That’s right, Birmingham, Alabama, or The Ham as residents sometimes call the place. I was privileged to visit in December of 2017, and must say I loved the energy.
True, I was with my loving family and enjoying myself, and that colorizes one’s experience. I’d grown up in Italy, touring with family, and have come to associate times in exotic places, with being in the company of my peeps. I recommend touring in this manner. Don’t feel you’re always called upon to venture solo.
One criterion I’ll use to rank a city, not on overall greatness, but simply on this arbitrary scale: how prepared is a city to educate tourists about itself? Birmingham is very prepared.
You just need to be a little bit curious, a tiny bit open to the flood of history, and that history will come flooding in. Or perhaps “will come marching in” is how to put it, as the information is tightly packaged and well organized.
Birmingham is in the Deep South yet shared many features with Pittsburgh in being a steel and mining town that attracted families from already industrializing regions. Birmingham became a Cape Town, meaning a cosmopolitan cross-section of America and by extension the world.
The African heritage was in a segregated area, but not one without civic pride. The United States played host to numerous such African side of the tracks communities, many thriving. That memory informs the “separate but equal” consciousness in a minority of civil rights leaders in later chapters.
Speaking of civil rights, it’s the domed museum of the civil rights movement to which tourists gravitate, in their search for historical context.
In our case, we showed up the same day bus loads of football teams were coming to The Ham for a season playoff. Many players were of African descent (by a shorter route that through Europe) and had never been to a civil rights museum before. Cell phones were recording like crazy. There is so much to learn.
Let me also talk about the University of Alabama, which makes up half the city. That’s an important vision for me, the Global U guy. When I see a big city, like Birmingham or Detroit, or a smaller one like Decatur, I think “campus” and “city as campus”.
Champaign-Urbana is another classic in this regard. What fuels the economy is research and learning. Labs require light manufacturing and chemical supplies, which in turn require heavier industries, all the way back to steel and mining (also recycling).
Passenger railways still go through Birmingham. I recommend taking the Spirit of St. Louis, an Amtrak train, either inbound or outbound or both. See America by train if at all possible. And don’t be afraid of Birmingham. Try some TrimTab beer.