Wade on Birmingham

The Future of Birmingham: Cultural mining

Pete's Famous Hot Dogs

Photo: bg5000 (CC)

While Birmingham landmark Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs no longer
operates, the Birmingham hot dog lives on at other
Greek-established restaurants. City history offers many
opportunities to attract outsiders.

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By Charles Buchanan

The future of Birmingham is in its past.

The Future of BirminghamBirmingham has a lot riding on its ability to cultivate — and capitalize on — the people, places and history that give the metro area its unique personality. Developers and city planners would be wise to take a look around them. Often, those who figure out ways to incorporate elements of our local DNA are rewarded with an enthusiastic response.

Take Regions Field. Parts of its design echo the metal-casting sheds of Sloss Furnaces and the light towers of Rickwood Field. Visitors can relax in rocking chairs while eating Dreamland ribs. Since the Birmingham Barons moved to Regions Field, the team has experienced a boom in attendance.

It’s not nostalgia that’s powering such reactions from the public. Instead, I chalk it up to a growing feeling of pride in Birmingham from the people who live here, which dovetails nicely with the larger cultural emphasis on “local” in everything from vegetables to beer to art.

This homegrown enthusiasm also has the potential to help redefine Birmingham’s image across the country. I once met someone who traveled to Birmingham because he was a fan of native son Sun Ra, an innovative musician who took jazz into outer space and back. I don’t think he found much to memorialize the sonic pioneer, unfortunately. But it would be easy for Birmingham to create a music trail — along the lines of the Civil Rights Heritage Trail or even in the form of a smartphone app — to guide visitors to sites associated with the city’s rich history in jazz, R&B, rock, country, gospel and other genres.

Likewise, Birmingham could become a center for ecotourism — a sort of Asheville of the Deep South — capitalizing on its close proximity to scenic places such as the Sipsey Wilderness and the Cahaba River. Closer into town, Red Mountain Park, Ruffner Mountain, Oak Mountain and the emerging Red Rock trail system offer easy access to outdoor adventures.

In addition, no other place can lay claim to the Birmingham hot dog, the secret-sauce slathered staple invented by Greek immigrants and made famous by dozens of tiny lunch stands, including Pete’s Famous. Few of those stands remain today, but we can still champion the dog that once fueled the workers who powered Birmingham’s industries that, in turn, made America hum.

Or how about Birmingham’s Batman, Willie Perry? The good Samaritan who once rescued stranded motorists from his souped-up Batmobile is back in the civic spotlight. His car is slated for restoration, a documentary about him is in the works, and his life has inspired Willie Perry Day, a day of service to the community each Aug. 3. You won’t find many real-life superheroes out there, but we have one who remains a force for good.

These unique stories have the power to surprise people across the country who think they know all there is to know about Birmingham and Alabama. By mining our own history and culture, we can mold fresh, colorful images of the city, new symbols for an emerging metropolis.

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Charles BuchananCharles Buchanan is editor of UAB Magazine, author of “Fading Ads of Birmingham” [aff. link] and an artist.

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The Future of BirminghamThe full version of this essay and many more are available in the free ebook, “The Future of Birmingham.”

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Read more essays in our special 10th anniversary series, The Future of Birmingham.

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