Birmingham, Alabama, 1967. A city steeped in segregation and racial tension that sometimes seemed to seep every corner. Navigating a time of education and preparation for the world that awaited under these circumstances could be daunting for some. For William Bell, the obstacles served as fuel for the life of servant leadership that he was to live. Bell’s legacy began as he walked into John Carroll High School as one of the first African Americans to enroll there. The community he grew up in ultimately grew with him as his vision for a spirit of prosperity through togetherness unfolded.
“Knowledge is something that has no color barrier, you either know the information, or you don’t. Education taught me not to accept things as they are, but for the possibility of what they could be,” Bell said. This journey defines both his career as Birmingham’s 33rd mayor and as a citizen committed to enacting positive change.
“It was like night and day compared to what it is now,” Bell remarked. “Southern gentility, the idea that one had to live a certain way, certainly still exists but does not remain dominant. Birmingham should be a place where if you want to live with a white-picket fence, we got it. If you want to live in a high-rise apartment, we got it. Whatever lifestyle you want to live or whoever you are, you can find your place here.”
With a hint of passionate frustration in his voice, he discusses the idea that Birmingham can define itself through the community that creates it. “We must exist to tell the story of who we are as Birmingham, not who we are trying to be,” he said.
This idea continues to inspire a heart of authentic community in neighborhoods such as Norwood and Highland Park today. Situated north of downtown Birmingham stands a community of picturesque boulevards that tells such a story. Developed in 1910, Norwood experienced a cycle of changes that set it apart in love and lesson. Tom Creger, former vice president of the Norwood Neighborhood Association, reflects back on what he faced when moving to the area. “In the 1960s and into the ‘70s, construction of new homes halted as many of the residents grew older and second generations moved away,” he explained. With the neighborhood experiencing an intergenerational shift, the once grandiose homes became vacant shells of the life that once filled them. Violence and crime grew with the weeds that overtook the properties until a community of old-timers and newcomers alike sought to restore the glory that Norwood still possesses.
Creger and his partner bought their fixer-upper home in Norwood thinking it would be used as a weekend getaway when they wanted to come to town. Their plans were derailed when they met the owner of an antique shop in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “She asked us what our project was when we were buying furniture from her shop,” Creger recalls with a soft chuckle of remembrance. “We told her we were working on a home that was in a marginalized neighborhood but we were thinking that once the neighborhood got a little better, we would spend more time there. With this high school principal type of look on her face, she said, ‘It’s not going to get better until you move there. If you want it to get better, you have to go there and make it better.’ We went ahead and bought a house that we could move into, and for the next three years, we never left.”
The spirit of bettering one’s community serves as one of the factors that revitalized Norwood. “The key to fostering a community of togetherness is having a common goal. It’s a love of the neighborhood and a love of your neighbors, the ones you know and the ones you’re gonna meet. When you look at Norwood and what we’ve managed to achieve, I’ve got to say it was because of the energy in the neighborhood,” Creger says as his face is adorned with a grin of pride.
Taking a stroll down the streets of Norwood, one can see the fruits of labor done in love. Four gardens dispersed around the area were grown by the hands of a faithful community in an effort called The Garden Project. “We won a $25,000 grant to put in four community garden sites. We train gardeners, all local neighbors, to become master gardeners. We called it Norwood Learning Garden because kids, their parents, and their grandparents are all taught and can be involved together,” Creger explained. “Looking at our neighbors who garden, it is just as mixed racially, financially, and as educationally as it ever was.”
Pondering his experience in Norwood and reflecting on the fact that a community of togetherness is all he has ever known, Creger said, “Community just is. It’s sort of like family, it’s not all cheery and perfect. There are disagreements in our neighborhood that must be resolved, but doing that in a loving way is what community looks like.”
The community that lives within Birmingham is rooted in authenticity, an idea that Bell used to propel the extensive revitalization of downtown that he oversaw. “Birmingham had always been talked about in terms of its potential. Nobody ever came along to turn that potential into reality, we were always trying to be some place we weren’t,” Bell said. In the 1970s, Bell stood at the corner of 3rd Avenue and 19th Street as the golden-hour glow of 5:15 p.m. illuminated the streets during rush hour. Where hurrying workers who just clocked out and bumper-to-bumper traffic filled with individuals eager to get home should have occupied the area, Bell stood in an eerie vacancy. “I made a commitment that I would work to change that, and get people downtown,” he proclaims. From that moment on, Bell worked tirelessly to bring in various businesses, apartments, and parks that would encourage an atmosphere of involvement amongst all kinds of individuals.
His passion for downtown came as a reflection of the potential he saw in the city as a whole. “If someone comes into your living room and it is clean, they can assume the rest of the house is neat, too. If they see that your living room is messy, everything else can be perceived as messy. In the same way, if someone sees a city’s downtown as a dump, that assumption will carry on into Mountain Brook, Vestavia, Hoover, and everywhere else,” Bell analogized.
Another neighborhood that puts such philosophies into practice is Highland Park, just a few miles southeast of the city center. Grand, historic homes line the tree-covered streets that individuals walk upon every afternoon, some accompanied by their furry companions, and others engaging in lively conversation with their neighbors. Residents glide into O’Henrys coffee shop and speak to the barista as if she is their longtime friend whom they haven’t caught up with in too long. To Elizabeth Sanfelippo, president of the Highland Park Neighborhood Association, that is what makes Highland Park a special place to live.
“In Highland Park, it’s obvious that people care about one another and about their surrounding environment,” Sanfelippo expresses. Having been elected president for her third term, her joyous relationship with her community is showcased through her proud demeanor. Residents share this pride for their neighborhood through their designated clean-up day, when they join together in an effort to maintain a beautiful community. “My favorite part about a clean-up day is that there are usually different people who will come out, and they all have a different story to tell about why they love this part of town. I love hearing these stories and meeting people from such varied backgrounds,” she said.
To Sanfelippo, true community is all about bringing people together. “One of the keys to a successful neighborhood is gathering and dispersing information. If someone is doing something that the other neighbors don’t like, it’s probably because they don’t realize it. Knowledge is power, and the more that people can access information that will help point them in the right direction, the more they can handle different issues that may come up,” she advised.
Turning potential into reality begins with making resources available for every individual alike to create the life that they want to live, a viewpoint that shapes the success that Highland Park finds.
When asked what he loves about Birmingham that he wishes others could see, Bell takes a long breath and looks around, as if admiring the city that he calls home. Fall leaves rustle as side conversations erupt in laughter at a street-side coffee shop when he says, “The people. I am passionate about this city in general—it’s a hidden jewel. Because of our civil rights past, we are placed in a position where people only saw it one way, as opposed to the truth that it really has all the same elements of a big city, just on a smaller scale.”
While the past serves as a foundation for the success that is to come in a city, the future is defined by prideful positivity. Adjacent to the backdrop of a bright blue sky and a cool October breeze, Bell said, “Here we are, sitting outside on a beautiful day. Yet I could find a crack in the sidewalk, or a missing brick, and harp on it. You can always find the negatives, but we seek to appreciate the positives. As an elected official, you must be a promoter. Push the positive things about your city to encourage positive change.”
As college students pour into the city and natives continue to call Birmingham home, Bell imparts wisdom that any person can utilize to cultivate community and diversity.
“To a young person, I say crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. Find something that you can do on a community level. Don’t say ‘why can’t they?’ But ask yourself ‘why don’t I become they?’” To enact positive change, homework must be done first. Bell advises Birmingham residents to find the answers for themselves, saying, “Everyone can tell you what the problem is. The real change makers show you the solution. Learn what the issues are, strategize a solution, then get out there and do it.”
Birmingham, Alabama, 2022—a city where vacant houses become homes, overgrown land turns into blossoming gardens, and next-door neighbors see one another as a friend. Neighborhoods such as Norwood, and Highland Park hold pride in their community as their best-kept weapon for defeating preconceived notions about what Birmingham looks like, and instead pour into the vision of what it could be.