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Wednesday
Jul222009

Birmingham Isn't Snobby, It's My Hometown

Over the last seven months, my husband and I have explored many different facets of metro Detroit. We’ve toured the RenCen and found Disneyland in Hamtramck. We drank in dive bars and watched the Red Wings not win the Stanley Cup.

But what about what’s on our doorstep? The places that are so familiar to us, the places we see everyday, sometimes get overlooked. Birmingham, for all intents and purposes, is my hometown, my downtown.

Birmingham 8 Movie TheaterI’ve spent so much time in Birmingham, both during my high school days and as an adult. I shopped at Cargo Hold, It’s The Ritz, and Caruso Caruso. I’ve had dinners at Peabody’s, 220, and Streetside. And of course, I’ve had a drink or two at Dick O’Dows. But I never really stopped to look around and find out where this place came from.

So that’s what I did.

If you’ve shopped, had dinner, or hung out in Birmingham the names Hunter, Willits, and Hamilton should ring a bell. These names adorn streets, eateries, and condominiums. The names weren’t picked out of thin air; John West Hunter, Elijah Willits, and John Hamilton were the first settlers of the area.

Greenwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Michigan.In fact, many of the prominent Birmingham names can also be seen in the Greenwood Cemetery, which was established in 1825. The park-like setting of the cemetery makes for a good walk and history lesson combined. Martha Baldwin, who the library is named after, John West Hunter, Elijah Willits, and George Mitchell are all laid to rest here.

John West Hunter is laid to rest here.The origins of the Greenwood Cemetery sounds like a myth or a story you would hear around a campfire. The Utter family, John, Polly, and their daughter Cynthia Ann, lived north of town. In 1825, the Utters boarder Imri Fish, who was mentally disabled, killed Polly and Cynthia Ann with an axe. After this tragic event, Dr. Ziba Swan provided some of his land to establish a community cemetery.

But where did the name Birmingham come from?

The area was first called Hamilton’s and then Piety Hill. I’ve heard stories that it was once called Bagley’s Corners but that was actually north of Birmingham at Woodward and Long Lake.

In about 1832 the civic boosters changed the name to Birmingham with hopes to rival Birmingham, England as an industrial center. After the turn of the century it was clear that Detroit and Pontiac would become the industrial centers of the region. Luckily, Birmingham had already become an upscale residential area.

Birmingham City HallIt’s funny to think it once was exactly a day’s journey from Detroit to Birmingham. And I’m quite jealous that in the early 1900’s locals had the Detroit United Railway, known as the interurban, to transport them from Palmer Park in Detroit to Birmingham. Later this service would reach to Pontiac. The waiting room for the interurban was where Olga’s Kitchen now stands.

So, why am I telling you all this?

Many people think of Birmingham as snooty, snobby, upscale, and expensive. But I’m not snooty or snobby. I'm certainly not rich and most of my clothes are from Old Navy and The Gap. And I hang out there! Birmingham is my hometown and I like it.

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Reader Comments (7)

Great take on good ole B'ham.

One of my favorite pastimes is to walk around and explore old cemeteries. You can learn so much from them. From founders to famous celebrities to everyman they all end up in the same place.

I remember shopping in B'ham at Hughes & Hatcher for a sport coat when I was in high school and at Florsheim shoes for penney loafers (yeah I know, I'm old as dirt).

It's a good place to eat still at places like Streetside Seafood not to mention Hunter House for a slider.

July 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Birmingham is such a great, walkable downtown. I hung out there a bit in my high school days as well--eating at Olga's and making a big shopping trip at Christmastime.
You've...um...dug up some great info about Birmingham's history here!

Ah...see, we told you cemeteries were interesting places to take photos! (you'll have to keep an eye out for a cemetery post I've got coming up next week...heh).

Tim,
Streetside is one of my favorite restaurants and I love Hunter House. I vaguely remember Hughes & Hatcher. Jacobson's was such a presence in Birmingham, as well as other Metro Detroit communities.

Dominique,
Oh, I've taken pictures in cemeteries before, I just didn't know how other people felt about them. I have some pictures of a cemetery near our home in England that I'll post at some point. I look forward to your post.

July 22, 2009 | Registered CommenterBecks Davis

Looking forward to your UK cemetery pics. I'll bet the graves there make the old ones here look like yesterday.

July 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTim

This was great to read. Thanks Becks (Jack). It has been a long time and has taken me back a year or two. I have also had a drink or two at dick o dows, fancy that!

July 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline

Caroline,
Birmingham has changed a bit since you were here, but it's mainly the same. I wish you could meet me for a drink at Dick's.

July 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterBecks Davis

while not a "native" (grew up in Lansing) have lived here more than half of my life - you need to check out Crag Jolly's book "images of America - Birmingham" here is a tidbit - I live in Eco Village

March 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersuzanne shields

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