Mobile has been called the city of “perpetual potential,” a boarded-up version of what she used to be. The “Baptist New Orleans,” without the art or music. A whiskey alley town of dives and fast food where the pace is one step forward and three steps back.
Naysayers waited for the other shoe to drop and fondly told of the failures of politicians and the collapse of good ideas. A Boeing deal that fell through and a cruise ship that sailed away. Chapters in books told of downtown’s decline and a city left behind.
“To go downtown today can be a melancholic experience since so much has vanished….But if you remember some of the businesses and lives that flourished there, and replay the stories of some of the storekeepers and families, it can be a rich, involving experience, too.”
From Roy Hoffman’s book of essays, Back Home Journeys Through Mobile (Published in 2001)
They remembered her past and gave up on her future, writing her off as a city of prostitutes and drug dealers. They moved to the Eastern Shore or west Mobile and passed her by on interstates headed north, east or west.
Even during years of neglect, Mobile was always here with her sunsets and summers, rivers and bays. The home of Mardi Gras and Joe Cain’s grave. Oak trees and Bloody Marys. Trains, ships, heat and humidity. Historic homes and ironwork fences. French explorers and Spanish and British squares. Cathedral bells chiming hymns and Hoffman Furniture offering cheerful credit.
Her potential was mocked as a limitation. But changes came and she grew into her possibilities because her people grew into theirs.
Her resurrection began in the 1990’s with the reopening of the Saenger Theatre with Broadway shows and classic movies and former mayor Mike Dow’s development plan called the “String of Pearls.” Risk takers opened restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, and a bookstore on Bienville Square. New bars opened and Monsoons and Southside brought in regional bands and gave locals a place to play.
The Battle House Hotel was restored and lawyers converted empty historic homes to offices. Mobile Symphony grew into a full-time orchestra and the Crescent Theater brought documentaries and deep, smart and funny films to its single screen in the heart of the city.
“We came into office three years ago asking what we could do differently to help growth in Mobile,” Mayor Sandy Stimpson says. “We are repairing infrastructure and things that are broken because that changes a city and moves it forward. We want to energize people and give them hope and inspiration. The government should get out of the way and let people express themselves because creativity is something you can’t orchestrate.”
In the space between past and potential, chefs, artists, actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, bar owners and dreamers have made a difference in Mobile. Talented people creating from the heart are giving reasons to stay and reasons to come back.
“I went to Auburn, moved to Los Angeles and then moved back to Mobile to open Polish,” says Amber Forbes who owns Polish Boutique with her sister, Mandy. “I love Mobile. It is making strides from what it used to be and has become a cooler place to live. We would like to have more stores and more trucks but we had to open our first ones here. We have a great customer base and there are lot of entrepreneurs here and people following dreams. We support each other.”
Entrepreneurs are opening co-working spaces, vintage stores and art galleries. They are starting swimwear lines, producing films, providing bikes for the homeless and painting murals in public places.
“I always wanted to have my own restaurant and now I am chasing my dream,” says Tony Sawyer of Bob’s Downtown Diner. “I see the vision Mobile wants to create and where it wants to be in the next 20 years and I want to be a part of that. I want to carve my little niche right here on the corner of fat and happy.”
New names are going up as the boards are coming down. The Merry Widow, The Noble South, Dauphin’s, Von’s, Dumbwaiter, Delfina, Sai Shai, and five. Urban Stiles and Backflash Antiques.
Downtown is now a place where people live and play. Ice skating, pole vaulting, exercise classes, art walks, holiday events and music fill the parks and streets in different seasons. Saturday mornings are runs and bike rides through Bankhead Tunnel.
Mobile is a city of potential — not untouchable, impossible, unreachable potential, but potential that is electric and alive. Potential so strong it haunts you with visions of what could be, and the visions from yesterday are becoming realities today.
Airbus is delivering planes made in Mobile. Cruise ships are returning and duck boat tours float past a shipyard making the fastest ships in the Navy. A new Mardi Gras Park and a redesigned Water Street will soon connect the waterfront with downtown.
A new generation of artists is coming together in galleries and on street corners and redefining art in Mobile. From sculptures and paintings to folk art and murals, they are changing the city’s image and how we see ourselves.
“Art in Mobile can open minds and let people know it is okay to think differently or just be different. Now is the time for that,” artist Chris Cumbie says. He recently opened his studio on Government Street and is a partner in Flux, a gallery that will help develop new artists. “We have so much going on here and we need to have art that reflects the energy and love of this city. Art is going to bring Mobile closer to the times and make us cool, fun and funky. I want to experience that in my town instead of someone else’s.”
Mobile finally has a music scene that reflects the quality of her musicians. While her bands are breaking out, her music festivals, SouthSounds and 1065, are pulling people in. This year, The Steeple on St. Francis reopened as Mobile’s version of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and a world-class recording studio opened with Dauphin Street Sound. Kazoola is injecting jazz and soul into Dauphin Street, the Live from Avalon television series is taking local music across Alabama and the Mobile Big Band Society is bringing back horns and Swing.
“We have so many talented musicians in our own backyard. Some travel internationally and play for world-renowned artists. It is exciting to give them a place to play,” Marc Jackson says. He grew up in Mobile, moved away for a banking career and then moved back to his hometown. He opened Kazoola six months ago. “We want to expand the arts in Mobile and become a world-class city, but we need the black and white communities to merge. I am happy to be on the front end of that. It starts with us getting to know each other and liking each other and mending the bridge.
“One person can start a movement. This city can be something special.”
Mobile is something special, but she has to be a place of possibilities for all of us. Who she is today is not who she will be tomorrow. Her people are changing and she will change with them. We are this city and the best of us is still to come.