Monthly Archives: May 2005

Cheap Thrills, and not a Mint Julep in Sight

Cheap Thrills, and not a Mint Julep in Sight

While it’s not Churchill Downs (and it’s more PBR than mint juleps) on Derby Day the ponies still run at the Birmingham Race Course.


May 19, 2005 

“Churchill Downs,” I replied to the shabbily dressed gentleman at the automated betting machine next to mine at the Birmingham Race Course when he asked at which track the Kentucky Derby was being run. Attendance was up at the dog track May 7 for the simulcast of the 131st Kentucky Derby. Nevertheless, the greyhound aficionados are easy to spot; they look as though they divide their time between hanging out at the dog track and the Greyhound Bus Station.

When the track was built two decades ago, the targeted demographic for the $80 million racing venue, originally dubbed The Birmingham Turf Club, was not the lower class. White tablecloth dining, valet parking, and luxury suites were designed to lure the country club set to the Turf Club. There was a genuine sense of excitement, tinged with a touch of snobbery, that Birmingham finally had something Atlanta didn’t. There were bold predictions that Georgians would flock weekly to Birmingham for the golden opportunity to bet on horses. Instead, the rich quickly grew bored, smaller betting pools diminished the quality of the horses, and eventually the dogs moved in. Weeds now thrive where the horses once ran at the Birmingham Race Course. A four-tier grandstand remains largely abandoned. Atlanta residents find few reasons, if any, to visit Birmingham. Instead, Alabamians frequently trek to Georgia for the thrill of purchasing lottery tickets—when they’re not heading to Mississippi casinos.

I’m not much of a gambler. I’ve never had a bookie. (I have had friends place bets with their bookies on the few football games I’ve made wagers.) I’ve played poker maybe a dozen times in my 50 years. And I’ve only been to one cockfight (it was an investigative reporting assignment), where the rooster I bet on blinded his opponent before breaking his wing, only to have the dying bird get a second wind and kill my bird after a 45-minute struggle. I lost $100.

Although the action on the field is the same (above), the view of the track from a vantage point at Churchill Downs on Derby Day (below) is vastly different from the view at the Birmingham Race Course. (click for larger version)


For the past five years, a friend and I have upheld the tradition of driving to the Birmingham Race Course to bet on the Kentucky Derby. We have to wait until he takes his girlfriend to work at 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoons, so it’s often close to 4:30 by the time we are on our way to the track. Kentucky Derby post-time is 5:04, which means that betting closes at 5:03. So, from the moment we climb into my automobile, the whole enterprise of getting to the track in time to bet becomes a thrilling gamble: the disturbingly low gas tank has to wait until after the race to be filled, my car darts in and out of traffic at perilous speeds, and the long lines at wagering windows move slower as the start of the Derby approaches, prompting cursing from those forced to wait on the slow betters. My buddy and I formulate our betting strategies on the drive to the track as he reads the picks from that morning’s New York Times to me. Two years ago, he bet $5 on a number 18 longshot. The betting teller inadvertently inverted the numbers, giving my buddy a ticket with $18 on the number 5 horse, which won. My pal picked up a cool $350.




It’s often said that the Kentucky Derby is the greatest two minutes in sports. Even the greyhound aficionados go nuts, their mouths agape as they cheer their chosen horses to the front of the 20-horse pack. Two-thirds of the patrons chain smoke. Budweiser replaces Mint Juleps as the cocktail of choice. Through the haze of smoke, I glance from the television screen to the four betting receipts I clutch in my hand. My picks included an exacta pairing of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s Bellamy Road (the race favorite) and a 50 to 1 longshot named Going Wild. (I liked the name, he was a longshot, and he was trained by renowned Derby legend D. Wayne Lukas.)

My other exacta bet was also a five dollar wager, this time on a horse named Greater Good and another called Greeley’s Galaxy. I chose them because I liked the alliteration of the exacta combination. [An exacta bet means that the horses must finish first and second in the order that you picked them.] Another $10 was placed on Going Wild to win, because at 50 to 1, I’d grab $500. Finally, I bet my last two dollars on Giacomo, simply because he was the horse picked by the New York Times as the least likely to win. Another $5 was stashed in the car for the gasoline to get back home. (I refuse to go to an ATM at a dog track.) At 50 to 1 odds, Giacomo’s victory was the second greatest upset in the Derby’s 131-year history. As I cashed in my winning $102 ticket, the teller asked what made me pick a longshot like Giacomo. I smiled and said, “God bless the New York Times. They were wrong again.” &

Another Swindle Adventure

Another Swindle Adventure


May 19, 2005Author Michael Swindle has spent a lifetime chasing adventure as he pens stories for numerous national publications, including The Village Voice, Details, the New York Times Book Review, and The Washington Post. His eye for the bizarre has produced a stream of outlandish tales of cockfights and hot dog rodeos in Louisiana, hunting wild boar with pit bulls in the Everglades, and searching for hollering contests in North Carolina after discovering “hollerin’” recordings while on vacation in the Appalachians. “It’s a collection of nonfiction pieces that I have written over the past decade,” Swindle, a former Birmingham resident who now lives in New Orleans, explains of his latest book, Slouching Towards Birmingham: Shotgun Golf, Hog Hunting, Ass-Hauling Alligators, Rara in Haiti, Zapatistas, and Anahuac New Year’s in Mexico City. “I’m going for the longest subtitle of the year award,” he jokes. Among the stories are observations on the fanaticism of the Alabama-Auburn rivalry and his learning of George Harrison’s death while living in Mexico, where Spanish stations suddenly dropped their usual Hispanic music formats to spin Beatles tunes.


Swindle is currently traveling across the country for a series of readings and signings. “I’m going to the West Coast at the end of June. It’ll be the apex of my career. I’m going to do a reading at City Lights Books [famed San Francisco bookstore that was a home of sorts to the beat writers]. Those were the guys who got me started on the road to ruin in the first place,” he laughs. Michael Swindle’s road to ruin stops in Birmingham with a signing at Alabama Booksmith on Friday, May 27, at 4 p.m. He’ll also be appearing at Cosmo’s Pizza in Five Points South on May 29, at 3 p.m.

City Hall — Prohibition: Birmingham City Council-Style


Prohibition: Birmingham City Council-Style

May 19, 2005

When convenience stores apply for licenses to sell alcoholic beverages, the fear of expensive court battles often forces the Birmingham City Council to begrudgingly grant permits. On May 10, the Council found criteria that it believes will stand up in court, should they reject a request and face a challenge by the proprietor. The Council voted unanimously to deny a liquor permit to the 6th Avenue North Package Store due to its proximity to the Hope VI Housing Project, which is currently under construction.

The Hope VI Project is designed to create affordable, desirable housing in downtown Birmingham, targeting low-, middle-, and upper-income residents. According to Jim Stanley, an attorney with the city law department, the approval of the package store “might have a negative impact on the next phase of the Hope VI Project.” Stanley explained that the developer “is applying to the Alabama Housing Finance Authority [AHFA] for low-income housing tax credits, and that the location of a liquor store within a certain radius [a half-mile] of the project would have a negative impact on their ability to attain those tax credits.”


A scoring system is used to award such tax credits, and five points can be deducted if liquor stores or other “incompatible uses” are in the vicinity. The five-point deduction “would be fatal to most applications,” Stanley explained, as the tax credit process is highly competitive. The attorney did add that a provision exists that allows the AHFA to exempt a Hope VI Project from the scoring application. He warned, however, that low-income tax credits make up 55 percent of the funding for Phase III of the Hope VI Project, so granting the alcohol license might put the final phase in jeopardy. When pressed by Councilor Roderick Royal, Stanley added that current businesses that sell alcohol could also cause the Hope VI Project to lose points.

The three reasons for denial of an alcohol license include: if the business is causing a nuisance, if it violates zoning regulations, or if the establishment is a detriment to an adjacent neighborhood. Councilor Valerie Abbott summed up the City Council’s hearty embrace of the federal standard presented by attorney Stanley. “We rarely ever get to use [one of the three reasons to deny an alcohol license],” said Abbott. “We finally have a project here that truly meets the criteria. It has circumstances that are clearly detrimental to the adjacent residential neighborhood.”

Councilor Elias Hendricks noted that problems arise when alcohol is sold in the area. “Look at any other place around downtown, or on the fringes of downtown, that sells beer and wine, and see the problems and the traffic that it generates,” urged Hendricks in disgust. The councilor, who is a downtown resident, complained that people congregate to drink outside as they harass people in the neighborhood. “We are trying to help downtown, and we are trying to live in our neighborhood. We deserve to live in our neighborhood and have a decent quality of life. Why go back to what we had before?” he asked.

Two weeks ago Hendricks berated his colleagues and downtown businesses for trying to keep The Furnace, an upscale strip club that is within a half mile of the Hope VI Project, out of the area. The councilor expounded on the importance of opening up downtown Birmingham as a future “entertainment district” in conjunction with the city’s desire for a domed stadium in the area. He expressed no concern about The Furnace’s alcohol sales affecting the area’s quality of life.

Ironically, the attorney for the owner of the 6th Avenue North Package Store is Ferris Ritchey. Ritchey represents The Furnace in its battle with Birmingham city government and recently won a round in court that would allow it to open, despite the Council’s and Mayor Bernard Kincaid’s rejections of the gentleman’s club. “A lot of these concerns that you hear from the people are always speculative concerns,” Ritchey explained to the Council. “And you can’t speculate about what might happen.” &

City Hall — Council Says No To Strippers


May 05, 2005

Satan continues to lurk in the corridors of City Hall, this time as a link connecting Birmingham to the global sex trade. At the April 19 City Council meeting, morality crusaders expressed dismay that the city would consider opening a topless bar in an industrial and historic district directly across from Sloss Furnaces.

Known as The Furnace, the club is an imposing structure that has been advertising and selling memberships before receiving the necessary permits to open. The Furnace has been in the planning stages since 1999, when the previous City Council denied a Division II dance permit. The club sued over that decision in January 2000 and an agreement was reached to resolve the lawsuit. However, a battle with the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board has delayed the opening. In November 2004, Councilor Carole Smitherman spoke in favor of The Furnace and its tax benefit to the city. (The Council approved the club’s liquor license in May 2004.) But by April, Smitherman had changed her mind and voted with the majority to deny the club a dance permit by a six to three vote. Councilors Roderick Royal, Bert Miller, and Elias Hendricks voted in favor of the club.

The rhetoric of moral and economic zealots was as fascinating as the car wash drama in the council chambers two weeks previous when a license for that business was denied. “I am a recovering sexual addict myself!” admitted Paul Hughes, a ministry veteran of 23 years who works for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry with an office a few blocks north of The Furnace. Hughes said that he has observed “my peers dealing with issues of sexual addiction and the ‘tsunami’ of social cost that the multi-billion-dollar pornography industry celebrates and profits from in terms of what it’s costing our men, our women, in relationships, in marriages, [and] the destruction of these marriages.” Hughes continued: “I’m made of the same cloth as those who will be satisfied in their desires by these men who are for this. I’m saying that there is a global sex industry that you do not want to say ‘yes’ to in the heart of Birmingham, right between the national historic site of Sloss Furnace [sic] and the Hope VI project!” Hughes finished with a flourish: “They want to be the flagship and put a very pretty face on a very destructive force in our city, with their billboards along every major highway . . . if we continue to say ‘yes’ to sex trade that is global, it won’t only affect young men in Birmingham but also young women in Romania and Eastern Europe, who right now are being imported through Mexico City, pimped and prostituted and then imported into Atlanta, New Orleans, to be a part of the auxiliary illegal sex trade.”

“First and foremost, this is not against the law. It was not against the law when the people initially invested their money, and it’s not against the law now.” —City Councilor Elias Hendricks

Steve Upton, owner of Crane Works at 2728 8th Avenue North, represented the economic interest that seemed to more effectively instill fear in the hearts of city officials; he threatened to pull his business out of Birmingham. Speaking on behalf of a real estate company that he owns as well as Crane Works, Upton said, “As far as statistics go, Crane Works today is already spending $250,000 in property taxes, payroll taxes, sales tax license, and business license,” said Upton. “And that’s in a business that’s only been growing for six years. If things turn for the worse, we could pack our bags and leave the city.” Ironically, the mammoth Crane Works building was erected directly across the street from an adult book store.

Mark Polson, who identified himself as a defense attorney who has practiced law for 30 years and has represented women employed at other strip clubs in town, said that what the exotic dancers share in common are prostitution and drug addiction. “What do you think goes on in those private rooms?” Polson asked the Council, noting that prostitution is how these women pay for their addictions.

Several women addressed the Council next, quoting scripture. One said she had solicited opinions from surrounding businesses refuting information she had received that the majority in the area were in favor of the club. “My friend and I just didn’t believe that,” she said. “We spent three days going around the industrial park. We talked to at least 20 businesses—huge businesses. Most said, ‘We wish it would fall into the ground.’ And I’m going to say ‘an ugly,’ that it is a whorehouse and a drug place. And we don’t like looking at the naked ladies that are painted on the corners of the building.” She added, “It’s an industrial area and should not be a red-light district.”

“First and foremost, this is not against the law,” argued Councilor Elias Hendricks. “It was not against the law when the people initially invested their money, and it’s not against the law now . . . If you have a problem with this, then make it against the law before people [invest] their money.” Hendricks, who lives in the area, has indicated that the neighborhood approves of the establishment. “We are getting ready to have people invest $180 million in an entertainment complex,” Hendricks said. “We cannot, if it’s within the confines of the law, start picking and choosing. If you don’t like Thai food, don’t go to a Thai restaurant. But that doesn’t mean that the Thai restaurant should not exist, if it’s well within the law.” Councilor Roderick Royal added, “We are treading on a slippery slope here because we’ve not so inquired about other applicants as much as we’ve done here, in previous forums.” City Attorney Tamara Johnson disputed Royal’s claim.


The ABC Board earlier denied the club a liquor license due to concerns about private dance rooms as well as problems with the names on the application. Circuit Court Judge Scott Vowell ordered the state agency to rehear the club’s application. The ABC board had maintained that the owner, Gregory Jackson, failed to include the names of others with a financial interest in the establishment. Jackson’s brother, who reportedly had a drug conviction in 2002, was not listed as one of the owners of the business, although he was reportedly involved in the business. Vowell told Jackson to identify everyone with a financial stake in the business. Furnace attorney Ferris Ritchey maintained that the correct names were disclosed and that no one was trying to hide anything. In early March the ABC Board recommended that the owner be granted a liquor license.

“The fact [is] that the transfer of property was made specifically in order to take someone else’s name off of this application after it had already initially been filed,” complained Councilor Joel Montgomery. The councilor said dance floors are to be a minimum of 15 square feet and permanent in nature, but that he had not been able to confirm that the dance floors are in compliance with city code. “I am not going to ignore the business owners around this establishment,” Montgomery added. “I am not going to ignore their wishes . . . They were here before you got here. I do not appreciate the way that this establishment came into the city of Birmingham, posting billboards up all over the interstates, all over the bypasses, saying that you were going to build it before you had even applied for a liquor license or a Division II dance permit.”

Mayor Bernard Kincaid urged the Council to vote against the dance permit, though he acknowledged that the business could operate without exotic dancing, although it might not be as profitable for the city tax-wise. “There is no absolute right to this license,” said Kincaid. “It might not be as profitable, but it would fit with the terrain that the Council and the Mayor are responsible for protecting.”

Attorney Ferris Ritchey, who has requested nearly a dozen delays from the Council as The Furnace battled with the state ABC Board for a liquor permit, pointed out that there are currently five similar strip club businesses in the city. “[The] only thing is that The Furnace will be much nicer, much more secure,” Ritchey said. He added that cameras will monitor club activity. The attorney said The Furnace would provide between $150,000 and $200,000 in taxes for the city and would employ up to 100 people. The attorney said he would appeal the Council’s rejection to the Jefferson County Circuit Court.

On Friday, April 29, Judge Houston Brown ruled that the city should abide by the 2000 agreement with the club and grant The Furnace a dance permit. As of press time, the city had not decided if it would appeal. &