January 1, 2012

The Pepper Place Saturday Market

Bringing Together Birmingham, Ala.

  • By: Sarah Campbell

I was born in Birmingham, mostly grew up in Birmingham, and both sides of my family have roots generations deep in its red clay. Having spent so much of my life there, it took attending college in New England for me to appreciate how far Birmingham had come since the overt, violent racism thrust into the national spotlight during the Civil Rights movement. Meeting new people, I’d sometimes see a flash of uncomfortable recognition cross their faces when small talk turned to our respective hometowns. “Birmingham. Wow, that’s…interesting,” I’d hear. Or from others, perhaps thinking back to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing: “What is it like there now?”

In school, of course, we learned about the city’s turbulent racial past; I remember field trips to the Civil Rights Institute and discussions about Jim Crow and segregation. But that era seemed far removed from my life—because protesters faced Birmingham fire hoses and police dogs, my world has always been integrated. It’s a luxury to be able to say that the Birmingham seen in 1960s news footage wasn’t a city I’d ever known, or could even recognize. That’s how much things have changed for the better.

What I realized was that I couldn’t take knowledge of Birmingham’s progress for granted. So let me tell you about the place I know. Let me tell you about Pepper Place Saturday Market.

You have to go early in the morning, before the heat makes you want to reconsider. (The season may stretch from April to December, but to me the real heart of the market lies in the summer.) Live music bubbles through the humidity, and you should follow the smell of brewing coffee mixed with sautéing garlic—it will lead you where you need to go. Cross 29th Street South to follow a small set of metal stairs leading down into the market, a square that spills out onto 2nd Avenue South and around the corner. Stands boast homemade jewelry and pottery and subscriptions to The Birmingham News, and there are avenues of white tents displaying their delectable offerings: Fresh basil. Local honey. Vine-ripened tomatoes. Jams and breads and pickles.

For us, it’s a family trip. Before we pick out our produce, my mother and I do laps to search for the sweetest peaches, the most beautiful sunflowers, the tenderest okra. We make our way through couples, teenagers, families with strollers and dogs—people we know from church, neighbors, my parents’ coworkers, families I babysit for clutching squash and corn, sharing weekend plans and recipes. It’s rare to not to run into several old friends. All of this makes Pepper Place one of my favorite ways to spend a Saturday morning, but there’s more to its draw than just good food and handmade crafts.

What sets it apart, what I love most about it, is the natural, unintentional way it has brought Birmingham together. Preserving the Pepper Place complex has given us more than historic structures, a revitalized section of town, or the backdrop for a successful farmers market. There’s a bigger success story at work, and that’s in the way Pepper Place builds community in a place once so divided—how it creates a weekly coming-together made so much more significant by the city’s history. I like to think that every Saturday, we continue building on the past to shape the Birmingham we want to create. You should come down next summer and join us.

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