• Tuskaloosa

What is Tuscaloosa

What is Tuscaloosa

Whatever Tuscaloosa is, it's home

By Ben Windham

To begin, it’s the past.

Tuscaloosa is history underfoot and pressed against the downtown sidewalks and rising skyward in crusty storefronts that first saw the light of day on Victorian dirt streets.

It’s Capitol Park, excavated foundations and chunks of columns reminiscent of the ruined Roman Forum. It’s the spot where George Wallace blocked the schoolhouse door, and it’s the place at the end of the road near the river where smooth-faced cadets stood in the path of tough Yankee cavalrymen.

Tuscaloosa. It’s a city where voices from 211 churches rise in uncertain harmony on Sunday morning a few hours after 31 lounges and 50 restaurants have halted their weekend revelry.

It’s not a city particularly known for its food, but don’t tell that to the people who stand in line at the Waysider for country ham with eggs, red-eye gravy and hot butter biscuits — and a chance to see who walks in with whom on a Sunday morning.

It’s atmospheric ribs at Dreamland and spicy takeout from Archibald’s. It’s a table by a window overlooking the river at the Cypress Inn. It’s calzone at DePalma’s, down-home greens at Soul Delicious and grilled duck at Evangeline’s.

Tuscaloosa is houses, too – ghosts of mansions like the fabled Drish Home and down-at-heels shanties near the tracks. It’s some of the state’s most expensive housing, interspersed with honeycombs of apartments and streets of squatty, peeling places that looked pretty much the same as they did 30 years ago, except the city made them take the couches off the porches.

It’s neighborhoods, laid side to side to side and above and below each other like contiguous states, sometimes as different from each other as Alabama is from Tennessee or Georgia.

It’s the quiet expanses of moneyed elegance or expensive ostentation in Crown Pointe or NorthRiver; the hidden, cloistered ambiance of Guilds Woods; and endangered middle class of Cedar Crest and Forest Lake, caught in the squeeze of commerce.

Tuscaloosa, of course, is the University of Alabama, where an uneasy marriage of Southern architectural grace and practical institutional brickwork seems to mirror the relationship with the town.

It’s crackling-crisp afternoons when The Bama Nation, that great, leveling amalgamation of true believers and dyspeptic cynics, converges on Bryant-Denny Stadium, openly or secretly praying for glory in the thin, golden light of fall.

It’s Stillman College and Shelton State. It’s Bryce and Partlow and the VA Hospital. It’s the tire plant and JVC and little storefront mom-and-pop places.

It’s summers of smothering, glasses-fogging heat, curiously comfortable after the violent spring storms, and winters when mists lie flat and cold over the river.

The city isn’t deep enough south for magnolias and Spanish moss. The oaks reign here -- ancient gnarled giants that erupt in sexual frenzy in the spring and sleep it off under the summer sun.

It’s a city of whispering pines and flowering tulips, flamingo-hued azaleas and poetic dogwoods with cross-shaped blossoms that speak of a grander order and symmetry.

On the other hand, it’s a place where many downtown traffic signals and most drivers seem to defy logic or synchronization. It’s traveling in widening concentric squares, trying to find a parking spot at the courthouse, and it’s wondering if they’ll ever stop trying to fix the streets in Alberta City. It’s dodging the student drivers

It’s a city of symbols: the elephant at the university and the elegant lunar sliver at the Moon Winx. It’s the hands in the concrete around Denny Chimes and proud symbols of freedom and war at the Veteran’s Memorial.

It’s the spillway where the colored lights play over the spray of North River. It’s The Strip and Stillman Boulevard and bumper-to-bumper Fridays on McFarland.

Tuscaloosa is music. It’s the brass of the bands at halftime and homecoming and the perfect acoustic roundness of Moody Music Hall. It’s mockingbirds in the morning. Sometimes, it’s living a little drama and kissing in a field of white as "Stars Fell on Alabama." Sometimes, it’s a rap bass line on the street from souped-up subwoofer, pounding a riff with a Southern heartbeat.

It’s art, too. It’s the great bronze elephant at the NorthRiver Yacht Club and the dazzling eclecticism of Jack Warner’s collection. It’s color-splashed studios and galleries, and it’s the ubiquitous Basil Ede birds that gaze down from many an unlikely perch.

Most of all, it’s the people. They’re interesting, warm and friendly — and sometimes cranky, grouchy and eccentric. Get to know them, and you may never want to leave Tuscaloosa.

As for the future:

It’s dreams and hopes just down the road at Mercedes. It’s the faces of parents at the windows of the DCH maternity ward. It’s the nervous, shy smiles of blacked-robed graduates at commencement, and it’s the unruly disorder of democracy at the school board and city hall.

Sometimes, it’s the pits. Sometimes, it’s the cat’s pajamas, a great smorgasbord, as deliciously paradoxical as any All-American City you’d care to name.

It’s Tuscaloosa. It’s home.

What Tuscaloosa is

By me.

To begin, it's not what it was.

Tuscaloosa is history being ground away under the banner of advancement. A city being drowned in the rising skyward of more and more apartment for out of town students.

It is the city park that is now under control of the University of Alabama and has limits of one hour on parking. It is a town where the celebrated malls of the past have faded away.

Tuscaloosa. It is a city where the priority is now the University, not the long-term residents of the city. It is a place where major roads are now closed during a bicycle event at the university.

It is a city where the roads on weekdays look like a parking lot in the mornings and evenings. A place where shortcuts through residential neighborhoods are considered normal.

Food is a major part of the city life - fast food. The city is dominated by fast food at every turn. It is a city without any stable and affordable restaurant. Looking for a fast chicken biscuit, you better be ready to wait in line for a long time. Where are the sit down family restaurants in Tuscaloosa? Lord only knows.

Tuscaloosa is apartments, too - the old homes are no longer a priority. If there is an empty lot, build an apartment. Is that a 100-year-old home, replace it with an apartment block. Say you can't afford a home of your own, well, you can't afford an apartment either.

The old neighborhoods are dying. They used to be full of azaleas and dogwood trees, now they are full of slum homes and broken-down cars. Instead of the ranch style homes with their neutral tones, now we see bold purples, greens and oranges. It is a town where you can no longer walk your street in safety.

Tuscaloosa, of course, is the University of Alabama. A university that focuses its recruiting from everywhere but Alabama. It is a university that alienates the residents of the city and only want workers for their machine. The life of the city is become dependent upon the approval of the university. It does not matter what the city wants, it is all about what the university wants.

It used to be the community and technical colleges that actually taught a skill to the students. Now they are just feeders for the university. The community colleges have now been assimilated into the university.

It’s another day of sitting in your car wondering when the construction will be completed downtown, or on McFarland, or on the interstate. When will we ever be able to travel around town without seeing a detour or road construction?

The city no longer has the large oaks or the sweet sounds of the mocking birds. They have been replaced by digital bill boards that blind you with advertisements and the thump thump of car radios.

There is great beauty in the city, bar with roll up doors to let the noise roll out. Listen close is that gun fire that you hear? How about some local art - check out the new graffiti that was installed overnight. Do you want to see the sculptures installed at the university - good luck finding a parking spot. And how about visiting the yacht club and enjoying the work in the Jack Warner's collection - you can't, it's been sold.

The city was hurt. Its heart was ripped out by the tornado and it will never be the same. It has left the people in the city wondering where their city has gone. Where are the friendly smiles and the helpful neighbors. Where are the things that made the city great and made everyone love living here?

As for the future:

It is a dream that the city will somehow extract itself from the University. It is a dream that the decisions that drive the city will not be made by visitors for the west coast that are only here for a couple of years. It is the people striving to be what Tuscaloosa used to be.

It's Tuscaloosa. It could be a better home.