Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times
When Art Franklin held a Purple Carpet launch event for his signature clothing line—the Art Franklin Collection—in late November, he could have selected Los Angeles, California; Atlanta, Georgia; or even Birmingham’s trendiest shopping destination, The Summit. His heart decided on Ensley.
“There were people who wanted me to do things in Atlanta, … but [my wife and I] have put down roots here.” said Franklin, who anchors CBS 42 News with Sherri Jackson on WIAT-TV. “[We] are here. We left Los Angeles to come back to Birmingham.”
Franklin’s launch featured local guitarist Eric Essix and saxophonist Marion Meadows, who provided the soundtrack for male models strutting down a purple walkway to display garments created by Franklin and Treś Washington, owner of Treś’ Fine Clothing, where the new clothing line is exclusively available. During the event, Franklin said it was not about him.
“This is about what Ensley is already doing and us putting the spotlight on it because I have a camera, I have a platform, and I can use that platform to help elevate what is already in place,” the 62-year-old Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., member said. “That’s what this is really all about. That’s what the Art Franklin Collection is.”
It was not by accident that Franklin leased space in Treś’ Fine Clothing in the Cottons Building in downtown Ensley. Instead, it was an opportunity “to bring a different light, to put a different focus on Ensley in a positive sense,” the Detroit, Michigan, native said. “You look at what’s happening in Ensley with the Ramsay-McCormack Building. It has now been torn down, and we hope to see some redevelopment there.
“But as that’s going on, people need to spend and participate in our communities,” the veteran newsman continued. “That’s where the strength of our community is.”
The Ramsay-McCormack Building was once a center of business activity in Ensley, with offices for doctors, lawyers, and others. The development planned for the property where the building formerly stood could stimulate renewed business activity.
Washington, who grew up in Birmingham’s Belview Heights neighborhood and teamed with Franklin to create the Art Franklin Collection, said events like the one they hosted remind people that things are looking up in Ensley.
“The only time you’re able to see a resurgence is when we do something like [what we’ve done] today, when we have an event and people come out,” he said after the event. “I think what the Ramsay-McCormack Building is doing at this time—and it’s still early—is helping to ease people’s minds about the idea of coming down here. That helps them understand that there is a change taking place.”
Birmingham City Councilor LaTonya Tate, who represents the Ensley district and was among those at the launch, said events like the one Franklin produced attract business owners and people thinking about entrepreneurship in Ensley.
“This whole district is very historic,” Tate said. “We want to enhance the things that are already here, and we want to bring more. We’re looking to do some great things, partnering with businesses, making sure people have the tools, the things they need to get in place to open up businesses.”
Tate, elected in October 2021, cited the demolition of the old Ensley High School building to make way for a 244-home mixed-used neighborhood at 2301 Avenue J as progress in the neighborhood.
“We’re looking to do more out here, more throughout the district, throughout District 9,” the council member said. “I think it’s history repeating itself just with new faces.”
Attorney Antonio Spurling, who owns 15 commercial buildings in downtown Ensley and a residential portfolio of several properties on 17th Street, is one of those faces. The Wylam neighborhood native remembers the Ensley of his youth in the 1980s before the steel plant shut down near Fairfield.
“That’s when the Ensley Grill was open, and there were several businesses in the area that were doing relatively well,” he said.
Spurling believes a new Ensley could be on the way. “I see it as a new Ensley this time because there are some things that we’re really working on, not only from a commercial residential real estate investment but also with regard to working to take some companies public that are in that area,” he said. “I think they’re going to make a big difference because they have a very large employment base that we’re working to really migrate deeper into the fabric of Ensley.”
Infrastructure within Ensley is going to “catapult that community out of the throes of blight, realistically, within the next seven to 10 years,” said the attorney.
Franklin said areas like Ensley need those who love it to embrace it. “When we start seeing violence and things in our communities, it’s because the entrepreneurs left, because the doctors, the lawyers, the teachers, the journalists moved out of our communities and left those communities behind,” he said. “We have to reinvest, not only with our time but also with our money.
“When there are opportunities to buy, why go outside of those communities and buy when we can buy in our communities? That’s what I think will make our community stronger, so I’m investing in the people and in our communities because I believe that’s what it takes. It’s incumbent upon those of us who have benefited from our communities to give back. … I certainly feel that I’ve benefited.”
The Art Franklin Collection is available at Treś’ Fine Clothing in the Cottons Building in downtown Ensley, 400 19th St Ensley, Birmingham, AL 35218. Phone: (205) 200-4149