Southside’s entertainment districts have become a hunting ground for muggers, car thieves, and murderers.
Even as the mayor apparently refuses to recognize that Birmingham is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live, crime continues to haunt the city’s merchants and residents. Mayor Bernard Kincaid speaks of a “perception of crime” as he seeks re-election on October 9. Candidates vying for Kincaid’s job and Birmingham residents, however, believe differently.
In Five Points South, recent robberies of patrons walking to their vehicles from various establishments have drawn attention to the area. But not many owners or employees at bars and restaurants are willing to share crime anecdotes. One exception is bartender Cat Hawkins at Dave’s Pub, who says that the area seems to be getting more dangerous. Hawkins says that female patrons at the bar are now escorted to their cars by a security guard after dark.
James Little is president of the Five Points South Merchants Association. Little constantly chases away vagrants from the sidewalk in front of the area coffee shop he manages. While talking about the problem in front of the business on a recent afternoon, he confronted street people, then returned to explain, “Certain people—transients, vagrants—know that [Five Points South] is an area where they can go and can hang out and drink, do drugs, panhandle, harass . . . Because nobody will say anything to them. Nobody will question them.” Little says that such behavior is not tolerated in Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook, Hoover, or Homewood. Panhandlers actually come into his business and ask customers for money. Little has urged police to tell vagrants that they must leave the area instead of simply sending them across the street, where they continue to loiter. “I know a lot of businesses in this area are hurting right now,” says Little. “This area could possibly be like Woodlawn in a couple of years.”
Frank Stitt, owner of Highlands Bar & Grill, says the city must address problems in the area. “City Hall needs to re-energize their emphasis on making Five Points a secure, a safe, an attractive, a clean area—whether it’s the street departments, whether it’s more policemen, whether it’s more lighting, whether it’s security cameras. We need all of that. We also need the police to actually be accountable for not allowing these street criminals, transients, vagrants, and drug dealers that hang out here. The church [Highlands United Methodist] invites them all for coffee and donuts and washing laundry every morning, and then they just pretty much use the Five Points South area as their home base. I think the church certainly has good intentions. . . . But to leave them here so half of them can deal drugs and just get into trouble all day long is a bad end result . . . City Hall and the police department have not followed through on helping make Five Points a secure and attractive area.” Stitt admits that the police have a difficult job, but notes that other municipalities in the county do not allow such activity.
On August 19, after a man was found shot to death in the 1200 block of 20th Street South near Bell Bottoms nightclub on Highland Avenue, the department said that police presence would be beefed up in Five Points South. On September 22, a man stabbed his wife several times on a Saturday afternoon in front of the fountain across the street from The Grape restaurant.
In the middle of the afternoon six months ago, Cannon drove to the Battery Warehouse building only to find two men dismantling one of his vehicles he had parked in front. He got out with his .38 pistol and confronted the thieves, who fled. According to Cannon, police were called but it took half an hour for a lone officer to arrive.
Cannon has watched the neighborhood deteriorate for some time. A little over a year ago, a dead body was found in a parking lot adjacent to TC in the early morning hours. “Here in Lakeview, it’s getting like Five Points South. If it wasn’t for valet parking, the nice restaurants would not exist at all,” said Cannon. “Now it’s personal. The thieves, when they see a golden opportunity walking down the street, they sit in the shadows and wait on some good victims. . . . Why break into the car when you’ve got them?”
Kelly Pierce has been a bartender at The Oasis in the Lakeview district for more than six years. In 2005, she and two employees were robbed at gunpoint while closing the nightclub. Pierce says that automobile break-ins have been the primary problem in the past year. She does not feel as secure as she once did. “I used to close that bar by myself and be fine with it. But I would not want to do that again,” says Pierce. “It’s been scarier the past two and a half years.”
Pierce had her 1984 Chevy truck stolen twice on Southside. The first time, Bessemer police recovered it in a Lowe’s parking lot with “a ball joint broken out,” said Pierce. When she went to pick up her truck, there was another license plate on it, presumably stolen. When she asked the Birmingham police officer present if he wanted the plate, Pierce said she was told to “just throw it away . . . don’t worry about it.”
The truck was stolen a second time in May of this year from in front of her apartment on Idlewild Circle, where she moved after the first truck theft occurred.
“There’s lots of gang activity . . . I [often] hear gunfire,” he says. “There’s not enough of a police presence.” Marshall’s home has not been burglarized, but his neighbor’s house has been broken into twice, and several other houses on the block have been burglarized over the past two years. He says that residents willing to revive neighborhoods deserve better treatment. “People take an interest in Birmingham,” said Marshall. “People take a risk to move into an area like this and try to establish a community. People are on the verge of leaving—especially people with children and families.” &