Few towns can claim such strong community identity as Monroeville, where celebrated writers Truman Capote and Harper Lee grew up as friends. Set in Monroeville, Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird has brought worldwide attention to the town since its 1960 publication. In 1997, Monroeville and Monroe County were designated the “Literary Capital of Alabama.”
Unwilling to sit on its literary laurels, Monroeville recently participated in DesignPlace, a DesignAlabama initiative that provides communities assistance with design, planning and community identity. Design experts demonstrate how to enhance quality of life and community development through the design arts, and design professionals meet with citizens and city leaders who provide input.
Participants in Monroeville’s DesignPlace desire a gateway entrance at Clausell Road to clearly identify the arrival point into Clausell, the historically African-American community located west of the downtown, explains Roman Gary, vice president of CCR Architecture & Interiors who served as team facilitator.
Participants want the Union High School site used as a cultural center and to serve the entire city. Connecting Clausell Park to the potential Union High Cultural Center by clearing landscape overgrowth was suggested as a way to combine the two sites into a larger venue. Attendees also expressed interest in implementing an organized community-engagement process, Gray notes, that would involve diverse community stakeholders to address the town’s most pressing needs.
Identified as most in need of attention was commercial and residential development on both sides of West Claiborne Street and Highway 47, to establish a strong western connection of activity between downtown Monroeville and the entrance into Clausell.
Streetscape improvements, including a pedestrian and bicycle trail, were proposed along West Claiborne Street with enhanced LED lighting and signage to stimulate the western connection between downtown and Clausell. First be carried out are new signage, logo and branding graphics at the entrance of Clausell. Commissioning Monroeville artists to provide logo murals in Clausell was suggested.
“The first phase would be establishing the Clausell Gateway,” Gary explains. “Developing West Claiborne Street to strengthen the connection to downtown would be the next priority. Once there’s increased activity along West Claiborne, infill development of parcels with tourist housing and small businesses would be desirable. And finally, combining the Union High and Clausell Park sites into a larger cultural center.”
With its literary legacy and 40-acre historic district, there’s plenty to capitalize on in Monroeville such as increased opportunities for sculpture, painting, mixed media and the performing arts. An artist-in-residence program was proposed for the Union High Cultural Center to attract regional and national artists.
Former Monroeville Mayor Sandra Smith Alabama, who participated in DesignAlabama’s Mayor’s Summit and DesignPlace, says “tremendous progress” made to downtown Monroeville during the past few years, including renovating buildings for small business use.
“In attending the Design Place Mayor’s Summit in February of 2020, one thing that came up is the need to continually improve the downtown for livability in order to attract residents to this historic area, and to retain and attract young professionals. We really focused on this concept during DesignPlace.”
One area that suffers from stormwater runoff could be developed into a “stormwater park” similar to Birmingham’s Railroad Park but smaller in scale. Other proposals include better defining other gateways such as South Alabama Avenue leading into the downtown and planting trees to improve this area. Developing the Vanity Fair Dye House will also enhance Monroeville’s gateways, while providing an economic boost, she adds.
“This property, although not in the city’s Main Street district, is very accessible to the downtown and offers great options for development of an upscale motel property, rental properties and retail. The city has entertained several options for this almost 11-acre site.”
Connectivity was also discussed during DesignPlace, connecting neighborhoods with the downtown and neighborhoods to the parks. Monroeville has added sidewalks citywide and continues to do so, Smith notes, with the goal being to connect all of these areas and make them safe for walking, running and biking.
The annual “To Kill A Mockingbird” play was cancelled in 2020 and returns for limited performances beginning in May. In addition, a new play called “Hiram Becoming Hank” about music that influenced the young Hank Williams, is set for an April 2021 performance.
Monroeville needs more theatrical offerings for its young people and its residents, such as a community theater company, Smith says. A quilt museum and space for rotating exhibits and classes in the downtown was also discussed.
Lee and Capote continue to be a strong draw, she adds. The Old Monroe County Courthouse, home to the Monroe County Heritage Museum, was named a National Historic Landmark on January 13, 2021, because it’s the place most associated with Lee. Smith says there has also been discussion about a museum to dedicated to Lee and her writing. Capote and his legacy also offer “additional territory for expansion of local offerings.”
Article Written by Jessica Armstrong and Images Courtesy of DesignAlabama