For decades, the Avondale neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama, was known for negative things–mainly its crime, drug use, and prostitution. The approximately four block area was at about 25% occupancy just a few years ago, estimates Elizabeth Barbaree-Tasker of REV Birmingham (formerly Main Street Birmingham), a local economic development organization. Now Avondale is a thriving neighborhood with a 75% occupancy rate and a slew of shops that bring in people from outside the area. Avondale’s turnaround can be traced back to three things: a brewery, a park, and a contest.
Brothers Hunter and Coby Lake have been working to revitalize Avondale for years. “There was a lot of undocumented crime in the area. We were able to work with the Birmingham police department to help combat a lot of that crime, which made other entrepreneurs feel safe in the area, made it a more attractive place. That was about four years ago,” says Hunter. But it wasn’t enough.
The brothers, who used to renovate residential properties, bought two buildings across the street from each other in Avondale. The pair turned one of the properties into the Avondale Brewing Company, which opened in October 2011 (the same month that the city completed a $3 million renovation in Avondale Park). The other became the site of an experiment this past January–dubbed Occupy Avondale–where Coby and Hunter offered six months free rent to a business that could increase foot traffic in the area.
After receiving about 55 entries, a team of judges (including the Lakes and Barbaree-Tasker) picked Freshfully, a website–and now a brick-and-mortar store–that sells goods from Alabama farmers directly to consumers. “The Freshfully model is about local produce and food, and [the Lakes] are brewing local beer,” explains Barbaree-Tasker. “It’s something we felt would attract the same type of audience but not immediately set up a type of competition.”
It wasn’t long before other businesses started clambering to set up shop in the small neighborhood, which now had two thriving businesses and a newly renovated park. In March of this year, the Lakes recruited Saw’s Soul Kitchen, a spinoff restaurant of Saw’s BBQ. “Saw’s has a location in one of the first ring of suburbs outside Birmingham, and it had been very popular. They took what had been a very old barbecue restaurant that wasn’t open much anymore and moved into that,” says Barbaree-Tasker.
Soon after Saw’s arrived, other businesses moved in: an art gallery, a pub, a sandwich shop, an urban farming supply store, and more. Avondale is now a bona fide destination–a place people visit (and live in) with their young families.
Without even realizing it, the Lakes joined a larger revitalization movement of landlords granting temporarily free rent in down-and-out neighborhoods. In Oakland, California, for example, the Popuphood project offers a limited period of free rent to retailers setting up shop in previously vacant and new storefronts. “We hadn’t heard of other initiatives,” says Coby. “The reason Hunter and I picked [Avondale] is that it’s a fairly small area surrounded by some nicer areas, it’s close to UAB, one of the largest medical hubs in the state, and it’s one of the oldest districts in Birmingham.”
For Barbaree-Tasker, a 15-year resident of Avondale, the change has been astounding. “The transformational thing to me is, you’re driving home from work on a Wednesday night and there’s nothing that you see for 15 years. Then [Avondale Brewery and Freshfully] pop up and Saw’s is there, and you drive through and there’s literally foot traffic. There’s just street life that did not exist before.”
All it took was a push from a couple of ambitious brewers.