In the fifties, when the United States and the USSR were in a cold war, the Soviet Union had a top ten list of American cities to bomb in case the tension ever escalated into an actual war. On that top ten list was a middle-sized city known as Birmingham, Alabama. This fact is somewhat ironic, because during the civil war, when the area now known as Birmingham was called Elyton, a Union general wrote in his diary that the area deserved no attack since it was just a "poor, insignificant southern village".
Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, is located in the north-central area of the state, in the Jones Valley area. Alabama is located in the southeastern portion of the United States, and has a humid temperate "C" climate. Birmingham is located in the southern foothills of the Appalachian Mountain chain, and as a result has a mountainous, rocky terrain. The greater Birmingham area covers five counties, St. Clair, Walker, Blount, Shelby, and Jefferson, and has a population just fewer than 1,000,000 residents. The city itself has approximately 265,000 residents.
Birmingham's economy has grown with amazing speed, primarily because of the natural occurrence of coal, iron ore, and limestone in the area. These three minerals made Birmingham an ideal place for steel production. The city was named Birmingham after the large industrial city in England. Because of the steel industry, many workers flocked here looking for work. Soon, the area became an important industrial base, with railroads crisscrossing throughout the community. Birmingham earned the name "The Magic City" because the city seemed to grow overnight with all of the workers moving into the area. The steel industry continued to boom until the Great Depression struck, and growth of the city was greatly slowed down. President Roosevelt said that it was the hardest hit city during this time period. The mills continued to produce, however, no commercial buildings were built downtown until the 1960s. Because Birmingham's steel mills were not destroyed during the Second World War, they were still using the old technologies for producing steel, and they could not compete with other major industrial cities that had been forced to rebuild following the war. Many of the old steel producing furnaces were closed. However, U.S. Steel still owns a major production facility in Birmingham. One of the original steel facilities, Sloss Furnace, has been preserved as a museum.
In the mid-1970s, the reputation of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) grew to bring in a new kind of industry to Birmingham - the medical industry. The UAB Medical Center is ranked third in the nation behind only The Mayo Clinic and Massachusetts General. The UAB organ transplant program is among the nation's top ten, and the AIDS Center conducts cutting edge vaccine research and development. The University of Alabama at Birmingham is the state's largest employer.
Shopping continues to be a popular pastime in Birmingham. Several national magazines have ranked Birmingham as one of the best places to start a business. The Riverchase Galleria, in Birmingham's suburb of Hoover, contains six department stores, over 200 specialty shops, and has the largest skylight in the world.
Birmingham has a rich history that defines the city that it is today. Since there were no major rivers, the Indians had little interest in the area. However, they did use the iron ore for making their paint. The area was first settled in the 1830's, and at that time it was just a small farming community known as Elyton. Birmingham became an official city in 1871 because of the natural resources available in the area.
In 1904, Birmingham wanted to enter the World's Fair in St. Louis, so a group of citizens engaged a famous Italian sculptor, Giuseppe Moretti to design and build the tallest cast metal statue in the world. The statue was of Vulcan the Roman god of the forge, representing Birmingham's steel industry. Vulcan was 56 feet tall, and is still the tallest cast metal statue in the world, and the second tallest statue in the United States. Vulcan was the toast of the World's Fair and won first place in his category. When he was returned home, plans were made to place him in a park downtown, but many people objected to that plan because of his bare backside. Finally the Alabama State Fair agreed to place him at their entrance, and he was used for advertising various products. In 1935, the Kiwanis Club saw that he was placed in his own park on top of Red Mountain in the city's center. Later, Vulcan was fitted with a torch that glows green when there have been no traffic fatalities, and red when there has been a traffic fatality within the last 24 hours. Vulcan became a well-loved city symbol, and has even been characterized as a radio personality on a popular Birmingham radio station. However, after years of neglect, he began to deteriorate and, in 1999, Vulcan Park was closed to the public. He has now been removed from the city's skyline, and is currently being recast. Vulcan Park is being renovated completely, and plans are to reopen the park in the year 2004, Vulcan's 100th birthday.
During the sixties, events occurred in Birmingham that would forever change the image of the city for the rest of the world. Violent attacks by police dogs and fire hoses against peaceful civil rights demonstrators were widely televised. In 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four young black girls. Birmingham's reputation suffered for many years following the events that occurred during this time period. However, the opening of the Civil Rights Institute in 1993 has helped to soothe some of the wounds of the past. Birmingham is not proud of her role in the Civil Rights Movement, but she has learned from her past, and as a result has become the culturally diverse city she is today.
Each year in the early summer, a three-day festival is held in downtown Birmingham known as City Stages. The idea was generated in 1989 by a group of civic-minded volunteers determined to bring the city together in new ways. The idea was well accepted by Birmingham, and grew to its current popularity very quickly. Various businesses from around the city sponsor stages and each stage hosts different genres of music. City Stages is an example of how Birmingham has become a culturally diverse city. People from all areas of town, all races, all cultures come to this festival, and share their heritage with each other through great music and mouth watering food.
Five Points South is the club and nightlife district of Birmingham. Located on Birmingham's southside, it is home to various clubs and restaurants as well as the Five Points Music Hall. "The Storyteller" is a controversial fountain on one of the street corners in this area. It features a man with a goat head reading to a group of animals. Frank Flemming is the creator of the sculpture in the fountain.
The Birmingham Museum of Art is home to a permanent collection of over 17,000 pieces of art, making it the largest municipal art museum in the Southeast. Highlights of the collection include the Beeson collection of Wedgwood china, the Woodward collection of French art, and the multi-level outdoor sculpture garden. Also the largest collection of Asian art in the Southeast is housed here. The Birmingham Museum of Art also keeps in its permanent collection a large and diverse selection of Western art that includes works from the Renaissance to the present.
Sports have always been an important aspect of life in Birmingham. The rivalry between the two state schools, the University of Alabama and Auburn University, has always been a big issue with the city population. The Iron Bowl, the big rivalry football game at the end of the season is sometimes held at Birmingham's Legion Field, because this is supposed to be a neutral site. Birmingham once had a chance for a professional football team but the city turned down the offer because the famous University of Alabama football coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant, said that we didn't need it. The city does however, possess a professional minor league baseball team known as the Birmingham Barons, whose affiliation with the Chicago White Sox brought to Birmingham one of the most famous minor league baseball players in recent history - Michel Jordan. The Baron's current home field is the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in the suburb of Hoover. The Baron's former home field is Rickwood Field, which is the oldest baseball park in the world. This facility is currently being converted into a baseball museum, and occasionally the Barons play games there wearing the old style uniforms.
Birmingham has come a long way in the last one hundred and twenty-eight years. The city continues to grow as more people move in and more businesses are started. It is exciting to see the new developments in Birmingham, and the future looks bright for this distinctively southern city.