December, 2013. Mobile, Alabama. In Good Company

Posted on December 2, 2013

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bienvillesquareWhen a city appears on a ‘Top Ten’  list alongside the likes of Sacramento, Denver, Portland and Houston, it’s got to have something special going on.

Now, some people might think Mobile, Alabama wouldn’t rate a top ten listing in anything – except Mardi Gras – but last year the Azalea City’s Bienville Square sufficiently caught the attention of The American Planning Association (APA) to result in the designation of the park as one of 10 Great Public Spaces for 2012.

Like many professional organizations, the American Planning Association’s main function is to serve as a forum for the exchange of ideas between people who work in the field of urban and regional planning. Membership is open to public officials, students, commissioners, and plain old citizens interested in creating great communities.

But back to Bienville Sqaure.

APA singled out Bienville Square, the historic heart of downtown Mobile, not only for the park’s design elements – radial walkways, a central fountain and canopy of live oak trees – but because, in a city that’s been struggling to get back on its feet ever since the upheavals of the 60’s, the park symbolizes Mobile’s ‘staying power’ .

The beginnings of Bienville Square started in 1824 as a small patch of land that was enlarged to a square block and developed into a park in the 1850’s. In 1906, Mobilians honored the founder of their city, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, by unveiling a statue of the French explorer and naming the park in his honor.

Much of the charm of the park today is its view of a downtown skyline filled with diverse architectural styles.  Classical Revival, Neo-Classical, Victorian and Art Deco buildings flank the park, and though many are in disrepair, all you have to do is look up to see the possibilities.

Rich in original architectural detail, the upper stories stand in stark contrast to the awful attempts at ‘remodeling’ the street level facades. By looking up you can get an idea of how beautiful some of these buildings must have been in their heyday, and could still be today.

And here is where Mobile – and the view from the park – is special. Downtown Mobile mostly escaped the urban renewal tear-down craze of the 1970’s and 80’s that ruined countless central cities. Today, because historically intact downtowns are so rare, they have taken on a coolness factor that serves as a drawing point for both tourism and commercial development.

Van AntwerpMobile has seen much redevelopment and renovation in the past few years, and more is coming, based on recent purchases of structures within the downtown historic area. Panini Pete’s restaurant will soon move into a newly-rejuvenated ca. 1875 building at 102 Dauphin Street, and 102 dauphinRetirement Systems of America (RSA) has purchased, and is restoring, Mobile’s first ‘skyscraper’, the 11-story 1906 Van Antwerp building at 101 Dauphin Street. And there’s other positive activity going on in the same area.

Now, back to the square again with a new factoid gleaned from our last visit.

The park’s central fountain was constructed in 1890 and honors local physician Dr. George Ketchum. Dr. Ketchum was one of the very first physicians in the coketchumuntry to use quinine as a treatment for yellow fever.  This dreaded disease regularly reached epidemic proportions throughout the South, but especially in port cities like Mobile, where it was imported by ships from the Caribbean.

Check out Bienville Square and the historic area of downtown Mobile. Look up, and you’ll get a glimpse into the past, and hopefully into the future, of this old, old city.

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Posted in: Travel - Alabama