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Top 10: Things You Didn't Know About Birmingham

Think you know the city well? Keep reading.

Top 10: Things You Didn't Know About Birmingham Top 10: Things You Didn't Know About Birmingham Top 10: Things You Didn't Know About Birmingham Top 10: Things You Didn't Know About Birmingham Top 10: Things You Didn't Know About Birmingham Top 10: Things You Didn't Know About Birmingham Top 10: Things You Didn't Know About Birmingham Top 10: Things You Didn't Know About Birmingham Top 10: Things You Didn't Know About Birmingham

"And now for something completely different," as a British funnyman used to say. (Readers of a certain age know the phrase. For others, Wikipedia is your friend.)

This list turns away from a single theme to meander through Birmingham's oddities, surprises, footnotes and quirks. To know our city — to really know it — you first have to take a dive into its trivia.   

1. Name in lights: You can go Hollywood by spotlighting a birthday, anniversary, retirement or wedding with a personal message on a marquee panel at the or . A one-day display at either theater costs $150. Contact Uptown Entertainment at (248) 723-6234 or kyle.sinclair@uptownpalladium.com.

2. Cozy clusters: The city covers 4.8 square miles and has just one zip code for street addresses, but is filled with residential areas so distinct that at least 20 have a neighborhood associations. The most active groups coordinate block parties, compile directories and represent homeowners at public hearings. Some embrace a handful of blocks (Hidden Ravines Association is the smallest), while others encompass 10 to 20 streets. They're listed at this page on the city's site, which also has a printable map.

3. Walkable by design: Architectural charm, accessible amenities and a unified look don't happen by chance. Birmingham has sophisticated appeal, sidewalk cafés, an award-winning playground, an expanded and other distinctions largely because visionary leaders two decades ago paid for a 20-year downtown master plan. The 192-page document, delivered in 1996 by two Miami architects and four other planning firms, recommended changes great and small that continue to shape Birmingham. The block is among the most dramatic results, as are the pedestrian-friendliness and posh look of Willits Street. Even the visual branding of dark green street signs, benches, lamp posts, trash bins and water towers is an indirect outcome — though the outside consultants suggested charcoal blue rather than the more apt maple leaf tone now surrounding us. An illustrated summary was prepared for developers. The full study is here.      

4. Commuting by rail: Vehicles and buses weren't the only way Birmingham residents reached Detroit for work or shopping as recently as the late 1970s. Grand Trunk Western Railroad passenger trains ran alongside Woodward originally and then on the current tracks, with four trains stopping at the 1931 Eton Street station in each direction every weekday. The Southeast Michigan Transit Authority (predecessor to SMART) took over that service by the 1970s, offering three round-trip choices each weekday between Pontiac and Detroit until 1978.

5. Telephone history: Birmingham was a telecommunications pioneer 58 years ago, though what passed for high technology then seems ho-hum in our wi-fi world. On Nov. 20, 1953, Bell Telephone customers in Birmingham were the only ones in Michigan who could directly call anywhere in the country without needing a long-distance switchboard operator. (If you're unsure what that was, you need to watch Turner Classic Movies.) "We were a test market because of the affluence of the area," former director Bill McElhone explained once.        

6. Toyland yard decor: For a grin-worth surprise, take a brief southbound swing off West Maple Road onto one-block Aspen Drive, a quarter-mile or so west of Southfield Road. About midway you'll see what may be Birmingham's oddest front lawn ornament: An oversize red rocking horse sculpture so large it doesn't need a "Please keep off" sign.    

7. Colonial militia veteran: Names familiar from street signs and buildings are carved on dozens of headstones, but one notable plot has a more obscure name — John Daniels. He fought in the Revolutionary War, which began when Daniels was 24. A few years after the aging ex-soldier and wife Betsey moved to Birmingham, the veteran of America's first war died at age 81 on Aug. 29, 1832 and was buried in the settlement's seven-year-old cemetery. His spouse, who died just 13 days later, has an adjacent grave near the east entrance. (Cemetery tour map is here.)

8. Sculptor's gazelle: An exotic animal not native to Michigan is atop a much more recent Greenwood grave. A bronze casting of Marshall Fredericks' Leaping Gazelle from the 1930s, his first commissioned work, is near the back fence on the northwest side. "Sculptor and Humanitarian" says the headstone. Fredericks, who also created the sky-reaching Shain Park icon named Freedom of the Human Spirit, died in 1998 at 90.    

9. Local reading: There's no shortage of books about Birmingham, as visitors to the Allen Room at discover. Here's what two relative newcomers chose to get-acquainted:

  • Bob Bruner, city manager since February, browsed Birmingham by Craig Jolly (a 2007 entry in the Images of America paperback series from Arcadia Publishing), The Heart of Birmingham by Betty and Frank Angelo (1993), The Book of Birmingham by the late Jervis B. McMechan and Baldwin Library at 75 by Patricia Scollard Painter (1970).  
  • Laura Houser, founding editor of Birmingham Patch, picked up A Story of Early Birmingham by Clarence Vliet (1960) and Know Your Town: Birmingham, Michigan by the League of Women Voters.

10. Memorial benches: An enduring tribute to a family member, friend, teacher or other mentor can double as a gift to parkgoers. A bench with an engraved  plaque (two by 10 inches) honoring anyone special can be designated for placement in , Barnum Park or for $1,500. Give two to three weeks' notice to Connie Folk, recreation coordinator at the : 248-530-1642 or cfolk@ci.birmingham.mi.us.      

There's plenty more local lore. Catch this neat bit of century-crossing continuity: 

The first local movie house, the Family Theater, opened in 1913 at the northeast corner of Old Woodward and Hamilton — where the Palladium now stands. "The theater was used primarily for the exhibition of silent movies," history buff Hartland Smith writes at this site, where he posted three vintage photos.  

Here's a more uncanny link from past to present:

Mayor Gordon Rinschler, elected to the city commission in 2007, lives in a 1916 home built by Theron Smith when he was president of the Village of Birmingham. Smith later was elected to the first City Commission.     

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