A few weeks ago, I did something I haven’t done in ages – walk around through one of my old stomping grounds in downtown Birmingham. Way back when, I’d occasionally shuffle out on Fridays to go crash at a friend’s apartment in Hoover or get a hotel room with friends for the weekend when it came to concerts or just the desire to have a few days away from here.

No matter what back then, it never failed that we were going to wind up downtown.

I couldn’t tell you how many times, “Well, let’s just ride downtown to see what’s going on,” wound up turning into a painful 2 a.m. return trip back to the apartment.

Back then, Five Points South was crawling with bachelor and bachelorette parties, droves of people in their 20s and 30s and live music venues. Since we were in that age group at such a peak time, those trips to downtown were kind of inevitable, even if it meant a scolding from my friend’s girlfriend the next morning.

In more years, my trips back to Birmingham have hinged more on revisiting places I used to go for Christmas shopping excursions and to newer restaurants I’ve come to really like. Since everything was on the outskirts and alongside I-459, going downtown just seemed like unnecessarily tacking on extra travel time since that party stage of life ended years ago for me.

Getting to recently walk through Five Points South reinforced that the party scene of my past really has ended. The place we used to love to go and see a dance floor literally light up to songs from our teenage years is now a hollowed out building.

Half of another big nightclub is now a Waffle House, and the former music hall where we saw a few concerts in the early 2000s is now a tattoo shop.

No matter where you go, things are constantly changing for both the better or the worse, depending on your age, life stage or opinion.

In hindsight, The Strip in Tuscaloosa seemed a little dingy when I was in college compared to how it looks now. A streetscaping project and a few nicer restaurants and businesses can go a long ways in making a place look less bar-ry and with the older you get, the more you want that.

Thinking back to how downtown Florence, Alabama seemed like a ghost town 15, 20 years ago on Saturday nights, a few nicer restaurants with live music and active bars after dark really helped breathe brand new life into that place and its culture. Aesthetics and architecture really help to take away a sometimes bar-ry vibe up there.

Even though Monroe County’s downtowns were never bar-ry or dingy in my lifetime, a little bit of paint and aesthetics have really helped to bring in some new life.

I love to see how the look of Vinegar Bend has changed with living/commercial space and a pocket park where other buildings once stood. I love the look the former Charlotte’s Carpet building now has after old verbage on the front was unearthed just by removing some tin.

I really look forward to seeing the big N painted on the intersection of Young Avenue and Highway 6 through an upcoming streetscaping project in Nettleton and am super happy to see renovated facades making for a new look for downtown.

When the day comes when the Parkway Hotel is living its vibrant new life, it will help drive new energy Aberdeen’s Main Street, adding to downtown living already there and continually in the works. Like every other downtown, Aberdeen’s murals really add to the charm.

The look of certain neighborhoods and downtowns evolves with time, which towns sometimes need. You don’t have to introduce new roundabouts to perplex the public like what we go through to get to Lowes in Columbus or demolish buildings for greenspace, but interest and support for changes are never really a bad idea. As a matter of fact, they’re sometimes a must.

In downtown development, I’ve heard the phrase “Revitalize or die” numerous times, and it’s a strong statement to hear.

There are plenty of small towns peppered across the nation that seem like ghost towns after dark because there’s nothing to draw people back after the work days end. It doesn’t take a bar scene to bring people back or even a movie theater, high dollar restaurants or a coffee shop. What works for one place isn’t necessary a cookie cutter for every single town.

For Five Points South, nightclubs worked for a while and now restaurants and downtown apartments do. For Florence, a resurgence of a local music scene worked to give way to hip nightspots downtown. For Monroe County, find what works and let it run itself.

It’s human nature for all of us to get excited about a new franchise opening close, but where’s the hype when a new mural is unveiled or the farmers market kicks off a new season? Why aren’t there more people at a summertime concert series after somebody worked so hard to secure a grant to bring it to that small town?

The Wharf may be what makes you excited enough to pick Orange Beach over Pensacola when it comes to vacation time and no matter where you like to go, there’s always something that keeps drawing you back. Whatever it is, it may not have been there for 20 years and whoever thought it would be a great idea realized that concept – revitalize or die.

Cookie cutter ideas don’t work everywhere, but peppering in a few new ideas here and there from time to time really does help add a little bit of new life to a place. I hope you share in the excitement when these ideas come about.

RAY VAN DUSEN is the managing editor of the Monroe Journal. He can be reached at ray.vandusen@journalinc.com

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