Restaurants and bars fan out from the fountain at Five Points South, a popular dining area in Birmingham.
Restaurants and bars fan out from the fountain at Five Points South, a popular dining area in Birmingham.
Copyright Jeffrey Greenberg

Tuning In to Birmingham

At WorkPlay, patrons can grab a cocktail at the bar before checking out a show in the multimedia facility's club.
At WorkPlay, patrons can grab a cocktail at the bar before checking out a show in the multimedia facility's club. (Hugh Hunter - Hugh Hunter)

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006

Do "American Idols" grow on trees?

In Birmingham, apparently so. Over the past four years, three of the city's talents have barreled to the finals of Fox's hit reality show. The streak started with Ruben Studdard in 2003, followed by 2005 runner-up Bo Bice and this year's crowned crooner, AARP-haired Taylor Hicks. So, America wants to know: How did Birmingham get its groove?

Alabama's largest city cannot be pigeonholed -- musically or culturally. The three Idols are a good example: Hicks sings pop-wrapped soul, Studdard belts out gospel, and Brice channels Southern rockers. Indeed, there's no pure Birmingham sound; it's more like a compilation disc.

"We have gospel, punk rock, Dixie, jazz musicians who claim to be gospel and Christian instrumental," says Hunter Bell, 34, who produces and hosts a weekly public radio show featuring local bands. "I think there's a ton of talent. . . . A lot of people think the Birmingham music scene is going to explode like Athens [Ga.] or Austin. It hasn't happened yet, but it's on the brink."

A big push has, of course, come from "American Idol," which just announced that it will hold auditions in Birmingham for the first time. But the city is also working hard to improve its image, breathe life into deserted buildings and create a environment that sparks innovation and makes its own stars.

"We suffered inertia for a long time. Civil rights was the overriding theme for the past decade," says Birmingham native Alan Hunter, one of MTV's original VJs, who returned home in 1994 and opened WorkPlay, a multimedia center. "But the potential is here for greatness, if we can just get beyond the low self-esteem. We're looking forward, not backward."

To be sure, after a long period of dormancy, Birmingham seems to be waking up. Throughout the rambling downtown, encouraging scenes are unfolding in neighborhoods on both sides of the railroad tracks. Lakeview, a drab district of low-lying buildings and parched grass, is filling up with color: During a Saturday market at the Pepper Place, stalls selling outsider art, homemade soaps and shelled peas cluster near the 1930s Dr Pepper plant. Across the way, in the former digs of Martin Biscuit Co., a Mexican restaurant called Cantina shares space with an antiques store. Around back, the Amani Raha bar co-opts the L.A. style -- and martini menu.

The established district of Five Points South is also expanding, with a wine bar and a seafood cafe. Even the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain is getting into the act, with Friday-night in-store wine tastings. You can't get more random than sipping Pinot Grigio at the Pig.

Nor can you ignore Birmingham's turbulent past. In the late-19th to mid-20th centuries, the Magic City earned its nickname from iron and steel production, raw materials extracted from Red Mountain and the rapid expansion that followed. When the Depression hit, Birmingham's growth sputtered, and the city never fully recovered. It is perhaps best known for the violent civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s; for many, the city's name still conjures images of fire hoses, bombings and frightened faces of all colors. But slowly, things are perking up: In 2004, the U.S. Conference of Mayors designated Birmingham as "America's Most Livable City."

"The scene is really happening now," says Bell. " 'American Idol' has brought attention to Birmingham. There's such a buzz going around; very few bands are moving out of town these days."

Since "American Idol 2007" is not too far off, it seemed like a good time to check out the city's music scene -- before Simon & Co. get there first.

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