Small Town Living in a Midsized City

As I write at my office desk in the heart of Cloverdale, I hear the sound of marching band music  reverberating from the grounds of what was once Cloverdale Junior High School (and before 1929, I understand, Montgomery County High School). The parking lot is filled with school buses from many counties in central Alabama; and the grounds are full of kids in band uniforms, toting instruments, along with their drum majors and majorettes. There must be some kind of competition underway.

The sights and sounds transport me back in time to my childhood and our home in a small town. Our home backed up to the junior high school, and the sound of band practice was a regular occurrence, as was the sound that I considered the harbinger of spring — the crack of a baseball being hit off a wooden Louisville Slugger bat as teams prepared to compete in many different kinds of league play.

Speaking of baseball, earlier today I happened by Huntingdon College where I saw the Huntingdon Hawks conducting what must have been a fall practice. On the streets and sidewalks nearby were bicyclists, runners and walkers, most of whose faces I recognized. In fact, the challenge when one walks or runs around here is that of maintaining the pace as it’s tremendously tempting to keep stopping to chat and catch up!

From my desk, I can look out onto Fairview Avenue and see people coming and going to the Cloverdale Shoe Shop and the boutique M. Bagwell on either side of our office, joining friends or family for lunch at Sinclair’s or Tomatino’s. On Sunday morning when I come to feed our office cat, Halle, I always see folks I know at Café Louisa enjoying their pastries, coffee and newspapers … along with a healthy helping of neighborly conversation.

All this reminds me of what I often tell Montgomery newcomers about life in Midtown:  It’s like living in a small town inside a mid-size city. Whether a patron chooses the Pine Bar in Cloverdale Village, Sinclair’s or Bud’s in Cloverdale Five Points, or Down the Street on Zelda Road, he or she enters a Cheers-like atmosphere where “everybody knows your name.”

Montgomery is said now to have approximately 225,000 people inside the city limits. But in Midtown Montgomery, the population count is a much more manageable (and knowable) 8,500 households. I guess this translates into about 25,000 adults and children, just about the size of the tiny hometown of my youth. And it’s the perfect size for truly getting to know folks and develop meaningful relationships.

Midtown Montgomerians are passionate about our quality of life. We care deeply about what goes on in our midst. A great example is the proposed rezoning of the aforementioned a“Cloverdale Junior High” frontage. As soon as the zoning signs went up, my telephone lit up — as did those of many neighborhood leaders. Folks wanted to know what was being proposed and whether it would it be good for Midtown. (I happen to believe it is a positive step.)

You can easily get from one end of Midtown to the other in less than 15 minutes unless you are caught in morning or afternoon “drive time.” Downtown and the Capitol Complex are only minutes away. We have everything one needs in the way of shopping except a major clothier. And the merchants are, for the most part, local folks who live here, so our dollars stay right here in our tight-knit little community.

All of this is to say that life in Midtown is good … so good, sometimes, that I feel a bit sad for folks who have somehow opted out (or not opted in). If you agree, help spread the word!

Sandra Nickel has been listing and selling residential real estate for over 29 years, most with an intense focus on Montgomery’s Midtown neighborhoods. Sandra serves on the Mid-Alabama Coalition for the Homeless, the Cloverdale Business Coalition, Historic Southview, the Volunteer and Information Center, Landmarks Foundation and her own neighborhood Garden District Preservation Association.

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Upcoming Fall Fun

Looking for something to do, but tired of researching to indulge your morbid curiosity about the two tired old folks duking it out in the Alabama Governor’s race? Convinced in some sort of deeply buried sliver of your soul that there might be more to life than consumption of a weekly slate of college football games? Feeling as if there’s something missing in your life?

Get out there and experience the reality that most people in the world know and love … or at least tolerate until another morning dawns. “But what to do?” you might be shrieking at your computer screen at this very moment. Never fear, here are some good options for Midtown Montgomery residents looking for weekend fun during coming weeks:

Start a morning at the CIA yard sale. No, no, no the Central Intelligence Agency yard sale, which would be super awesome but probably also a trap. No, we’re talking about the Cloverdale-Idlewild Association yard sale, the 6th annual fundraiser for one of the best neighborhood associations in the city.

It’s October 9th from 7 a.m. until 11 a.m. and like most yard sales, the early birds get the bargains. Young people and hipsters who prize the kinds of crap you can find at yard sales are also the most likely to be sleeping in because of long Friday nights. Old people will show up early and buy all the best stuff while the young resign themselves to lolling around on the couch watching ESPN’s College Football Gameday, which features Lee Corso, an old person who has probably already hit 3 yard sales before he dodders on the set each Saturday morning.

The C.I.A. yardsale is pretty great. They have everything from clothing to toys to a whole gardening section (where we sold some of the unfortunate statuary that came with our house when we bought it), all priced to move.

Go see the Springsteen movie at The Capri on September 26th. Bruce Springsteen is sort of like U2: been around forever, couldn’t possibly be more critically acclaimed and totally taken for granted. We’re not huge Springsteen fans. We know people from New Jersey who (while tossing a begrudging bone to that other Garden State musical icon, Mr. Bongiovi) pretty much treat Bruuuuce like The Pope. And he is. He’s sort of the Madonna of white dudes, the American Bono, the working class Mick Jagger, the everything good about the “guy with guitar and kickass band” model of music-making.

If you think you already know what’s up with Bruce Springsteen and don’t like him, you probably haven’t heard enough. One of the bad things about being a musical icon is that people slot you into a box. If your knowledge of Bruce begins and ends with the “Born in the USA” and “Dancin’ in the Dark” stuff from the 1980s, you need to clear your mind and experience the haunting brutality of 1982’s Nebraska or even some of the new stuff like Working on a Dream.

Young people would be making a mistake to lump Bruce in with other middle-aged white guitar rock icons like Tom Petty (who is also awesome) or John (Cougar) Mellencamp (who is less so). Maybe you’re more into John Mayer or Jack Johnson. Or maybe you just don’t think as much about music as you once did because the economy has collapsed and you’re juggling your job (or the search for one) with family obligations and other priorities.

Bruce is the soundtrack to all of this, or could be if you’d listen. Go see this movie. It’s called London Calling, was filmed live in London’s Hyde Park, and opens with the title track being performed (a cover of one of the greatest songs by The Clash). We haven’t seen it, but it is getting rave reviews. It’s a 90-minute live show by Bruce and the E Street Band and if all you’ve ever seen of Bruce live is the Super Bowl halftime show, this movie is sure to blow your doors off.

London Calling is the final of three special programs at the Capri Theatre the week of September 20-26. On Friday, September 24 they’ll be showing one of two showings of the cult classic The Big Lebowski (one of our fave movies ever). Saturday, September 25 brings Alexander City resident and star of Troll 2 George Hardy to the theater to present the documentary Best Worst Movie.

Do Oktoberfest at El Rey. We’ve already explained that we think El Rey Burrito Lounge is one of our very favorite restaurants in the city. That would be true even if they weren’t always having awesome special events like Oktoberfest (Friday, October 1st). We went last year and liked their vegan chorizo dogs so much that we wrote Oktoberfest on our calendar as soon as they announced the date. Of course, they have the meaty kind of chorizo too — and delicious soft pretzels. And beer. Did we mention that there will be lots and lots of beer? Some of it will be kinds you’ve never heard of. All of it will be delicious. And hopefully by then it will not be a million degrees outside.

Go to the Wine Festival. We like wine. It gives us that warm feeling, loquaciousness, and, if consumed in sufficient quantities, it can make us forget about the current political climate here in Alabama (Can you tell that we’re thrilled with the current crop of folks being offered up for election in November?).

On Saturday, October 9, go to the River Walk Wine Festival. It’s noon to 4 p.m. at, well, duh, at the Riverfront. It’s $25 a person with music, wine, food, all the usual festival stuff. We were at the river for the Dragon Boat races and had a blast. And as the weather cools, it’s even better to be taking advantage of one of the best parts of downtown.

While we know a little about wine, we’re far from the readers of the insufferable wine magazines. We don’t go to the wine snob Websites or offer the discriminating curl of the lip if offered something less-than-elite. We know only enough to know what we like. And that’s why it’s fun. We’re actually pretty populist about it, being able to sit on pickup tailgates drinking cheap beer with the good ol’ boys one day, while swilling a Spanish reserva rosé with friends on the patio the next.

The River Walk Wine Festival promises to be a good time. At least 11 distributors are featured on the festival’s Webpage. And we promise to have a designated driver. We are also glad that this is not on the same day as the Oktoberfest because we’re not sure we could mix that much wine and beer.

We know there’s more stuff coming up – just wanted to share these events with anyone looking for stuff to do. And please, as always, if you know of cool upcoming events, drop us a line so we can help spread the word.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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Lowder Property Rezoning

Regular MML readers know that we’re closely following the debates over re-zoning in Cloverdale Five Points (the part of town with Sinclair’s and The Capri). For those not as geeked out about zoning as we are, the story so far is basically that the City wants to switch over to SmartCode in this part of town (We have collected drawings and documents here for your reference). That push is still going forward, but in the short term, the City is asking for a rezoning of the Lowder property at the corner of Boultier and Fairview. That’s the western part of the building that used to be a school. For those not totally conversant with the area, it’s near Huntingdon College (once an owner of this parcel), across the street from Sinclair’s and also from the 1048 nightclub.

As it stands, this property is zoned B-1-a. The City is hoping it can be zoned B-1-a-q. Your eyes glazing over yet? It seems the “q” stands for “qualifications.” According to City Planner Tyler Caldwell, “The addition of the q denotes qualifications that restrict potential developments on this property to conform to the standards laid out in the T4-O SmartCode Transect. The only additional qualification is the permission for 1 story structures; whereas, T4-O has a minimum height restriction of 2 stories.” Caldwell has summarized the qualifications in a document you can see for yourself – download by clicking here.

This sounds good to us. Confusing to wade through the jargon, but when you think about it, it sounds nice. This is what governments do. They prevent people from ruining neighborhoods in the name of unchecked property rights. And if you care about how your city looks and functions, this is the sort of thing you should care about.

Why the rush? Well, the property is about to be sold, and the City would like to ensure that whatever is built there maintains the look and neighborhood feel associated with SmartCode. In other words, not a big box store with a bunch of parking in the front. According to Caldwell, this rezoning does not impede the larger effort to have SmartCode for the whole Cloverdale Five Points area. That debate is still upcoming.

The Cloverdale-Idlewild Association voted unanimously at this week’s meeting to support the City’s rezoning of the Lowder property. The next step in the process will be a Planning Commission meeting at 5:00 pm on September 23. The Planning Commission meets at City Hall, Room 142 at 103 N. Perry St. Please contact Tyler Caldwell, City Planner, at 334-241-2728 or tcaldwell@montgomeryal.gov if you have any questions or concerns.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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How’s the Market? It All Depends!

This week, I ran across a very interesting chart that describes the various “states” possible in any given real estate market:

A severe buyers’ market means prices are extremely negotiable and may be falling. In Midtown Montgomery, it means in general that only those really needing to sell should be on the market because buyers expect and are getting discounts on sales prices and many other give-backs with dollar signs attached.

So how’s the market? Taken as a whole, Midtown is still pretty much tough sledding for sellers. Overall, we see 11.01 months of homes available for sale. That means in theory that if no additional homes go on the market, it will take just over 11 months for all the existing listings to be sold. The good news is that the inventory of homes available for sale is down somewhat from last year and appears still to be declining.

But..and it’s a big but…Midtown is not one monolithic market. It is the sum of many varied markets. Each neighborhood and price range is a mini-market within the larger Midtown market as a whole. So when you ask me (or whomever), “How’s the market?,” don’t be surprised if the answer is, “Well, it all depends!”

Let’s look at a few specifics, starting with Cloverdale-Idlewild. In the past 12 months, 13 homes were sold. And today there are exactly 13 homes on the market for sale. Clearly, there is that theoretical 12-month supply of homes, which would label Cloverdale-Idlewild a severe buyers’ market.

But for a real severe buyers’ market, we need look no further than Center City (Garden District, the two Cloverdales and Edgewood) homes priced at $200,000 or more. Currently there are 42 homes for sale and only 20 sold in the past 12 months. It’s the perfect opportunity for an old-house lover to sell his/her/their smaller home and move up to the bigger, more expensive home of their dreams! (More later on why the best time to move up is in a down market.)

Hillwood, however, is quite a different story. In the past 12 months, 13 homes sold in Hillwood/Hillwood West. And there are only 8 homes on the market today. In theory, it will take less than 8 months for those homes to sell, so Hillwood is a balanced market. This means that buyers won’t find the “deals” there that the national media has been telling them they should expect.

If you are thinking about selling and/or buying in Midtown, be sure you have the “How’s the market…my segment of the market” conversation with your agent. Then act accordingly to avoid disappointment down the road.

Sandra Nickel has been listing and selling residential real estate for over 29 years, most with an intense focus on Montgomery’s Midtown neighborhoods. Sandra serves on the Mid-Alabama Coalition for the Homeless, the Cloverdale Business Coalition, Historic Southview, the Volunteer and Information Center, Landmarks Foundation and her own neighborhood Garden District Preservation Association.

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Martin’s Restaurant

Sometimes on the way back from New Orleans, we stop at a little gas station just across the bridge to fill up for the trip to Montgomery and stock up on Hubig’s Pies. For years we have considered these delightful snacks to be the apex of the fried pie arts. And then we tried the fried pies at Martin’s Restaurant. We stand corrected. We’ll still stop and get Hubig’s whenever we can, and even seriously consider ordering them from the Internet, but they’re not even in the same category as Martin’s fried pies.

Getting your fried pie can require a bit of experimentation. They take some time to make – we were told to order them at least 15 minutes in advance – so it is best to request them when you order your meal. Sometimes they run out of the advertised flavors of the day. Other times they just don’t have them. Fried pies aren’t on the regular Martin’s dessert menu, so you have to ask. But when you sink into its flaky crust, lemon glaze, warm filling, it’ll all be worth it. Everything in your life up to that point will have been worth it.

Not that the other desserts are bad. On the contrary, they are both gigantic (prepare yourself for the slice of chocolate pie as large as your head) and delightful.

It’s just that in a place that’s famous for its fried chicken (and in case you didn’t know they were known for fried chicken, several dozen plaques advertising it adorn the wall above the cash register), you might expect that everything else on the menu will play second fiddle.

Not so at Martin’s. You start with the cornbread, which is dense and sweet with an intense butter flavor. The fried fish is fantastic, salty and light with just the right breading. And the vegetables are well worth a starring role in a plate of sides. They rotate from day to day — and of course some offerings are more appetizing than others (we are not fans of “congealed salad,” for example), but the tomato and okra is great, the fried okra is uniformly perfect, and they have macaroni and cheese that is actually made with cheese.

Recently we played host to a visiting musician friend from Athens. We wanted to show off the town a little bit, so we took him to the strip mall that is home to Martin’s. He pronounced the chicken “delicious” and swooned over the fried pie. We were so proud you would have thought we cooked the meal ourselves.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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House Plants for the Soul

What a world! What a world!  What a world! In this messed-up world — and this horrible drought we are in, bring yourself some joy with house plants. The green in your home will soothe your soul.

Some people feel that they must wait for someone to be ill or die before they can have a beautiful house plant. I say to them, indulge! Plan to spend about fifty dollars on a variety of house plants, and they will be happier with this heat wave, living the lush life up to the holidays.

I recommend a few plants that can be picked up at any home improvement store or garden center: Bromeliads, Dracena, Calathea, Orchids, Spathiphyllum, Sedums, Succulents and Sansevieria. No ferns, though, because ferns are not a house plant.

On bringing the plants home, wrap the bottom of the pot with aluminum foil, then place it into an attractive container. I have used baskets, decorative bowls, and urns. For best results, place plants in a north or south window. To water, place about six ice cubes on top of the soil around the plant three times a week — it’s easier and less messy than trying to water from a can or pitcher. Don’t worry about fertilizer unless you want to spend the rest of your life with them.

And, don’t stress out over the plants — enjoy them! They are meant to be an alternative to the horrible conditions in the outside world. Throw them away before they die. Just say ‘goodbye’ before the holidays begin, and you will truly enjoy your interior world for the next few months.

Mark Montoya is a Montgomery native who first learned gardening from his father. He has designed, planted and nurtured gardens in our city’s neighborhoods — both old and new – for twenty years.

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Free Wheeling: Biking in Midtown

My love affair with the bicycle began on a cold December 25th in 1960 with Santa’s delivery.

With the help of training wheels I quickly mastered the ride, and by third grade was cycling daily to Bellingrath Elementary. I eventually grew into a “big girl” bike and began to venture into adjacent neighborhoods with other free-wheeling friends and groups such as Girl Scouts. By the time I reached high school, you would have thought I would have grown out of it, but I had transferred my affections to a pre-loved authentic English racing bike that I found in a trash pile discarded by moving military family. That bicycle took me on many adventures exploring neighborhoods around town (which may contribute to my interest in architecture and preservation) including back and forth to a part-time job. In college, I invested in flashy lime green mixte-framed French touring bike that I rode for the next 30 years. I even used the subject of bicycling in college class projects: consumer reports on best bikes to purchase for economics class, bicycling laws for political science class, photographs of bicycles for design class — yes, I was obsessed!

City codes from the mid 1970s specify that bike riders must obey the instructions of official traffic control signals. No person shall ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk within a business district. No person 14 or more years of age shall ride upon any sidewalk in any district. (I guess that means younger folks can ride on the sidewalk at least in the neighborhoods?) No person shall park a bicycle upon a street other than against the curb, in a rack, or against a building, as to afford the least obstruction to pedestrians. And this is my favorite — No person shall operate a bicycle unless it is equipped with a bell or other device capable of giving a signal audible for a distance of at least 100 feet, except that it cannot be a siren or a whistle. I purchased an obnoxious bell and Wizard-of-Oz-like willow basket for my bike that took advantage of the wheeling revival.

So now in my middle years I find myself continuing to be enamored with this amazing machine and how it has evolved. There are still some of us hardcore cyclers out there and I see us pedaling through Midtown in the afternoons or on weekends. There is a very active Montgomery Bicycle Club that “promotes recreational and competitive cycling in the central Alabama area … and supports bicycle safety and awareness advocacy programs.” The club has some great rural routes to ride on the upcoming autumn days, but I’m more of a non-competitive urban pedaler. I have frustrated more than one companion cycler by just cruising looking at the trees and houses rather than pushing for distance and speed.

The nice fellows at Cloverdale Service Center are fabulous tire-filler-uppers and there are several places around town that purport to sell and repair bikes. Some of our MATS buses sport bike racks on the front for folks who have further to go than the bus routes take them. When I ride, I always must find places to secure my bike because of the lack of available bike racks, although I did see two racks at the Morgan Library downtown. Many of the newest long range plans for neighborhood revitalization and development and the Smart Code are addressing the need for bike lanes to encourage less auto dependency.

So, now that the weather is once again conducive to a pleasant evening ride, I encourage Midtowners to dust off that Schwinn, lube up the tandem and take advantage of the place we call home.

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Carole King (not the singer, just the hummer) enjoys midtown living from South Capitol Parkway in Capitol Heights where she has lived for 25+years. Carole has been the historic properties curator for the Landmarks Foundation that manages Old Alabama Town for 28 years and is passionate about neighborhoods, their architectural character, their people, and their preservation!


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