As you’ve seen in previous posts, I’ll travel a fine distance in search of art and adventure; but I always try to experience creative endeavors in my own backyard as well. Thankfully, these are fairly easy to find when a city is flourishing creatively like Birmingham, Alabama is right now.
Part of my mission with this site is to highlight what’s happening arts & culture-wise in Birmingham, 1. selfishly, so I can persuade the friends I’ve met while traveling who follow this blog to visit (you’ll love it – I promise;) and 2. to nudge myself and others to experience the rewards of behaving like a tourist – in the best sense of the word – at home.
This past weekend I traveled less than two miles from my home to Sidewalk Film Festival for a heaping dose of creativity, art, and innovation any city would be proud to showcase. Coming of age after 16 years, Sidewalk has grown into one of our city’s premier events and I can say, without stretching, that it is one of the most welcoming and joyous events I’ve encountered anywhere in the world.
For those not familiar, Sidewalk is a three day festival taking place in eight venues located in downtown Birmingham, one of the country’s most easily accessible and affordable cities. Approximately 200 feature films, documentaries, and shorts are screened covering every genre and topic under the sun. The venues, all within walking distance of each other, are anchored by the historic Alabama and Carver Theatres and the festival also offers plenty of outdoor gathering spots, food truck vendors, bars and pop-up shops to bring people together.
In fact, bringing people of different backgrounds and interests together seems to be one of the primary intentions of the festival.
At this year’s event, I had the privilege of being part of a team conducting “person on the street” interviews asking festival-goers about their experience. I have to say it’s amazing when you see firsthand that an idea or intention has been successfully communicated with an audience (after 20+ years of event planning,
I know firsthand that this isn’t always the case.)
But with Sidewalk: this year, everyone got it. From locals and volunteers to out-of-town visitors and featured filmmakers, everyone seemed to feel the magic of Sidewalk and wanted to talk about it. During the interviews, we heard from person after person commenting on the diversity and quality of programming and great parties during the weekend, but more than that…the thread that ran through the conversations was that the screenings themselves were celebrations.
Everyone could feel the appreciation of the (very large) audiences and this translated into a sense of excitement not felt at other film festivals or events in general. Across the board, the level of enthusiasm and graciousness at the festival seemed striking to visitors.
To locals, this doesn’t really come as a surprise. We can’t help it. We like people and we like art. And, goodness knows, we love welcoming visitors. It’s our nature. (We also love any excuse to enjoy cocktails in the streets of downtown, but that’s an aside.)
For far too long, just about the only surprise the national media has been interested in focusing on in Birmingham is that it’s not 1963 anymore (thanks Nat Geo for that recent, brilliant observation.) Thankfully, that’s changing – as we’ve seen lately with much-deserved coverage of Birmingham’s culinary scene.
When it comes to being a welcoming and accessible city, maybe it is our dark and complicated past that collectively gives us this unique drive to shine a big smile, throw open our arms, and welcome everyone to our city. Whatever the reason, it is events like Sidewalk that give us a platform for showing off everything that it great and right about Birmingham and for that we should be celebrating.
So kudos to the Sidewalk team of staff (all 2-3 of you), volunteers, board, and sponsors but, most of all, kudos to the audiences who came out with bells on to show that in Birmingham, local tourists and visitors alike, are enthusiastic when it comes to creativity, openness, and, yes, cocktails in the street.
Why am I telling you this now? Because it’s not too early to get Sidewalk 2015 in your sights. Here are a few suggestions and tips for planning:
Speaking as someone who has always worked in the non-profit event world, I know that robust early ticket sales are a sweet gift for any organization – it helps to recruit sponsors, increase city involvement, etc. – so if you plan to go, considering buying tickets when they first go on sale. http://www.sidewalkfest.com
When I’m traveling somewhere for a festival or event, I want everything within walking or quick-public-transport distance. For this fest, that’s easy. There are several hotels within walking or biking distance from the festival.
The Tutwiler – One of Birmingham’s historic hotels and a personal favorite, the Tut would be my first choice for home base.
The Westin – A new hotel in Birmingham’s (also new) Uptown district, this is a great choice for people who prefer hip to historic.
SEE & DO
As mentioned above, the festival itself keeps attendees pretty busy all weekend with screenings, talk backs, events, and parties. But there is always time to explore and many of the city’s best sights are within walking/biking distance.
Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival – For the last few years, this free community event and Sidewalk have occurred simultaneously just a few blocks apart. It’s great for visitors who can check out both events and get a little music sprinkled in with your films, or vice versa.
Railroad Park – This beautiful park, a short walk from the festival site, has transformed the neighborhood providing a green gathering spot and serving as a catalyst for thoughtful development.
Light Rails – Be sure to check out this public art installation right around the corner from the festival. Artist Bill FitzGibbons’ piece serves to literally connect the city’s developing downtown with the vibrant and diverse Midtown/Southside neighborhood while offering a sense of wonder, playfulness, and creativity to each driver, cyclist, and walker who passes through the space.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute – If you haven’t been here before, a visit to the BCRI is a must for everyone. It’s an emotional experience for most visitors, so go at a time when you’re not in a rush and are able to breath and take it all in.
Birmingham Museum of Art – We’re not gonna lie to you. It’s hot here in August. So when you’re taking a break from film screenings but still searching out other indoor activities, Birmingham’s museum is a great choice. The permanent collection is impressive, especially the Asian art focus, and the top-notch curators always have interesting rotating exhibits on the calendar.
Food in Birmingham deserves a post all its own, and I’ll get there!
First the good news: Birmingham’s airport is an easy 15-minute ride from downtown.
I haven’t tried it yet, but have just been told there’s now bus service from the airport to downtown’s Central Station on Bus #20. Also be sure and ask your hotel about a shuttle.
Just a few words to prepare you if you must take a cab: six times out of ten, you’ll get a nice, clean, perfectly fine taxi ride. Please don’t judge us for the other times. We’re working on it. Who knows by the time you visit, we may have Uber as an option and that competition may make everyone better.
Why not rent a bike for the weekend? It’s a great way to get around the festival site and downtown and cycling is quickly becoming Birmingham’s favorite past-time so you’ll fit right in.