Scarecrow: What have you learned, Dorothy?
Dorothy: Well, I—I think that it, that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em — and it’s that — if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?
—The Wizard of Oz
Is there anybody out there who can tell me what that means? I have to be honest and admit that it’s never made sense to me. I will say, though, that Dorothy and I have something in common. We sometimes tend to take home for granted, but when we think about it, it has a special place in our hearts.
I took a walk today on one of my favorite streets, Highland Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a beautiful spring afternoon and Highland is one of the best streets for walking I know. If I stumbled across someplace similar while traveling in another city, I’d be enchanted. For those of you who aren’t from Birmingham, it’s in an older neighborhood that fell upon hard times for a while (every city has at least one of those) and has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. There are parks, restaurants with outdoor seating, arguably the most beautiful church in town, a staircase that always makes me want to round up six others and turn into the von Trapp children, and people. Always people—walking, jogging, sitting on benches, stretched out on blankets, with and without baby strollers or dogs.
There are also trees, lot of trees. Years ago, I remember glancing through the real estate section of the paper and seeing an ad for a new subdivision. The amenities included streetlights, sidewalks and three trees per house. I was stunned. When did a sidewalk become an amenity? When did a tree become an amenity? Hugh Martin didn’t think a tree was an amenity. The songwriter who composed the music for Meet Me in St. Louis and a number of other films was originally from Birmingham. He wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” while staying in Birmingham and years later, at Frank Sinatra’s request, came up with a new final line, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” He wrote that line while walking down Highland Avenue, gazing up at the trees.
One of the restaurants on Highland is Bottega, owned by Frank Stitt. He’s been nominated and/or received a zillion, more or less, culinary awards. His flagship restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill, has been nominated at least seven times for the James Beard award for Outstanding Restaurant in the United States. Just off Highland is Hot and Hot Fish Club. It’s been named one of the best restaurants in the South and the chef, Chris Hastings, beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. (He had tomatoes brought up from Alabama for the contest because he didn’t trust the ones in New York. Anybody from the South is nodding at this point and agreeing that this was probably a good idea.) Also, either on Highland or within spitting distance, you can find great Indian, Thai, Chinese, Mexican or barbecue. We eat well in Birmingham.
I walked Highland today and tried to look at all these things as if I were seeing them for the first time. It helped me remember that where I live really does have some very special places.