Finding Home Again in Birmingham

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Sometimes life can take you to surprising places, and sometimes the place you never thought you’d settle in becomes an unexpected home.
For our guest blogger Javacia Harris Bowser, Birmingham was where she grew up, but wasn’t necessary where she wanted to put permanent roots.
She explores her loving yet complicated relationship with the Magic City in her monthly post for WBHM.

On May 16, 61 young men and women were declared the Class of 2014 of the Alabama School of Fine Arts. As I watched them proudly walk across the stage of the Alabama Theatre to accept their diplomas, I couldn’t help but think back to 15 years ago when I walked across the same stage to do the same thing.

I graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts in 1999. Ten years later, in 2009, I returned to the school to teach. If you had told me on the night of my graduation that one day I was going to return to Birmingham – after living in the Mid West and on the West Coast – I would have laughed in your face.

As a high school graduate, I couldn’t wait to leave Birmingham. To me, Birmingham was a city standing still. I felt we were behind in everything from public transportation to technology. I believed the wounds of our dark, racist past would never heal. As a young writer, I figured I could never make my dreams come true in a place like Birmingham. And as a teenager, the thing I complained about most was simply, “There’s nothing to do here!”

I can still remember the days when my mom would drive the streets of downtown Birmingham, pointing out abandoned and dilapidated buildings. She’d tell me how those were once thriving businesses she and her friends would frequent on weekends. I saw those empty buildings and felt like my city was dying.

I would shake my head and mumble to myself, “I can’t wait to get out of this place.”

And so I left.

At first I only went about 50 miles west, attending the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. For graduate school, I packed up everything I owned in two big boxes and two large suitcases and headed for California. I spent some time in Seattle and then after receiving my master’s from the University of California, Berkeley, I moved to Louisville, Kentucky to be a features writer and columnist.

But then I came back to Birmingham.

Unhappy with the lack of opportunity for advancement at my newspaper job, I decided to pursue another career goal of mine: teaching. When my husband discovered that the Alabama School of Fine Arts was hiring an English teacher, I jumped at the chance to work at my alma mater.

I can say without exaggeration that the Alabama School of Fine Arts changed my life. I was eager to give back to the school that gave so much to me. But I spent my first year back in Birmingham regretting my decision to return to my hometown.

Why is my water bill so expensive? Why is my rent more than the average house note? Why is Alabama still taxing groceries? Will Birmingham City Schools ever improve? Why does this city still feel so segregated decades after Jim Crow? Why is there still nothing to do here?

I thought back to my time in Louisville, Seattle, Berkeley, Tuscaloosa, and even at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. I asked myself what made me happiest in those places. The answer was simple: my people.

Whenever you move to a new place, you must find your people. You must find people who share your values, interests and quirky sense of humor. One might assume that, since Birmingham is my hometown, I already had people waiting for me when I returned. But most of my closest friends from childhood and high school no longer live in the city.

But I found my people when I started See Jane Write, an organization for women who write and blog. I started in March of 2011 because I missed having a community of female writers like the one I had at my newspaper job. But I never imagined this organization would be the key to falling in love with my hometown.

Through See Jane Write I met women – and men – who not only share my passion for writing, but also share my interest in media and my dedication to education, feminism, fitness, and faith.

But these people also had a love for Birmingham that I had never seen before! With them, I rediscovered downtown Birmingham and new businesses – from offbeat bars and restaurants to quirky shops and boutiques – that now thrive there. Suddenly, I was frequenting downtown spots with my friends on the weekend just as my mom once did. I realized Birmingham is not a dying a city. She is a city in bloom.

When I found my people I also found plenty of things to do. Now I believe that people who say there’s nothing to do in Birmingham are either too lazy to look or just aren’t paying attention. Most weeks I have trouble deciding which events I will and won’t attend because there’s so much to choose from.

This summer I look forward to seeing To Kill a Mockingbird on the big screen at the Alabama Theatre. I look forward to enjoying free fitness classes with my friends and romantic picnics with my husband at Railroad Park. I look forward to baseball games at Regions Field. And I look forward to the plethora of networking events for young professionals that pop up nearly every week.

Still, Birmingham is far from perfect. Many of the problems I lamented when I first returned home still persist. I didn’t forget about them simply because I have a great social life now.

Abandoned and dilapidated buildings still line too many of our city streets. We still lack reliable public transportation. We are still strapped for cash. And, in many ways, we are still divided.

But when I found my people I also found people — of various races and socioeconomic backgrounds – united to make our city great. They are determined to tackle these issues in any way that they can. And I am determined to help them.

Now that I’ve found my people and found my place in this city, Birmingham is more than my hometown – she is my family. And with family you take the good and the bad. Then you work to make the good great and the bad better. So that’s what I’m going to do.

Javacia Harris Bowser is an educator and freelance writer in Birmingham. Javacia is the founder of See Jane Write, an organization for local women writers, and she blogs about her life as a “southern fried feminist” at The Writeous Babe Project.