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Birmingham: Killing a landmark to save a landmark

By Scott Buttram

As 2013 closes, so will one of Birmingham’s most enduring landmarks. Today, Lyric Hot Dogs and Grill will serve its last dog and the last Greek hot dog stand still owned by the family that opened it will close for good. There will be only one remaining Greek-owned hot dog stand in a downtown that was once littered with them.

Diners line up for Lyric hot dogs on the final day of operation after 56 years in downtown Birmingham.

The business was given 90 days to vacate by landlord Birmingham Landmarks after 56 years in the same location. The forced closure is because the nonprofit wants the space for its renovation of the vaudeville era Lyric Theater.

John Collins opened Lyric Hot Dogs in 1956, one of many Greek immigrants to do the same downtown, and his son Andrew took over in 1971. From one of the South’s most bustling cities to a virtual ghost town in the 1990s to a renaissance of late, the popular restaurant had seen — and survived — it all.

During the 30 years that the Lyric Theater sat empty and decaying while housing only pigeons, the hot dog joint kept jumping.

I don’t know if Birmingham made the hot dogs with its tangy sauce famous or if the Greek immigrant specialty made the city famous. I do know that the two are synonymous with each other and have been for generations. I don’t believe it had to end this way.

Two sidewalks and Third Avenue North

Looking out of the window of the restaurant is to look directly into the door of Birmingham Landmarks, Collins’ landlord. All that separates the two entities are two sidewalks and a city street. That short distance could have changed the outcome of the restaurant’s demise.  But no one crossed the street.

Birmingham Landmarks is the nonprofit owner of the Alabama Theater and the Lyric Theater. The late Cecil Whitmire had been the catalyst behind restoring the Alabama when the city of Birmingham was dying around the classic building. Against all odds, Whitmire and the nonprofit organization brought the splendor back to The Show Place of the South.

A former organist at the Alabama, Whitmire had a love for the old theater that was palatable. He scrounged up support for the project by touching people’s souls and their human spirit. He connected nostalgia to civic duty and the resources came. The theater today is a thing of beauty, magnificent in its original  glory.

Lyric Hot Dogs and Grill property owner Birmingham Landmarks is directly across the street from the restaurant.

When Collins’ lease ended a year ago, he asked Brandt Beene, executive director of Birmingham Landmarks, for a new lease. He asked about the future of his restaurant. He was given the runaround, but he held out hope.

Collins, in an interview with Weld for Birmingham, said he had been told there would be a place for him.

“It was a surprise because they’d been telling me that I was going to be staying,” Collins told Bri Bruce of Weld.

“We never told Andrew that he was a fixture,  that he would be here forever, that he was in no danger of having to move,” Beene said in the same article.

But other Lyric Hot Dogs  employees had witnessed the conversations more than once, employees like the 13-year manager of the restaurant, Cynthia Hamilton.

“[Beene] said he was working on the lease every time he came in,” Hamilton told Weld. “Andrew would say, ‘Y’all not going to put me out, are y’all?’ ‘No, we’re working on it, we’re working on it. We got you.’”

What isn’t in dispute is that no one from Birmingham Landmarks ever crossed those two sidewalks and one city street to discuss the situation with Collins until Beene showed up to tell him that he had 90 days to vacate.

The human side

Though some have suggested that this story is about restoring the Lyric Theater or saving Lyric Hot Dogs, it isn’t. It was never an either-or proposition. I haven’t met anyone who thinks restoring the theater is a bad idea. Collins, who held a fundraiser for the project, may be one of the biggest supporters.

What Beene and Birmingham Landmarks board chairman Danny Evans seemed to miss in their dodges, denials and legalese is the human aspect. That oversight has led to an uprising on social media and a backlash that has cast a dark cloud over an otherwise worthy project. It has also cost the city an institution.

Andrew Collins bought Lyric from his father in 1971.

This isn’t about a hot dog or a business. This is about human beings and how they should be treated, not about how to protect an organization from litigation.

This is about the absurdity of a 90-day notice after 56 years.

Andrew and his late wife Cathy poured their hearts and souls into Birmingham for more than 40 years. Hamilton has raised a family working full time at the restaurant for more than a decade. Leah Maggengale had dreamed of taking over her parents’ restaurant one day and being the third generation owner.

These are real people with real lives that deserved respect. Birmingham Landmarks gave them none.

There was a hastily called meeting by REV Birmingham, formerly Operation New Birmingham, when the chili hit the fan and the public exploded with its displeasure. The meeting was supposedly to bring both sides together to discuss options.

In reality, the meeting was nothing more than a meaningless public relations show. A meeting of this kind a year earlier may have brought about different results.

The renovation of the theater will continue. There is little doubt that it will result in a beautiful restoration. But the scar of another landmark will forever be visible.

As for Birmingham Landmarks, the absence of a humanistic Cecil Whitmire has never been more glaringly evident.

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