West Mobile. Where is it exactly? What comprises it? What are we to make of it? Questions like these periodically arise as Mobile continues to grow ever farther from the river upon which it was founded. Certainly West Mobile can be difficult to pin down. Though it is the offspring of a centuries-old downtown with a distinctive history, colorful traditions and evocative architecture, West Mobile has evolved so fast and over such a large area that it is still in the process of defining itself.
Even Old Mobilians weren’t sure what to make of West Mobile. During a 1980s interview, Eugene Walter, local Renaissance man and raconteur, recalled his 1920s Bayou Street childhood. In that world of straw boaters, banana ships, Royal Street department stores and animated porch life, anything west of Broad Street was terra incognita. At one point in the interview, Walter imitated his grandmother, shielding his eyes, staring into the distance and exclaiming, “Ooh! There’s Weinacker’s, and beyond that the Pacific Ocean!” Nothing else signified.
History didn’t stop at Broad Street, however, and during the mid-20th century the swamps west of Downtown were steadily drained and the piney woods cut down for roads, malls and large suburbs. The interstate highways, Bates Field and the University of South Alabama further contributed to Mobile’s western growth, and by the 1970s, what had once been an exotic, pocketed quasi-European town had transformed into a sprawling modern city inhabited by tens of thousands of people, many of them recent arrivals with no knowledge of or connection to the old river town of yesteryear.
And so today, the vast area encompassed by I-10 to the south, Moffett Road to the north, I-65 to the east and the Mississippi line to the west may be taken as West Mobile writ large. There are, of course, many mansions within this house – Semmes, Big Creek Lake, Spring Hill (emphatically not West Mobile by most people’s lights), Dawes, Cottage Hill and Tillman’s Corner. But more definition is clearly required, since Semmes and Tillman’s Corner, not to mention Spring Hill, are all fairly well defined on the map and in the mind. What do people mean when they say, “I live in West Mobile”? If we restrict ourselves to the present Mobile city limits, then perhaps the boundaries of Girby Road to the south, Howell’s Ferry Road to the north, University Boulevard on the east and Cody Road to the west make some kind of sense.
It might be said of West Mobile that its center is everywhere and its circumference nowhere. It is above all else new, and its traditions and rituals tend to be those of modern American life generally. When I drive down Airport Boulevard, out to Hillcrest Road, or into Sugar Creek, the vibe I get is of a busy, prosperous middle class going about its affairs. The houses are newer and look comfortable, the parks are spacious and green, and the stores and restaurants are attractive and clean.
Careful observation reveals West Mobile to be very much its own place, pleasingly Southern in atmosphere and temperament. To begin with, there are the trees – live oak, pine and palm. When my sister-in-law Julia flew into town on a visit some years ago from the Chicago area, her first impression upon stepping into the mild Mobile air was of a strong odor of pine. That ain’t Chicago. Big live oaks lend gravitas and charm to several West Mobile locales, none more so than that stretch of Cottage Hill Road, just west of the Beltline, where it rises into a delightful grove of majestic trees completely at odds with the commercialized intersections beyond. Then there are the azaleas and camellias that flourish in welcoming soil all over, enlivening thousands of front yards with electric pinks, reds and whites.
Nor should West Mobile’s architecture be summarily dismissed. Yes, the bulk of it is of more recent vintage than Downtown’s, but it is still interesting and noteworthy. Contemporary Mobile architecture is just waiting to be discovered. From local architect Arch Winter’s elegant “Mad Men” house in the Sky Ranch subdivision and the Beverly Motel on Government Boulevard with its neon diver to the beautiful homes peppered in the newer suburbs by talented contemporary residential architects like Pete Vallas and Craig Roberts, there is much to entertain and delight.
West Mobile does have character and color. Its scale and pace are modern, granted, but its soul is coastal and of a piece with the older place from which it grew.
John S. Sledge is the author of “The Mobile River, ” due this June from the University of South Carolina Press.
text by John s. sledge • photo by jeff and meggan haller