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Forest Park: Birmingham's Original Comeback Neighborhood

Since it is only two miles from the center of the city, it is actually an inner-city neighborhood. It is also a thriving neighborhood of families who take pride in their homes and their setting. Forest Park residents don’t hesitate to say their neighborhood is a prime example of the good things that can happen when people are determined to save a neighborhood.

-Elma Bell, ”Take a walking tour of Forest Park.”  

 

Beginning in 1906, Birmingham’s elite set out to create a scenic neighborhood close to the city center, explained Birmingham News writer Elma Bell, who wrote a series of feature articles on Forest Park around 1980. They founded a lush residential enclave with custom architecture and streets that could be walked from end to end, according to Bell. But the most interesting part of Bell’s articles is her description of a neighborhood reborn, a history that sounds wonderfully prescient for the Birmingham of today.

The Forest Park of Bell’s era was a hotbed of restoration, at the time a nationwide trend which Bell partly attributed to the lack of undeveloped land in city neighborhoods. So while Forest Park wasn’t the only neighborhood set on saving its old houses, it may well have been a trendsetter for the metro area. “Most people agree that the recycling of older homes began here in Forest Park,” Bell wrote. And why not, given its many examples of architecture worth saving?

“The housing ranges from typical Birmingham bungalows (one-story, single-family wood frame with twin-columned front porch) to baronial mansions, from Federal architecture to modern, from rolling lawns to postage-stamp yards,” wrote Birmingham Post-Herald reporter Mitch Mendelson in 1982. “Some of the grander homes were built by Birmingham’s leading early-20th-century architects such as Charles McCauley and the firm of Warren, Knight and Davis.”

Between 1900 and 1928, Forest Park “was THE place to live,” Forest Park Historic Committee Chair Catherine Browne told Mendelson. But by the 1950s, Browne said, the siren call of the suburbs drew many residents to sell. A spate of apartment building took the place of some of those homes. The tide turned toward historic preservation by the late sixties, bringing a wave of new and youthful buyers into the neighborhood, Browne explained. Sometimes they were even the suburban descendants of the area’s original residents, Mendelson wrote.

The area developed a close-knit neighborhood identity, with collaborative efforts first to fight off a disruptive airport expressway route and later to seek historic status, according to Mendelson. That status created regulatory and tax structures that would help protect Forest Park’s historic character, Mendelson wrote.

The neighborhood’s involved residents drove a tremendous turnaround, according to Bell, including new energy for the local Avondale Elementary school. She also described a contagion effect as the attractiveness of old Birmingham homes spread from Forest Park to neighboring areas like Highland Park and beyond.

The model Bell described is not unlike what we’re seeing today: the residual effect of one neighborhood exploding and attracting folks to live nearby. An evolving pattern of the next big thing. It also demonstrates the power of an active community to shape its own future for the better.

Whether you find yourself purchasing in the established Forest Park, or choosing a neighborhood before the boom — Woodlawn and Norwood come to mind — we like Forest Park’s model for Birmingham’s future. It’s a model closely aligned with the past, injected with a democratic energy that bodes well for the future.

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