Alabama has no rival when it comes to the number of meaningful civil rights sites in the state, and Birmingham boasts multiple locations where world-changing events took place. The borders of the city’s Civil Rights District, now the Birmingham Civil Rights National 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 fight for equality. The district also includes the 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 these sections of the Magic City remain visible, viable and vibrant.
Urban Impact is invigorating Birmingham’s historic 4th Avenue Business District from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.
“Back in the 1980s, the mayor at the time wanted to make sure we preserved African-American downtown infrastructure and the historical African-American business district,” says Ivan Holloway, Urban Impact’s executive director. “He gathered a few local businessmen and some city councilmen and formed Urban Impact.”
Holloway spotlights the importance of the organization’s preservation 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 first accredited African-American architect in the country, Robert Roberson Taylor.” It also housed offices of the NAACP and the Booker T. Washington Library, the first in the city to loan books to Black residents. The district showcases the work of the second accredited Black architect in America, too. “There are very few buildings by these men left standing anywhere, but they are here in Birmingham. One of the first African-American banks is here as well,” Holloway says.
Saving more than spaces
It may have started with a push to save actual doors, windows and walls – protecting places. But Urban Impact is conserving the community’s culture, too. “It allows us to show our place in history in relation to other parts of the city and Birmingham’s overall economy,” Holloway says. “We’re also preserving the memories associated with these spots.”
In recent years, Urban Impact’s programming has evolved and expanded to remove barriers and provide increased economic opportunities for burgeoning Black businesses and startups. Its “Become” program is a 12-week training session that teaches basic business concepts and skills to aspiring Black business owners. Additionally, Urban Impact offers help with lease agreements, marketing assistance and individual counseling for both existing businesses in the district and merchants hoping to locate there.
Urban Impact is also a member of the Kiva Hub, a national micro-lending program that provides zero-interest, crowdsourced loans for small businesses. “We’re really proud to be a part of this,” Holloway says. The money flowing from this program – $25,000 total so far – has helped a coffee roaster buy the equipment needed to fill cups and allowed a kids’ shoe company to increase production and outfit more little feet.
Urban Impact’s internal lending arm, the Birmingham Community IMPACT Fund, empowers women and minorities – those often underserved by traditional financial institutions – thanks to money raised from partners across the city and the country. Holloway notes 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 district’s heritage but also looking squarely ahead for new and better ways to share the story of Birmingham’s Black community. Holloway and his team recognize that telling this story – and telling it well – can be a powerful tool as it seeks to safeguard essential elements of the community’s history, while also providing the resources and support needed to foster and sustain success for the current and next. generations.
This mission is perhaps most evident in the organization’s revitalization initiatives for the district. “We are working with the national Main Street organization’s Urban Main program, which serves small sections of large cities, those with their own distinct characters and identities,” Holloway says. “It’s a major part of our work right now.”
The focus is on the creation of a development plan to not just protect the Civil Rights District’s past, but to better communicate its significance and attract new businesses. “When folks visit Birmingham, what impression do we want them to leave with? What is the experience we want them to have in this part of Birmingham?” Holloway says.
Urban Impact is answering these questions right now. “We are forming a comprehensive strategy centered 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 illuminate the district’s distinct historical details and using the built environment to share a richer perspective. “We want people to get what happened here, but what is happening here, too,” Holloway says. “And this is where our relationship with the Alabama Power Foundation began and where its support is proving so valuable.”
With the Foundation’s assistance, Urban Impact is hiring a firm with the expertise to put its development vision into action. The plan puts a priority on paying tribute to the district by saving the structures of yesterday, as well as nurturing the businesses up and running today. One example is Green Acres, a popular restaurant that has been drawing throngs of hungry wing-seekers for more than 60 years.
But there is equal emphasis on bringing dormant spots back to life. A crucial component calls for offering creative spaces that will entice Black entrepreneurs to open restaurants, shops, galleries, entertainment options and more in the district, boosting the district’s vitality, prosperity and quality of life for area residents.
“We want more small business here,” Holloway says. “We want younger people looking to start something to come do that here, and to be excited about growing here and helping the entire area grow.”
He pointed to Urban Impact’s partnership with the Foundation, which he believes will allow the organization to make an even more profound mark.
“It is so exciting to have the Foundation as a part of this,” he says. “It really is far reaching and has a dual purpose: We’re preserving history but bringing the new to this old place, too – filling it with fresh energy,” Holloway says. “When people visit the Civil Rights District and the business district, we want them to walk away with a deeper understanding of the historical story, but to also be inspired and enriched by the story still being written, the stories of the thriving Black businesses here. now.”
This story is from the newly released Alabama Power Foundation 2021 Annual Report. To view the complete report and learn more about the foundation’s programs and initiatives, visit powerofgood.com.