I moved to Birmingham in 2008, and when I first got to this city, Avondale was not somewhere you went on purpose. It’s only been in the past 6-7 years that this particular part of town has been revitalized and become a trendy spot for restaurants, shops, and homes. In fact, National Geographic calls it a “city in a renaissance,” and this particular renaissance kickstarted with the renovation of Avondale Park in 2011. However, Avondale and the park in particular both have a long history.
History of Avondale
Founded in the 1880s, Avondale Park served as the go-to site for baseball games, picnics, concerts, and free elephant rides. Yes, that’s ride – free elephant rides. You see, Avondale Park also hosted a small zoo on its southeastern edge. While it was only open from 1911-1934, the zoo’s star was an Indian elephant named Miss Fancy who was purchased from the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus by the Birmingham Age-Herald as a gift to Birmingham’s children. While the zoo closed because of financial strain and sold Miss Fancy in 1934, both Avondale Brewery and the restaurant Fancy’s on Fifth pay tribute to Miss Fancy’s memory. Currently, fundraising efforts are taking place to create a new entrance to Avondale Park with a life-size statue of Miss Fancy and a splash pad. To learn more and to make a donation, click here.
Originally named after a Cincinnati suburb, Avondale was built around the Avondale Mills and was a company town. Peyton King sold the land to the Avondale Land Company in order to form the city and stipulated that the 40 acres surrounding the natural spring (called the “Big Spring”) be set aside as a park (what is now Avondale Park). Because of this, the area was known as “King Spring,” and what is now 41st Street used to be called Spring Street – the area’s main thoroughfare.
A prime spot because of its proximity to the railroad, Avondale bustled in the early 1900s, but as with many other parts of Birmingham, the area became depressed as a result of families moving out of the area because of segregation and racism. By the 1990s, Avondale became known as a hotbed for drugs and crime. It’s also important to understand that in 1974, the City of Avondale was divided into 3 parts as a result of the Birmingham Community Participation Program: East Avondale (basically Woodlawn), North Avondale (north of the railroad tracks), and South Avondale (the Forest Park area). And these geographic distinctions also reflected political and demographic differences. For example, while South Avondale/Forest Park remains more affluent and diverse, East Avondale and North Avondale both remain low income and populated mostly by African Americans. Weld wrote an excellent piece discussing Avondale’s revitalization and the issue of gentrification, which you can read here.
What to Do & Where to Eat in Avondale
While revitalization can bring wonderful changes to a community, how that community goes about change is crucial. An area that I only passed through on my way to another part of town when I first moved to Birmingham is now somewhere I intentionally head to eat, play, and shop. Its reputation has gone from dangerous to hipster, and the restoration of Avondale Park and the establishment of Avondale Brewery on 41st Street mark a turning point for Avondale. Avondale Brewery often hosts concerts and events, including the Salsa Showdown where local restaurants and catering companies compete to see who offers the best salsa, guacamole, queso, and specialty dip in Birmingham. Don’t eat before you go because you will load up on some chips and salsa as you cast your vote!
While the Salsa Showdown is usually in May, during the summer you can take the fam to see Movies at Avondale Park for free. I suggest getting dinner and having a picnic at the park when you go, and you have plenty of restaurants to choose from. In addition to all the restaurants in the Forest Park area (click here to learn more in the “Exploring Forest Park” post), you can get specialty hot dogs from Hot Diggity Dogs right across the street from the park (read my review here to find out what to order). Or you can get pizza from Post Office Pies or Mexican food from Taco Morro Loco. And by the time the movies happen this summer, Big Spoon Creamery’s brick and mortar in Avondale will be open, which means you can get your ice cream fix and see a free movie!
Avondale’s booming restaurant scene also includes the aforementioned Fancy’s on 5th, which can be described as an “oyster dive + burger bar.” The owners also own Melt across the street, which is simply heavenly if you’re a cheese-lover. (My heart goes out to all of you who are lactose intolerant. Cheese is one of my essential food groups.) You also have Rowe’s Service Station, Wasabi Juan’s (home of the sushi burritos), Hotbox, and my favorite Avondale restaurant thus far – Saw’s Soul Kitchen. Saigon Noodle House is also nearby on 3rd Avenue if you’re wanting some Vietnamese food.
Avondale also has a strong coffee game with both Saturn and The Abbey. One plus about The Abbey is that they also serve Piper & Leaf tea. Plus, they have yummy baked goods. It’s a little more low-key than Saturn, which is where you go if you want to play board games with friends (they have quite a selection) or attend a concert. In addition to coffee, Avondale is also home to The Marble Ring (a speakeasy-inspired bar), The Sour Room (part of Avondale Brewing Co.), 41st Street Pub & Aircraft Sales, and the Cahaba Brewing Co. is nearby on 4th Avenue South.
So that’s the food scene, but if you go to Avondale, there’s more to do than just eat and walk around the park. On the 2nd Saturday of the month, check out the Market by the Tracks in Avondale and shop at over 22 booths offering a variety of collectibles, antiques, home decor items, knick knacks, and architectural salvage pieces.
Shop at Winslet & Rhys Mercantile for unique and lovely gifts (just follow them on Instagram and be ready to swoon over the contents in their store). Next door to Winslet & Rhys and Big Spoon Creamery is MAKEbhm, and although this is a space where “makers can make,” they also offer classes to the public involving ceramics, metal, print, and wood (click here for more info). They’ll also occasionally have an open house where you can shop from their makers, and they’re actually having their Spring Open House + Makers Market this Thursday from 6-9pm. You can also shop for antiques, art, repurposed and upcycled items, and other things at Painted Shovel or check out the antiques at Avondale Antiques.
Sozo Trading Co. also sits on 41st Street, and it’s a combination thrift store and market whose proceeds support a non-profit ministry that cares for orphaned and neglected children in Uganda. They have this large $1 t-shirt section that is organized by color, and this is also a place I stop to pick up paper bead bracelets to include in gifts or other jewelry or items made by Ugandan merchants.
Box Row is also an up and coming part of Avondale for food and for shopping that will hopefully open later this year across from Wasabi Juan’s (We Have Doughnuts is reported to be one of its tenants). Rainy Day Birmingham, which began in a converted shipping container in Railroad Park, is also opening its first storefront on April 1st, and it contains a collection of items made by Southern artists and makers.