By Walladean Streeter and Joanice Thompson
(This is a Guest Opinion)
As leaders in the Bush Hills Community of west Birmingham, we lend our voices in support of Birmingham-Southern College’s request for public support while it raises private funds to ensure its long-term future.
Established in the 1920s just a few years after Birmingham-Southern was founded, Bush Hills is one of Birmingham’s oldest neighborhoods. Throughout the 100 years that we have been neighbors, BSC and Bush Hills have seen many changes. In 1965, BSC enrolled its first African American students. In the 1970s, a proposal to move BSC to a location south of Birmingham surfaced. But the leadership held fast to the vision of the college on the city’s western border, and over the next decade, President Dr. Neal Berte helped transform the institution into Alabama’s only nationally ranked liberal arts college.
Over the years, Bush Hills has remained a stable, beautiful, and affordable place to live, with a sweeping boulevard lined with fine, well-preserved historic homes. As with many inner-city neighborhoods, despite promising investments of city capital and high-spirited, hopeful residents, Bush Hills has been blighted with vacant properties neglected by owners. Through this decline, Birmingham-Southern has remained a steady presence and reliable partner to the Bush Hills Neighborhood Association and to Bush Hills Connections, a non-profit that brings together entities interested in the neighborhood’s success. BSC Vice President for Administration Lane Estes graciously accepted an invitation to serve on Bush Hills Connections’ board of directors in 2018 and has remained a faithful, supportive, and active member.
BSC and Bush Hills leaders have been intentional in building stronger relationships over the past 40-plus years. More students from Bush Hills started enrolling at the College, and the College has expanded access to scholarships for students, especially those with financial need and/or who are the first in their family to attend college. Many Bush Hills families sent their children to campus for lessons on the tennis courts and at the renowned Birmingham Conservatory of Music, now a part of the College’s Department of Music.
Examples of the two-way street on which Bush Hills and BSC live begin with the most visible: Volunteer opportunities for students with schools, programs and ministries housed in the area. That includes work days on which students help with beautification projects – especially helpful to our elderly residents, who take pride in their homes and yards but sometimes need extra hands — and hands-on activities with Bush Hills Community Garden and Urban Ministry. It also includes field experiences for BSC students at McCoy Older Adult Day Care Center, Bush Hills STEAM Academy, and Tuggle and Hudson Elementary Schools.
A recent example that directly fits with the Bush Hills Connections effort was the 2022 January mini-term class taught by two BSC faculty focused on why there are no grocery stores on Arkadelphia Road. In that course, students investigated the concept of food justice, discussed solutions related to food insecurity, and engaged in service to target hunger, an often-hidden crisis in America. The problem, a big one for our area, is now on the minds of bright young people – and that is how solutions begin. In addition, BSC students developed a plan of action for the Bush Hills Market Place at the corner of Arkadelphia Road and Bush Boulevard across from campus. BSC students would have easy access to supporting the market through class projects and volunteer efforts.
There are less serious opportunities for connection to which neighborhood families are invited, including an annual Easter Egg Hunt at the President’s Home and Halloween on the Hilltop, at which student organizations offer trick-or-treating and games on the campus quad. And during the football season that preceded the pandemic, BSC hosted the excellent marching bands from Parker and Jackson-Olin High Schools for halftime performances during football games at Krulak Stadium, and looks forward to doing so again.
Both the Bush Hills Neighborhood Association and Bush Hills Connections have made great strides in building a healthy, competitive Bush Hills community. We do not need 192 wooded acres and vacant structures of this size in our neighborhood. We need the faculty and students’ presence and support.
In many ways, Birmingham-Southern anchors our neighborhood. By remaining in west Birmingham instead of moving south, BSC has stayed put. Just as Bush Hills has remained a stable and beautiful place, so has BSC has proved to be a loyal, steady, and engaged neighbor.
Losing our neighbor would be a serious blow to Bush Hills. We strongly support efforts by our District 60 Rep. Juandalynn Givan and state Senators Rodger Smitherman and Jabo Waggoner – a BSC graduate who grew up in Ensley and whose parents were BSC alumni – to secure a one-time investment of bridge funding from the state of Alabama.
In many ways, that funding is not just about Birmingham-Southern. It’s also about Bush Hills – the neighborhood where we are proud to live, work, and serve. We look back in order to move forward with a great understanding of the past.
Walladean Streeter is president of the Bush Hills Neighborhood Association. Joanice Thompson is president of Bush Hills Connections, a non-profit dedicated to fostering partnerships that will revitalize the historic Birmingham neighborhood.