In many ways, Glen Iris is the westside alternative to Crestwood. It doesn’t have a huge business or nightlife draw; instead, it’s a mostly residential area of affordable housing with an easy inter-Birmingham commute. Where it differs, though, is in the uniquely contrasting character of the neighborhood, combining a history of fine old homes and immigrant enclaves to create a special neighborhood mix.
By the turn of the last century, Birmingham’s booming city center prompted its elite families to move out of downtown, first to areas like Highland Avenue and later to Glen Iris Park, according to the park’s 1983 application to the National Register of Historic Places.
Of the park, the historic registry application says: “It was the first professionally landscaped residential area in the city and utilized impressive landscape design; it was the first planned residential community whose residents adhered to strict, self-imposed rules and covenants; its architecture is varied and indicative of early twentieth century tastes; and it offers important insight into the city’s social and commercial development.”
A 1971 Birmingham News feature credited Robert Jemison Jr.’s Glen Iris Park with re-thinking patterns of residential development, beginning future trends toward residential housing along Birmingham’s Red Mountain slope, as well as the private residential communities with recreational amenities popular by the latter half of twentieth century.
But the genteel planned community at Glen Iris Park is only part of the neighborhood story. As late as 1971, a Birmingham Post-Herald feature described parts of Glen Iris as “the Lebanese community of about 100 families on Southside near the Green Springs-hwy.” Those families “came to Birmingham in the 1890s as peddler and jewelry dealers,” Southside resident Zakie Salem told the Post-Herald. Their offspring moved on to more prominent professions, she said, but the Lebanese community retained strong ties.
Part and parcel of that community are the Middle Eastern churches that remain in the neighborhood. St. Elias Maronite Church has been open since 1910 and worshipping at its present Glen Iris location since Christmas Day in 1950, according to the church’s online history. Both St. Elias and nearby St. George Melkite Catholic Church hold annual festivals highlighting the food and culture and their worshipping communities.
Since the 1970s, Glen Iris development has been driven largely by its proximity to UAB, with plans for a large apartment complex in Glen Iris Park reported by both the 1971 News and Post-Herald pieces. The Post-Herald piece described a shrinking Lebanese community and increasing neglect among the homes of Glen Iris Park. Park residents like Mrs. John Akin felt that the changing times meant single-family homes would no longer be a way of life within city limits. “The trend today is to move to the suburbs or live in apartments,” she told the Post-Herald.
But Abdulla Sawaya, who owned a Lebanese deli in Glen Iris at the time, told the Post-Herald he thought UAB expansion could help reinvigorate the neighborhood, and that certainly seems to be the pattern today. Folks who want the charm of a quiet residential area with a minutes-long commute to UAB have bought many of the area’s charming bungalows, and preservation-minded owners have given new life to homes in Glen Iris Park.