What exactly *is* Birmingham’s secret sauce? Find out now.

alabama theatre
A lot of things make Birmingham special, but really, it all boils down to the people. Photo via Jacob Blankenship for Bham Now

It’s not every day we get invited to be part of a national discussion looking at what’s awesome about “heartland” (aka “flyover”) communities across the country. But today, Heartland Forward hosted a rich discussion on Birmingham’s secret sauce. Sadly, barbecue didn’t get a mention, but all sorts of other things that bring the magic to The Magic City did. Here’s what we learned.

There were a number of speakers at the event, including:

Birmingham’s secret sauce—highlights

The program began with a video showcasing some of Birmingham’s high points, interspersed with interview clips. These are just five of the ingredients interviewees identified that make up Birmingham’s special sauce. There were a lot more, and really, a lot of it boils down to the people.

1. The business community is supportive

Protective Stadium, Birmingham
Mayor Randall Woodfin speaks at the lighting of the sign at Protective Stadium. Photo via Nathan Watson for Bham Now
  • “Birmingham’s large business leaders welcome and even champion small businesses.”
  • “Birmingham is small enough where you can try something innovative enough to see if it works. But it’s big enough to make it scalable and make it applicable to any other city in America.”
  • “16 of the top 20 privately owned businesses in Alabama are all headquartered here in Birmingham. They don’t want it to be just them—they want others to prosper as well.”

2. Leadership is committed to inclusive growth

Birmingham, Mixtroz
Mixtroz founders Ashlee Ammons and Kerry Schrader. Photo via Mixtroz

A number of participants cited the city’s progressive, tech-forward leadership, along with the commitment to make sure the people in power in Birmingham look like the people who live in the city. According to Mayor Woodfin, “we’re unapologetic about being more diverse and inclusive as an administration in government.”

Entrepreneur Kerry Schrader, who moved here from Nashville, had this to say:

“When I first came to Birmingham, I can actually remember the first event that we were invited to and when I walked in the room and saw so much representation of people that look like me that I, at this stage of my life, was overwhelmed. What an honor it was to be on the inaugural Business Council and having access to the mayor, the different departments, being able to give input to those departments.”

Kerry Schrader, Mixtroz

3. Railroad Park brought the community together

free exercise classes in railroad park
There aren’t many better backdrops in Birmingham. Photo via Railroad Park, Nik Layman

According to Deon Gordon, “Railroad Park was really the first tangible, large scale manifestation of community spirit and it also transformed the collective psyche. It changed the way that Birmingham looked at itself.”

As someone who was involved in the park when it was just an idea, and who remembers Birmingham before and after, I wholeheartedly agree.

4. Historic preservation gives us a city we can be proud of

Rickwood Field, Birmingham's secret sauce
Birmingham’s Rickwood Field from the journalist’s lookout. Photo via Nathan Watson for Bham Now

According to Tom Cosby of Birmingham Landmarks, the fact that Birmingham didn’t bulldoze it’s Central Business District means we get to enjoy a large inventory of historic buildings, including:

“We want the younger generation to be able to live in town that they can be proud of. And I think Historic Preservation plays an important part of that.”

Tom Cosby, Birmingham Landmarks

5. Birmingham’s Civil Rights District carries lessons from the past forward

Civil Rights District, Birmingham's secret sauce
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

“I really do believe that this is sacred ground when you consider the events which took place here and shocked the conscience of the nation.”

Deon Gordon

Birmingham’s battles for civil and human rights helped pave the way for modern social justice movements.

The discussion continued and went into more depth about all the things that make The Magic City magical. If you want to feel good about where you live, watch the whole thing. You’ll be glad you did.

A word about the host, Heartland Forward + Birmingham’s secret sauce

“Heartland Forward is the only think and do tank dedicated to improving economic performance in America’s Heartland. We believe the Heartland is a storehouse of economic potential that is too often overlooked in national policy discussions.”


Their mission is to kickstart economic growth and help change the narrative about the middle of the country. Birmingham was the second in this series, after Tulsa, Oklahoma. Watch the whole conversation.

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Sharron Swain
Sharron Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference

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