Urban Studio Transforming Historic Smithfield

Liz Clark Hyatt

Nearly a decade after the City of Birmingham, Alabama, was founded, a residential neighborhood was settled towards the western side of the city limits.

Developed by the Smithfield Land Company on the former site of Joseph Riley Smith’s plantation, the area grew and was annexed by the City in 1909 during one of the four annexations secured at the turn of the 20th century.

Smithfield’s Historical Legacy 

By the 1920s, the Smithfield neighborhood had grown into its prominence as the residential “place to be” for Birmingham’s successful African American community. As Smithfield’s population grew, there were many challenges for the neighborhood to physically grow. Specifically, in 1926, Birmingham passed a zoning ordinance that divided up the City’s neighborhoods along racial lines, effectively limiting the locations African Americans could live as well as ensuring segregated neighborhoods remained.

The only way Black neighborhoods like Smithfield could grow was through the city government approving updates to the racial zoning laws. Even when residents were assured that neighboring areas to Smithfield were in the process of rezoning, African Americans were still denied occupancy permits. In 1947, a Smithfield annexation was the impetus of a successful legal challenge to the racial zoning ordinances. Although the homeowner won the case, his new home was destroyed by a bombing—one of many intended to terrorize Black homebuyers—and continuing the trend of bombing homes and neighborhoods leading to Birmingham acquiring the nickname “Bombingham.”

As Birmingham evolved, and cases like Smithfield challenged segregation throughout the country, the neighborhood continued to change as well. Present-day Smithfield is confined to an area bounded by the Railroad Reservation and Center Street to the South and West, and the interstates I-59/20 and I-65 to the north and east respectively. The neighborhood is also anchored by the historic Parker High School and the Smithfield Community Center.

Eventually, as many predominantly African American neighborhoods did throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Smithfield began an era of decline. Decisions were made to locate public housing communities and a youth detention center in the neighborhood, effectively decimating property values for the homeowners and kicking off the migration of the more affluent residents to other neighborhoods throughout the Greater Birmingham Metropolitan Area.

However, Smithfield’s roots are tied to some of the city’s most prominent African American residents, including architect Wallace A. Rayfield. Rayfield designed the iconic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Alabama Penny Savings Bank/Pythian Temple building. Like Auburn’s, Rayfield’s architectural influence spread across the state and the Southeast.

Smithfield + Urban Studio

In 2019, Urban Studio partnered with Fitz-Thors Industries on a project focused on Smithfield. Their work in Smithfield began with designing a master plan then each of the students focused on a particular element they felt would have an impact on the neighborhood.

Matt Fitzgerald, Owner/Professional Engineer at Fitz-Thors, remembers:

“I was really impressed with the students! Not only were they extremely talented as architectural designers, but they were very passionate about their projects. They did a tremendous amount of research as they analyzed design opportunities within Smithfield with a sincere focus on projects that would create a positive impact and serve as a resource to the community. The students talked to residents, business owners in the area and the local neighborhood association leadership. They walked the neighborhood and immersed themselves in the community and the design projects.”

Sending students to work in neighborhoods like Smithfield is one of the ways Urban Studio maintains its commitment as a citizen of Birmingham. Looking at Smithfield, Director Alex Krumdieck ’86 recently explained how one of the big questions about Smithfield was how they could reconnect the neighborhood to downtown Birmingham. The core population was aging, but young families were growing there as well. Issues like reclaiming empty housing to be affordable, the food desert and respecting the historic impact Smithfield has had on Birmingham and the South were some of the themes Urban Studio students were addressing in their master plan and thesis projects.

“Students get to see how architecture begins to address some of the problems in neighborhoods like Smithfield, but then they had to look past the buildings and see how taking a broader look can have more of an impact in how we design not just a structure but what can be a catalyst for foundational change,” Krumdieck added.

The Fifth Year program takes a more holistic look at urban development, helping the students design more meaningful projects. The students prepared for their projects by going into the community and meeting community members. They attended community meetings, walked the streets and spoke with the people currently living there. They grew to understand the historic architecture by taking photographs and creating sketches, then putting those observations in context with history books.

The 2020 Smithfield Projects

Two parts of the Smithfield project stand out—The Community Life Center and the Urban Gardens, by students Hannah Creech ’20 and Liz Hyatt ’20 respectively.

Liz Clark Hyatt
Smithfield urban garden by Liz Hyatt ’20

Hyatt focused her thesis on an urban community garden. Despite being close to downtown, Smithfield is considered a food desert with few residents having immediate access to fresh produce. In her project, Hyatt included several components with a focus on connecting the micro and macro levels: a raised bed community garden, event stage space, outdoor classrooms/ gathering spaces and portable farmers’ market stands. These stands would be an important component for Smithfield residents to connect with each other within the community and then go to existing farmer’s markets to connect to the greater Birmingham area.

Liz Clark Hyatt
Smithfield urban garden portable produce stands by Liz Hyatt ’20

“By having a community space and stage along with the garden,” Hyatt discussed, “this allowed for the Smithfield community to connect within itself. The vegetables and fruits gathered from the garden would serve the community not only by providing affordable fresh food, but they could also create a profit when sold at other farmers’ markets… I wanted these new additions to not only connect to the community’s vernacular architecture but also display the structural connections.”

Hannah Creech, Smithfield
Smithfield Community Life Center by Hannah Creech ’20

Another project was a Community Life Center designed by Creech. The Center focused on providing a place for intergenerational relationships to flourish. “At the time of my project,” Creech recalls, “the research showed that 38% of Smithfield’s population was composed of elderly people and 30% were youth below the age of 25. The youth in this community lacked places to go and engage in healthy activities. Traditionally, elders and the younger generation interact in the home around a kitchen, meal or living spaces. This Community Life Center serves as a safe place for people of all generations to gather and share life.”

Hannah Creech, Smithfield
Smithfield Community Life Center by Hannah Creech ’20

Design features of the Center included a multi-use space, kitchen, outdoor area, front porch and lounge areas, all designed to serve a purpose. Creech focused on providing a place for Smithfield residents to earn and exchange social capital by promoting community gathering and encouraging relationships to flourish.

Fitzgerald not only got to work with the students in Smithfield, but he also attended their final thesis presentations.

“I could actually see them being future projects to serve the community,” he added. “These projects stemmed from conversations with residents in Smithfield as something they believed would benefit the area.”

Lasting Impressions

Liz Hyatt: “My favorite part of the [Smithfield] project was getting to meet community members and hearing their stories and what they wanted to see change. This is what makes Urban Studio so great because we can actually immerse ourselves into the community we are designing projects for and learn from that experience.”

Hannah Creech: “My favorite part of the project was working with my class to develop a project that was a part of the greater plan in Smithfield. After developing a master plan, we were able to work on our individual projects. The final products of our time at the Urban Studio worked together toward a bigger goal—a greater Smithfield.”

Matt Fitzgerald: “Well, I left the experience truly inspired by the students and their work (and also add to that the Urban Studio program and the leadership of the program). It made me honestly wish I could go back to college to participate in the Urban Studio. The “projects” were more than just a “design project” for a grade. The students were so passionate about the opportunity to create something more than a building or a well-designed outdoor space—something that would serve the community. There was real emotion in the design intent and potential outcome of what these projects could do.”

The students don’t just take away that sense of feeling good about something. Working on projects through the Urban Studio helps teach them the importance of research in understanding the location as well as the client needs.

As Hyatt explained, “When I approach projects now, I immediately jump into the location and get more information. I listen and learn from my clients to understand what their needs are, so I can design a project that speaks to them.”

Creech added, “The Urban Studio approach was invaluable to me as a student and now as a professional. We were taught to think outside of the box and to consider people, the urban fabric and the future of the city as we made plans and design decisions.”

Hannah Creech, Smithfield
Smithfield Community Life Center by Hannah Creech ’20

Smithfield, Birmingham and the Future

Fitzgerald is also a business owner in Smithfield (Hardware Park). Like many, he sees how Smithfield’s and Birmingham’s success are tied together. Smithfield is a central location with easy access to downtown, UAB, major sporting venues and the Red Rock Trail System.

In 2023, the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District (HABD) and the City of Birmingham were awarded a $50M Choice Neighborhoods Implementation grant focused on the greater Smithfield community (Smithfield–College Hills–Graymont). Birmingham, and Smithfield, have the honor of being the first Alabama city to receive one of these US Housing and Urban Development grants. This grant project will bring HABD, the City, the school system, UAB and the United Way together to revitalize Smithfield Court public housing with high-quality housing options and social services with an investment of over $280M into Smithfield. (per Smithfield Choice)

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