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Category: Downtown News

First Avenue Rocks and Birmingham's Fitness Trail

Image via First Avenue Rocks

In our experience, folks move to Birmingham’s urban core looking for a different kind of lifestyle, for unique offerings that aren’t available throughout the metro area. With its functional fitness attitude and pop art palette, the First Avenue Rocks climbing gym does not disappoint.

First Avenue Rocks is perfect when you want a modern, minimalist fitness approach along with a sense of fun. It’s exercise for folks who like camaraderie but hate group classes. And while sitting down and watching will prompt questioning expressions in most gyms, it’s the norm here.

This gym is not the kind of place where you drop in for a quick workout. Folks hang around to watch other people’s technique and soak up the strategy used to execute a tough route. But that casual communal learning makes it especially beginner-friendly.

And unlike the large-scale climbing wall at UAB, First Avenue Rocks does not require assisted climbing. The focus is on indoor bouldering, so you can pretty literally walk in as an absolute beginner and start climbing. Individual instruction is available if you’d like some guidance, though.

Either way, we think a session at First Avenue Rocks is a great way to embrace the area.

There’s a toughness about climbing that makes sense for the gym’s semi-industrial location between the Loft District and Lakeview. For years it’s been a place that’s convenient but off the beaten path. Lying just past the coming Rotary Trail, it’s in a strip of low brick buildings that have seen a gradual sprucing as surrounding districts grow toward each other.

Soon the Rotary Trail will connect those districts and add another marker of accessible fitness attitude in the area. After all, there’s the line of trails from Railroad Park to Sloss Furnaces, free group fitness at Railroad Park, and a drop-in-friendly climbing gym, all along First Avenue South. In fact, the just-released Parkside neighborhood branding promises a health-minded mobile mindset.

We’ve heard that urban environments are good for fitness by encouraging people to move more in their daily lives. Morgan Spurlock talked about the daily fitness fix of his New York life a decade ago in Supersize Me. But the development trajectory here goes above and beyond that standard.

There’s neighborhood walkability, after all, and there’s neighborhood fitness friendliness, which is another amenity altogether. If you’re looking for a healthy community lifestyle, this might be the area for you.

Summer Nights, BMA-Style

Image via Art on the Rocks

It’s easy to think of art museum events as belonging to a certain class, but Art on the Rocks proves that isn’t so. In fact, the Birmingham Museum of Art has proved itself a hip destination and a place to connect with arts beyond the visual. The secret to their success? Making the museum stand in for a great night out, while offering the kind of ambience no mere venue can match.

The art museum’s grand, modernist facade is a statement piece befitting Birmingham’s downtown center. At the edge of Linn Park, it has a presence to rival the courthouse and a similar level of stature in the community. For a long time, though, the art museum was only a city-wide institution, not a neighborhood one. These days it’s becoming a strong example of both, and we’re convinced that’s where its future lies.

If you’ve never attended Art On The Rocks, the museum describes it thusly: “Featuring the best of Birmingham culture, Art On The Rocks collaborates with local artists, downtown businesses, and breakthrough musical guests to offer three Friday nights of art, performances, giveaways, food, and drinks.”

This year, though, they’re upping the ante. Besides their classic formula of after-hours art and live music, they’ve given us more reasons to attend this year: sneak peeks at a new exhibit, food truck eats, VIP access, and a next-generation photo booth. We’ve even partnered with them to keep the party going (#AfterRocks) and bring it back toward our craft cocktail end of the neighborhood.

Vibrant events like these need new draws of course, but they also need points of continuity. We talked about Dave’s as a timeless anchor in Five Points, and we think the museum is a great example of that effect downtown. The Birmingham natives among us grew up with this museum, but we’re also seeing it grow with us.

The BMA has managed the tightrope walk of adapting its methods without losing sight of its mission. And that is no small feat. We know we’ve already praised them for making art matter, but it bears repeating. We think art museums make great neighbors.

Downtown Spotlight: Publix Progress

Publix is officially on its way to central Birmingham. No longer limited to a series of architectural renderings for abandoned buildings, the development site — dubbed 20 Midtown — is now a construction zone. Or at least a demolition one.

There’s a tremendous amount of excitement over this development, in part because it solves the problem of city center dwellers making the trek to southern suburbs for basic necessities. It’s also a tremendous amount of faith from a non-native corporate player: The belief that a part of Birmingham that was once very much a dead zone between downtown and UAB can support the high overhead of a major supermarket. We’d be lying if we said we weren’t flattered.

But we’re more excited by what the development says about urban planning strategy. While much of the talk is about improvements in individual neighborhoods, there’s a strong subtext of linking them together. It’s not just about creating bright spots but helping them reach steadily toward each other.

After all, UAB is in many ways the new downtown, employing more people than any other institution in the city and contributing substantially to Birmingham’s wider reputation. It makes sense to develop of the corridor between Birmingham’s north and south sides, between the financial and entrepreneurial and medical districts. They are all linked in our city’s economy, so it makes sense to physically connect the dots.

And that’s really our take on Publix and 20 Midtown: It’s growing our city as a city, as a connected, mixed-use model. It’s creating communities that are self-sufficient within walking/biking distance rather than a series of tasks — work, live, play — each assigned to a particular neighborhood. And if the supermarket is the quintessential way modern communities shop, Publix cements the city center’s growing popularity as a great place to live.

Valentine's Tips: Location, Location, Location

We’ll go on record and argue that Valentine’s Day is the year’s most high-pressure holiday. Besides the noble goal of celebrating love generally, there’s the real expectation of romance, which we all know is a whole other thing entirely. Unless you have a proposal planned, it’s tough to find the right balance of something special that’s still true to your relationship.

Never fear, we’re here with your Birmingham-based advice.

The way we see it, there are two ideal neighborhoods for your saints day celebration: Downtown and Five Points South. And we feel pretty strongly about this, despite our secret hankering for an amorous grilled cheese at Melt. Ultimately, Downtown edged out Five Points because it offers the most complete date night options for any stage of love, with your basic ingredients of food, drink, and classic movie within walking distance of one another.


The way we see it, Casablanca is key to any good Valentine’s observance, and the Alabama Theatre agrees. Do yourself (and your Valentine) a favor and buy tickets now. They’re available here, and the movie starts at 8 p.m. So that’s that, appropriate for friends, casual daters, and the seriously committed.

To complete a romantic evening, we like Continental Bakery downtown’s prix fixe offering, and they’ll throw in Casablanca tickets if you make your reservation for 5, 5:30, or 6 p.m. If you’re feeling extra fancy, there’s also the gas-lit vibe of Cafe Dupont. Either way, you’ll have all the classic romance you can handle and only have to find parking once.


Still, there’s something European about the tiled roofs and art deco details arranged around the Five Points Storyteller fountain. And we all know the Europeans invented romance. So if movies aren’t your thing, we heartily endorse Chez Fon Fon’s French bistro atmosphere for an enchanting dinner that isn’t trying too hard. (In truth, we endorse Chez Fon Fon for any occasion).

On the other hand, if what you want is a fun night out with no plans of hand holding, Five Points is ideal for that, too. Black Market Bar is going all out with a My Bloody Valentine screening. Or you could play it cool with craft brews and giant Jenga at World of Beer.

However you celebrate, here’s wishing y’all a happy Valentine’s!