What it’s really like to live in

Birmingham

Alabama, USA

A great, affordable city

Everyone told me there was nothing to do in Birmingham. I’m not sure what city they were talking about, because there was a ton of things to do in Birmingham.

It was as if city planners had made a list of everything a good city should have: a top notch art museum (and let’s make it free), an old factory turned into an event space, warehouses turned innovation hubs, their own version of the High Line, breweries, art galleries, an amazing bookstore, record shops, urban malls in old department stores, a beautifully restored theatre, and dozens of fantastic places to eat.

Birmingham has it all. If you’re looking for a southern city where you can afford a comfortable life, this is it.

Birmingham in brief

I wasn’t expecting to like Birmingham. I showed up knowing I’d have a great house to stay in and looking forward to throwing myself into work. I hardly did any research on the city beyond making sure I could get to a grocery store and a bar without a car.

Birmingham offered way more than the basics. It has everything you could want in a city. While the transit network is lacking, it’s a small enough city that you can easily get around by bike and the occasional taxi.

  • Things to do
  • Affordability
  • Transit
  • Walkability

Downtown

Railroad Park and the Rotary Park Trail are surrounded by infill development designed to bring people and jobs back to the downtown core. Walking around downtown feels like you’ve stepped into a new urbanist rendering.

Things to do

Birmingham has regular events designed to bring the local community together, as well as bring in people from over the mountain. The Market at Pepper Place is the weekly farmers market and is a major happening each week, with musicians and an art fair. Downtown is full of event spaces, with Sloss Furnaces being the most noteworthy, and Regions Field attracts huge crowds.

Affordability

Prices at the grocery store and eating out are about average for any city in America. There are places where you can find a great deal and places where you can drop $15 on a cocktail.

State and local sales taxes combine to 10%.

Safety

All of downtown Birmingham is safe to walk around during the day. Activity at night happens in neighborhood hubs, but areas between can feel deserted.

This isn’t a place where you’d leave your doors unlocked, but it certainly doesn’t feel dangerous. Normal street smarts and common sense are all that’s needed to feel safe in Birmingham.

Transportation

City buses provide a reasonable transit network for such a small city.

While there’s some biking infrastructure and a bike share, there are few cyclists on the streets. Drivers don’t seem to look for pedestrians or cyclists, but aren’t antagonistic.

The combined bus station (BoltBus, Greyhound, and local buses) and train station (Amtrak) is new and nicely done. There’s daily train service to New Orleans and New York and dozens of bus destinations.

Birmingham International Airport is very close to downtown. There’s also easy access to Atlanta International Airport, which is a major hub and often has great flight deals.

Driving

Birmingham’s roads are over built in that way of cities that braced themselves for a population boom that never came. Any traffic you encounter is probably due to a poorly timed light or someone doing something stupid. You’ll have a lot of streets to yourself, even during what should be peak traffic times.

Parking in Birmingham is abundant, if not always free. Residents complain bitterly about the lack of parking, although there is street parking, parking garages, and numerous surface lots. Having to park more than three blocks from your destination (even if your destination is a park to walk in) is seen as an affront to human dignity. I’m not exaggerating.

Weather

If you’re looking to avoid the winter and you love the heat, Birmingham is a great place for you.

The growing season is long and the local produce shows it. There are 213 sunny days a year, but when it storms it really storms! Thunderstorms are common. Tornadoes also are a normal part of life.

The humidity makes the heat seem much hotter, since the shade doesn’t provide much of a respite. Air conditioning is pretty universal, but that means you’re missing out on the great hiking in the area.

It rarely drops below freezing, so you won’t be seeing much snow.

Housing

Renovated houses in the most desirable downtown neighborhoods, with tree lined streets fetch over $200k. The new luxury condos they’re building downtown also fetch a high price.

You can still get houses for under $50k if you’re willing to do some work or live in a more modest neighborhood. There are lots of charming craftsman bungalows waiting to be restored.

Coming from the North East, property taxes in Birmingham seem unbelievably low. Property taxes in my home town are 20x higher.

Jobs

Birmingham is still a steel city, even if the economy has diversified significantly. There is a large industrial area in the north east.

The south side has been taken over by the University of Alabama and its University Hospital. There are a number of other healthcare organizations and educational institutions. The UAB is the states second largest employer.

It’s also a regional banking center and home to several insurance and telecom companies.

Education

Birmingham is known for having some top high schools.

Downtown is home to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the city is host to a number of other colleges and universities.

Living in Avondale & Forest Park

Avondale Park is the neighborhood centerpiece, opening onto the commercial strip of 41st Street South. The park has a spring fed lake, an amphitheater, trails to ramble, and the community library. It was once home to the Birmingham Zoo in days when people had very low standards for zoos. The park was restored in 2011 and is quite charming — and has free wifi if you feel like working outside on a nice day. The amphitheater hosts movie nights when the weather is warm. This is the south, so that’s most of the time.

41st Street South was originally known as Spring Street, for the creek that once ran from the Avondale Park Lake. It’s been settled for a long time, but it came into its own when Avondale Mills opened in the late 1800s. The walkable neighborhood, classic main street, and lovely park have drawn artists and young professionals, who are fixing up the areas homes in a mostly hands-on fashion.

Avondale is home to a number of great bars, boutiques, and places to eat. There is a really intense brunch scene. There are Instagrammable murals. There’s a lot of Instagramming, all around. In 2015, Thrillist called it the Brooklyn of Alabama.

Forest Park is just a few minutes away on foot and offers a small, but bustling commercial strip. On First Fridays the shops stay open late and there are art installations and live music. While Avondale started out as a working class neighborhood, Forest Park was designed to be a lush residential enclave in the inner city. There’s a wide variety of housing styles, from modest apartments to mansions. While Avondale is springing back from decline, Forest Park gentrified back in the 60s.

It’s only two miles east of downtown, with Sloss Furnace and Pepper Place along the way. The distance to downtown is very much not shaded by tree-lined streets, but there are little pockets of shops and cafes that are slowly filling in. While you could easily live in Avondale or Forest Park without a car, you’d be that guy.

 

Living in Southside Birmingham

Southside Birmingham is a new urbanist infill development dream. While much of the new development obviously comes out of corporate board rooms, it hasn’t lost all of its character.

The University of Alabama (and the hospital and healthcare corporations) has taken over. The Rotary Trail — which is so, so nice — practically drops you off there. Railroad Park is the new pride of the city. The stadium draws huge crowds that fill the brewery across the street. College kids take over the neighborhood for most of the year. People come from around the region for top-notch medical care. The Vulcan statue watches over it all.

Five Points is known as an entertainment hub. It’s Birmingham’s most diverse neighborhood and home to the gay pride parade. It also hosts a Waffle House v. Pancake House duel at its namesake intersection.

Back when Birmingham was tiny, the Southside was considered a streetcar suburb. Now it’s the city’s densest neighborhood. While it’s totally walkable and has everything you need, the streets are just a little too wide to feel urban (but I’m used to New York, so maybe you feel differently). If you want to walk to work, this is your neighborhood.

It seemed totally safe, although it can be very quiet between college semesters. I was repeatedly warned to be careful going out there late at night by myself, but people say that everywhere. It’s good advice everywhere.

Southside is across the railroad tracks from Birmingham’s Entrepreneurship Zone and the heart of downtown. When you’re ready to get out of town for a weekend away, the transit station is just a couple minutes away.

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