A New Wave of Industrial Urbanism



Railroad Park and the Rotary Trail evoke a storied past.

By Phillip Ratliff

Photography by Beau Gustafson

Birmingham is an industrial phenomenon. The city began some six years after the Civil War, when the state’s agricultural economy was destroyed and investors were looking for a new economic model. It was long known that deposits of iron ore, limestone, and coal—the recipe for iron production—were close at hand, in the area that would become Birmingham. Add in the sense of urgency that postbellum Alabama was feeling, and Birmingham was an idea whose time had come.

It was a distinctly urban idea—the dream of being a big city, and it was a sensibility that we can still see in Birmingham’s most recognizable structures. Vulcan, Sloss, Rickwood, the Magic City sign, the Lyric and Alabama theatres, and the long-gone Terminal Station: Birmingham wrote these and other architectural icons in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. These structures still speak to us today, whether pristinely restored, as are Vulcan and The Lyric, or gloriously rusted, as is the case with Sloss.

In recent months, Birmingham has been swallowed in a second wave of this urbanism, and once again, this energy has been emanated from the railroad. The impetus for this second wave comes from Railroad Park, a 19-acre green space running alongside the old North-South line. And while the creative impulse that is new and transformative, it’s also well aware of Birmingham’s storied past. Railroad Park’s wood planking evokes a Morris Avenue warehouse. Wire and limestone crate-like bundles, besides providing seating, evoke the stacks of rail cargo that would have been unloaded into Morris Avenue warehouses.

Railroad Park’s biggest success is its spectacular vistas. I don’t think we’ve ever gazed upon the city from this vantage point before, bringing the railroad and Red Mountain into conversation with the city’s modern skyline. We know this conversation, between materials, transportation, and urban growth, as a historical one, but Railroad Park’s genius is that it also brings the conversation, with all its complexity, into the here and now.

Emitting something of a shout across Jones Valley is Railroad Park’s companion piece, the new Rotary Trail. I spoke with architect and former director of the Auburn University Urban Studio Cheryl Morgan about what makes Rotary Trail such a compelling statement. Chief among its assets, Morgan says, is what she has termed its “diagonality.” It’s an apt neologism when you consider what building Birmingham has entailed.

The heart of the city runs along Jones Valley, a mostly un-farmable swath of land slicing north of Red Mountain to Tannehill. When Birmingham was born, the city began burrowing, into giant outcroppings of iron ore, limestone, and coal, and, almost paradoxically, building mass: converting these materials into iron and filling the city with ever-grander structures. As Birmingham grew, we eventually cut into Red Mountain to make it easy for streetcars to get to modern-day Homewood. What was left along Red Mountain Expressway was massive striated walls of limestone and hematite, an immersive drive-through museum of natural history.

To say the Rotary Trail deepens the slice into Jones Valley isn’t quite right, because even though the trail rests inside what is known as “the cut,” its depth is largely the result of backfilling. Nevertheless, what was left looks like a deep gash.

What landscape architect Jane Reed Ross and Goodwyn Mills Cawood have created within this gash doesn’t seem so much thrust into it as emanating from it. Rotary Trail is a beautiful place to hang out. You enter at the west, burrow and emerge, burrow and emerge again at each cross street. At the subterranean level, it’s surprisingly open and calm. Spiraling patterns of limestone run like riverbeds along the linear trail. Ross kept the walls pockmarked, adding rusted steel bars that echo Sloss’s rusty patina a few blocks to the northeast.

Unquestionably, the piece de resistance is a reproduction of the famed Magic City sign. The original greeted those arriving in Birmingham via Terminal Station. (You’ve maybe seen the postcards, but those are often incorrect in that they flip the sign to face the viewer.) Morgan notes that the reproduction’s placement at the trail’s western entrance is rich in narrative import, addressing the setting sun and suggesting that a new chapter lies to the east. When you finally emerge at the trail’s east end near Econo Steel, you may realize that few blocks east lies another success story, Avondale. It’s not hard to imagine that a park or trail could one day bridge this divide and make more apparent the thought of a united Birmingham.

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