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A walk through the Cahaba Project

By Gary Lloyd

TRUSSVILLE — I remember that bottom-floor classroom, the one on the corner of the building not far from the gymnasium where I tried out for the Hewitt-Trussville Junior High School basketball team. I sat near the back of the room with a couple buddies. We laughed during Channel One News and sighed when our English teacher made us read aloud, quite awkwardly, from works of Shakespeare. How does a thirteen-year-old comprehend or care about tragic happenings in the 1500s? How does a teenage boy focused on crossover dribbles and three-point shots find interest in an alleged comedy about repentance in a forest? 

I was a month into the eighth grade in that room, reading from Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It, when another teacher barged in. She was sobbing. She begged for the television to be turned on. It was the morning of September 11, 2001. 

It was then that, for the first time in our lives, not from some seven-hundred-page anthology of five-hundred-year-old language, we truly learned that all the world’s a stage.

I start walks with my four-year-old Labrador-hound mix, Sonny, near where this classroom once was, a few hundred steps away from both the intersection of Poplar Street and Parkway Drive and the Cahaba River in the heart of Trussville, Alabama. Most of the school building where I attended junior high school has been demolished due to deep sinkholes, but I remember that brick building, the classes inside, and my classmates and teachers like I am still struggling to make sense of why it took the death of two star-crossed lovers to harmonize their feuding families. 

Shakespeare had tragedies and comedies. I just have memories.

Sonny at the Cahaba River

Sonny, a Greater Birmingham Humane Society rescue, accompanies me on many drives, to my parents’ house between Moody and Odenville, to various city parks in St. Clair and Jefferson counties, to the Chick-fil-A drive-thru a couple times a week. His favorite place to go is the Cahaba Project in Trussville. He pants and squeals when we turn onto Parkway Drive from Highway 11. His eyes glimmer when I park at Spradling Field.

Sonny and I make our way up the Parkway Drive sidewalk, past Spradling Field, and turn left onto Cherokee Drive. Often, when the gravel lot is void of other cars, because Sonny is still a bit skittish, we stop off at the Cahaba River by the new Cahaba Dog Park and listen as the clear water rushes by. We quickly cross over the narrow Cherokee bridge toward the Civitan Disc Golf Course and Trussville Senior Activity Center. Once, there were small baseball fields here for five- and six-year-olds, where I fell in love with the game that still has my heart. I take Sonny down one of these steep dirt slopes so that he can feel the water glide over his paws. This is the same spot, almost to the foot, where my ninth-grade biology class waded through the cold water in search of wildlife, mostly red crawfish. Textbooks are required, but getting waist-deep in the cool water is a teacher like no other.

The Cahaba Project

We walk down the pavement of the greenway that has been twenty years in the making, a stretch of beauty that I chronicled in newsprint dozens of times, past the senior center where I covered a Miss Senior Trussville Pageant once. That was a unique experience. We proceed down the greenway, parallel to the longest free-flowing river in all of Alabama, under the tall trees and past the twenty-somethings with Frisbees. We encounter young families that moved in a couple months ago and coaches who have taught in Hewitt-Trussville schools and on green fields since I was in Little League. There are more than twenty thousand people in this city now, and I swear I run into someone I know on each walk.

Reaching the Civitan Bridge is always a highlight. When I discussed on “Talk of Alabama” the thing I found most interesting in my research for Trussville, Alabama: A Brief History, I chose to talk about this footbridge. Sonny criss-crosses across the planks, nervous he may miss a good view of the river below. The bridge was constructed in Argo in 1901, dismantled and moved to Ketona, and dismantled again and moved to Happy Hollow Road in 1940. With a new bridge and road built for the Happy Hollow Road area, the bridge was determined to be useless and was subsequently abandoned. Today, it still stands, and residents lean on its green rails for graduation, engagement, and family photos.

I try, on almost every walk, to take Sonny’s picture in front of the iconic gazebo on the corner of U.S. Highway 11 and Parkway Drive, but he does not cooperate. We move on past the hundreds of names chiseled into the Veterans Monument, a towering tribute to local heroes, a monument made possible by the woman whose name, Venie Martin Payne, is printed across the street sign in white letters.

Flowers in the Cahaba Project

Walking the sidewalks of Parkway Drive is the true step back in time. The homes were built in the 1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, and they are perfect. They are smaller than houses today, but they have spiral staircases and porch swings and history. They are meaningful.

“I’m probably an old soul and have always been in love with old houses,” says a seven-year resident of the Cahaba Project. “I always thought the Cahaba Project area was the kind of setting I wanted to live in as an adult with a family. It was the closest to white-picket-fence Americana I could imagine.”

The hundreds of squirrels on Parkway Drive tease Sonny, and his strong pull often reddens the hand I’m using to grip his leash. My grandmother considered buying a house here, once, and I still wonder about that. We pass the Trussville Public Library, where so much of the city’s rich history is documented, past Lake Street, where that one house on the corner makes me wish I had grown up in the era chronicled in The Sandlot.

Sonny pulls toward the playground and the pool where I learned to swim and somewhat dive. He stops to sniff the pink flowers that are blooming through the fence, and that makes me smile. This is where our walk slows to a stroll. We slow down because you don’t floor it through memories. You idle through them.

Heritage Hall

I show Sonny the front steps of the historic school building that has served as a high school, middle school, and elementary school, where I attended middle school and was sent to the principal’s office only once. I take him in front of Heritage Hall, which has served as a general store, filling station, library and choral room. I think back to the now-demolished Jack Wood Stadium, how a classmate killed the lights during a football game one time, how I ran as fast as I could around the track as an elementary student and received my high school diploma at the fifty-yard line. I cross the street to The Mall so that Sonny can jog on a huge lawn of green, a spot designed to resemble the National Mall in Washington D.C. Trussville is unique and beautiful. I guide him toward the red-hot metal slide I fell off of at a baseball team party when I was a Little Leaguer. Sonny lies underneath it for shade.

The U.S. flag in front of Cahaba Elementary School

After a water break, we walk toward Oak Street, passing the front yard where footballs that passed through white uprights for extra points and field goals so often ended up. We cut across Parkway Drive at its intersection with the postcard that is Oak Street, and the walk is over. We are back at Spradling Field, and it is time to drive home. Sonny rarely is ready to go. I think he loves it here, in a place where time has stood still. There are Targets, Wal-Marts, Chicken Salad Chicks, Metro Diners, and Winn-Dixies all around us, but history here has not only persevered, it has flourished.

“Anyone that spends any amount of time in Trussville will learn quickly that the Cahaba Project is very much the heart of our city,” says a four-year resident of the area. “It is a landmark, a place that people come to walk, run, ride their bikes, visit the library or greenway. To me the Project is a cultural and social hub for the city.”

Oak Street

This resident speaks of back yard bonfires, outdoor movie nights, and talking with friends on the back porch as the sun sets. He reflects on his youngest child being able to walk to Cahaba Elementary School.

“For a time I lived in a neighborhood where I could walk or ride my bike to school and It felt like an adventure every time,” he says. “I have traveled around a lot of places in Alabama and I just don’t think I have seen a community or culture quite like what exists in the Cahaba Project.”

He goes on.

“Everything about the neighborhood exudes bygone days; simpler, slower times,” says one resident. “It’s hard to describe, but when you see the trees and the homes and interact with residents, some that have lived in the community from the beginning or very early on, it makes you feel as though you are part of a bigger narrative, a story that is still being told.”

I’m going to keep telling it.

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