Random slings & arrows

Our town: Feeling at home in Birmingham, Michigan

Well, I’d better show you how our town lies. Up here is Main Street. Way back there is the railway station, tracks go that way. . . . Nice town, y’know what I mean?                                                                                                                          — “Our Town” | Thornton Wilder | 1938

Birmingham’s Municipal Building was built in 1928

I’ve lived in Birmingham since 1976 B.C. (Before Coffeeshops) and have seen our city change without losing its small-town appeal.

Yes, we’ve gained — if that’s the right word — movie multiplexes, five parking decks and office suites. Yet we still can enjoy hand-scooped ice cream, burgers with grilled onions at a 1952 Woodward Avenue landmark and parades of classic cars, costumed kids and kerchief-wearing basset hounds.

Way back in 1938 — five years after the village of Birmingham incorporated as a city — a local history buff named Lenore Gomberg described this as a place “where one may find all the city conveniences with country atmosphere.”

Substitute “suburban” for “country” and we’ve got Birmingham 2010, where you’ll find 10 of my favorite things:

1. Foot access: This was a walkable city decades before that became a New Urbanism catchphrase. City Hall, the Community House, our library, banks, salons, shops, restaurants/bistros, 12 movie screens, a major bookstore, medical offices and other professional services are clustered around the city’s core, a short walk from hundreds of homes and workplaces. On the east side, the post office and expanding Rail District are within reach of my Maple-Adams area neighbors. Try doing this — or even finding a walkable center — in any number of “fashionable” Oakland suburbs.

2. Fill your senses: It’s equally easy to get away from sidewalks and streets, again perhaps without turning an ignition key. Our city has 15 parks, including the eight-acre Quarton Lake Park just west of downtown with an all-season path around the water. For more secluded strolls, a wood chip trail meanders scenically along the Rouge River for more than a mile between the southwest corner of Booth Park off North Old Woodward and the south end of Linden Park (see map at right). Another nature trail cuts through the woods behind Manor Park, off North Adams at Shepardsbush, and emerges in Bloomfield Township.

3. Fun and fitness: Those parks, along with dozens of minimal-traffic residential neighborhoods, are convenient for jogging, biking and inline skating. Indoor workouts also are convenient, thanks to the Birmingham Family YMCA on Lincoln, Powerhouse Gym on East Brown, Snap Fitness on Oakland, Curves on South Adams and numerous pilates and yoga studios. Seaholm High’s Fitness Center is open to anyone during certain hours Monday through Saturday for a minimal fee.

4.  Sports and recreation:  You needn’t go far for recreational opportunities. We have golf (two nine-hole courses), free tennis, baseball and softball, as well as free cross-country skiing (a groomed path at Lincoln Hills Golf Course, blaze your own in other parks). The city-owned Ice Sports Arena has open skating and hockey, as well as weekly classes. The Forest Hills Swim Club and Birmingham Family YMCA host recreational and competitive swimming. Plus, continuing education classes throughout the Birmingham Public School District include instruction in fencing and tai chi.

5. Continuing education: Workouts for the mind and access to knowledge about art, crafts, health, parenting, pets, computers, finance, business, travel and lots more also are woven into the vibrant fabric of life here. Speakers, classes and discussion groups are offered at The Community House, Baldwin Public Library, Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center and the school district throughout fall, winter and spring.

6. Student education: Superb public schools are a prime reason this magnet community has strong property values. Birmingham ranks among Michigan’s highest-achieving districts and is recognized as a “Lighthouse” district. Eighty-seven percent of teachers have advanced degrees and average class size is 22 at the elementary level, 23 in middle and high schools.

7. What’ll you have? Dine on familiar or exotic cuisine, casually or elegantly, without crossing city limits. More than four dozen in-town restaurants serve steaks, seafood, Italian, Thai, Lebanese, Japanese, Chinese and other specialties. There’s also no shortage of pizza, burgers, wraps, paninis or subs. Did I mention coffee? And oh yes, grab a sidewalk or patio seat in season at a number of spots.

8. Shop ’til you . . . We can find much of what we need here in the 48009, whether hunting for something basic or distinctive. The eclectic retail mix includes appliances and antiques, bolts and bouquets, denim and diamonds, parkas and Porsches, rakes and Rolexes, Speedos and snowboards. Just within the Principal Shopping District are 30 clothing stores and 16 jewelers. Who needs a mall?

9. Public transportation: Residents can get around without cars, as I’ve done from time to time. In addition to seven-day SMART service along Woodward from Pontiac to Detroit, cross-town buses operate on 14 Mile and Maple. Dial-a-Ride service provides curb-to-curb trips to 15 Oakland County communities, including Franklin, Hazel Park, Ferndale, Royal Oak, Southfield and Troy. If you want to visit Chicago easily, Amtrak stops three times every day at a platform on South Eton next to Big Rock Chophouse.

10. Beautification: The cityscape really shouldn’t be taken for granted, as I’m reminded when visitors admire the thousands of pinpoint white LED lights dangling from branches and poles along Maple and Woodward during the winter holiday season. Each spring, city workers plant more than 1,000 flats of colorful annuals throughout town, with the business district further brightened by hanging baskets.

Those are 10 main reasons why “B’ham” is the only Michigan community where my wife and I have lived since leaving New York.

[This post is adapted from my Nov. 2, 2010 column in Birmingham Patch, a daily news website.]

Shain Park, with a fountain, cafe tables and a concert stage, is Birmingham’s “town square.”

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