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25 Things You Should Know About Birmingham, Alabama

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Birmingham packs a lot of history into its relatively short 140 years. Below, a few things you might not know about the Magic City.

1. Although Hernando De Soto journeyed through Alabama in 1540, the area around Birmingham wasn’t settled until about 1813. For almost 60 years, only farm towns populated the area around the railroad crossroads. In 1871, the Elyton Land Company merged several of these to create Birmingham. In the early 20th century, other surrounding towns were annexed by the city, leading to the substantial growth that inspired its nickname, “The Magic City.”

2. Birmingham was named after Birmingham, UK. Last year, the BBC published a roundup titled "10 British Things About Birmingham, Alabama," calling out, among other things, the city's Doctor Who fan club, The Jane Austen Society, the Etiquette School of Birmingham, and the Birmingham Museum of Art's collection of Wedgwood pottery—the largest in the world outside Britain.

3. Birmingham is the only place in the world where all three raw ingredients for steel (coal, limestone, and iron ore) occur naturally within a ten-mile radius.

4. Sloss Furnaces produced pig-iron for almost 90 years. Although nothing remains of the original furnace complex, it’s the only facility of its kind preserved anywhere in the world. It’s a National Historic Landmark and is run as a city-operated museum. But if you’re catching a show there or wandering the grounds, watch out for ghosts: It’s been listed as one of the top 100 places in the world for paranormal activity.

5. Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, watches over the city—and moons one of its suburbs. The statue was originally commissioned to advertise Birmingham’s industry at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

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6.
The Divinity of Light (although most people just call her Electra) stands atop the Alabama Power Building. In 1926, a writer for the Birmingham Post began publishing installments of the love story of Electra and Vulcan, attributing the potholes downtown to their footsteps from their trips to see one another.

7. Downtown's Kirklin Clinic was designed by noted architect I.M. Pei, the man behind the National Gallery of Art's East Building and Paris' Grand Louvre.

8. Frank Fleming’s The Storyteller was created to celebrate Southern storytelling traditions. Colloquially, the installation of the ram-headed man and his friends is referred to as the Satanic Fountain.

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9.
With a population of approximately 212,000, Birmingham is Alabama's largest city—for now. According to census projections, Huntsville is expected to take the top spot within 10 years.

10. No need to head all the way to New York City to feel like you're in the Big Apple: there's a replica of the Statue of Liberty on the city's outskirts. It was originally commissioned by the founder of Liberty National Life Insurance Company in 1956, and stood proud over the company's downtown headquarters until 1989.

11. Barber Motorsports Park, located just outside city limits, boasts the world's largest motorcycle museum. Guinness World Records made it official last year.

12. It's home to Rickwood Field, the nation’s oldest baseball stadium. In its heyday, Rickwood hosted greats of the game such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean, and Willie Mays (who just so happened to be a native Birminghamian).

Willie Mays and JFK Jr., Getty


13.
Baseball isn’t the only game in town. The greater Birmingham area was the birthplace of a number of other athletes too, including Charles Barkley and nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis.

14. Other famous folks from Birmingham include Emmylou Harris, Courteney Cox, rapper Gucci Mane, authors Fannie Flagg and John Green, who lived there as a kid, and Condoleezza Rice.

15. The city of Birmingham underwent two separate prohibitions. Jefferson County banned the sale of alcohol from 1908 to 1911, and a 1915 statewide law rendered the state totally dry up until 1937—four years after the Twenty-first Amendment ended nationwide prohibition.

16. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of bootlegging happening in 'Bama. (As the Associated Press reported in 1937, "'Bone dry' Alabama led all states in the number of illicit distilleries yielded into federal agents during the month of November, according to Joe Rollins, state head of the federal alcohol unit.") One popular watering hole: Bangor Cave in Blount Springs, which served as a glamorous casino and speakeasy for Birminghamians looking to let loose, just as the formal ban on booze was coming to an end.

17. The oldest and largest Veterans Day celebration is in Birmingham, which is also known as the holiday’s founding city.


18.
Birmingham transplant Mary Anderson invented and patented the windshield wiper in 1903.

19. One of early Birmingham's unsung heroes: a prostitute by the name of Louise Wooster, who helped convert the town's brothels into clinics and nurse citizens back to health during the deadly 1873 cholera epidemic. A few years later, she opened her own brothel and amassed considerable wealth—large amounts of which she donated to charity.

20. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute—both, as its website notes, "a time capsule and a modern-day think tank"—is the permanent home of some of the Civil Rights movement's most powerful images, including photojournalist Spider Martin's pictures of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

21. Even some native Birminghamians don't know that the Birmingham Jail—where Martin Luther King Jr. first drafted his now-legendary missive in the margins of The Birmingham Newsstill occupies the same spot it did in 1963, on 6th Avenue South. But you'd be forgiven for driving past without giving the unassuming structure a second look: The sign outside identifies it as simply the Birmingham Police Department Detention Division.


22.
Birmingham is said to be home to the "Heaviest Corner on Earth." That nickname came courtesy of an admiring early 20th century magazine article about the corner of 20th Street and First Avenue, where four massive skyscrapers—then the South's biggest buildings—had recently been constructed.

23. The multi-colored dance floor at The Club in Birmingham was director John Badham’s inspiration for the flashy set-up in Saturday Night Fever.

24. The annual Miss Apollo Pageant, held in November, is the second-oldest continuously running drag queen pageant in the country.

25. The city's Red Mountain Park, a 1200-acre public space, is one of the biggest urban parks in the country and a full 40 percent bigger than New York City's Central Park.

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Neighborhoods
How 8 Phoenix Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Inhabited by native people for thousands of years and colonized by white settlers in the 1860s, Phoenix has developed a booming economy based around “the Five Cs”: cotton, citrus, cattle, climate, and copper. It's grown from a once-dusty desert town to the state capital, as well as the nation's fifth-largest city, with a population of 1.6 million and counting. Here’s the story of how eight of the city's neighborhoods ended up with their current names.

1. ALHAMBRA

Best known as the founder of Glendale, Arizona, William John Murphy was a pioneer, contractor, and the impresario of the Arizona Improvement Company, created in 1887 to sell land and water rights south of the Arizona Canal. Murphy also greatly contributed to the early development of Scottsdale and Phoenix, and he was responsible for splitting a large chunk of his land along the western border of Phoenix, next to Glendale, into smaller subdivisions [PDF]. He also came up with the subdivision's names; Alhambra stemmed from the 13th-century palace and fortress of the same name in Granada, Spain. Today, the neighborhood is known for large homes and its Murphy Bridle Path, named after its former landowner.

2. AHWATUKEE

The word Ahwatukee—an “urban village” in the East Valley region of Phoenix—has roots in the Crow language, but theories about its translation differ. Before it was a village, the name referred to a single estate built in 1920 that sat at the modern-day streets of Sequoia Trails and Appaloosa Drive. The original builder, William Ames, first named it Casa de Sueños ("house of dreams"), but he died three months after moving in. His widow, Virginia Ames, owned the house until her death in 1932, and it was eventually sold to a rich Midwesterner named Helen Brinton, who had an interest in the Crow tribe. Her attempt to translate “house of dreams” into Crow was Ahwatukee, but the tribe says there’s no such word in their language. The name caught on regardless, being used to refer to the house as well as the area that developed around it.

3. SUNNYSLOPE

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Southwest was a place where sick people would travel from all across the U.S. to recuperate from pulmonary illnesses—especially pulmonary tuberculosis. The hot, arid climate was thought to dry out one's lungs, while the year-round sunshine was believed to have healing properties in general. In the early 20th century, Sunnyslope—and Sunnyslope Mountain, marked by a 150-foot-tall white S near its peak—became known as an area where ill people could get well. California architect William Norton built a subdivision in the area in 1911, and it was his daughter who came up with the name Sunnyslope after admiring the sun glinting off the slope of the mountain.

4. F. Q. STORY HISTORIC DISTRICT

The F.Q. Story district is named after Francis Quarles Story, who purchased the land it’s on back in 1887. Formerly a wool merchant, Story moved to Los Angeles County for health reasons and became a citrus farmer before investing in land in Arizona’s Salt River Valley and promoting agricultural development there. He never lived in Phoenix, but he did have a hand in the development of its major thoroughfare, Grand Avenue, as well as its subsequent streetcar line. The F.Q. Story neighborhood was built as a “streetcar suburb,” with newspaper ads in 1920 calling the grand opening "one of the big real estate events of the season." (Unfortunately, a flood at nearby Cave Creek caused a temporary halt in construction the following year, but the area rebounded after a dam was constructed in 1923.)

5. WILLO

Willo started out as a planned community, an idyllic suburb on the outskirts of Phoenix, although today it lies near downtown. A man named J. P. Holcomb acquired the southern part of the neighborhood in 1878 and then the northern part in 1886, using the land mostly for farming for the next 20 years. In the early 1900s, several homes were built on long, narrow lots, and 41 more were added in the '20s, but the area was still isolated from the city and it was difficult to attract buyers. Developers decided it needed a snappy name, and came up with Willonot from the willow tree, but from combining the two nearest voting districts: Wilshire and Los Olivos.

6. LAVEEN

As early as 1884, Mexican and Mormon settlers were living in what’s now called Laveen Village, in the Southwestern part of Phoenix. The school district was called the Harovitz District, but the community itself had no name for more than 30 years, until Roger Laveen was appointed as its first postmaster in 1913 [PDF]. The post office was located in the back of Laveen’s brother's new general store, which became a cornerstone of the town. Roger only worked in the post office for about two years, although both brothers continued living in the area that now bears their name for decades more.

7. MEDLOCK PLACE

Medlock Place was named after prominent residential developer Floyd W. Medlock, who created the community in 1926 with the idea of giving it a rural aesthetic despite being only a few miles from downtown Phoenix. The precocious Medlock—he was only in his early 20s—planned palm tree-lined roads in the new community and sold pre-built houses, a ground-breaking move in 1920s Phoenix. (In an ad, Medlock called his community "the Subdivision Extraordinary.") For his subsequent South Medlock Place addition, he began selling vacant lots instead, with buyers permitted to hire their own builders.

8. ARCADIA

Located at the foot of Camelback Mountain and one of the wealthiest areas of Phoenix, Arcadia started out like a lot of the city’s neighborhoods: as citrus orchards. The first grove was planted in 1899, and by 1920, the foothills were covered in citrus trees—thanks in large part to the Arcadia Water Company, which set up a widespread irrigation system starting in 1919. Soon, farmers and developers began investing in the region and building homes. The neighborhood took its name from the water company, which in turn got its name from Greek mythology: Arcadia was where Pan, the goat god, originated—a region supposedly named for its king, Arcas, the hunter. The association with nature is still apt, since fruit trees abound in the neighborhood even today.

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Big Questions
Why is New York City Called The Big Apple?
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New York City has been called many things—“The Great American Melting Pot,” “Gotham,” “The City that Never Sleeps”—but its most famous nickname is “The Big Apple.” So just where did this now-ubiquitous moniker originate?

MAKING A BIG APPLE

Over the years, there have been many theories about how New York City came to be called “The Big Apple.” Some say it comes from the former well-to-do families who sold apples on the city's streets to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Another account posits that the term comes from a famous 19th-century brothel madam named Eve, whose girls were cheekily referred to as her “Big Apples.” But the nickname actually springs from a catchphrase used in the 1920s by The Morning Telegraph sports writer John J. Fitz Gerald in his horse racing column, “Around the Big Apple.” Beginning on February 18, 1924, he began every column with the header, “The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's New York.”

At the time, the jockeys and trainers of smaller horses were said to want to make a “Big Apple," which was their term for the big money prizes at larger races in and around New York City.

Fitz Gerald reportedly first heard "The Big Apple" used to describe New York's racetracks by two African American stable hands at the famed New Orleans Fair Grounds, as he explained in his inaugural "Around the Big Apple" column: “Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the ‘cooling rings’ of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. ‘Where y'all goin' from here?’ queried one. ‘From here we're headin' for The Big Apple,’ proudly replied the other. ‘Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple will be the core,’ was the quick rejoinder.” Fitz Gerald nabbed the colloquialism for his column, where it quickly took off.

CATCHING ON

Once the term entered the vocabularies of society up north, its popularity slowly spread outside of the horseracing context, and everything from nightclubs in Harlem to hit songs and dances about the city were named after “The Big Apple.” Most notably, New York jazz musicians in the 1930s—who had a habit of using the nickname to reference their hometown in their songs—helped the nickname spread beyond the northeast.

Throughout the mid-20th century, it remained New York City's nickname until it was officially adopted by the city in the 1970s. The New York Convention & Visitors Bureau hoped that using the moniker would brighten the image of an economically downtrodden and crime-ridden city in decline and revive the tourist economy. In 1997, to give Fitz Gerald his (somewhat unjust) due, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed legislation naming the corner where Fitz Gerald and his family lived at West 54th Street and Broadway between 1934 and 1963 “Big Apple Corner.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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