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How Urban Impact brings community development to the Main St.

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By Urban Impact Inc. 

The Historic 4th Avenue Business District stands as a monument to the resilience of a people and the innovation of policymakers and planners who were determined to reify the legacy of a 20th Century vibrant African American commercial district. 

According to Vulcan Park and Museum’s “A Place of Our Own” Exhibitin the early 1900’s over 30 percent of the black businesses in the city of Birmingham were concentrated in the 4th Avenue Business District.  

As Dr. Franklin D. Wilson, author of the paper Ecology of Black Business District: A Sociological and Historical Analysis outlinesintegration disrupted this concentration due to Jim Crow. Nationwide, cities in the 1970s saw the primacy of urban renewal, broadly defined as a policy of blight removal, and new construction in inner cities. 

 In response to this national and local trend, Dr. Richard Arrington, Birmingham’s first black mayor, along with many district stakeholders, created Urban Impact to help preserve and foster a new generation of business owners in the area, staying the hand of urban renewal that could have possibility destroyed the built environment of Birmingham’s Black Business District. The significance of the district extends beyond 1963, in that African-Americans had the capacity to organize institutions in the 1880s (Penny Savings Bank), had the means to design a mixed-use development (Robert Robinson Taylor, first black credentialed black architect who designed the Colored Masonic Temple), and had the skill to construct a seven-story building in the 1920s (Windham Brothers Construction Co.), making 4th Avenue one of the rarest examples in the nation of African-American architecture, culture, people, and commerce — still intact. 

At Urban Impact, Inc., we are the community economic development agency that exists to create economic opportunity and impact for people, place, and business in Birmingham, we look to our collective past to inspire our present. 

 Today, after nearly 40 years of being on the National Register of Historic Places, 4th Avenue and the surrounding Civil Rights District is still occupied with legacy businesses whose operations date as far back as the 1930s. A new prospect of investment is shaped by the neighboring Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument (2017) and the ongoing renovation of the AG Gaston Motel. This resurgence of cultural and historical interest in the place of 4th Avenue /Civil Rights District and the corresponding planned investment (AG Gaston Motel, 16th Street Baptist Church etc.) presents a new platform of opportunity for businesses, investors and individuals. We are working to restore and revive 4th Avenue into what we believe will be a renaissance of culture and commerce.  

Main Street Community  

We are at the beginning of a renaissance.  

In June, the 4th Avenue Business District. became the first historically African-American commercial district in the state of Alabama to become a designated Main Street Community. The National Main Street Center’s UrbanMain program, which is a program of the National Trust of Historic Preservation, “offers a new set of community-driven economic development services to help under-resourced older and historic neighborhood commercial districts restore economic vitality and promote quality of life. 

Leveraging the brand and effectiveness of Main Street America, “offers specialized services, professional development, networking, and advocacy for the field of urban commercial district practitioners. 4th Avenue’s UrbanMain is outlined by the historic concentration of Birmingham’s Black Business District, 3rd Avenue North to 5th Avenue North, 15th Street North to 18th Street North. Character and community benefit are core themes of UrbanMain, which focuses on community-driven development methods that rejuvenate place, encourage investment and empower people.  

We recruited this program as a part of our programmatic and strategic alignment with national models to enhance and accelerate the community vision for development for the Civil Rights District /4th Avenue District. Put simply, we, in partnership with the community are ramping up our efforts to develop the right way – one that centers on equity and inclusion of the people who are already in 4th Ave, and a creative vision for the future that is based on Black Birmingham’s Culture and rooted in its people. 

Imagine a district where you can grab Green Acres, catch a fresh fade at New Breed, experience happy hour at a black-owned brewery, shop for your significant other at a unique, locally grown retail shop, watch Black Panther at the Carver, and learn from living Civil Rights Foot Soldiers in the movement – all on one walkable strip.  

According to recent data$1.6 billion of investment have taken place in the City Center since 2015. From the 2012 Census Survey of Business Owners Data, 9,772 black firms were registered in the city limits (48 percent of total) and only 312 of them (3.2 percent of total) had employees. Total black firms during the survey period only accounted for 2 percent of gross receipts. While the data is lagged, this snapshot articulates the peril of mobility that hinders the city. Until all of the city prospers, none of it does. 

We are working to make 4th Avenue again the main street for black arts, entertainment, commerce and culture, all while creating jobs and bolstering our legacy businesses like the Magic City Barbershop, Talk of the Town, and Kirby Insurance. For practical reasons, the residents of Smithfield and Fountain Heights should have a local commercial district in the City Center that employs them, reflects them, and increases their quality of life. But for symbolic reasons, 4th Avenue, as it approaches its centennial celebration (1922), can be a part of the testament of the National Monument, that the trials and tribulations of the ordinary counted for something – from tragedy to triumph. 

Urban Impact can be reached at the Famous Theater Building, 1721 4th Avenue North, Suite 102 Birmingham, AL 35203 or Email: info@urbanimpactbirmingham.org . Phone: (205) 328-1850