MARY KATHRYN CARPENTER
Ask almost any Alabama student; it’s nearly impossible to top a quintessential football Saturday. Between the tailgate jungle of the Quad, the unrivaled energy of the Strip, and the constant whirl of fans surrounding the stadium, students – both those who are eager to participate and those who simply can’t escape the mania – block off their calendars for months of the year to join in the festivities. But when the last RVs leave town and Bryant Denny closes its doors, how do students fill the gaps of second semester?
The blank Saturdays offer possibilities to escape the norm of a sleep-late, go-to-the-library, grab-some-dinner routine; we just have to tap into the resources of our own backyard.
A five-minute drive from the heart of campus across the Black Warrior River invites students to uncover a hidden gem nestled along Main Avenue in Northport. Art galleries, hundred-year-old stores and local restaurants line the street, harboring a tucked-away community of local residents who are exceedingly creative and passionate about the essence of their town.
“Tuscaloosa has a great art scene that’s little known,” said Emily Conner, an Honors College professor who teaches several English classes in addition to the UH Seminar, Let’s Grow. “I always try to convince students to explore outside of campus in Tuscaloosa.”
Conner parts her time between teaching and helping out her friend Jessica Peterson, owner of the Northport letterpress shop, The Southern Letterpress. Smart postcards, clever stationary, and crafty poems fill the narrow carriage-style shop, perfect as gifts or additions to your own personal collection. Also, the products appeal economically just as much as they do aesthetically, adhering to a college budget with most items priced under $10.
“Letterpress printing is an art you can afford,” Conner said.
Right around the corner from The Southern Letterpress rests one of Tuscaloosa’s proudest features: the Kentuck Art Center. Each October, hundreds flock to Tuscaloosa from every corner of the country for the Kentuck festival to celebrate the rich heritage seeped in Alabama’s folk art culture. The downtown center continues the legacy throughout the year, offering collectables, pottery, jewelry and art in its colorful downtown gallery.
Last year, the museum relocated down the street from their Main Avenue storefront in the Georgine Clark building while undergoing renovations. Their “Courtyard of Wonders” rests adjacent to the two in a grassy lot speckled with walkways between different artists’ workshops and featuring art nodding to Kentuck’s tastes. Visitors can meander through the courtyard and catch the artists at work molding pottery or welding iron; their wares commissioned both by local patrons and admirers throughout the rest of the country and the world.
“It’s unusual,” said Kentuck vendor Steve Davis. “There’s not many art centers in Alabama like it. It’s an extension of the festival year-round.”
Davis, a self-taught metalworker of Sunheart Metalworks, began what he calls “the work of the mind, hands and heart” 26 years ago and now sends his pieces as far as London’s Globe Theatre. His wares are scattered throughout Tuscaloosa as well, recognizable at the Children’s Hands On Museum, The University of Alabama’s campus, and on signage throughout downtown Northport, contributing to the neighborhood’s individuality that draws students away from the bustle and commercialism at campus’ perimeter.
Students exchange their fast food routine for an original dining experience at the newly revamped On a Roll — located at the former Fifth and Main — or Billy’s Bar and Grill, finishing off the day with an iced cookie from Mary’s Bakery. You’ll have to wait on a trip to City Café for a weekday lunch or breakfast since the classic restaurant is closed on Saturdays.
Northport twists the typical Saturday, inviting students to dodge the campus crowds and support local businesses all without wasting a tank of gas. Students cut right to the experience as soon as they pull off Lurleen Wallace Drive, whether they’re looking for art, food, or simply a day spent exploring the streets of somewhere new.
“Its very refreshing to experience the town beyond the college scene,” said Sarah Dodson, a sophomore Honors College student. “Simply wandering in different stores, courtyards, and restaurants in downtown Northport adds flavor to the Tuscaloosa I already know and love.