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Category: Glen Iris

Welcome to the Neighborhood: Glen Iris

 

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.

Bham Eats: Giuseppe's Cafe

giuseppes cafe

 

Glen Iris isn’t known for nightlife or dining hotspots – though it’s only a quick jaunt from the heart of Five Points – but it does have the neighborhood restaurant you’d expect for a low-key residential area. Giuseppe’s Cafe serves hearty Italian-style favorites from a cozy location at Gable Square off of 10th Avenue South.

Its location at the edge of UAB and Glen Iris neighborhoods means a split personality that works. Roughly a block away from UAB’s business school, Giuseppe’s menu and pricing is decidedly student friendly. Within sight of Mar Elias Maronite Church and neat blocks of Glen Iris bungalows, Giuseppe’s website also boasts a “family style atmosphere” fit for neighborhood residents.

Take-out service is quick and easily accessible from the counter off the entryway, making this a great option if you’re just not up for cooking. For those dining in, decor features simple tables and chairs and streetscape wallpaper. Giuseppe’s feels like the kind of place that has regulars, including a couple who got engaged there in November, according to the cafe’s Facebook page.

Giuseppe’s thrives on Italian-American comfort food classics, including a thoroughly satisfying lasagna. It’s less saucy and cheesy than your average lasagna, which creates a compact square that’s rich and filling but not in the same way as your average lasagna. The seasoned beef stands out more than we expected. The marinara is thick, smooth, and a happy amount of sweet. they’ve relied less on sauce and more on fillings – described as small amounts of spinach, eggplant, and squash. On the side is a soft, pull-apart garlic bread.

We’ve also heard good things about the chef salads, which are apparently loaded up with cold cuts, and that they offer a serious meatball sub.

If you’re looking for an affordable residential area that claims both historic charm and still some essentials within walking distance, Glen Iris is worth adding to your list. Even this modest commercial shopping center — Gable Square — features pitched roofs with brick and stucco details on a single-level structure. It could just as easily be a historic apartment complex as a commercial area. In other words, it’s a good fit for its Glen Iris surroundings.

Bham Design: Bungalow Porch Life

bungalow porch

You know that summer is for enjoying outdoor living, but not all settings are created equal. Our recommendation: the deep bungalow porches that dot neighborhoods like South Avondale/Forest Park, Glen Iris and Five Points South. These historic gems take porch sitting from warm weather practicality to true Southern art.

They’re deep and wide, welcoming folks in or allowing easy sociability with street life from a (relatively) cool perch. They can be big enough to host a rustic-chic dinner party or to accommodate a porch swing daybed for napping. Deep enough to fight mosquitos naturally with a steady ceiling fan breeze, or to watch a summer thunderstorm with a glass of dry wine.

And while we love a bungalow porch anywhere, Birmingham features a local style that we really love. Architecture student Thomas Shelby explains:

In the case of Birmingham, the hilly and rocky land around the city supplied an abundance of chert rock and fieldstone for Craftsman homes, which further reinforced the notion of relating the home to the land. More often than not the stone would be collected and split on-site, and local masons would develop their own style of laying the stone, often using board-forms to hold them in place.

bungalow porch 2

There’s plenty of design talk these days about indoor-outdoor living, but it tends to focus on the backyard. Magazines and internet alike are full of open kitchen and dining areas with seamless access out back. But we think there’s something delightful about an old-school, porch version of seasonal living, and it’s all about the front.

Part of the appeal of Birmingham’s older neighborhoods is the focus on sidewalks. These communities were built before cars were a way of life and assumed folks would pass each other on the street, or at least wave from the front porch. We think the renewed focus on city living is a chance to rediscover close-knit communities, and the porch is a key part of that.

We may be partial, but a porch always feels like home.