Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Norwood Neighborhood in Birmingham, AL

Norwood is a historic neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama. It is located in the northeast corner of the "North Highlands" area.

The neighborhood borders follow an irregular path of creek, roads, and railroad tracks. Village Creek forms the northern border for 1.24 miles. To the east, the border comes down along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad's track to Interstate 20/59, then follows the interstate west to Vanderbilt Road; it then follows that road down to Richard Arrington, Jr. Boulevard and back to the east to the railroad and then down to the southern border. The southern border follows 9th Avenue North southwest to 31st Street North, then turns due west until meeting Arrington Boulevard; it follows Arrington briefly before turning due west again across the interstate to meet Carraway Boulevard. Carraway is the western border up to 19th Avenue North. The northwestern border follows 19th Avenue east to the Southern Railroad track, then follows the track NNW back to Village Creek.

The location of this neighborhood is ideal.  It is a 10-minute walk from the BJCC, 20 minutes from Linn Park and about that distance from the Railroad Park.  Interstate access is literally next door to the neighborhood and it lies smack in the middle between downtown and the airport.
Norwood was designated a historic neighborhood in 2012.  The main street in the neighborhood (Norwood Blvd) had been on the National Registries for many years prior.

In 2013, the popular television show and magazine, "This Old House" comprised a list of 61 historic neighborhoods nationwide that they viewed as the best historic neighborhoods in which to buy and renovate.  In the southern region, Norwood was number 2.  Nationally, Norwood was in the top 61.  The results were based on community involvement, purchase price, condition and cost of renovation as well as the city in which the neighborhood was located.
Once Norwood is brought back to life, it will be the largest restored historic neighborhood in the state of Alabama.
This neighborhood has a total of 3,510 people.  The houses are built in the styles of Craftsman, American Foursquare, neoclassical, prairie and various Victorian era styles.  Prices for these houses range the gamut of well under $20,000 (for fixer uppers) all the way to over $120,000 for the more renovated and completely renovated houses.
There are over 1,000 homes included in this neighborhood.  They range in size from 2 bedroom bungalows all the way to 8 bedroom mansions.  As a matter of fact out of the 1,000 homes included 382 of them have more than 4 bedrooms and 352 of them have 4 bedrooms.
Below are just a sample of both renovated homes and homes in need of renovation as of December 2014.

The house below is the original home of Dr. Charles Carraway.  He was the namesake for Carraway Blvd and also for the Carraway Hospital. Both of which are in the Norwood neighborhood.

When this neighborhood was developed around 1910, it was a well-planned neighborhood with a gorgeous scenic boulevard running the middle.  This neighborhood was where the doctor's, lawyers and entrepreneurs built their dream houses.  In the mid-1960's, the development of Interstate 20/59 cut the neighborhood off from having direct access to the rest of the city and in effect gave the neighborhood 1 easy way in and out.  It was about this time that the original homeowners began moving to the suburbs.  Was it because 20/59 was built near their homes or because 20/59 made it much easier to live outside the city yet commute to the city for work? Probably a combination of the two.  At any rate, the neighborhood began to see a gradual decline with fewer professionals either buying into the neighborhood or staying.  After a time, people focused on other historic neighborhoods, buying up the properties, renovating them and turning them into thriving districts while Norwood was all but forgotten.  As a result, many of the stately mansions have either been torn down, burned down or left to fall down naturally.  
Beginning in about 2005, a renewed interest in the neighborhood flared.  Many young professionals who wanted to own and renovate a mansion but had been priced out of many of the historic neighborhoods began to buy and fix up those in Norwood.  The Village Creek that runs for over a mile on the edge was cleaned up and turned into the Village Creek Greenway. An involved homeowners association was developed and a group known as the Norwood Resource Center began to sponsor such yearly events as the "Couch to 5K Walk/Run", the "Blvd Blast 5K", the "Garden Workday" and the "Norwood Market at the Trolley Stop".  A "Learning Garden" and community garden was developed.
Below is a picture of the running trail that follows Norwood Blvd.

The following shot is of a small portion of the Norwood Learning Gardens.
This picture is of Norwood Market at the Trolley Stop.
This neighborhood is an incredible area with tons of history as well as charm.  The rents in this neighborhood are diverse.  There are apartments that rent for as little as $350 a month and some single family dwellings that rent for as much as $1,200 a month and everything in between.
As with all historic neighborhoods, if people don't come in and turn it around, it will eventually become a ghetto wasteland.  Sadly we've seen far too many of those.  However, every time a house or apartment building is renovated, the neighborhood goes up a notch.  The property values go up a notch and the rents go up a notch.  
Norwood isn't beyond repair - yet.  I'd live in one of those majestic mansions sitting on the winding gently sloping historic Norwood Blvd.
But that's just me.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Ballplay Alabama and Burnt Corn Alabama

Summer is the month for traveling.  It's the time of year when folks like to get into their cars and see what lies beyond their home city.  Here are two small communities that are more than worth a tank of gas to visit.

Ballplay Alabama

Nestled in a large bend of the Coosa River in Etowah County, Alabama is the little town of Ballplay.  It sits about an hour from Huntsville to the northwest and an hour to Birmingham to the Southwest and only 15 miles northeast of Gadsden.

A post office was established in Ballplay in 1840 and remained in operation until 1905.  As of the 2010 census, there were 1,580 permanent residents of Ballplay.  10% of them have earned a bachelors or greater from a college or university.  The median age in Ballplay is 38 with a median income level of $43,346.  Unemployment rates in Ballplay are significantly lower than the state and national levels.

Ballplay is a scenic little community with a unique name.  Long before the town was established, the area was a Court of sorts for the native Americans who inhabited the area.  They would meet at Ballplay and would play ball to resolve disputes among various tribes.  Thus, the name. 

Old farmhouse on the main road leading into Ballplay

The majority of the jobs in this area involve farming or construction.  Nearby Gadsden offers a wide range of manufacturing and other areas of employment.  It is close to numerous community colleges and Universities and within minutes from 6 hospitals.

This is a view of Ballplay from atop a nearby hill.

Christmas sees Ballplay decked out in its finest Christmas lights and is a marvel to behold.  Mr. Gilley lights his farm up from Thanksgiving to New Years and people from all over make a special trip to see it.

Burnt Corn, Alabama

Located in southwest Alabama, Burnt Corn is the earliest known settlement in Monroe County, Alabama.  The population in 1880 was 33.  In 2004 the population had risen to a booming 300.

 Main Street

Abandoned Church on Main Street

Oral history states that the town received its name from the burning of the corn fields as part of the scorched earth policies during the Creek was in early 1800's.  It is also said that the nearby Murder Creek was so named because victims of the Creek war were thrown into the creek.

 One lane bridge over Murder Creek

Murder Creek as seen from the bank.

The Battle of Burnt Corn, an episode of the Creek War in July 1813, did not actually occur in the town of Burnt Corn but at a ford of Burnt Corn Creek to the south, in present day Escambia County.  when the Creek Nation was forced to cede land to the US, in 1815, Burnt Corn Spring was included in a 640-acre land grant to Jim Cornells, a trader who along with his brothers married into the Creek Indian Nation and were assimilated into the tribe.  The Cornells fought on the US side in the war.  Jim's second eldest daughter married Alexander McGillivray who was the most influential of all Creek Chiefs. He had uncanny diplomatic skills and until his death had successfully played the British, Spanish and Americans against one another to the advantage of his people.

Alexander McGillivray aka Hoboi-Hili-Miko 

As for the story behind the cause of the Creek War, according to General Thomas Woodward in his "Woodward's Reminiscences," Jim Cornells "swapped" his niece, Polly Kean, to a man named Sam Jones for a woman named Betsy Coulter with whom he had traveled in the Creek Nation with from Fort Wilkinson. He took Betsy for his wife. Sam Jones did marry Polly Kean but was killed by Jim Cornells in 1816 (Polly then married "one-eyed Billy Oliver" as he was known in Indian Country.")

As tensions heightened, a group of warriors headed to Pensacola to purchase weapons from the Spanish. Along the way, Betsy was captured by the leader, Peter McQueen, son of another trader, Old James McQueen who supposedly went into the nation in 1716 and married a Tallassee woman. Jim and his family did not follow the Prophet Tecumseh who had pushed the Creeks toward war with the whites. He and many half-native Americans were becoming victims of their fellow Indians. Peter and Jim Boy, another principal war chief, took Jim's wife and a man named Marlowe to Pensacola. They sold Betsy to Madame Barrone, a French lady, for one blanket.

Jim was not at his home when this out rage took place. When he returned and found his wife gone, his house and corn crib burned, he mounted "a fast grey horse" and rode south, warning others, including settlers at Jackson. On July 27, Cornells and others formed a large group of mixed blood and whites and waited in ambush for the returning war party. So began the battle of Burnt Corn.

After the surrender of Weatherford at Fort Jackson, William Weatherford returned to his home on Little River. But because of the hostile feeling his neighbor felt towards him, he decided to turn himself into Col. Russell at Fort Claiborne. He was placed in a tent and under guard. One of the guards assigned to him was Jim Cornells. Jim had sworn to kill Weatherford, whom he held responsible for the capture of his wife. Weatherford heard of the threat and confronted Jim directly, asking if Jim would take advantage of him while under guard. Jim replied that no, he would not take advantage of him while under his care. But promised to kill Weatherford when the time was over. Cornells later learned that Weatherford had nothing to do with the kidnapping of his wife and the two became friends.

U.S. Postal service to Burnt Corn began in 1817 when the village also became part of the Alabama Territory.  The post office was closed in 2002.

In December 2009 the Burnt Corn Creek overflowed causing major damage to the farming community.

Today, Burnt Corn is a sleepy little farming community.  Many of the old buildings are still standing and provide a historical backdrop to this old town.  Definitely worth a road trip.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Ensley, Alabama

A large city neighborhood in Jefferson CountyAlabama, Ensley was once a separate and thriving industrial city. It was formally incorporated on February 12, 1899, but later annexed into Birmingham on January 1, 1910 under the "Greater Birmingham" legislation.

Founded in 1886 by Memphis entrepreneur, Enoch Ensley, as a new industrial city on the outskirts of a rapidly developing Birmingham (then just 15 years old) and directly adjacent to the Pratt coal seam. Zealously promoting and investing his own wealth in the project, Ensley soon attracted the interest of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI), which bought a controlling interest in the Ensley Land Company. In the first year of development, sanitary engineer Edwin Waring, Jr. of Rhode Island was contracted to lay out the new city's streets and infrastructure, including an early application of separate storm and sanitary sewers. Meanwhile, Ensley and TCI erected four 200-ton blast furnaces which were in operation by April, 1889, the largest such grouping in the world. Despite the grand beginning, a series of setbacks began with the death of Colonel Ensley in 1891. The economic panic of 1893 resulted in the dissolution of the land company. The entire property was sold at sheriff's auction for less than $16,000.

In 1898 the Ensley Land Company was reorganized and active industrial development resumed, including the construction of hundreds of small workers' cottages. It was here that TCI pioneered the open-hearth process of making steel in the Birmingham District. By 1906 two more blast furnaces were completed and a record 400,000 tons of steel were produced in a single year. Schools, churches, public buildings and stores were rapidly constructed to keep pace with the scores of new mills and plants opening up.

The success of the development established a corridor of industrial development reaching out to the southwest of Birmingham. During its heyday between the late 1890s and the Great Depression, Ensley was known for its lively fraternal halls and dance clubs, including Tuxedo Junction at the crossing of the Wylam and Pratt City streetcar lines. In 1939 the hit song "Tuxedo Junction" made the spot nationally famous. It was written by local musician Erskine Hawkins and arranged by Glenn Miller.
When U. S. Steel purchased TCI in 1907 they began planning a new, larger plant northeast in the center of a large planned community to be named Corey (now named Fairfield). Although the new plant was close enough that workers living in Ensley wouldn't have to relocate, the move did stifle any ongoing development. 

With the loss of the major industrial activities in the 1970s, Ensley has lost much of its population and economic base and white residents fled to the suburbs after desegregation.

(The following is an excerpt from AL.com)

Mr. McCall is Ensley's neighborhood president, and his neighborhood stretches from about the old U.S. Steel plant to Avenue W, and from Village Creek to about 35th Street. It's a big area, but it's not as big as the area of Birmingham where the streets are named "Ensley." In Five Points West, Ensley Highlands and other areas south of Interstate 20/59 that aren't part of the Ensley neighborhood or community, as defined by the city, the street names still end with "Ensley."

Even in Green Acres, which is far closer to Midfield and southwest Birmingham than to the old U.S. Steel plant, the street names say Ensley. The City of Birmingham annexed Green Acres in 1949, nearly four decades after Birmingham merged with the old City of Ensley.
McCall has seen how people refer to the entire west side as Ensley, and has seen how, when people see every bad thing that happens west of Legion Field lumped in with one name, it's hurt the chances for growth in his neighborhood.
"It doesn't make Ensley look good," McCall said. "I guess people don't know when they talk about Ensley, what Ensley really is."
Ensley still has its crime, he said, but it's not as bad as its reputation suggests.
"Ensley is a safe community," he said. "You don't see kids standing on the corners like other areas, you don't see that."
When Mr. Hawkins talks about bringing Ensley back, he sees the hesitation from people who live in other parts of Birmingham. He knows the thoughts of crimes that might have happened in Central Park or Five Points West are going through their minds.
"I tell them Ensley is really safe and they always challenge me on that," he said.
Both Hawkins and McCall realize that the key to bringing Ensley back is to convince people of its potential.
"I believe it can come back," McCall said. "You've got to get the people with the money that there is a need to come back to this area.
"There are opportunities out here that could make it come back to what it used to be." (end)

Historical Ensley

1st Baptist - organized 1900

Ensley Ambulance - circa 1900

Ensley Bank - cica 1909

2801 Lomb Ave -circa 1950's

Ensley-Franklin Theater - circa 1900-1910

Ensley High School Basketball Team - circa 1910

Ensley Yearly Kindergarten Picnic - circa early 1900's

Holy Family Hospital

In February 1941 four nurses---three of them nuns---from Nazareth, Kentucky, arrived in Ensley to open a clinic to serve poor blacks in the area. For a little over $12,000 they bought land, a duplex for the convent and "a little Negro hut" for the clinic. Interns from St. Vincent Hospital donated their services two days a week to the free clinic.

After the U.S. entered World War II, the Sisters of Charity were unable to obtain materials to build a clinic, so they added two more "huts" to the complex. In 1946 seven black physicians formed the first official medical staff, and fund raising efforts began in the city for a new building. By July 1950 some $250,000 had been raised.

On January 10, 1954, the new structure, Holy Family Hospital, was dedicated. After an expansion in 1964, the hospital had 83 beds and a staff of 130. Four years later the Sisters sold the facility and the new owners renamed it Community Hospital. After another sale and renaming to Medical Park West, the hospital closed in 1988. 

Investment Opportunities for Ensley

The area of Ensley, Alabama has mainly smaller single family homes and apartments and has the potential to grow which comes from the continued progress of its local enterprises. The population has increased by 20% since 2010 and is projected to grow by an additional 10% by 2018. The median household income of the area is $50,051 with 20% of those occupants holding a bachelor’s degrees or higher. Health care and social services make up 15.81% of the civilian workforce in this area and retail trade making up 10.81% of the workforce. 

According to City-Data's website, as of 2015, there were 7,379 people living within Ensley's zip code of 35218.  60% of them were renters.  That site also touted Ensley as being significantly above the state average when it comes to renters "length of stay since moving in."  This is a very good thing for potential investors.  Couple that with the much lower than state average home prices and a solid average age group of 38.5 and Ensley would appear to be a very good place for landlords.

The town of Ensley is only 7 miles west of Birmingham, so if you are trying to plan your commute to work, expect an average travel time between 15-25 minutes, depending on traffic patterns. 

Ensley has a long historic history.  With a long history comes periods of great prosperity and equally long periods of economic struggle.  I, for one, see Ensley making a comeback.