Alabama has no rival when it comes to the number of significant civil rights sites in the state, and Birmingham boasts numerous world-changing sites. The boundaries of the city’s Civil Rights District, now the Birmingham National Civil Rights Monument, contain the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church, and Kelly Ingram Park to name a few. Each represents a pivotal point in the movement’s struggle for equality. The district also includes Historic 4th Avenue Business District, one of the few remaining black commercial corridors in the Southeast.
For more than four decades, Urban Impact, a nonprofit community-based economic development organization, has been dedicated to ensuring that these sections of the Magic City remain visible, sustainable and vibrant.
Urban Impact is revitalizing Birmingham’s historic 4th Avenue business district from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo .
“In the 1980s, the mayor at the time wanted to make sure we preserved the infrastructure of the African-American downtown and the historic African-American business district,” says Ivan Holloway, executive director of Urban Impact. “He got together some local businessmen and some city councilors and formed Urban Impact.”
Holloway emphasizes the importance of organizational conservation efforts. “In addition to the more famous civil rights sites, there are many important buildings here,” he says. “The Masonic Temple here was developed and designed by the nation’s first accredited African-American architect, Robert Roberson Taylor.” It also housed the offices of the NAACP and the Booker T. Washington Library, the first in the city to lend books to black residents. The district showcases the work of America’s second accredited black architect, as well. “There are very few buildings from these people left standing anywhere, but they are here in Birmingham. One of the first African-American banks is also here,” says Holloway.
Saving more than space
It may have started with a push to preserve the actual doors, windows and walls – places of protection. But Urban Impact is also preserving the culture of the community. “It allows us to show our place in history in relation to other parts of the city and the overall economy of Birmingham,” says Holloway. “We are also preserving the memories associated with these points.”
In recent years, Urban Impact’s programming has evolved and expanded to remove barriers and provide growing economic opportunities for emerging Black businesses and startups. His “Become” program is a 12-week training session that teaches basic business concepts and skills to aspiring business owners of color. In addition, Urban Impact provides assistance with lease agreements, marketing assistance and one-on-one counseling for both existing businesses in the district and merchants hoping to locate there.
Urban Impact is also a member of Kiva Hub, a national micro-lending program that provides zero-interest, crowdsourced loans to small businesses. “We’re really proud to be a part of this,” says Holloway. Money flowing from this program — $25,000 in total so far — has helped a coffee roaster buy the equipment needed to fill cups and allowed a children’s shoe company to increase production and clothe more little feet.
Urban Impact’s in-house lending arm, the Birmingham Community IMPACT Fund, empowers women and minorities—those often underserved by traditional financial institutions—thanks to money raised by partners across the city and country. Holloway notes that the fund is the beginning of Urban Impact’s journey to becoming a certified community development financial institution in the coming years.
Full speed ahead
Urban Impact is preserving the heritage of the district, but also looking directly at new and better ways to share the history of the Black community in Birmingham. Holloway and his team recognize that telling this story – and telling it well – can be a powerful tool as it seeks to protect essential elements of a community’s history, while also providing the resources and support needed to foster and sustain success. for the present and for the future. generations.
This mission is perhaps most evident in the organization’s district revitalization initiatives. “We’re working with the national Main Street organization’s Urban Main program, which serves small parts of big cities, those with their own distinct characters and identities,” says Holloway. “It’s a major part of our job now.”
The focus is on creating a development plan to not only protect the Civil Rights District’s past, but to better communicate its importance and attract new businesses. “When people visit Birmingham, what impression do we want them to leave? What is the experience we want them to have in this part of Birmingham?” says Holloway.
Urban Impact is answering these questions now. “We are forming a comprehensive strategy focused on design, promotion and organization to create a truly dynamic district,” he says. Some of the steps include giving the area a more cohesive feel, adding signage to highlight the district’s special historical details, and using the built environment to share a richer perspective. “We want people to understand what happened here, but what it’s it’s happening here too,” says Holloway. “And that’s where our relationship with the Alabama Power Foundation began and where its support is proving so valuable.”
With the help of the Foundation, Urban Impact is hiring a firm with the expertise to put its development vision into action. The plan prioritizes the county’s tribute to saving the structures of yesterday, as well as encouraging businesses today. One example is Green Acres, a popular restaurant that has drawn hungry crowds looking for wings for more than 60 years.
But there is an equal emphasis on bringing dormant spots back to life. A core component calls for providing creative spaces that will attract Black entrepreneurs to open restaurants, shops, galleries, entertainment options and more in the district, increasing the district’s vitality, prosperity and quality of life for area residents.
“We want more small business here,” Holloway says. “We want young people who are looking to start something to come do it here and be excited about growing here and helping the whole area grow.”
He noted Urban Impact’s partnership with the Foundation, which he believes will allow the organization to make an even deeper mark.
“It’s so exciting to have the Foundation as a part of this,” he says. “It’s really spacious and has a dual purpose: We’re preserving the history, but we’re bringing the new to this old place as well—infusing it with fresh energy,” says Holloway. “When people visit the Civil Rights District and the business district, we want them to walk away with a deeper understanding of the historic story, but also to be inspired and enriched by the history that is still being written, the stories of thriving black businesses. here. now.”
This story is from the Alabama Power Foundation’s newly released 2021 Annual Report. To view the full report and learn more about the foundation’s programs and initiatives, visit powerofgood.com.