BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The past is jumbled on the lot like the yard sale time forgot: rusted iron works, chipped lawn sculpture, old gas pumps, and chrome bath fixtures, sheltered by trees and invaded by creeping vines.
The neglect is essentially an act. Everything at the resto-bar The Garage, collected by owner Fritz Woehle, is for sale. Too crowded to be bucolic, the patch comes alive at night. In the daytime, the lunch crowd shares it with stray cats the staff has nicknamed.
Built on railroads and iron and scarred by racial violence, Birmingham is seeking to rise out of the ashes of its past and draw young people. Already a haven for recent college grads in tech jobs who are drawn by the residential bang for their buck, Birmingham seems to have decided that the best way forward is by building on what came before. For one, the railroad district is being redeveloped as lofts and art spaces.
''That railroad has always divided the town," says Hugh Hunter, who, with his three brothers, founded the city's artspace called WorkPlay. ''Now the goal of the railroad district redevelopment is to bring people together."
The jarringly ugly sepia towers of Sloss Furnaces, on the railroad tracks that birthed the city, host live music and parties. The place draws on its iron-producing past to be a center for metal arts instruction.
Many Birmingham residents are defensive about the city's tarring as a capital of racial hatred.
''We suffer so much from our past," says Jeff Tenner, 36, who owns Soca, a boho-glitter clothing store in the Five Points South neighborhood.
But for better or worse, young people may be only dimly aware of that past.
''When people my age thought of Birmingham, we thought of the worst troubles of the civil rights movement," says Alan Hunter, 48, a film and music impresario at WorkPlay. ''While it was the ground zero for dogs and hoses, it was also the ground zero for civil rights successes. But there's a new generation that doesn't have a memory of all that."
The stunning Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of the 1963 bombing that killed four black girls, and it serves as a potent reminder of everything that happened here. But the city's younger generation, says Alan Hunter, is able to get past the city's ''low self-esteem" to forge something creative.
A Birmingham native who became one of the original MTV VJs, Hunter abandoned New York and Los Angeles to try to introduce artistic revitalization to his hometown. He dreams of making it a ''smaller Austin" -- a center for indie entertainment, especially film, partially buttressed by technology dollars. WorkPlay seeks to be the mother lode of that dream; it is the product of the Hunter brothers' pooling resources to convert a warehouse into a music stage, a bar, several studios, and offices for media and entertainment companies.
The brothers say that technology and increased mobility have allowed for the decentralization of arts and entertainment, giving young creative people the opportunity to live wherever they want. ''A creative class isn't necessarily looking for a big city as much as a great living experience," says Hugh Hunter.
The city's urge to attract and keep a younger crowd is palpable. The Chamber of Commerce convened a ''Cool Community Task Force," hiring a consultant who specializes in helping cities become friendlier to the so-called Generation Y. Catalyst for Birmingham (www.catalyst4birmingham.com) has more than 600 members dedicated to the motto ''hip to be civic."
Tim McDermond, 24, and Josh Billue, 26, University of Georgia graduates, looked all over the Southeast before choosing Birmingham. They now own Zydeco, Birmingham's second-oldest music club, which hosts performers of ''the type of music ignored by arenas -- Americana, bluegrass," says Billue. (The city's oldest venue, The Nick Rocks, resembles nothing so much as an abandoned country shack, studded with thousands of staples and broken hubcaps.)
Calling Birmingham ''a big small town," Billue says its youthful contingent is growing. It has also retained some of its old-school quaintness, he adds: ''Unlike a lot of cities, we haven't gone totally corporate yet."
The Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, held annually in September, has helped generate interest in an arts scene. There are plenty of local films, but Alan Hunter, who is active in the festival, says the goal is to ''extend beyond the shoeless poor image of the South."
The restaurant scene here is hailed as the best in Alabama. Driven by the vision of star chef Frank Stitts, most of the forward-thinking restaurants are ''Southern Progressive," or as Todd LaPort, 36, puts it, ''Eighteen-dollar fried chicken with fancy mashed potatoes." LaPort manages Los Angeles, a pan-Latin spot on a Lakeside block of upscale south-of-the-border restaurants. Another standout, Chez Lulu, in semi-suburban Mountain Brook, is an amazingly cozy restaurant-bakery with fresh, high-quality Mediterranean food.
The bars that fill with young people are mostly concentrated in the Lakeside and Five Points South neighborhoods. In the former, Innisfree Pub draws recent University of Alabama graduates who remember frequenting its Tuscaloosa branch near their alma mater.
The nearby Barking Kudu bar is in a converted dry cleaning building decorated with stuffed antelopes and Zimbabwean hippopotamus skeletons from co-owner Crawford Williams's safaris. The bar is named after an African antelope: Male kudus bark at night in search of mates. The nocturnal sounds at this bar are usually of the musical sort, though mate-seeking isn't off limits.
Contact Irin Carmon, who writes about student travel for the Globe, at [email protected].