By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For The Birmingham Times
Ensley was once home to dozens of thriving independently owned, family-run businesses.
Melvin Zivitz, 73, would know. He owns Ideal Furniture, the longest standing retail establishment in Ensley. The business, once Ideal Drugs, was started as a drugstore by his father Nathan Zivitz in 1943.
“Through the years, like all family-owned businesses, once you get to the generation that doesn’t want to continue in the family business, they close,” Zivitz said. “And that’s what’s happened to just about every store out here.”
But Zivitz decided to remain open and stay in Ensley.
“We like Ensley,” he said. “It’s always been good to us, and we intend to stay here, barring something beyond our control. My father’s original business was on the corner of our present location, and our 25-square-foot furniture store was right next door at 702 Ave. G.
“So when my father decided to close the pharmacy and go fully into the furniture business, he kept expanding down the block. Now our location address starts at 700 and ends at 712.”
Despite the stagnant economy, Zivitz doesn’t see moving elsewhere.
“There’s history here,” he said. “Also, everything in retail is overhead. Obviously, in Ensley we save on overhead for a location this size.”
Ensley’s streets are now lined with vacant storefronts, and this has reduced both foot traffic and business.
“Foot traffic is difficult because there aren’t many businesses in Ensley for people to come and shop. There are only about five or six retail places left out here. We have mostly third-generation shoppers and referral customers,” he said. “A large part of the [greater Birmingham] community sees only the bad things about the area in the news, so they wouldn’t come out here even if I were giving [merchandise] away.”
The notion of Ensley as a crime-ridden community is exaggerated, say some residents.
“One of the greatest challenges we have is the overall perception of Ensley,” said Aldridge Callins, 76, an Ensley native who specializes in Ensley real estate and has been in the market for more than 40 years; he also serves as director of the Ensley Merchants Association. “Quite often when events happen they’re not necessarily in the general locality of Ensley, but quite often the media highlights it as being something that happened in Ensley.”
T. Marie King, an organizer of the Ensley Alive (#EnsleyAlive) movement who has lived in Ensley for nearly 40 years, says, “Community activists are supposed to be the people who combat the false narratives of Ensley in the media. We must attack it and hold our leadership accountable for things like abandoned houses. People don’t know what to do to get abandoned homes demolished, so those empty homes end up as drug houses. We have to give the community the information and tools they need to ensure the vitality of the community, but it takes active community involvement.”
Ensley Alive, which began in the fall of 2013, is driven by individuals dedicated to the community’s renaissance. The movement highlights the events, people, and spirit of Ensley not seen in the media.
Anesha McClure, who moved to Ensley from Trussville with her husband and two children, said she’s never felt uncomfortable or unsafe in her neighborhood.
“Everyone watches out for everyone over here, she said. “We moved into the Ensley community with our two young kids. They go outside and play and ride bikes outside just like any other kids do. We use our neighborhood park. Change starts within.”
REV Birmingham’s Brian Gunn, a district coordinator for the economic development organization’s revitalization efforts in Woodlawn and Ensley, said he did not have a negative perception of Ensley before returning to Birmingham.
When Gunn was 10 years old, his family left Alabama because of his father’s job relocation in 1995. Gunn returned to Birmingham in 2013 to serve as a member of AmeriCorps with the YMCA of Central Alabama, and then was hired full time for his current position.
“When I moved here to take the job with REV, they put me over the Ensley area,” he said. “We had a lot of meetings and functions at night, and I never felt a threat or unsafe when walking around. I think that goes back to not having a previous narrative in my head beforehand. There are a lot of working-class people in this area living their day-to-day lives.”
With the revitalization and renaissance ongoing, many longtime residents and businesses are now more optimistic.
Asked what the future holds, Zivitz said, “I think the future will be very bright if the city works on the projects they’re talking about. I anticipate better things for Ensley.”