For more than 20 years, volunteers and multiple public and private partners have been working to transform Village Creek, a once-polluted and neglected stream that travels through the heart of several Birmingham neighborhoods.
Last Saturday, the transformation was strikingly clear, as more than 100 volunteers including students, community leaders, corporate partners and public agency employees converged in the Birmingham neighborhood of Ensley for the 13th annual Village Creek Fall Cleanup.
For decades, the spot where the cleanups now take place was notorious for flooding that damaged neighborhood homes. A federal flood-mitigation plan in the late 1990s helped move people away from harm’s way. But after the homes were removed, it left an open area that became notorious for another problem: illegal dumping.
When the annual volunteer cleanups began here in 2005, led by the nonprofit Village Creek Society, the trash problem was daunting. But every year the volunteers – including students from Birmingham public schools and Lawson State Community College, Alabama Power’s Renew Our Rivers campaign and Vulcan Materials Company, with support from the city of Birmingham, the city’s Fire and Rescue Services and Jefferson County, among others – were able to make steady progress toward turning an eyesore along Village Creek into a place where its natural beauty began to emerge.
Meanwhile, discussions to create a greenway along Village Creek moved to concrete action, with support from the city, the Alabama Department of Transportation and local nonprofit organizations, including the Village Creek Society and the Freshwater Land Trust. Last July, the partners celebrated a major milestone, when the first phase of the greenway project in the Ensley area officially opened. It features a lighted walking trail stretching from Avenue F, near Jackson-Olin High School and McAlpine Park, to Avenue M, where a dramatic footbridge rises to cross the creek – right at the site where the cleanups began more than a decade ago.
“We’ve definitely come a long way,” said Yohance Owens, executive director of the Village Creek Society.
On the other side of the city, in the East Lake neighborhood, Village Creek is also getting positive attention. In recent years, a trail has been constructed near the headwaters of the creek, with support from the Jefferson County Department of Public Health, the Southern Environmental Center and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Other projects also are moving forward along the upper reaches of the creek, including recent habitat enhancements at East Lake Park, with support from the local chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Sections of Village Creek Greenway-related trail projects also have been completed in the Enon Ridge and Pratt City communities, with projects on the drawing board in the Five Points West area.
Long-term plans call for the Village Creek Greenway to stretch 26 miles, from the Roebuck area of Birmingham in the east to Ensley in the west, and beyond. A master plan, developed in conjunction with the city, the Village Creek Society and other partners, calls for a variety of amenities along the greenway, including a community garden, playgrounds, basketball courts and athletic fields, an amphitheater and outdoor classrooms.
Carolyn Buck, with the Freshwater Land Trust, said the Village Creek Greenway corridor is one of the focus areas for the organization. Buck serves as the land trust’s director of the Red Rock Trail System, the plan to create a 750-mile network of trails, sidewalks, greenways and “blueways” (places to canoe, fish and play in the water) across Jefferson County. “It’s a priority, because there is so much potential with Village Creek,” Buck said.
As for the annual fall cleanups, as community awareness and support grows for the greenway and for protecting and enhancing Village Creek, so do the number of people keeping a caring eye on the waterway. With less illegal dumping, and pride building around the progress taking place, volunteers are having to cover greater distances, away from the creek, to collect the same amount of trash.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Owens said.