Of all the public parks in Birmingham, Alabama, Rhodes Park is the most magical. Like an abandoned circus ground, the park greets its wayward visitor with sad, yet reminiscent shapes and colors of happy times from the past. Glass bell lamps and scattered stone pathways seem to wander aimlessly over the hilly terrain. The paths seem as lost in the setting of the park as the children of Rhodes Circle are now.
Rhodes Park is located in the Highland Avenue area, between 10th St., 13th St., and 28th & 30th Streets. The Birmingham Historical Society dates the park area to the periods between 1880-1930, including the houses and structures nearby. The park was named for Rufus Napoleon Rhodes in memory of his work around the turn of the century for founding the city’s newspaper, which would later evolve into The Birmingham News. Apparently, he built a mansion within Rhodes Circle (the area bordering the park) but his mansion has not survived to the present.
Rhodes Park was the first of the Highland Avenue area parks to be restored, according to the Highland Park Neighborhood Association. The restoration was unable to remove the sad and desolate feel the park exudes. Perhaps due to lack of interest or funds, restoration progress seems halted. The Park’s sign now lies abandoned behind a tree; glass beer and rum bottles litter the grounds, and the parks’ maintenance crew has allowed the foliage to take over, regressing back to an environment of weeds, rotting trees, and grassless patches of cigarette-littered dirt.
Although Rhodes Park is past her prime regardless of her restoration, several notable features unique to this park beckon to be acknowledged. To start, the concrete structures within the park are decorated with various tiles, almost all of which are still intact. There is a “reflecting” or wading pool within the center of the park; unfortunately, at some point in the park’s demise, the pool was filled with dirt, gated, and turned into a giant planter. Weeds crawl around the sides of the round pool where once children’s toes tested the sun-warmed water. The giant urn atop the pool once reflected the water underneath it; today the urn sits proudly atop the giant flowerpot, serving as an ominous receptacle of memories.
Lastly, amidst the concrete and stone structures stands a tiny wooden door built into a concrete pavilion wall. Oddly out of place, the door reaches no more than three feet high, and is today adorned with graffiti and a lock. This door is rumored to have led to the mansions across Highland Avenue, in order for the children to pass from their houses into the park freely and directly. Tunnels under Highland Avenue and the park connected the major residences around Rhodes Circle to this little door, perfectly sized for a young child. Today the door remains closed and the tunnels have no doubt long been filled. But the little door stands testament to a time when children ran back and forth underneath Highland Avenue, through child-sized tunnels, opening a door to the greatest circus on earth.