When I came to Birmingham for the first time in 1958, I thought the local newpaper was named The Birmingham Eccentric because I met so many eccentrics in Birmingham.
First, there was my fiancé’s family. His father was a fan of the Grand Trunk railroad and rode it to work in Detroit, but his great passion was for buying oddball cars – Volkswagens, Citroens, and Peugots – before anyone ever heard of them.
On my first visit, however, I was met at Willow run in an all-American brand, an open top, 1932 De Soto touring car. It was a huge, heavy thing – useful, as I discovered my first Birmingham Christmas, for rescuing hapless drivers of more lightweight vehicles. When it began to snow, I thought we would settle cozily around the fire. This was not to be: we buttoned up in layers and went out to the De Soto. My fiancé and his brother stood on the running boards, but I was assigned to sit on the hood to provide traction while we drove up and down big Beaver in the blizzard, pulling people out of the ditch.
Eccentricity ran in that family: the teetotalling great-grandfather had been an inventor of copper tubing devices, but when he learned, to his chagrin, that they were being used in whisky distillery, he sold the business and moved to Birmingham, where he founded his own religion. I inherited his notebooks with hand written chemical formulas down one side of the page and, upside down on the other, the tents of his oddball sect.
Did I mention that my mother-in-law dried her paper towels in the oven to use again and removed the yolks from hard-boiled eggs to feed to the squirrels? They dropped dead all from overdoses of choresterol, but maybe that was the point?
Then there was Fred the milkman, who stopped for long chats in the kitchen and knew everybody in the neighborhood. And the hermit who lived in the woods across the street. And the family friend, a quirky loner who never saw a doctor and smoked himself to death while his house fell down around him.
Birmingham eccentricity manifested itself in dizzyingly idiosyncratic housing styles: stucco bungalows next to wooden Cape Cods, mid-century glass modern next to traditional brick ranches. The houses conformed, nevertheless, in being of the same size. Tiny homes ran along certain streets, two and three bedrooms prevailed on others, while, one street over, they might run to four or five. You mostly found real mansions on streets of their own, mainly clustered near the Cranbrook Estate.
The town itself was nice, though the proprietors of the hardware and drugstore and corner market were (you guessed it) somewhat quirky. It was a perfectly ordinary place to shop- you could get an apron at Kresge’s, a modest outfit at Crowley’s, splurge on something fancier at Jacobson’s, and have a chat about books at the Birmingham Bookstore.
Recently, we had an interim minister at our church, and when I asked him if he had walked downtown he threw back his head and laughed “that’s not a place for people to shop,” he explained. Birmingham, it seems, has been turned into a high-end outdoor boutique, affordable only by the (very) rich.
I guess you can tell that I like variety and difference and that I find Birmingham’s monochrome population a serious drawback. Historically segregated by zoning ordnances and redlining, it has been slow to attract a variety of residents. That was why, when I read about the city’s new plan for multi-unit, affordable housing along our major boulevards, I posted in our neighborhood email about how excited I was at the diversity the new housing might foster.
This was not well received. I learned that I belonged to the “cancel culture.” I had to ask around about what that meant: if it is monochromatic sameness in race and income I would like to see cancelled,, I plead guilty. I was asked why I thought other (?) people might want to live among us (?). One woman was convinced that living in Birmingham constitutes the pot at the end of a meritocratic rainbow for which only the wealthy should aspire; she expected her own young relatives to live in Royal Oak until they earned the right to live here.
Fear not: though we are an endangered species, Birmingham still has its eccentrics. For example: this is me writing on a paper plate on my head:
Keep your eyes open- you might spot one coming out of the woodwork anywhere around town. There are hoarders and hermits, quirky loners and cranks, off-the-grid artists, inventors and oddballs yet dwelling amongst us.
Consider the admirably persistent artist who rose at dawn for years and years to concoct beautiful assemblages of feathers and flowers and pine cones all along the path in Linden Park. Just yesterday, I discovered that she inspired an apprentice, someone who had covered the top of a sawed off tree trunk with stones, little figures, and decorations with colorful baubles dangling over from an overarching branch. And then, just a little way further down the path, I found a poem thoughtfully encased in plastic attached to a birdhouse, telling us all about the goldfinches in the park and how they warm out hearts.