I would argue that I have one of the best jobs in the world. I am fortunate, in that I have the ability to write publicly about things—usually food-related—that inspire me. In my day-to-day life, I am exposed to new and notable restaurants, healthy-eating initiatives, and people who are making a difference in the lives of the residents of Birmingham. Getting to meet chefs and farmers, bartenders and bloggers, philanthropists and professional eaters has an effect on me and my relationship with food.
I recently had an inspiring interaction in Homewood, a disparate yet cohesive neighborhood, historical, progressive, traditional and modern. In short, Homewood is like many Southern towns, and we would be wise to take note of what is going on in its historic Rosedale section. This neighborhood—once thriving, then forgotten and now rediscovered—is an example of the progress that can be made when individuals and organizations take a chance and make an investment in the future of a community at risk.
Rosedale, one of the first three areas to incorporate as Homewood in 1927, was founded by nurseryman and florist Theodore Smith and settled in the late 19th century by a group of enterprising African-Americans. This proud community thrived, with bustling businesses, committed landowners and residents who were dedicated to their neighborhood. When Homewood schools and parks were desegregated, Rosedale lost the schools and parks that had been at the hub of everyday life. The completion of Red Mountain Expressway in 1970, which essentially cut off the neighborhood from other flourishing areas of Homewood, further contributed to the marginalization of the community. Residents moved away. Homes fell into disrepair. Blight descended upon some streets.
But there is still pride in Rosedale, and it can be found in a few gardens that have been developed in small pockets. Through the cooperative efforts of several organizations and individuals, such as Greater Birmingham Ministries and Terry Slaughter of the Slaughter Group, changes are taking place. The commitment to renewing the area has been coupled with the active engagement of Rosedale residents, and the Rosedale Youth Garden is a terrific example of this. Funded by the nonprofit Simon Cyrene Foundation, seven young people are working to improve their environment—physically, aesthetically and culturally. As their website notes, the foundation is an interfaith, non-political group “committed to serving non-profit organizations that seek to enhance the human condition.” Their mission is to make “a positive change in communities using strategic thinking and creative design… [and] is inspired by the [biblical figure] Simon of Cyrene.”
Led by Garden coordinator Keith Davis and facilitated by program intern Katie McDaniel, each of these kids, ages 13 to 18, has worked 15 to 20 hours a week on two plots of land on 26th and 27th Avenues South. “Two-thirds of the kids’ time is spent hands-on,” McDaniel says. “They are learning agricultural principles and methods. The other one-third is programmatic. They learn to prepare and eat the food they are raising.”
Davis’ wife Elaine has led the participants in cooking classes. The crops were fantastic producers this summer, and program participants took turns selling their produce on Saturdays in downtown Homewood. They capped their official growing season by selling fruits and vegetables at Whole Foods Market in Cahaba Village. Produce can be purchased by residents at a 50-percent discount and is free for area seniors.
These kids are learning more than just how to stake tomato plants. They are learning the history of their neighborhood and are taking pride in where they live. “The kids interviewed seniors in the neighborhood and created a timeline of notable events,” Davis adds. “We held a birthday party for one of our seniors, Ms. Shepherd, who just celebrated her 102nd birthday. We can see these guys taking pride in the garden and Rosedale as a whole.”
This sentiment was certainly evident as I took a recent detour to check out the Gardens again and take photographs. I spied a group of teenagers ambling down the street, one of whom was wearing a Rosedale Youth Garden t-shirt. I stopped to ask the girl, who said her name was Phelicia, about the project, and her face lit up. She told me how much she had earned by participating in the program (yes, they earn a paycheck in addition to skills) and shared some of what she had learned. A boy in the group asked me to take his picture in the adjacent sculpture garden that is part of the Simon Cyrene Foundation’s beautification efforts. Asked how he had helped with the Gardens, his face sank and he replied, “I didn’t do it this year. But I’m going to next year!” You could feel the excitement these kids have about their sense of place.
Another of the group mentioned she had just moved to Rosedale from Detroit. I thought it was noteworthy that she said Rosedale. Not Homewood. Not Birmingham. She had moved to Rosedale. That speaks volumes about the changes taking place here.
The work here is far from complete.
There are myriad opportunities to enhance this community. Keith Davis mentions the need for a safe way for kids to cross the busy intersection where 18th Street meets Highway 280. Others call for concerted zoning efforts. The Simon Cyrene Foundation is just one group participating in the revitalization of Rosedale. It is up to the residents of Homewood—and all of Birmingham—to see this goal to completion.
Christiana Roussel lives in Crestline and is a lover of all things food-related. You can follow her culinary musings online at ChristianasKitchen.com or on Facebook (ChristianasKitchen) or Twitter (Christiana40).