By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Birmingham’s Jermaine “FunnyMaine” Johnson—entertainer, change agent, and entrepreneur—had a choice to move anywhere in the metro area. He chose Norwood, a neighborhood in the northeast corner of the Northside community, north of downtown.
“One thing I love here is that we emphasize the ‘neighbor’ in ‘neighborhood,’” he said. “Everybody knows everybody, and they speak when walking or driving past you. The neighborhood cleanups, reviving the community garden, election days, and other events have given me the chance to meet many of the people that make this place special. … Norwood is a historic place, but it’s best days are ahead.”
Johnson isn’t the only one who feels that way. Norwood is a growing community that has found a way to attract a diverse group of residents.
“I cannot speak highly enough of all the incredibly friendly neighbors we have met during our time here,” said Norwood resident Rashmee Sharif. “There’s truly a community atmosphere, and it’s so wonderfully refreshing to be part of a community with such varied representation in background, profession, age, interests, and race.”
That sense of community was on display Monday, a brisk, gray Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as groups of two and four residents trickled onto the property surrounding the historic Norwood trolley stop, who used the Civil Rights leader’s birthday for a cleanup in their community.
One reason for Norwood’s recent revitalization is the work of Joel Gardner, assistant vice president of community and business development for Renasant Bank, who has worked over the past five years with his institution to bring new homes to and renovate old ones in the neighborhood. Gardner said he and Renasant were responding to the “need” present in Norwood, especially from the financial literacy aspect of it by offering advice to help “people know how to purchase and … renovate homes,” he said.
“Also, there was a need as far as development, being able to have new development to increase [property] values,” added Gardner, a Norwood resident. “It was a mixture of a good opportunity and mission work.”
Better For Everyone
In response to those “needs,” Renasant’s earliest work in the community was holding a homebuyer seminar at Norwood Elementary School in partnership with the Norwood Resource Center.
Since then, the institution has helped 16 families make Norwood home or keep Norwood home by providing renovation loans, working with builders to construct new homes in the area, and helping residents refinance mortgages, as well as through more financial literacy learning sessions.
In addition to the new construction, existing Norwood residents have played a key role in uplifting the community. Gardner pointed to “some very passionate neighbors” who welcomed the revitalization efforts, including Norwood Neighborhood Association President Barbara Thomas-Goudy, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years.
Thomas-Goudy said she is also looking forward to projects like those near Protective Stadium and the forthcoming Carraway Hospital site redevelopment.
New residents who have come as a result of the revitalization are bringing a youthful vibe to the neighborhood, she said: “I am excited about the new neighbors that are moving in. Young professional people are moving in [and] giving new life to the neighborhood to blend with our older residents.”
LaTisha “Tish” Fletcher, founder of Fletcher + Reese, a local CBD health-and-wellness brand, initially chose Norwood because of its proximity to downtown Birmingham.
“It’s centrally located and convenient to navigate the city,” she said. “What I love best, though, is the people. … I’ve been able to connect with amazing souls who have become family, and we really look out for one another. These relationships will stand the test of time, and that’s been the biggest blessing as we partner together to make our neighborhood better and do life.”
“Clear Path for Growth”
In addition to maintaining its existing residents, Norwood has attracted newer residents.
“Now, you have a new group of people,” said Gardner. “[They are] professionals, a lot of young professionals, a lot of young families that have moved to the city not only for proximity to work but to be able to enjoy the city’s amenities. … They also want to have large homes, and Norwood has some very large homes.
Gardner added that new neighbors in the area “share a sense of not only what Norwood is but what it can become.”
One of those new neighbors even “spearheaded” his own cleanup effort, such as the one held Monday: “New people are bringing in a sense of energy and ways they can put their resources—whether that’s money, whether that’s connections, whether that’s influence—together to benefit the neighborhood,” he said.
More people want to live in the core of their cities—whether it’s Atlanta, Georgia; Memphis or Nashville in Tennessee; or Huntsville, Alabama—and Norwood provides that. Gardner, a city-lover himself, bought a home in Norwood before his employer began working with residents in the area. He had previously bought a home in Avondale, but he knew he would outgrow it and wanted to be closer to the heart of the city.
“I purchased this ugly, blighted house that had not had utilities cut on since 2008, and we didn’t know,” Gardner said. “It’s 3,600 square feet, and where else could I find a home like that within biking distance of downtown for an affordable price? You really can’t do it.”
Several Norwood residents have begun their own efforts to introduce people to their neighborhood. Gardner said some have organized “porch parties” to bring people into the neighborhood, and those events sometimes even host bands. For neighborhoods like Norwood, prospective new residents need to see themselves enjoying the area before they can move in.
“Once people see that it’s a great place, it’s a safe place, when they see that the homes look nice once renovated, they become very much interested in the allure of living downtown and [being near not only] everything that’s here now but also everything that’s coming,” Gardner said.
“What’s really great is that it’s not a story of gentrification or replacement,” he added. “A lot of the homes that have been fixed up had sat abandoned for years and years and years and were a blight on the community.”
In addition to being in a good location, Norwood is an incredibly accepting community.
“Norwood is a diverse place, and it’s one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Birmingham,” Gardner said. “There are people of [different races], people with [different sexual orientations], and everybody’s open and accepting of each other. … It’s a pretty unique place because of that.”