The city's skies were stained a hazy red by the smoke from steel mills, and thousands of white residents fled for the suburbs out of fear of the same things that plague other urban areas: crime, declining industry, crumbling schools and dwindling opportunities.
Birmingham seemed like it was on a long march toward death. After peaking at 340,887 in the 1960 Census, the city's population has fallen steadily to the current level, 212,237. Vacant homes are scattered throughout most every neighborhood.
While people didn't stop leaving, the city began changing in the 1970 and '80s as medicine and finance replaced steel as Birmingham's primary industries. The skies brightened — literally — as the mills closed, but few outside of civic boosters seemed to care.
That has changed in recent months as the city's revival began to gain steam and people began noticing.
National Geographic Traveler recently mentioned the city's renaissance, and Forbes cited it as an up-and-coming city for young professionals. NBC's Today Show featured Birmingham as an attractive travel destination because of its history and affordability, and Zagat has highlighted a restaurant scene that includes chef Frank Stitt's flagship Highlands Bar and Grill.
USA Today tapped Birmingham's Sidewalk Film Festival as one of the nation's top movie events, and the cultural website Flavorwire listed the majestic Alabama Theatre, built in 1927, as one of the 10 most beautiful theaters in America.
Much of the recent attention was linked to commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the '63 civil rights demonstrations, but other things are happening to create buzz. People like Ron Lee have come to town and enjoyed what they found, including the revamped Vulcan Park that overlooks downtown from atop Red Mountain.
Even the city's minor-league baseball team — which dates back to 1885 — has returned to town after making nothing more than occasional visits since the late 1980s.