowed green, except in the case of a traffic fatality, in which case it would glow red for 24 hours. The lights were removed in the restoration process started in 1999.

Neon, Hollis said, has not always been a fashionable nod to Americana, but was for decades considered to be “road-side blight” or an industrial necessity, not an art form.

“For a long time, people considered neon signs to be ugly,” he said.

For some of these historic lights, the photos in Hollis’ book are all that remain. When signs would wear out or get damaged by the elements, they would simply be taken down, taken apart and recycled.DSC_0325

“Over the last 10 or 20 years, people have discovered how pretty they really were, but unfortunately it was too late to save a lot of the older ones,” Hollis said.

Because of the fragile nature of the components of neon signs, those that have been restored, such as the Paramount sign on 20th St. N., are actually recreations of the originals.DSC_0300

Still, Hollis said he thinks that neon “seems like something that is coming back” because of a new outlook on the medium.

“Now, neon is considered an art, whereas in the old days it was strictly just an industrial project,” he said.

Neon signs still face strict zoning laws, which were the cause of the initial removal of vintage signs in decades past. Now, for businesses to install large vertical signs such as those outside of Paramount or The Alabama Theatre, there has to be a historic use of neon on that building to get past most modern zoning regulations.

Hollis thinks, however, that the “retro” appeal neon has to younger generations and the nostalgic appeal it has to older ones will keep it around for a long time.

“I think neon is being used more by businesses and by people that appreciate it as the art that it was,” Hollis said.

 

Hollis’ “Vintage Birmingham Signs” can be found at local Books-a-Million and Barnes & Noble locations, as well as online.

 

What’s on Second? Antiques and oddities abound

Tucked away on the corner of 2nd Ave. N and 23rd St, What’s On Second is an antiques and collectibles shop with as much character as inventory.

 

“We carry everything that has ever been made in one convenient shopping location!” is the claim on the store’s Facebook page.

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The tiny shop is packed to the brim with everything from vintage toys to antique chandeliers and collectible belt buckles.

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Unlike antique malls with staged areas for each vendor, What’s On Second? is piled with unique items. Customers enter the shop and are free to wander through the three stories of comic books, lamps, cigar boxes, vases and vinyl records.

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With traditional items you would find in an antique store, as well as an entire section dedicated to collectible video games, the store has something for nearly everyone.

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What’s On Second? is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. and can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/whatsonsecondbirmingham.

Treacherous travels

Sometimes it can seem like driving around Birmingham is little more than circumventing a collection of hazards and obstacles. On most any route through the city you are sure to encounter potholes and pavement bubbles, mistimed lights, heavy traffic and poorly designed intersections.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the American Society of Civil Engineers, 19 percent of Alabama’s roads are in “poor” condition. In metro Birmingham, the number grows to 21 percent. According to Mike D. Smith of Al.com, TRIP estimates that hazards cost Alabama drivers $3.1 billion each year—that’s $1,562 for each driver.

“The road system in Alabama seems to be very poor when compared to that of my home state,” said Barlow Marriott, an Atlanta native studying at Samford University. According to Main Street, who used information from the Reason Foundation and the Federal Highway Administration, Georgia has the 10th -best roads in the country, and the best roads in the nation in some other sub-categories.

“The one thing that bugs me the most about Birmingham roads is the way that traffic coagulates,” Marriott said. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of lights that are timed properly in Birmingham compared to Atlanta.”

The Highway Trust Fund, a federal program, is most responsible for funding road repairs in the state, but currently there is only enough funding remaining to last through May of 2015.

Even with this uncertainty overshadowing the national fund, Jefferson County is depending on its road budget increasing with time. The budget has shrunk to less than half of what it once was, and overwhelmed with projects, the county has been forced to prioritize its construction and repair projects based on direct impact to the safety of travelers.

Many major improvements in Homewood—such as directional ramps connecting Lakeshore Drive to I-65, a median on Green Springs Highway, and the conversion of Oxmoor Road to a cul-de-sac—were proposed and designed as early as 2007, but few projects have seen completion or even the beginning of work.

Many minor road hazards only receive enough attention for a temporary fix, putting the repair off only to return to later with some time. Potholes on low-traffic roadways, for example, are typically filled with gravel, which is slowly kicked back out onto the pavement by tires. “They don’t fill them, they just put rocks in them,” said Dallas native and Birmingham resident Blake Boyd. “It’s annoying when rocks are everywhere.”

There’s little action motorists can take to improve their road conditions, so hunkering down and coping seems to be the best option for the foreseeable future. Proper vehicle maintenance is crucial, particularly concerning tire pressure and tread.

“Air pressure is critical,” said Wayne Pittman, chief of Samford University’s police department. “The manufacturer’s recommendations are right on the outside of the tire. Follow those recommendations.”

Pittman also advises motorists to check their tire tread routinely. One old trick is to stick an upside-down penny in the tread. “If you can see Abe Lincoln’s head, you need to get new tires,” Pittman said. “Don’t run them too bald, because in rough weather you can lose traction.”

Potholes are arguably the most common hazards that Birmingham drivers encounter, regardless of season. “Usually, if you hit a pothole, you’re going to have a front-end alignment problem,” Pittman said. “If it’s a big pothole, you can also dent a rim. It can do some damage to your vehicle.”

Drivers will often overlook small bumps in their tire walls. Although these bumps are miniscule, they can be a symptom of a significant threat to passenger safety. “More than likely, it’s the cord that’s separated and it’s a bulge come out,” Pittman explained. An expert should inspect such a tire as quickly as possible, and will usually recommend replacement.

Motorists that encounter a new road hazard are encouraged to report it. State highway and interstate issues should be reported to ALDOT, and city-maintained roads should be reported to the corresponding city’s government.

St. Jude Launches Annual Holiday Campaign

Give. To help more kids live.

That is the slogan behind St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s holiday campaign, Thanks and Giving. This year, St. Jude celebrates the 11th year of the campaign. Last year, through the help of celebrities, corporate sponsors and donors, the campaign raised more than $97 million. Since the campaign began, it has raised more than $485 million.

Families never receive a bill from St. Jude. St. Jude treats patients from around the world and an average of 67,000 patients visit each year. The daily operating cost for St. Jude is $2 million. Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped increase the survival rate of childhood cancer from 20 percent to more than 80 percent. For more information and ways to donate visit www.stjude.org.

On Nov. 10, President Obama announced that one of the co-creators of the campaign, Marlo Thomas, daughter of St. Jude founder Danny Thomas, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Thomas serves as the National Outreach Director for the hospital.

This holiday season, help to fight childhood cancer by participating in the St. Jude Thanks and Giving campaign. When shopping at Kmart, CVS, Ann Taylor, Williams-Sonoma, Nine West, Marshalls and many others, shoppers will be given the opportunity to donate to St. Jude. There are also St. Jude Give Thanks. Walk.™ events across the country. On Saturday Nov. 22, participants will walk to raise support for St. Jude. Participants can form teams or join preexisting teams. In Alabama, there will be walks in Huntsville, Mobile and Baldwin County. Click here for a full list of locations.

To increase awareness, the Thanks and Giving PSA trailer will be shown in participating theaters across the country. The trailer features St. Jude patients alongside celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Jon Hamm, Michael Strahan, Luis Fonsi and Sofia Vergara.

In addition to the Walk and shopping opportunities, you can donate directly through the St. Jude Thanks and Giving website.

Winter driving

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With winter weather approaching and last season’s “Snow-pocalypse” fresh in the city’s collective memory, safety concerns are more serious than ever. Drivers should adapt their driving techniques to the weather’s compromised roads.

An ice scraper, blankets and reflective markers or flares are all essential winter items to store in the trunk, according to Wayne Pittman, chief of the Samford Police Department.

“In the wintertime, don’t let your gas tank get down to empty before you fill it up,” Pittman warned. If you do have a problem, you’re not going to have any gas to keep yourself warm.”

Pittman’s first advice for winter driving is simply preventive: “If you don’t have to drive, stay home — that’s the number one thing right there. Any time you get out on roads that are icy or there’s snow on them, and they’re a little bit slick, there’s an increased potential for something to happen.”

Drivers that are unfamiliar with icy roads often panic and react poorly to skidding tires. Instead of slamming on the brakes, allowing the tires to slide, drivers should gently let off the brake pedal and allow the wheels to spin again on the road. Once traction is regained, resume braking cautiously.

Bridges typically ice over before roadways. Steady driving will bypass any ice or slick spots, even on exposed pavement.

“When you go over a bridge, maintain your speed and keep going straight,” said Pittman. “Don’t accelerate or hit the brake, because if there is ice, you’ll definitely start sliding on bridges.”

Leaving a vehicle behind in a snowy lane may be a last resort, but there are steps to be taken beforehand that many drivers don’t consider.

“If you’re on a slight hill and you’re close to home, you might consider letting some air out of your back tires so they flatten out just a little bit for some more traction to possibly get you up the hill,” Pittman suggests. “Once you get home, make sure you get them inflated again before you do very much driving.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitors traffic conditions for the entire country. Drivers can check with NOAA, their local news agencies or various smartphone apps to stay updated and informed.

Alabama Adventures: Kayaking with the Birmingham Canoe Club

Club President Helen Todd kayaks a lake at Oak Mountain State Park.

By Sydney Cromwell

When life is feeling stale and you need a break in your routine, the Magic City delivers. From 14,000 feet in the air to hundreds of feet under ground, we found the best adventures in the Birmingham area. This is part four in a six-part series.

Kayaking
Birmingham Canoe Club
Meets the first Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m.
Homewood Library, 1721 Oxmoor Road
Dues: $20 per family annually
birminghamcanoeclub.org

Pick up a paddle and take on the rush of whitewater or the sweet calm of a placid river. The Birmingham Canoe Club organizes canoe and kayak trips for paddlers of every skill level.

Helen Todd, the club president, said the Canoe Club started in 1971 to “provide a community for people who want to learn more about paddle sports in general.” She started kayaking 16 years ago and is now one of over 120 active members.

“It’s a great hobby; it’s exciting. You meet new friends. It’s a different kind of way to get out and get outside,” Todd said.

The club adjusts its paddling locations with the seasons. Winter rains bring whitewater to Birmingham-area rivers, including club-owned property on the Mulberry River. In the summer, Todd said the club travels to south Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee to seek naturally occurring rapids.

There are classes in the summer to teach new paddlers about safety and technique, as well as February and March races on the Mulberry and Locust Fork rivers. Todd said the club is also able to rent out boats to people who do not have them.

Some members work their way up to kayaking on whitewater, while others stay quite happily on lakes and smoother rivers. The Canoe Club is all about simply enjoying a day on the water.

“If you’re comfortable in the water and you like being outdoors and you don’t mind camping, this would be a fun sport for you,” Todd said.

Quinlan Castle: A castle located in the heart of Magic City

By: Taylor Pigman

Photographs By: Natalie Wilkinson

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Located on 9th Ave. S., just a few blocks from Five Points, sits Quinlan Castle. Built in 1927, the Castle has served as apartments and a potential site for Birmingham’s first Catholic church. It became recognized by the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Today, Quinlan Castle sits uninhabited.

Southern Research Institute (SRI), a research organization that studies engineering, energy, life sciences and environmental sciences, purchased the property from the City of Birmingham in 2008. SRI, whose offices surround Quinlan Castle, wanted to preserve the building’s historical façade and restore the Castle to a functional work site.

SRI does not have a specific plan for the future of the property. However, several possible ideas are being thought out, one of which is the possibility of a high school STEM outreach program, a combination of courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

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Renovations on the building have already begun. SRI has cleaned the inside of the property and replaced turrets, windows and the roof. As renovations continue, SRI plans to work in conjunction with the Birmingham Historical Society to best preserve the building.

“The exterior of the building is structurally sound,” Rossi Morris, advanced marketing specialist at SRI, said. “We are in the very early stages of a renovation discussion. We fully intend to preserve the integrity of the building.”

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Breakfast in Birmingham: Demetri’s Barbecue

Demetri’s in downtown Homewood is more than just barbeque.

While the restaurant is known for its pork sandwiches and ribs, it is possibly better known for its breakfast.

Yes, breakfast at a barbecue joint.

Demetri’s offers a variety of breakfast options including omelettes, traditional breakfast platters, huevos rancheros and a unique take on French toast.

If you visit on a weekday, you will run into professionals having business meetings over eggs and toast, sisters meeting for toast and Southern grits and retirees arguing about state politics over black coffee.

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The décor is typical of a barbecue restaurant, with wood-paneled walls and orange barstools. At breakfast, however, the setting and slight smell of smoke allude to storybook mornings in the country.

The specialty French toast at Demetri’s is a favorite for locals and visitors alike. Even a small order begins a hefty portion of dense, thick-cut bread that is dipped in egg and coated in crushed cereal. The result is a crunchy crust and chewy center, topped with powdered sugar and, if you choose, maple syrup.

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Demetri’s is open for breakfast Monday through Saturday from 6:00 a.m. until 10:30 a.m.

Birmingham has a lot to offer if it’s 8:00 a.m. and you are hungry. Join us as we explore the different options around town, and look for the print copy of Exodus in early December for the full list.

Alabama Adventures: Skydiving at Skydive Alabama

Skydiving
Writer Sydney Cromwell experiences a tandem skydive at the Cullman Regional Airport.

By Sydney Cromwell

When life is feeling stale and you need a break in your routine, the Magic City delivers. From 14,000 feet in the air to hundreds of feet under ground, we found the best adventures in the Birmingham area. This is part three in a six-part series.

Skydiving

Skydive Alabama
Cullman Regional Airport, 231 County Road 1360, Vinemont
Tandem jumps: $149-249
(256) 736-5553
skydivealabama.com

Skydiving is the classic thrill-seeker’s choice, and for good reason. Nothing can quite compare to dangling your feet out of a plane and feeling the excitement – and terror. Feel the cold wind on your face and the rush of adrenaline as your tandem skydiver launches you out the door and into free fall.

Though it seems like the most dangerous activity on this list, experienced skydivers will tell you that jumping out of a plane is safer than the drive to the airport. First-time divers are attached to a tandem instructor, who has made at least 500 successful jumps and taken a certification course. Both divers are connected by heavy-duty clips to main and reserve parachutes, which can be activated by an altitude-sensing computer if the divers are not able to pull the ripcord.

For first-timers, the instructors attached to their backs do most of the work from leaving the plane to landing safely at the airport drop zone. Your only responsibility is to maintain proper body position and enjoy the ride.

Divers exit the plane at 14,000 feet and experience about a minute of freefall. It’s an intense experience that clears your mind of everything except the feeling of your body accelerating to more than 120 miles per hour. At 5,000 feet the instructor pulls the parachute, and you get to gently float for about 10 minutes to reach the ground. You’ll be able to enjoy the landscape below you, including the Tennessee River and the distant skyline of Huntsville, before sliding into the landing.

Seeing the world from the sky can make you both exhilarated and surprisingly calm. So, are you bold enough to willingly jump out of a plane?

Spring football comes to Birmingham

Professional football is kicking off in Birmingham this spring.

The North American Football League, a startup professional league, has announced its chartering franchises. The Birmingham Freedom is among the eight franchises, along with Memphis, Orlando and Columbus, Ohio.

The city’s crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement is what inspired the franchise’s identity. According to Naflenterprises.com, “The team name ‘Freedom,’ the eagle in the team’s logo and the colors red, dark blue and medium blue all are symbolic of the role Birmingham played in this important period in American history.”

Although the name and colors are already determined, the Freedom’s coaching staff and home stadium have yet to be announced. Legion Field is certainly a likely option.

The precedent set by previous professional football startups, such as the XFL, a joint venture between NBC and the WWE that only lasted one season before collapsing in 2001, is hardly optimistic. Regardless, the NAFL projects aggressive growth and plans to expand with four more teams every two years through at least 2019. The league will own teams for at least four years, but once some financial stability is achieved, they will become publicly traded—something the NAFL called a “historical first.”

Avid Auburn football fan, Birmingham native and senior music education major Taylor Stricklin is curious but cautious about the Freedom and the NAFL. “From what I’ve seen in the past, I don’t think it will be very successful,” he said. “I do think it will be good entertainment value for people who are interested in football, like myself, and want to see something going on in the spring, which is the off season for college football.”

Although he stopped short of declaring himself a Freedom fan, Stricklin said he was “open to going to the games and supporting the team.” He thinks $20-$30 would be a fair ticket price.

Fan engagement is the league’s ploy for success. Rules of competition will be standard and traditional American football rules. However, technology will allow fans to directly participate in the league’s draft and even help call plays during games. The league will broadcast live games and reality shows involving the teams via stream on its own sports network.

According to President Christopher White, the NAFL is not designed to be a “developmental” league for the National Football League, as the NCAA partially is. It is instead designed to be a fully professional, yet non-competitive, spring counterpart to the NFL.

The NAFL will hold its first draft in Nashville, Tennessee. As announced on October 1, players will report to camp April 20, and the first regular season matchups will be played May 16 and 17. The NAFL championship game will take place during the second weekend of July.

For more information, contact info@naflenterprises.com.