Monthly Archives: April 2008

Signs of the Times

Signs of the Times

A local author catalogs historic Birmingham signage.

(click for larger version)


April 17, 2008

Birmingham author Tim Hollis has written several books about Birmingham on topics as varied as local television personality Cousin Cliff and Birmingham’s broadcasting industry. (Hollis has also written histories of Walt Disney Records and Panama City Beach’s Miracle Strip)

Hollis’ latest is Vintage Birmingham Signs, consisting of black-and-white photographs of landmark signage dating back to the 1940s. Most of the book’s images are from the collections of local sign companies such as Dixie Neon, Alabama Neon, and Ace Neon. Included are several of the defunct barbecue restaurants that once made Birmingham a pork haven, including the Pig Trails Inn in Homewood, Little Pigs of America Tennessee Pit Barbecue in Cahaba Heights, and Uncle Tom’s Bar-B-Q at 2200 Sixth Avenue South, (a plastic pig turning on a spit is the latter sign’s centerpiece).

Images of downtown Birmingham retail and skyscraper signs offer a glimpse of an era when downtown was bustling with activity. The section devoted to automobile dealers includes T’nT Safe Buy Cars and “Sorrowful” Jones, a used car dealer whose sign included a sad-faced character. Many long-forgotten products are featured, such as the short-lived Lime Cola from 1946 that featured Bob Hope and Bing Crosby as pitchmen.

Hollis will sign copies of Vintage Birmingham Signs at Alabama Booksmith on April 25 at 6 p.m. For further information visit or call 870-4242.

CIty Hall — The Deep End


The Deep End

He can’t say why or how, but Mayor Langford believes that an equestrian center and an Olympic-size swimming arena will revitalize the crime-ridden and economically depressed Five Points West area.

April 17, 2008
Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford’s mastery at communication often seems to hypnotize many members of the City Council. At the April 8 council meeting, even Councilor Joel Montgomery—who often resists freewheeling spending—was drinking Langford’s Kool-Aid. Montgomery and five other councilors supported allotting $48 million for the mayor’s proposed upgrade to Fair Park and the surrounding Five Points West district—which Langford says will cost a total of $90 million.(Councilor Roderick Royal voted against the proposal, Councilor Abbott abstained, Councilor Bell was absent.)Predictably, Councilor Valerie Abbott remained suspicious of Langford’s economic notions. “I’m in favor of this concept. However, you know me. I’m always waiting for those little details,” admitted Abbott. “And in this case, I just want to get to the bottom line. I would like to approve money to develop a plan today, but not necessarily to allocate all the money, because at this point I do not know exactly what the money will go for.” Langford’s redevelopment plan for Five Points West includes an Olympic-size swimming arena [natatorium], equestrian facilities, and an indoor track at Fair Park. Several businesses, including hotels and retailers, are scheduled to open in the immediate vicinity as part of the area’s economic revitalization. The bulk of the funds for this project will come, at least initially, from funds raised by the increase in business license fees approved by the council three months ago. Though at the time those funds were earmarked for construction of a domed stadium. According to Langford, monies would not be due until 18 months after construction on a domed stadium had begun. Until then, according to Langford’s plan, funds generated by the license fee increase will be the primary funding source for the Fair Park plan. Other funding for the revitalization project will come from a one-cent sales tax previously approved by the council for economic redevelopment, as well as money previously approved for Fair Park but never spent.

Regarding the development’s commercial versus its sports/athletic components, Abbott favors the latter, fearful that current Five Points West businesses might not be able to compete with new businesses. “I would like to see a redevelopment plan and a legal agreement, something we can sink our teeth into,” the councilor said as she also inquired about an ongoing operational funding source for Fair Park. Abbott also wants to know what the economic impact would be. That kind of information is often available whenever city economic development is proposed, but in this instance no economic impact study has been undertaken.

When Councilor Carol Duncan simply asked about the cost of the natatorium (or “swimming pool,” as Council President Carole Smitherman refers to the facility), Langford said the pool would cost about $12 million. “I’m not going to get emotional about any of this anymore. This is too long coming in this city,” said the mayor with obvious disgust. “Without the retail component out there, all we’ve done is build another stadium. You’re going to have to have the retail component in order to be sure that it is maintained. This area has so longly needed something out there. Let’s don’t piecemeal it. If you’re going to vote it, vote it . . . If the Council decides today that you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. I will not bring it back.”

Councilor Roderick Royal wanted to delay the item until after the council receives the 2009 budget in two months. “Since we are contemplating using business license fees—the money that we said to our taxpayers that we were going to use for the dome—the question is: how do you replace this money? And will that affect our ability whenever we do decide, or can build a large facility?”

“We must have about 17 different projects going on in this city,” Royal continued. “Now, I’m not a very smart guy but I will say this: we may need to stop and look at and evaluate how far we’re come. And whether or not any of those projects have really moved. Rather than just continuing to promise out and promise out. I don’t think that’s good fiscal management.” Royal proposed that the council “wait until we get the budget in hand so we can assess our fiscal health for next year and perhaps the following year. And so that we can also look at the evaluation of the 15 or 16 other projects that have been proposed and the Council, either tacitly or formally, has approved.”

Langford denied that money for the domed stadium is going to be used for Fair Park improvements. “The minute they let bids on this stadium, payments will become due 12 to 18 months later,” said Langford. “This city has the fortunate benefit today to be able to use those funds now to do these projects.”

Councilor Montgomery supports Langford’s Fair Park proposal because the money is available. “Councilor Hoyt, this is in your district, and I support you on this. And I don‘t care who likes it,” said Montgomery. “The bottom line is we need economic development in this city. There’s no question about it. That area has been neglected for the longest time. Now you can spin it any way you want to and try to make this look like we’re overspending up here. I don’t vote to overspend taxpayers’ money in this city!”

Council President Smitherman agreed that the council should seize the opportunity to redevelop the Five Points West area. “If we don’t take this money and put it over to the side, then we will never see a new Fair Park,” she said. “It won’t happen. We’ll just take that money and say, ‘Oh, we can go and repair some streets with that.’ Sure. We need it anyhow. Or we can go and we can do some other kind of economic development. And you look up and that money will be squandered all over the place.”

Smitherman believes that the Fair Park development will “spread development over in my area just like it will in everybody else’s area. It may be in Five Points West, but it’s going to have a ripple effect throughout the whole city of Birmingham . . .” She said that Fair Park will show critics that the council can do more than “bring a Wal-Mart.”

Councilor Royal later objected to Smitherman’s lack of adherence to proper parliamentary procedure. “And that means you are out of order again. And you just need to chill out. And that’s what I think,” Royal told the council president. Smitherman replied, “I think I need to use a gavel on you.” Royal again called for “point of order” once more, asking, “Madame President, is that a threat or some kind of assault?” To which Smitherman said, “Nah, I don’t go there, like you.”

• • •
Holy Rollers

At the April 8 Birmingham City Council meeting, Mayor Larry Langford announced that he had ordered 2,000 burlap sacks for use at a citywide prayer meeting to combat crime. Langford displayed one of the burlap bags and said he will ask area ministers to participate in a “sackcloth and ashes” ritual as the Bible commands. “When cities—in the early part of the world’s history—when they had gotten so far from God, begun idol worship and all kinds of crazy stuff that we’re doing even today, that community came to its senses,” explained the mayor. “And the Bible tells us that they [wore] sackcloth and [put] ashes on their faces and they prayed. And God heard their prayer . . . To get this community back on the right track, we need to understand the power of prayer.”

Langford has worn his religion on his sleeve during his first four months as mayor and has led a Bible study group each Friday morning in the city council chambers. “I got a call from someone saying that I need to quit mentioning God’s name so much,” said Langford. “And so I politely asked them what in hell did they want? Because there must be something in hell we want because a lot of us are working real hard to get there . . . If you’ve got a problem with God, take it up with Him.” &


City Hall — Minority Retort



Minority Retort

Mayor Langford and City Councilman Steven Hoyt spar over minority contracts.

April 03, 2008
Mayor Larry Langford and City Councilor Steven Hoyt swapped heated words regarding minority participation and city contracts at the March 25 Birmingham City Council meeting. The exchange was prompted by a council vote to expand Municipal Parking Deck 3, located on Fourth Avenue North between 20th Street and Richard Arrington Boulevard. The project will double the deck’s capacity to more than 1,400 vehicles.

The council approved a $13.88 million bid for the expansion by Brasfield & Gorrie general contractors. Additional parking is needed for a Marriott Renaissance hotel planned for the immediate vicinity. Councilor Hoyt, who has made minority participation in city business an obsession, predictably broached his favorite topic. “What is the dollar amount of minority participation with respect to this project?” Hoyt asked. Mayor Langford replied, “I don’t know the exact dollar amount but it’s almost about 13, almost 14 percent participation.” Hoyt wouldn’t budge. “Yeah, but I need a dollar amount,” said the councilor. “Thirteen percent is not representative of this city proper.” (Langford later said the dollar amount for minority participation was $1.9 million.)

Langford reminded Hoyt that the city’s goal of 27 percent minority participation cannot be enforced. City legislation passed in the 1970s and 1980s to enforce minority participation by contractors hired by the city was nullified when the Associated General Contractors successfully sued to stop the set-aside program. The Birmingham Construction Industry Authority was created in 1990 as a result. The BCIA monitors local construction projects to secure “voluntary” participation in hiring minority firms.

“Now, we pushed very hard on this particular aspect of [the parking deck], to be sure, and they assured us that they are around 13.73 percent [minority participation],” the mayor said. “And I also need to remind the council that for eight years this has been sitting on the books. You all have bid this thing twice, it’s been rejected twice. Now you’ve got a five-star hotel tied in with this parking deck. You blow the parking deck, I mean, you could possibly jeopardize that hotel.” Langford said that minority participation in the project increased from 5.8 percent in the original bid to 13.9 percent after the BCIA intervened.

Hoyt was relentless. “Listen, mayor, all due respect, there’s an urgency in this city, too, for the minority to participate in a process that lends itself to economic development, respectfully,” he said. “This has been the problem with Birmingham forever and a day. And I don’t buy the notion that something, just because it’s been the norm of this city, that we should not do something differently and to increase the participation level in this city. We have a caste system here.” Hoyt then complained to Langford that the mayor’s chief of staff, after earlier suggestions that there would be cooperation, indicated that Langford would not provide any staff from the mayor’s office to help Hoyt with a disparity study.

Langford didn’t miss a beat. “First of all, Mr. Hoyt, let me be crystal clear, since you directed your animosity at me. This is getting really, really old now, asking my staff to give you people to do work. The city council has a role and the mayor has a role. The council’s job is to vote it up or down. Our job is to package it and to give it to you. Now, this notion as to keeping certain council members informed as to what’s going on in my office, it’s not going to happen. You want to sit at the table to negotiate these contracts . . . You can’t sit at a table and negotiate the contract and vote on the contract. . . . But to simply say, based on minority participation, we’re gonna put the city on hold, you can’t do that! You’ve only got one bidder in this deal. . . . If you do this, he’s gonna sue us, and he should. . . . But you can’t make people come to the table if they won’t come. We’ve tried to get more minority contractors to come to the table and they didn’t show up. Now this is too critical to this city for us to do this. . . . This has been dragging on for eight long years and it’s no wonder nothing is happening here! We can’t keep doing this!”

The mayor added that he is committed to minority inclusion and believes his administration has done an “excellent” job addressing such. Langford included a gem of a parting shot: “You’re not the only one, councilor, pushing for minority participation. I hired two people you brought to me! So don’t try to give the impression you’re the only one concerned about [minority participation].” Hoyt replied, “Well, you should have, you should have hired them,” to which Langford cooly responded, “No, I shouldn’t.”

Eventually, Council President Smitherman intervened and ruled the pair out of order, threatening, “Now y’all get it together or both of y’all can’t talk.” Councilor Carol Duncan chimed in: “I’m concerned that as this show is being broadcast today on the world-wide web . . .” Smitherman interrupted her and said, “It is not a show.” Duncan corrected herself and said “this meeting” as she expressed concern about the city’s image. Councilor Joel Montgomery tossed in his two cents. “I’ve sat up here and I’ve kept my mouth shut and I’m not going to keep it shut anymore, relative to this issue. I keep hearing that 70 percent of this city is black,” bellowed Montgomery. “All Birminghamians deserve to work, period, regardless of who they are. . . . This economy is hurting and people are hurting. I respect your position, Councilor Hoyt. But at the same time I’m not going to sit up here and not say something about the other 30 percent, too!” &

In the Land of Sin and Salvation

In the Land of Sin and Salvation

A local author explores the Prohibition movement.

April 03, 2008
Samford University religion professor Joe Coker’s new book, Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement, examines how the South took a Northern moral crusade and used it to advance its own morality. Here Coker shares a few thoughts on evangelicals, the South, and racism. B&W: What is the premise of your book?

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Joe Coker: It’s kind of a study of how religion influenced the Southern culture but also how Southern culture influenced religion, and how things like racial attitudes were adopted into the [temperance] movement. It’s about the roles Southern white evangelicals played in pushing for statewide Prohibition, basically beginning in 1880 and achieving victory by about 1915.

What led you to this topic?

It grew out of my doctoral dissertation. I’m working on a theological library cataloging temperance hymnals. There are hundreds and hundreds of hymnals written expressly for temperance rallies. A whole book of hymns was dedicated to eradicating liquor from culture. [Titles include "Rallying Songs for Young Teetotalers," "Temperance Songs for the Cold Water Army," and "An Hour with Mother Goose and Her Temperance Family."] Then I became fascinated with the movement, especially here. The temperance movement started in the North in the early 1800s and didn’t really take root here in the South before the Civil War. It was a Yankee reform movement tied in to anti-slavery and wasn’t very welcome. After the Civil War, it really took root among Southern white evangelicals.

Was it evangelically driven in the North?

It was driven by Northern white evangelicals. Canals built after the War of 1812 into upstate New York allowed liquor distilled from crops to be shipped into places like New York City or Boston, which led to a lot more drunkenness, which led to a lot of evangelicals being concerned about it.

Was the entire North dry?

Maine was the first state to pass statewide prohibition, but Maine and about a dozen Northern states went dry before the Civil War around 1840. Most of those prohibition laws were repealed by the 1850s through court challenges. Only one or two states remained dry. After the war, the Southern states went dry.

Why after the war?

Evangelicals in the South started flexing their political muscle. They wanted more reform. After the Civil War, Southerners really took on a sense of “Okay, we were wrong about slavery, but we’re still morally superior to the North.” The temperance movement demonstrated moral superiority to the North. Another motivation came from the tensions that developed from having a free black community in the South and concerns about African Americans exercising liberties, such as being able to go out and enjoy themselves. A lot of it was fear of having an African American community that was no longer under the control of a white majority. Some of these fears fueled arguments for Prohibition. There was a sense that black men would get drunk and sexually assault white women, which generally was the justification for a lot of the lynching taking place in that time period. So Southern white evangelicals tapped into this and said, “The solution to the lynching epidemic and the solution to perceived black lawlessness is to cut it off at the source, because if they didn’t have these saloons they wouldn’t get drunk, then they won’t attack white women, then they wouldn’t get lynched. And it was really that argument that was one of the most effective in persuading white voters to vote for Prohibition.

Was there ever any talk of allowing only whites to drink but not blacks?

Sometimes it was kind of couched as a paternalistic self-sacrifice: “We whites are willing to give up our right to drink in order to make society safer, because, unfortunately, [for] the black men in our society, [alcohol] leads them all to this behavior.” But there were few efforts to prohibit only blacks from drinking.

Do you see vestiges of the temperance movement today?

The state Baptist Convention in Florida passed a resolution saying that you couldn’t serve on the board unless you abstained from alcohol. And in a lot of churches and church-run schools, any alcohol is viewed as sinful. There’s one 19th-century author who said that if Jesus had known what we knew, he would have drunk tea instead of wine with his disciples. &

Coker will sign copies of his book at Jonathan Benton Bookseller in Mountain Brook Village on Saturday, April 12, from 2 to 4 p.m. Details: 870-8840.

Mary Badham Speaks

Mary Badham Speaks

Hoover Library hosts To Kill a Mockingbird star.

April 03, 2008
Birmingham native Mary Badham, the child star who played Scout in the highly acclaimed 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, will share memories of her days as a Best Actress-nominated starlet at the Hoover Library Theatre on April 11. Badham’s rough-and-tumble tomboy persona was true to her real life. She left Hollywood at age 13 after three years, with the blessing of her mom and dad. “Some kids have the life dream of being an actor—I never did,” Badham told the San Jose Mercury News in 2006. “I just wanted to be a kid when I was growing up in Alabama. . . . I’ve never been a pretty person, a Hollywood person. Know what I’m saying?”

Mary Badham on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. (click for larger version)

Badham, who stayed in touch with Mockingbird star Gregory Peck throughout their lives, said she always called him “Atticus,” his character name. She was the youngest person to be nominated for an Academy Award until Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar for Paper Moon. (Badham lost to Patty Duke, who won the Oscar for her role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.)

Badham’s appearance is the highlight of the Jefferson County Library system’s The Big Read program, which urges local residents to read a particular work of fiction to encourage group discussion. Participants are reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the month of April. The week of Badham’s visit will also include two free screenings of the film: one at the Hoover Library Theatre on April 7, and one at the Alabama Theatre one evening of April 10. &

Mary Badham will speak at the Hoover Library Theatre on April 11 at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Call 444-7820 or go to for details.

Plantation Monthly

Plantation Monthly

Garden & Gun is an eclectic journal devoted to reading, eating, and killing with style.

April 03, 2008 

Garden & Gun magazine’s title and compelling cover photo of a sad-eyed, quail-hunting spaniel is impossible to ignore. (The one-year-old publication, based in Charleston, South Carolina, takes its name from a local 1970s disco.) Marketed as “21st-Century Southern America,” the March/April issue offers something for everyone: quail hunting on Georgia plantations, an essay on cooking fish by Roy Blount, Jr., and tales of Eudora Welty’s terrifying driving habits.

A mouth-watering feature on North Carolina dining and agriculture includes chef and restaurateur Andrea Reusing, who leads her area’s chapter of Slow Food (a consortium of those devoted to consumption of locally grown and raised foods). Reusing operates The Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill, where she drives a red Mercedes modified to run on recycled vegetable oil.

(click for larger version)

There’s a piece on the Cherokee rose, which was brought from China to England in 1759. By the 1800s, it was growing in America and had become a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Readers will also discover “feists,” little squirrel-chasing dogs adored by William Faulkner that are often confused with Jack Russell terriers.

Avid fisherman-turned-artist Mike Williams is profiled by Alabama’s Daniel Wallace, the author of Big Fish. Williams paints giant, dazzling images of fish, making the creatures appear to dart across the canvas. His huge metallic fish sculptures resemble monster-sized lures designed for catching whales.

Roy Blount, Jr., has a hilarious essay on the delights of panfish. Blount uses crickets for bait and scoffs at such notions of catch and release. He believes that tossing fish back into a pond is like picking out a steak at the market, having it wrapped up and carrying it in your buggy as you shop, only to return it to the butcher before you leave the grocery. After musing on whether the panfish (he favors bream, crappie, and bluegill) was named after the pan or the pan was named after the fish, he writes, “A fish made for a pan—unless, as I say, it was vice versa. Scale him (which roughs up his coloring but his meat can take it) and clean him (you can bury his head and innards in your garden plot, deep enough that the varmints won’t dig them up and he’ll feed your collards) and dredge him in cornmeal and salt and pepper and drop him into hot grease, and you’ve got something that is sort of like . . . I’m going to say . . . Sort of like pie. Pecan pie maybe. In this sense: It’s crunchy—in a chewy not a crudité way—and it’s juicy, salty, and sweet. All in one bite.”

Sandy Lang travels to Puerto Rico in search of the endangered green-blue Puerto Rican parrot. Once numbered in the millions, the species has dwindled to a couple hundred birds, all in a 28,000-square-foot rainforest called El Yunque. Centuries of clearing forests to make room for sugarcane and coffee plantations have killed off parrot habitats, and many birds were captured for sale as pets in the early 20th century. The writer can’t resist a peek at the underbelly of Puerto Rican life and visits a legal cockfighting pit. “[The roosters] look as if in a dance, strutting, prancing, posturing, pouncing, the best matched pairs erupting over and over into a rising, feathered ball,” she shares. “It’s all there before you—tenacity, skill, beauty, blood, life and death.” Sounds kind of like the latest issue of Garden & Gun. &