The YWCA, the neighborhood association, Cornerstone School, Christ Health Center and Main Street Birmingham have formed Woodlawn United to revitalize the neighborhood that once was the thriving home to the blue-collar laborers at Avondale Mills and white-collar workers who took First Avenue North to jobs downtown each day.
If successful, dilapidated drug houses and vacant storefronts would be replaced with new homes and a revitalized business district with new shops and offices.
“We’re all individually doing our own thing, but we’re also coming together under this one umbrella to turn this energy into something that has maximum impact,” said David Fleming, executive director of the Woodlawn-based Main Street Birmingham.
The varied efforts started out individually, he said, but the groups involved realized that, together, they could have a larger impact on turning around a once-proud neighborhood than any of them could do alone.
The impact can be seen in the YWCA’s renovation of Dansby Court, a 16-unit apartment building, the 12-unit Kelly’s Court and the six-unit Sullivan Square. All should be completed by the end of the year. The 24-unit Harbor Apartments already is housing residents.
Those in the most dire need of housing — often entire families — can stay at Interfaith, for an average stay of about five months. The 58 apartments will be rented to low-income families, including those who found temporary shelter at Interfaith.
Search for shelter
The YWCA is looking at other properties nearby. For example, the group intends to turn an old convenience store into a demonstration kitchen where people on public assistance can find healthy ways to eat on meager grocery budgets.
As YWCA Executive Director Suzanne Durham gives a rapid-fire description of those plans during a tour of Woodlawn, the challenges are starkly obvious: Prostitutes linger in motel parking lots and lost souls on the street talk angrily to themselves. Many young men seem to wander aimlessly.
“The two main economic engines here are prostitution and drugs,” Durham said. “We haven’t solved the drug problem. We’re just moving it somewhere else.”
Most days, Essie Story, 73, sits on the front porch of the First Avenue South home in which she has lived for more than 40 years and watches as workers renovate the neighboring YWCA homes.
Things have improved recently, Story said. For a long time she was scared to sit outside.
“I don’t know how it got started, but it just got out of control,” she said of those darker days.
The area has struggled for decades as residents fled to the suburbs, leaving Woodlawn behind, Fleming said. Businesses followed.
Efforts to save the neighborhood reach back a quarter century. A 1983 street-corner marker notes one attempt.
The success of the latest effort depends on people who might buy homes in Southside or Lakeview turning their eyes to Woodlawn, Fleming said. He markets commercial buildings in the area to artists, musicians and other creative professionals by emphasizing low rents and easy access to downtown and other areas.
“If you want to be a part of something that’s part of the future, Woodlawn is the place to be,” Fleming said.
Charlotte Donlon, 35, and her family made the decision to build their future in Woodlawn nearly four years ago.
Although they originally wanted to buy a home in Southside, the Donlons visited the community around the newly built bungalow-style homes on 55th Street South. They eventually purchased a home there and fell in love with Woodlawn. The couple hope their presence, and the arrival of other new residents, will help the community, she said.
“If you want to revitalize a neighborhood, the best way is to move in,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges to luring young people to Woodlawn and other urban communities is education, Donlon said. But she is pleased with the quality of education her two children receive at Cornerstone School.
By Aug. 1, the private school will finish a $1 million classroom renovation and soon will begin raising money to renovate a portion of Woodlawn United Methodist Church next door to add more classrooms, said Cornerstone Executive Director Nita Thompson.
The church, which lost its historic sanctuary in a fire last year, will build a new multipurpose building for worship, she said. Once the church moves into its new facility, Cornerstone will move into the Woodlawn UMC building.
The school, which enrolls about 200 to 250 students each year, also is working toward becoming an international baccalaureate school in the next few years, Thompson said.
“Students won’t just learn facts. They’ll learn in a way that helps them understand why things work the way they do and how subjects relate to each other,” she said. “To have a healthy community, education is a big part. We offer a valuable alternative” to public schools.
Church of the Highlands, one of the largest congregations in the state, also is working to make Woodlawn a healthier community.
The church opened the Christ Health Center in March 2009, after the Jefferson County Health Department moved its office out of Woodlawn to Roebuck, and saw more than 3,300 people in the following nine months.
Associate pastor Robert Record said the center expects to treat more than 10,000 patients this year. The health center, which operates under its own board and is independent of the church, typically asks patients to pay $30 to $65 a visit.
With multiple outreach efforts, Record hopes the neighboring Dream Center, which the church opened in July in a vacant fire station, also will strengthen Woodlawn. Together, the church’s two projects represent a $2.1 million investment in Woodlawn.
Yet, in less than a year in Woodlawn, Record has seen many heartbreaking things.
Record, a medical doctor, is treating two teenage rape victims and works with an illiterate 17-year-old whose mother recently died and whose father is not around.
Treating their immediate needs isn’t enough, Record said.
“It’s not going to get better until you see their neighborhood change,” Record said.
In the streets around YWCA’s recent work, Record said he sees signs of change.
“You see kids playing where a good percentage of Birmingham’s crack was being dealt two years ago. That’s change,” he said. “It might not be giant or systemic, but block by block, student by student, it will change.”
Vincent Oliver also sees a difference. Oliver in 1966 opened his Hippodrome Barber Shop at 5530 First Ave. North.
Through his shop window, the 69-year-old Woodlawn High School graduate has watched Woodlawn prosper, decline — and finally start what he hopes is a rebound.
For many years, Oliver was the lone occupant of his building. He now shares the space with loft apartments and a dentist’s office.
“People kept moving further away,” Oliver said. “Now they’re moving back in.”