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The Ensley Renaissance: How residents are reviving a once-thriving community

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Brian Hawkins, Director of the Ensley Color Projects stands in front of the first mural in Ensley. (Frank Couch, special to The Times)

By Je’Don Holloway Talley

For The Birmingham Times

Brian Hawkins, Director of the Ensley Color Projects stands in front of the first mural in Ensley. (Frank Couch, special to The Times)
Brian Hawkins, Director of The Color Project Ensley stands in front of the first mural in Ensley painted by Ukuu Tafari. (Frank Couch, special to The Times)

T. Marie King and Brian “Voice Porter” Hawkins knew they could change the narrative of Ensley as a once-thriving city with a historic commercial district filled with elegant heritage that had become impoverished, economically stricken, desolate, and barren.

King, who has a background in video production and film, remembers speaking with Hawkins, director of The Color Project Ensley and an organizer for the Ensley Alive (#EnsleyAlive) movement, about ways to bring life back to the community.

“He asked me what I wanted to see in the community,” King said. “I told him, ‘Entertainment, theater, film. There’s not even a movie theater in our community, and I like to go see films in my downtime. Having to drive 20 minutes to see one is not fair.’”

The Color Project Ensley is an initiative created in 2014 to have a positive effect on the social, mental, and physical health of people in Ensley. And Ensley Alive, which began in the fall of 2013, is a movement driven by individuals dedicated to the community’s renaissance; it highlights the events, people, and spirit of Ensley not seen in the media.

The conversation between Hawkins and King, both 37 years old, led to the creation of the Ensley Cinema House.

With the support of REV Birmingham—“an economic development organization that stimulates business growth and improves quality of life in Birmingham’s city center and its neighborhood commercial centers,” according to revbirmingham.org—King and other organizers of the Ensley Alive movement began offering indie films, documentaries, and theatric performances at the neighborhood’s old West Police Precinct.

“We got usage of the space and, with the help of some Birmingham-Southern College students, got it cleaned up,” King said. “We made our projector screen with yards of cloth, purchased a projector, and a few weeks later screened our first film.”

Rejuvenation

That’s just one of many examples of efforts to rejuvenate Ensley and make it one of the hottest locales in the Birmingham metro area.

In November 2016, Birmingham Mayor William Bell announced a $40 million public-safety complex for downtown Ensley. The facility, which will be in the 500 block of 19th Street, will involve renovation of the 10-story, 50,000-square-foot Ramsay McCormack building, a long-vacant Art Deco–style office tower in the Ensley business district.

“Our goal is to bring jobs, retail opportunities, and opportunities for significant growth back to downtown Ensley,” the mayor said during a press conference. “This [plan] gives us an opportunity to look at what we can do in the Ensley community, the heartbeat of the western section of town.”

Residents are doing their part to restore their community via revitalization efforts that will have an impact on the quality of life for everyone in the area, said Hawkins.

“We want to change the narrative of Ensley by creating beautiful spaces where the people of Ensley will feel safe and welcome,” he said.

Using the hashtag #ChangeTheNarrative, organizers “want to turn Ensley into an outdoor art gallery: murals, landscape architecture, gardens, outdoor meditation sanctuaries, theater, live music, art,” Hawkins said.

For example, the first project of The Color Project Ensley was at the Bethesda Life Center, where a mural, a pocket park, and a garden were installed.

“Overall, we want to create a space where the people of Ensley can thrive,” Hawkins said, “and remind those who left that Ensley is home.”

Those who live in and around Ensley have a love for the community’s rich, diverse history. This part of Birmingham was home to Tuxedo Junction, a famed hub of social activity for blacks in the early 20th century that was immortalized in a classic song of the same name by Alabama jazz great Erskine Hawkins. It also served as home base for the offices of the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Co. and U.S. Steel, as well as many doctors, attorneys, and other business professionals.

Marie King stands in the lobby of the Ensley Cinema House located in the former Birmingham West Precinct in Ensley. (Frank Couch, special to The Times)
T. Marie King stands in the lobby of the Ensley Cinema House located in the former Birmingham West Precinct in Ensley. (Frank Couch, special to The Times)

History

Attorney Antonio Spurling, an entrepreneur and real estate developer, knows as much about Ensley’s history as anyone.

“Enoch Ensley was the pioneer who began the era of economic prosperity in the steel and railway industry,” said Spurling, 44. “As an entrepreneur in the historic Tuxedo Junction of Ensley’s business district and as general legal counsel for the Ensley Revitalization Committee, I am truly encouraged by the city’s vision.”

Ensley, once a separate and thriving industrial city in the western part of Jefferson County, was annexed into Birmingham on Jan. 1, 1910.

Asked about the ultimate goal of Ensley’s restoration, Spurling said, “The future expectation is to revive and commemorate the Tuxedo Junction era, with its rich diverse cultural merchants and residents, to host live entertainment among various venues, and return the community to its glory days.”

Those glory days were birthed in the 1920s in Ensley’s jazz district, which became a center of black entertainment and nightlife. The city thrived as an entertainment center for more than two decades.

Alabama native W. C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” is one of the performers who made jazz in Ensley legendary. Jazz musicians and blues singers like Nat King Cole, Sun Ra, Erskine Hawkins, “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington, and Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations also are among the Alabamians who played a part in Ensley’s music legacy.

What happened to that history?

“Music education has been removed from Ensley’s grade school and middle school curriculums,” said Ashley Sankey, 29, a multi-instrumentalist and singer from Ensley. “There were more musical programs in Ensley back when I was in school, and I had excellent teachers who taught me music history and nurtured my talents. They don’t really push art programs in the Ensley area anymore. By the time I got to high school, I had been taught how to read and play music and had been doing so for years.”

“Now the music really doesn’t start until they get to high school, and that’s way too late to start nurturing that interest. They could be great by then,” Sankey said.

Change Underway

Change is evident in Ensley. Initiatives like The Color Project Ensley, Ensley Alive, Kuumba Community Arts, and other lifestyle and beautification projects at large in the community are reviving the vibrant culture of early-20th-century Ensley and contributing to the neighborhood’s renaissance through art.

Throughout 2016, monthly events were held at the Ensley Jazz House (an old office building at 611 19th St.), the Ensley Cinema House (the old West Police Precinct at 616 19th St.), the Bethesda Life Center (321 19th St.), and Ensley SoHo (1820 Ave. E) to bring musicians, poets, and speakers together to present their art to a community of enthusiasts via the big screen or the stage.

In August 2016, the Birmingham City Council and REV Birmingham supported the Ensley Alive Festival, which served as a showcase for revitalization in the area using the hashtag #EnsleyAlive.

“Ensley Alive is more than just an event. It is a real ground movement. It was underground three years ago, and now it is a ground force that’s taking Ensley house by house,” said Birmingham Councilman Marcus Lundy, who represents the district. “The Ensley Alive movement, The Color Project, and all these other opportunities bring awareness [to the creative community], and that’s vital.”

The creative community has always been at the foundation of any renaissance, Lundy said.

“When you look at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival, Art on the Rocks, and Fashion on the Rocks and think about what events like those could do for Ensley, you realize that those opportunities need to manifest in this city,” he said. “If we start bringing those events to Ensley, hundreds of people will see the businesses in the city and become shoppers as they look for art. It’ll bring a whole new community to Ensley that will help to revitalize it … that foundational, transformative, creative mind-set will make Ensley a regular stop. Once Ensley becomes a regular stop, it will transform overnight.”

Ensley residents Anesha and Deafnes McClure with their children Amelia and Josia McClure sit on the front porch of their Bush Boulevard home. (Frank Couch, special to The Times)
Ensley residents Anesha and Dee McClure with their children Amelia and Josiah McClure sit on the front porch of their Bush Boulevard home. (Frank Couch, special to The Times)

New Families

Ensley is also attracting new residents.

Dee and Anesha McClure, both 32, have two small children, and they recently sold their home in Trussville to renovate a historic home in Bush Hills.

Asked why the family would want to move from the suburbs to what many would consider “the hood,” Anesha McClure said, “What makes something ‘hood’? What makes something ‘the good life’? Society has made us think and uphold certain standards that are not true.”

“To us, the good life is Ensley,” she said. “A historic home with so much character could not have been found just anywhere. The city is always working and beautifying our boulevard, and the workers are always so pleasant. You really can tell that they take pride in their jobs. Everything we wanted, this community had it: a park, clean sidewalks, a close-knit community, homes with character, a great location to get around in the city, and it is growing. Ensley is what’s happening!”