Alabama is second to none when it comes to the number of significant civil rights sites in the state, and Birmingham boasts numerous locations where world-changing events took place. The boundaries of the city’s Civil Rights District, now the Birmingham National Civil Rights Monument, include the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church, and Kelly Ingram Park, to name a few. Each represents a pivotal point in the struggle of the movement for equality. The district also includes the historic 4th Avenue Business District, one of the few remaining black commercial corridors in the Southeast.
For more than four decades, Urban Impact, a community-based economic development nonprofit organization, has been dedicated to ensuring that these parts of the Magic City remain visible, viable and vibrant.
Urban Impact Revitalizes Birmingham’s Historic 4th Avenue Business District from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo .
“Back in the 1980s, the mayor at the time wanted to make sure we kept the African-American infrastructure downtown and the historic African-American business district,” said Ivan Holloway, executive director of Urban Impact. “He got together some local businessmen and some councilors and formed Urban Impact.”
Holloway emphasizes the importance of the organization’s conservation efforts. “In addition to the more famous civil rights sites, there are many important buildings here,” he says. “The Masonic Temple here was developed and designed by the nation’s first accredited African-American architect, Robert Roberson Taylor.” It also housed NAACP offices and the Booker T. Washington Library, the first in the city to borrow books from black residents. The area also features the work of America’s second accredited black architect. “There are very few buildings of these men left standing anywhere, but they are here in Birmingham. One of the first African-American banks is also here,” says Holloway.
Saving more than places
It may have started with a push to preserve actual doors, windows, and walls—site protection. But Urban Impact also preserves the culture of the community. “It allows us to show our place in history in relation to other parts of the city and the overall economy of Birmingham,” says Holloway. “We also preserve the memories associated with these places.”
In recent years, Urban Impact’s programming has evolved and expanded to remove barriers and provide greater economic opportunity for thriving black businesses and startups. His Get Up program is a 12-week training session that teaches basic business concepts and skills to aspiring black business owners. In addition, Urban Impact offers leasing assistance, marketing assistance and one-on-one consulting for both existing businesses in the area and merchants hoping to locate there.
Urban Impact is also a member of the Kiva Hub, a national microlending program that provides zero-interest loans to small businesses. “We’re really proud to be a part of this,” says Holloway. The money flowing from that program—a total of $25,000 so far—has helped a coffee bakery buy the equipment needed to fill cups and allowed a children’s shoe company to increase production and equip more little feet.
Urban Impact’s in-house lending arm, the Birmingham Community IMPACT Fund, empowers women and minorities—those often underserved by traditional financial institutions—thanks to money raised by partners across the city and country. Holloway notes that the fund is the beginning of Urban Impact’s journey toward becoming a Certified Community Development Financial Institution in the coming years.
Full speed ahead
Urban Impact preserves the area’s heritage, but also looks directly ahead to new and better ways to share the history of Birmingham’s black community. Holloway and his team recognize that telling that story—and telling it well—can be a powerful tool as it seeks to protect essential elements of a community’s history while providing the resources and support needed to foster and sustain success. for the present and the next generation.
This mission is perhaps most evident in the organization’s revitalization initiatives in the field. “We work with the national Main Street organization’s Urban Main program, which serves small sections of big cities, those with their own character and identity,” says Holloway. “It’s a major part of our work right now.”
The focus is on creating a development plan that not only protects the area’s civil rights past, but also better communicates its importance and attracts new businesses. “When people visit Birmingham, what impression do we want them to leave? What is the experience we want them to have in this part of Birmingham?” Holloway says.
Urban Impact is answering these questions right now. “We are forming a comprehensive strategy focused on design, promotion and organization to create a truly dynamic area,” he says. Some of the steps include giving the area a more cohesive feel, adding signs to highlight the area’s distinct historical details, and using the built environment to share a richer perspective. “We want people to understand what happened here, but what is it’s happening here,” says Holloway. “And that’s where our relationship with the Alabama Power Foundation began and where its support has proven so valuable.”
With the Foundation’s support, Urban Impact is hiring a firm with the expertise to put its development vision into action. The plan prioritizes honoring the area by saving yesterday’s structures as well as supporting businesses that operate today. One example is Green Acres, a popular restaurant that has been drawing crowds of hungry wing-seekers for more than 60 years.
But there is equal emphasis on bringing dormant spots back to life. A crucial component calls for offering creative spaces that will attract black entrepreneurs to open restaurants, shops, galleries, entertainment opportunities and more in the area, enhancing the vibrancy of the area, prosperity and quality of life for area residents.
“We want more small businesses here,” Holloway says. “We want younger people who want to start something to come and do that here and be excited about growing here and helping the whole area grow.”
He pointed to Urban Impact’s partnership with the Foundation, which he says will allow the organization to make an even deeper mark.
“It’s so exciting for the Foundation to be a part of this,” he says. “It’s really wide-ranging and has a dual purpose: we’re preserving the history, but we’re also bringing the new to this old place—infusing it with fresh energy,” says Holloway. “When people visit the Civil Rights District and the Business District, we want them to leave with a deeper understanding of the historical story, but also to be inspired and enriched by the history that’s still being written, the stories of thriving black businesses here now.”
This story is from the Alabama Power Foundation’s recently released 2021 Annual Report. To view the full report and learn more about the Foundation’s programs and initiatives, visit powerofgood.com.