The A List: The Streets are Alive


Each year, the B-Metro team compiles a list of people and organizations that we believe are extraordinary; we call it our A List. Those who landed on this year’s list can boast some remarkable achievements, but their mention here goes beyond that—these are the people who are working to make this city better, in whatever way they know how.

 

REV Birmingham hosts REVIVE: The Street Life Project and teaches Birmingham to dance again.

Written by Lindsey Lowe

 

It’s been a long time since there was this much music in the streets of Birmingham. It’s no secret that in the decades before now, Birmingham has had her struggles; it’s no secret, either, that breaking free of them has perhaps been her biggest struggle yet. Still, her people are singing new songs. Though the momentum has been building for several years, 2013 was a year that breathed of fresh spirit into our city, from the opening of Regions Field to the celebration of moving 50 years forward after the events of 1963. There was one event of 2013—actually a five-week-long string of events—that perhaps spoke of the hope of the future more than any other. REVIVE Birmingham: The Street Life Project, an initiative supported by REV Birmingham, didn’t just talk about promoting hope for the city’s future; it handed it out on the street.

When it began, the idea was to offer some guided walking tours of downtown Birmingham and invite entrepreneurs to imagine the possibilities of creating a bustling hub for business, art, and community there, says Laura Kate Whitney, chief placemaker for LIV Birmingham (a division of REV Birmingham). But one thing led to another, she says, and the project expanded, its mission eventually to demonstrate revitalization in five districts in Birmingham. “We decided, you know what, we’re going to make this big,” Whitney says. “Birmingham is ready for it. We are going to engage the community at the deepest level. So we created REVIVE.” The Street Life Project took place from Sept. 30, 2013, to Nov. 3, 2013, in five different locations in metro Birmingham: downtown’s Third Avenue North, East Lake, Ensley, Five Points South, and Woodlawn. The idea was simple but powerful: Tap into the distinct potential in each of the neighborhoods and motivate the communities to come together and harness it. “We wanted to speak to the community and showcase each community’s assets and opportunities,” Whitney says. “We were very intentional with the five communities we selected. It was important not to go into a community and say, ‘Here are all the weaknesses. Here are all the things we are going to fix.’ We always said, ‘This is the place with the most opportunity.’”

The team was made up of both REV Birmingham employees and the “Street Team,” which was more than 150 volunteers who came together to make the Street Life Project happen. The Street Team first gave the districts facelifts, which included installing benches, clearing rubbish, and improving landscaping, and then, they invited the community to come out. The approach was multi-faceted; REVIVE’s goal was to get the community to realize that investing in the different districts around Birmingham would altogether strengthen her, and there were a variety of different ways to do that.

REV Birmingham invited local retailers—both those who had their feet in the door and those who had ideas for local businesses—to participate in pop-up shops, which allowed them to call an empty storefront home for a week. The benefit was three-fold: It allowed retailers to see the potential in the empty buildings and to get their names out in town, and it also championed Birmingham residents spending money locally. It turns out that a lot of people were interested in the chance: 31 food, art, craft, and fashion retailers had pop-up shops. Altogether, the shops returned more than $60,000 back to Birmingham. But the benefits don’t stop there: eight of those pop-up shops are currently securing permanent spaces for their businesses. One of those is East 59, a coffee shop and art gallery set to open in the summer of 2014 in East Lake’s First Avenue North business district. “Before REV Birmingham, we were a group of people who live in East Lake with a vision of a place for people to gather in the community,” says Amber Tolbert, owner of East 59. “Through this project, we were able to test run our business idea in our future space. We are excited about creating a business where people will be proud to gather and share ideas in the East Lake community. The idea we want to spread the most is that each person matters in our community. Every person has something to offer.”

Another is Doughboys Doughnuts, the brainchild of Phil Amthor and Dustin Blomeyer. Before REVIVE, their doughnut shop was only an idea the two had dreamed up one day over a coffee meeting. Now, they’re looking for a permanent space downtown—hopefully to be opened at the beginning of 2014—to sell their gourmet doughnuts. “REVIVE was the perfect chance for us to try out our idea with very little commitment and risk,” Amthor says.  “The free space provided to us combined with their marketing efforts let us showcase what we could do and how our business could work.  We can’t wait to get our permanent location sorted out and bring our doughnuts back to Birmingham.  What we made for the REVIVE week was only the tip of the iceberg.  We’ve got a lot of ideas for doughnuts and for Birmingham.” There are others: The 2300 block of First Avenue North is now home to pop-up shop participants Freshfully, a local grocery store and café, and Harold&MOD, a boutique that features vintage and new clothing and items from local artists and retailers, including Alabama Funk, Little Forest, and Yellowhammer Creative. Harold&MOD owner Milo Beloved says that their mission—beyond offering great products to Birmingham—is showcasing the value of reviving the Birmingham retail and theater district.

Pop-up shops weren’t the only way that REVIVE showcased available property. They also provided walking tours that allowed the real estate community to explore what is available in the city and to do a little bit of dreaming. “I was a little skeptical at first,” says Kyle Kruse, who bought and renovated the Whitmire Lofts building on Third Avenue North. “But then I started seeing what they were doing. They were putting up signs and putting up benches…I started thinking, ‘OK, this is going to be pretty cool.’” Though Kruse never doubted the effort, he says the remarkable success did surprise him. His building saw a lot of traffic, and he’s currently in the process of securing renters for the space. “So far, we have two potentially really good tenants for the space, and both of those happened because of the REVIVE event,” he says. “We probably had 300 to 400 people come through the building and tons of people who were interested in the apartments upstairs. From the perspective of a business owner, it was phenomenal.”

Part of REVIVE’s goal was to get people excited about Birmingham again; to that end, REVIVE hosted three street parties. They wanted people to literally dance in the streets. “There were three blocks, and we took a bunch of furniture and some rugs out, and we set it up. It was about 5:30 p.m., and it started at 5 p.m., and there weren’t that many people. We thought, ‘Man, we wasted all this time moving all this furniture out,’” Kruse says with a smile. “But by 7 p.m., there were people everywhere. All of the seats were taken up. There were people sitting in the rocking chairs, rocking back and forth, right in the middle of Third Avenue.” Kruse even donated a piano to the street party, which gave party-goers the opportunity to play music for themselves.

CI4I3666As REV Birmingham has evaluated the results of the project, it’s been deemed a success in every way. The idea, Whitney says, was to breathe hope into Birmingham and inspire the community to be their own promoters of change, and the outcome has been what they dreamed of—revival. Atticus Rominger, chief public and investor relations officer for REV Birmingham, says that the dreaming doesn’t stop here. “We can say the city is better than it was one year ago, and we think it will be better one year from now than it is today,” he says. While concrete plans for 2014 haven’t been established, he explains that the goal of REV Birmingham is to continue supporting Birmingham as she takes small steps forward. “Birmingham has been fortunate to have hit some home runs lately with projects like Railroad Park, Regions Field, and the upcoming Rotary Trail. REV’s job is to keep hitting singles in between the home runs,” he says. “Every LightRails project, REVIVE, or Birmingham Restaurant Week provides the community another opportunity to celebrate our forward motion, while supporting local businesses and local projects.  We can’t let up on the momentum.

“There is no question in our minds, in our hearts, that Birmingham will keep moving forward. Downtown redevelopment is strong and getting stronger; Parkside is on the verge of big things. Interest in neighborhood commercial and residential opportunities is on the move.  But most importantly, people feel differently about their city than they have in a long time. That’s the strongest indicator to us that progress in Birmingham will continue,” Rominger says. Indeed, the momentum is undeniable—in fact, when you walk down the streets, past chalk murals and brand-new benches, past renovated buildings and bustling businesses, you can hear the faint sound of a new song. There’s only one thing to do, Whitney says: “Rock on,  Birmingham.”

One Response to “The A List: The Streets are Alive”

  1. So what’s the current status of these pop up shops? Was there a return on the investment of the taxpayers money?

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