By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
The accolades continue to pour in for Railroad Park, “Birmingham’s Living Room.”
The 19-acre green space—which features walking trails, scenery, and amenities and hosts a broad range of events—was recently named the Best Park in Alabama by Time/Money magazine. That’s in addition to tributes from other travel writers and land institutes from across the country that have recognized the park’s national appeal.
But Railroad Park’s most ardent admirers remain Birmingham metro area residents who flock there every day of the week to have lunch, toss a Frisbee, go for a jog, or even enjoy a cooking class or live entertainment, ranging from local bands to the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.
“I wish I could’ve had something like this growing up because it is such a big part of Birmingham. I honestly can’t remember what this part of the city looked like without it,” said Birmingham native and frequent Railroad Park visitor Timothy Foster. “I come here sometimes to just relax or hang out with friends. It’s attracted a lot of local business, so I can walk across the street and get something to eat or get some coffee and bring it back to the park. It’s amazing to see how it’s really grown and changed.”
The downtown Birmingham park, situated along First Avenue South between 14th and 18th streets, opened in 2010 and has become more than just a park—it’s become a magnet for economic development that made possible nearby Regions Field and the adjoining Negro Southern League Museum, as well as surrounding restaurants, condos, offices, and other businesses. More than 400,000 residents and guests participate in park programs and activities each year.
“We love bringing the community together through hundreds of events and by providing an attraction where lasting memories are made,” said Railroad Park Foundation Executive Director Camille Spratling. “We’re proud to be an economic driver, event venue, community builder, and most importantly a park that means a great deal to people across our great city.”
Grass Roots Effort
Railroad Park celebrates the industrial and artistic heritage of Birmingham and connects the downtown area with the Southside and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) campus. Spratling said the park has become a regional hub that “creates vibrancy, cultivates civic pride, supports economic development, strengthens community, fortifies health and wellness, catalyzes progress, and inspires hope.”
The park was the result of a grass roots effort—no pun intended.
Birmingham lawyer Giles Perkins, credited with the vision for the park, was the last Board Chair of the Friends of the Railroad District (FoRRD), an organization formed in 2001 to promote revitalization along the railroad corridor and raise funds for the eventual development of the linear park.
Perkins was also founding chair of the Railroad Park Foundation, which is the organization that runs the park now.
“The success of the park exceeds our wildest expectation,” said Perkins, a partner with Adams and Reese law firm. “We wanted to give Birmingham not just a beautiful park but a place that would renew our hope and shared vision. It has done that. It is a success because we built it together and we love it together. We are proud of Railroad Park.”
Perkins is recognized with a railing on the north side of the park that tells his story: “This park stitched Birmingham’s fragments into a city ready for tomorrow. It exists because Giles Perkins, a Texas son, wanted his adopted city better for everyone. His gifted insights and drive to improve our lot wrought order from chaos and changed Birmingham’s course.”
Elizabeth Barbaree-Tasker, a member of FoRRd’s initial board of directors, was there at the beginning. Bob Greene, an environmental lawyer at the Bradley Arant law firm and a train buff, was founding Board Chair and President of FoRRD.
“We just started a grass roots effort to get people excited about this idea,” said Barbaree-Tasker, currently Chief of Operations & Finance at REV Birmingham, Inc. “We were still young in our careers and didn’t have as many responsibilities, so we just started meeting … to push this idea and to make this park idea a reality.”
Perkins, Tasker, and other members of the group pitched the idea, held fundraisers that brought in about $75,000, and received funding from grants and community leaders to develop a conceptual master plan.
Tom Leader of the Berkeley, Calif., Tom Leader Studio, the landscape firm behind the park’s design, coined the term, “Birmingham’s Living Room.” Others have called it “Birmingham’s Front Lawn” and “Birmingham’s Melting Pot.”
Tasker said, “It was a place where people who live here could come and relax, … be together and begin to experience the city and the people of the city differently. It really began to serve as a vehicle to give people a reason to understand who is in Birmingham and be comfortable with that.”
With Leader’s designs and construction by Birmingham-based Brasfield & Gorrie, Railroad Park opened in September 2010 after several years of planning and building.
Since its opening, Railroad Park has served as a catalyst for economic growth and development and spurred hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment in the city. Still, park officials are not satisfied, so they work tirelessly to promote the area and attract even more visitors.
The Railroad Park Foundation has launched a video contest asking entrants to show what they love about Birmingham. In June, free financial-education classes were held at the park. The Get Healthy on the Railroad program has added a new class for seniors, in additional to free exercise and cooking classes. The park hosts Symphony in the Summer and its annual Trucks by the Tracks fundraising event. And, the popular Family Camp-Out Night.
Spratling often speaks to park visitors.
“If I talk to 11 people, I hear at least 11 different reasons why Birmingham is great,” she said. “Through #BHAMProud and with our friends at PNC, we’re asking people to show us their best Birmingham.”
The continuing challenge is to develop programs and initiatives that make the park an inviting place as well as a resource for different people, but the foundation receives a lot of help from its corporate sponsors.
“With the help of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, we incorporated an exercise class specifically designed for seniors,” Spratling said. “They face unique physical challenges, so we created a class that meets their specific needs. Whether someone is seeking to augment their active lifestyle or learn how to create one, this class is designed to strengthen and build endurance. We are always looking for help to meet the needs of underserved members in our community.”
“Something for Everyone”
Railroad Park has done wonders for Birmingham’s reputation, too. It has won the Urban Land Institute’s Urban Open Space Award, it was named one of USA Today’s 10 Best Parks, and it was awarded the Society of American Travel Writers’ Phoenix Award.
“Railroad Park shows us that we can—and that we deserve—to have great things,” Spratling said. “It is proof that we can accomplish so much more when we work together. It symbolizes Birmingham’s future.
“Regardless of background, interest, or passion—economic development, cultural entertainment, healthy living, or relaxation and reflection—Railroad Park has something for everyone.”
For more information, visit www.railroadpark.org.
Corrected at 11:40 a.m. on July 5, 2018 to clarify the founding chairmen of the Railroad Park Foundation and the Friends of the Railroad District (FoRRD).