Every year the Center takes one state to focus in on and study in depth. For 2005 it was Alabama. This time the Center’s normal staff of researchers were assisted by a group of graduate students from the Curatorial Practice Program at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts.
THERE ARE STILL COTTON FARMS in Alabama, but now the state’s largest agricultural outputs are forestry products and peanuts. Chicken is the largest farm product (only Arkansas makes more “broilers”). Despite its reputation, it is only the 7th poorest state in the USA in per capita income (it is beat out by Misssissippi, West Virginia, New Mexico, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Montana). Alabama has 4.4 million people, 71% of whom are white, 26% are black. 100 years ago it was about half black. One in six people (750,000) live in “mobile homes,” whatever that means. It is also one of most “provincial” places in the USA—people tend to live near where they were born. As a result, folkways and localized, regional culture is strong, as frequent flourishes of unique folk art and crafts attest.
Economically, Alabama is an industrialized state now. Its largest industry, in financial totals, is automobiles. The north has some large TVA power plants and dams that spurred federally supported industry in the 1930’s and 1940’s, such as fertilizers and explosives, and which laid the foundation for a high-tech industrial belt that is still strong today, centered around Huntsville. The north central part of the state has a number of major steel and pipe manufacturers, though Birmingham’s steel industry no longer dominates the regional economy (the landscape around the city has many former—and some active—steel plants). Birmingham, the largest city in the state, now has a service economy, with the headquarters of a number of national corporations, such as Healthsouth, Liberty National Insurance, and the three big southern banks: Amsouth, Regions, and Southtrust. Birmingham also has the headquarters for a few major engineering firms, such as Rust International, Herbert International, BE&K, Brasfield and Gorrie, and Blount International. These companies, like some of their out of state competitors Bechtel, KBR, and Fluor, build infrastructure and industry around the world. Supporting deal-making businesses such as these is a string of 18 golf courses, spread out from Huntsville to Mobile.
Other pockets of affluence and industry include a major munitions plant and arsenal at Anniston; a still active textile industry, which includes one of the nation’s leading sports clothing manufacturers, around Alexander City; the State Universities at Tuscaloosa and Auburn; isolated and periodic massive car plants and wood product plants; and fancy vacation communities along the shores of Alabama’s small stretch of coastline. Most of the land of the state is like the rest of the South: slightly rolling hills with fields and some forests, scattered with post-war housing, condensing on the edges of small towns, with gas stations, fast food, and shopping centers, then a few blocks of a worn, old main street at the core.
Selected Points of Interest in Alabama
Kelly Ingram Park
A cluster of notable civil rights attractions is located next to downtown Birmingham, around Kelly Ingram Park, a city block sized park that is itself the site of a major event in the nation’s civil rights struggle. Across from the park is the 16th Street Baptist Church, a center for the city’s black community, made famous in 1963 by a KKK bombing that killed four young girls. Across the street from it is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, perhaps the national museum on the subject of civil rights. The Institute’s primary function, it seems, is to use its state of the art displays to educate legions of high school students on the history of the 1950’s and 1960’s movement, in one of the most unsubtle display environments imagineable. In the park itself are some sculptures commemorating events that occurred there in 1962, when the police were sent into the park to arrest protesters who had been gathering there in response to the imprisonment of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been put in jail for protesting the police beatings of the bus bound Freedom Riders. At the park, the police were photographed using violent acts, with dogs, nightsticks, and fire hoses, often against children. These images and the events they depicted were ultimately to have a positive effect on civil rights policy at the national level.
Joe Minter’s Yard
Joe Minter is a visionary artist who has created a sculpture park of American history in his backyard. Using lumber, dolls, lawn ornaments, doors, and other found materials that he shapes, paints, assembles, and writes on, Minter has created a walk through “African Village in America,” as he sometimes call it, a “reclaiming of the telling of history.” The sculptures are like exhibits in a museum, each telling a different part of a historical story about civil rights, compassion, and historical and current events, nationally and locally. There is the unbuilt bridge at Gee’s Bend, and the famous built bridge at Selma; a memorial to the 2004 tsunami victims; and a commentary on the 9/11 attacks. Minter usually greets visitors if he can, and helps to make his park come alive. His place is the last house on the block, and abuts one of the main historic black graveyards in the city, where hundreds of tombs buckle with neglect.
Wade Sand & Gravel Co. operates a quarry amidst the ruins of a steel plant of the kind that once made Birmingham the industrial center of the new South. The hulking forms of the coke ovens and coal elevators, which are the only remains of a much larger complex once owned by Republic Steel, share space with the active conveyors and grey rock piles of the quarry. Amidst the mixture of industrial forms are a number of artworks, as the Wade family, who own this hyper-industrialized land, has established an informal residence program for artists to work at the site. The town of Thomasville, next to the plant site, was the company town built for the plant workers, and has identical but incongruous houses, designed originally for a plant in Pennsylvania. The homes are privately owned now.
The Sloss Furnace is a former pig iron plant near downtown Birmingham that used to supply iron for the pipe industry of Alabama. It has been turned into a preserved landmark, open to the public. The impressive remains of two large blast furnaces, as well as the tunnels, corridors, chambers and galleries around them, are open to exploration. One of the furnace areas is still used for creative iron casting projects. Concerts and other public events are held at Sloss as well, and the annual Halloween “haunted factory” experience is superlative. Sloss is one of the few remnants America’s formidable iron and steel industries that is truly open to the public.
State Court House
The State Court House in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, was made famous by the controversy that emerged around a two and a half ton stone monument with a tablet listing the Ten Commandments, which was placed in a prominent spot in the lobby of the building, in 2001. The separation of church and state issues it raised divided the nation, and was a national media story for a few years, as court cases battled it out. The National Guard was even called it to protect the monument at some point. The monument is currently in storage, out of public view, though its former prominent location in the lobby is an obvious vacancy.
Hank Williams Museum
The singer Hank Williams has several attractions devoted to him in Alabama, his home state. These include his boyhood home in Georgiana; the restored Kowaliga cabin where he wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart;” a statue of him in a park across from where his funeral was held in Montgomery; and his grave, in Oakwood Cemetery. His career in the national limelight lasted for just a few years, yet this sickly, southern white guy had nearly as much impact on American popular music as Elvis. He brought the blues to country music, and died alone, of an overdose of alcohol and pills, in the back seat of his Cadillac at the age of 29. The Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery displays that Cadillac, along with the contents of the suitcase he had with him, and the light blue suit he was wearing at the time of his death.
One celebrated remote place in Alabama is Gee’s Bend (famous at least in the arts and crafts worlds). It was here that, due to the isolation and creativity of its denizens, a unique form of quilt patterning emerged, based on African traditions, yet cut, literally, from American cloth. Composed of about fifty of the women of the community, the quilters collective at Gee’s Bend has had their work shown in museums around the country. Most of the quilters are direct descendents of slaves who were brought to work on what started out as Mr. Gee’s plantation, on a bend on the Alabama River. Though today Gee’s Bend is officially called Boykin, it is still remote, located at the end of what remains one of the longest dead-end roads in the state.
Arguably, college football may be more avidly followed in Alabama than any other state. The temple of the sport is the state university stadium in Tuscaloosa. The Bryant-Denny Stadium is home of the University of Alabama football team, ominously named The Crimson Tide. Built in 1929, the colossal stadium holds 83,818 people. It was originally named after a university president (George Hutchenson Denny), but in 1975 the Alabama state legislature renamed the stadium “Bryant-Denny Stadium” to commemorate the accomplishments of the team’s coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant. Bryant achieved legendary status in football by leading Alabama to the national championship six times, and setting the record as the (up to that time) most successful coach in college football history with a record of 323 wins out of 424 games. Bryant, who coached at Alabama for 25 years, is no doubt the primary reason for Alabaman college football zeal. A museum dedicated to Bear Bryant is located a few blocks from the stadium.
Emelle Hazardous Waste Mound
Waste Management Incorporated’s Emelle Treatment Facility, located in the remote Sumter County, in western Alabama, is one of the largest toxic waste dumps in the United States. At its peak, the facility received almost 800,000 tons of waste per year, coming mostly from US states outside of Alabama, and military bases overseas. Though the landfill is lined, and a leachate filtration system helps to keep toxic materials on site, some tests have reported traces of water contamination in nearby towns. Protestors argue that the location of the facility is a product of “environmental racism.” Sumter County is one of the country’s most impoverished regions with one-third of the residents living below the poverty level and over 90 percent of the residents in the area are black. In the 1990s, a state tax on waste deposits and a series of federal regulations resulted in a 85 percent decline in the amount of waste buried at the landfill each year. The site is still accepting wastes, and will have to maintain the collection on site for decades, if not centuries, to come.
Old Cahawba is a complex and mysteriously evocative place, an encapsulation of much of the state’s history, and a place that is, apparently, a place to leave. It began as a major Native American village, with a palisade wall and a large mound inside. Briefly, it was Alabama’s state capital (1820-1826). Before the Civil War, it was a thriving river town, a major distribution point for cotton shipped down the Alabama River from the fertile “black belt” to the port of Mobile. Some thought that it would become a port town as popular as New York City, but with its constant flooding and lack of connecting railroads the city could not survive. It became a ghost town shortly after the Civil War. Today all that remains in Cahawba are several old street signs, an abandoned plantation home, a few slave quarters, and bits of rubble outlining where homes and businesses once stood, marked by interpretive plaques. Abandoned trailer-homes indicate the last attempt by individuals to inhabit Old Cahawba, fishermen and hunters from the late 1980s, who have, like the other former denizens, mysteriously departed.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
Soon after World War II, rocket research at the Redstone Arsenal, near Huntsville, transformed the landscape and economy of northern Alabama, making the region one of the world’s most important centers for space technology. Today, the results of these federally supported activities has created a belt of affluence, based on high tech industries. The center of the space programs in the region is NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, established by the federal government in 1958 to develop rockets for space travel, and to continue the research of rocket pioneer Werner von Braun, who directed the Center for many years, and who first moved his lab to the arsenal grounds from Texas in the 1940s. It is still one of NASA’s primary laboratory complexes, and houses activities related to propulsion technology, space travel, and space station habitation. Extensive displays at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the large visitors center created by NASA, with local foundations and business interests, include over 1,500 pieces of rocket and space hardware, models, dioramas, interactive kiosks, and films that depict and describe the official story of the American conquest of space, and the role that the Marshall Space Flight Center and Werner von Braun had in making this possible.
Rural Studio at Mason’s Bend
Mason’s Bend is a small community surrounded by the vast fields of Hale County, one of the poorest counties in the United States. This is where the late Samuel Mockbee started Rural Studio, a hands-on architecture workshop for graduate students at Auburn University. Since 1993, Rural Studio students have designed and built houses and other structures with the families of Mason’s Bend. The buildings are imaginatively designed, and are built with unconventional, inexpensive, and recycled materials (the church in Mason’s Bend is made out of rammed earth, with a shimmering wall of car windshields that cascade from the roof to the ground). Though the idea of bringing innovative, contemporary architecture to areas like Mason’s Bend is an important aspect of Rural Studio, the success of their projects are ultimately measured by how much they honor, involve, and benefit the people they are created for. Mockbee’s dream of this “architecture of decency” lives on through the continued expansion of Rural Studio, which has completed internationally acclaimed projects with several other communities in Hale County and beyond. Though based at Auburn University, on the other side of the state, the “campus” for Rural Studio is a few miles down the road from Mason’s Bend, along the main street through Newbern.
Thanks to the members of the Curatorial Practice Program class at CCA, Kathleen Brennan, Kalia Brook, Alex Burke, Joyce Grimm, Audrey Marrs, Jessica Martin, Nancy Meyer, Dina Pugh, Aislinn Race, and Roopesh Sitharan for assisting with the Center’s Focus on Alabama, and for helping to enrich the Center’s Land Use Database, one state at a time!