In Birmingham, the streets behave surprisingly, burrowing underground and then emerging again, or temporarily splitting around grassy medians. In places, they widen and empty out into a landscape that’s industrial and simultaneously feral. Sometimes a gate closes and a long, long freight train ambles by.
I stop beside a wide green strip, Railroad Park, a central gathering place that feels like it’s perched at the city’s edge. A grassy expanse climbs a hill past gardens and running trails, ending at a view of train tracks and viaducts below and gleaming skyscrapers beyond.
Not far from the park, I find the Sloss Furnaces, where iron was blasted into being from the 1880s to the 1970s. It has been preserved as a National Historic Landmark, free and open to anyone who happens to wander in. I am slightly amazed that visitors are allowed to stroll through this hazardous landscape unaccompanied. People (me, a few other wanderers, and a crew setting up for a photo shoot) are dwarfed by massive rusty blast stoves and boilers and staircases to nowhere, squat brick buildings with horror movie corridors, and oversized tools and equipment that look like they’ve been abandoned by giants.
Birmingham was not created for the hip urban park and the Neoclassical office towers beyond it. It was made for those endless freight trains, and for this vast, decrepit playground. Founded after the Civil War, a Reconstruction-era amalgamation of existing towns, Birmingham was named for the English manufacturing center and planned as an industrial powerhouse. Its fortunes lay beneath the southern part of the city, where modern Birmingham begins to blend into its suburbs and a massive statue of Vulcan rises startlingly above the road from a sandstone base atop a red mountain. From here, limestone, coal, and iron ore were extracted from the earth by miners -segregated above-ground but (mostly) thrown together in their dangerous work below – and hauled by train to the Sloss Furnaces. There, these materials were transformed into pig iron by men who toiled in a hot and noisy racial hierarchy: black laborers at the bottom, paid the least; skilled workers of different races in the middle, paid according to their color; and white managers at the top. (At the very top was Colonel James Withers Sloss; in a photograph on the Sloss Furnaces website, he looks like what would happen if your least intelligent high school bully somehow went back in time and grew up to be a Confederate officer turned railroad boss turned iron magnate.) In this maze of massive pipes and gears, the past hangs untouched in the air.
Two miles away, in downtown Birmingham, it seeps from the ground up through the concrete. Along the numbered streets and avenues, plaques, statues, words etched into stone, and printed paragraphs on sidewalk markers make every block a reminder. To walk here is to relearn the details of the slow-motion battle for equality, the struggle that moves forward then backward then heartbreakingly backward again. The story has its heroes elevated on plinths, from defiant children behind bars to Martin Luther King, Jr. (My mind catches up, in the way that one’s mind does when one travels without preparation to a place that deserves it, and I recall that yes, that Birmingham Jail was in this Birmingham.) But it also has its villains, and none of the words etched into stone attempt to gloss over their evil.
On a path called the Freedom Walk in Kelly Ingram Park, I slip between two dark slabs, from which snarling metal police dogs lunge inward.
Just off the path is a small, dainty tree, dedicated – says the plaque at its base – “to victims of intolerance and discrimination.” There is also a quote from Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Near the sidewalk, cast in steel and bronze, are those four little girls whose faces I have seen so many times but whose names I have to look up: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. They are posed beneath a flight of doves. You can look past the girls, beyond the birds’ silver wings, and see the brick Byzantine edifice of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where they were murdered by the Klan in September of 1963.
It was not very long ago; it was not long ago at all. I know this history in the hazy but internal way I remember old family stories I’ve heard a hundred times, the details lost but the essence injected in my bloodstream. Still, it is surreal to mentally overlay the stories I’ve read and the black and white photographs I’ve seen with this quiet square of park, this grid of streets and avenues, these storefronts with signage from a bolder and more stylish age, these delicately imposing architectural details on buildings that stretch towards the sky.
Alabama is (of course) a Republican state, the state that spawned Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. Its flag is pure white, with a red cross like a Do Not Enter warning. But in 2016, the county Birmingham is in stood out on the map as a blue island in a bloody ocean, isolated above the blue strip of the Black Belt that stretches from Georgia to Mississippi. Here, though I feel out of place as I always do in the South, I don’t feel conspicuous, or threatened. On the sidewalks, office workers wearing cardigans walk unperturbed through the humidity, Europeans wearing cowboy boots and fancy cameras ogle the landmarks of American tragedies, and I am invisible, not a productive member of air-conditioned society yet not quite a tourist. I walk unobserved through a streetscape where everything feels iconic, from the “It’s Nice to Have You” mural to the shimmering goddess on the top of the Alabama Power Building to the sign in front of the 1920s Alabama Theater to the smokestacks in the skyline. In a way, everything here looks familiar, yet this city is unlike any other city I’ve seen.
Two days after I leave Alabama, white supremacists gather in Virginia, killing, injuring, and attempting to intimidate Americans who recoil at their hatred. In the days after that, the monster who is still, impossibly, running our country – the toxin I still can’t entirely believe managed to ooze through the checks of democracy and ascend to the presidency – repeatedly confirms that he is one of them. There is something new in this, a vulgar new way for old fears to come to life and old black and white photos to turn to color. But in a year of shock on top of horror, there is nothing surprising – except the power of a first visit to a new city, and the way its streets tell you stories you weren’t expecting to hear.