11th Avenue United Methodist Church, completed in 1904, was one of three churches, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church across the street and the 2nd Presbyterian Church, which served the Southside neighborhood for almost a century. After the congregation vacated the church and moved south over Red Mountain (a common trajectory for Birmingham businesses and populations) many vagrants began squatting under the arcades. Graffiti tags were sprayed on its walls like the secular and hieroglyphic words of a god evicted from his own temple.
In 2006, UAB declared its intention to repair the leaking roof. In retrospect, this appears to have just been claptrap to placate the historical fanatics because the roof was never reshingled, and I doubt the sincerity of the promise that it would be fixed. The tentative site plan calls for approximately 25,000 square feet to be devoted to a visual arts complex and - you guessed it - a parking deck encompassing most of the block, when there are parking decks all over town that are sitting empty. As a former artist myself, I appreciate UAB’s willingness to patronize the arts, but was there not someway to incorporate the 11th Avenue United Methodist Church into the new design without reducing it to infill?
A spokesperson for UAB said that the 11th Avenue Methodist Church was considered for preservation, but that a feasibility study declared it infeasible on account of the church’s extreme disrepair. The Pizitiz Building is in extreme disrepair, but Bayer Properties, in conjunction with the law firm tenants, had the gumption to capitalize on preserving a historical structure. Much of that disrepair occurred during the disputes between Healthsouth, UAB and the County Historical Commission and could have been avoided. Now, I wouldn’t cite this as a source of authority, but I’ve heard rumors, from anonymous sources, that UAB purchased the church with the intent of demolishing it from the very beginning. However, because the church was listed on the Jefferson County Historical Commission they could not demolish it immediately, but instead waited for the building to fall into such an irretrievable state of disrepair that the city was forced to condemn it. After the city’s official condemnation, and a demolition permit was approved, the bulldozers showed up.
A building is a repository of embodied energy. Masons and stoneworkers labored for days, probably many months to construct this church. The stained glass windows were European imports. It wasn’t designed with AutoCAD, but by a draftsman. The demolition of this building is symptomatic of the fact that in Birmingham, and in cities all over the country, we treat buildings like commodities that can be bought, sold and disposed of when we want a new one, regardless of the social, economic and environmental repercussions for the locality. Birmingham’s seemingly incurable car culture is slowly eroding what remains of its urban fabric. In other cities, such as Seattle and Boston, there are municipal ordinances requiring a “statement of intent” to be posted when a building is being adapted, renovated or demolished. This allows the local citizens to observe what is happening and to contribute to the public dialogue in their neighborhood associations or at city hall. During the summer, I walked by this building on a regular basis and I had no clue it was being slated for demolition until I saw that half the eastern wall was missing. The church looked like it had been bombed. Because the proceedings are clandestine, and the process lacks transparency, and thus accountability, I was unable to fetch my slingshot and hurl stones at Goliath. If a statement of intent to demolish was posted, then I need to schedule a visit to the optometrist because I missed it (as far as I can tell from the city’s website, this form is the only requirement for demolition). The only public warning I have been able to find was an elegiac article in the Birmingham Business Journal about five months before the building’s demolition. Because of UAB’s juggernaut role not just in Birmingham’s economy, but the region’s economy as well, no one in city hall is brazen enough to protest. If I had known the building was slated for demolition, I would have been at the demo site at dawn throwing water balloons at the crew. If UAB wanted to demolish The Heaviest Corner on Earth itself they’d probably get away with that too. When it was once proposed to demolish King’s Chapel in Boston the citizens of that revolutionary city were ready to lynch the gormless, ahistorical developers who dreamed up that nightmare.
The chain link rental fence was the only indicator of intent to demolish. Criminals.
I do not advocate historical preservation out of some nostalgic pining for a halcyon past that never existed. The fact is that, even though Birmingham has some urban infrastructure that is unique to it alone as a Southern industrial city, much of Birmingham’s social history is a blight and a national embarrassment. Most historical preservation societies are little more than sewing-circles for little old ladies. And UAB is not going to be convinced to preserve historical structures based on such quixotic arguments buttressed with black and white photographs of the Golden Age. To preserve structures like this, it must be demonstrated to powerful institutions like UAB that the preservation will have both tangible and intangible results. Preserving the past for its own sake, or for aesthetic reasons only, while laudable in its own right, isn’t going to convince bureaucrats and administrators who just see another abandoned eyesore. Most of them don’t actually live in Southside, so why should they care?
Furthermore, I don’t want to espouse a reactionary, Neo-Luddite opposition to “change” or some misty, metaphysical notion of “progress.” But this is not “progress,” or “change,” but regression from an urbanist perspective. What I object to is the suburbanization of urban space. If UAB would use its clout to advocate for a viable transit system they wouldn’t have to knock down historical structures to throw up a parking deck or a paved surface lot that just sits empty on the weekends and at nights and exacerbates the urban heat effect (as if Birmingham wasn’t hot enough in the summers). UAB has enough clout in Sweet Home Alabama that if the Green Dragon wanted a transit system then it would probably get it. Now, UAB is capable of preserving historical structures when it wants to. The UAB Spencer Honors House, which is just across the street, and where Martin Luther King Jr. himself once delivered a sermon, was completed in 1901 and was renovated in 2002, though largely with the help of private donations. This is a prime example of how UAB can contribute to adaptive reuse. But historical preservation has not been the predominant way that UAB conducts business. Several years ago a proposal was floated to demolish the old Hillman Hospital Building. This would be tantamount to Harvard University proposing to demolish Harvard Yard and cover it with asphalt. Through the urban renewal projects of the 50’s and 60’s, UAB has contributed to actually effacing Birmingham’s dark history, not preserving. Let us not forget that UAB is currently sited on what used to be about 45 residential blocks.
I would like to propose what Carl Jung called a “collective unconsciousness” for the city of Birmingham. In that collective unconsciousness are all the repressed contents of Birmingham’s urban history; contents which it has yet to truly own up to, despite its avowals and pretensions to the contrary. A collective unconsciousness, projected onto the psychic dimensions of a city, would be a civic reservoir of that city’s collective experiences, which define it as a unique place. UAB, by demolishing the physical reminders of the city’s repressed social history simply exacerbates the process of repression and disavowal. If no one can see the spaces in which these social histories were played out then it never existed, right? “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Stephen Dedalus said, in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Birmingham too will have to awaken from that traumatizing historical nightmare if it ever wants to revitalize and be the Magic City that it claims to be.
Not only was the church razed to the ground, but even the trees were uprooted. This is because a clause states in the city’s Technical Building Code that the property owner must “remove all organic material, trash and weeds from the premises” after demolition. The church site is now another vacant lot where you can have a picnic lunch.