In many ways Atlanta was my introduction to cities and things urban, both as a child and as a young adult. When I was a youngster, my mom took regular business trips to Atlanta and my dad and I would often come down and meet her on the weekend. Atlanta was the first place I stayed in a high-rise “city” hotel (the Howell House, which is now a high-rise condo building just like everything else on Peachtree Street in Midtown) and the first place I visited giant downtown department stores like Davison’s and Rich’s (later Macy’s and Macy’s). In the early 1970s, there were even still mid-block streetcar strip supermarkets dating from the 1930s, which fed the obsession that later grew into Groceteria.
In college, Atlanta became a big road trip destination, both to see bands at the Fox and to visit queer bars like the original Weekends–bars that actually played good music rather than the dreary disco slop that dominated (and probably still dominates) the ones around here. It was fun to walk through Midtown in those days before it had been sanitized and lost any trace of texture and human scale. It was all very urban but also still comfortingly southern. In other words, you could still get collard greens, and Waffle House at 4AM was still an option. Here on Otherstream, there are also documented visits from 1997, 2001, and 2003.
My big fascination with American urban development centers on the period from the 1920s to the 1950s, a time which has alternately been described as urbanism’s pinnacle or its “last gasp.” For me, the fascination stems from the fact that it was such a period of transition for American cities as they moved from a pedestrian and transit orientation to an automobile-centered form. For a while, the two development models were able to survive side by side, if sometimes a bit warily. Eventually, urban renewal and white flight would destroy this coexistence in all but a few cities and neighborhoods, and the ones where it still exists are the ones I find most interesting. It’s possible to get a bit of this feel in certain parts of Atlanta and those are some of the parts I sought out on this trip (and that I seek out on most trips to most places).
In Atlanta, I always seem to gravitate toward the Ponce de Leon and Moreland Avenue corridors and all my detours somehow end up back here. They’re the parts of town that say “Atlanta” to me, particularly now that Midtown and Buckhead have been turned into generic “everything was built last week” pseudo-urban areas that could be (and are) found in any city from Houston to Charlotte. I had the obligatory vegetable plate at Mary Mac’s. And I always make a pilgrimage to Wax n’ Facts, a record store I’ve been visiting for almost thirty years now that’s also home to the DB Recs label and to whatever is currently inside the old A&P store that masqueraded as a Piggly Wiggly in Driving Miss Daisy.
I also like the slightly dowdy Cheshire Bridge road area and finally dined at the Colonnade this trip. Suffice to say, the atmosphere is much better than the food itself. I used to stay at the adjacent Cheshire Bridge Motor Inn pretty regularly but I’m no longer that brave.
Research for Groceteria really promotes this and forces me to really get to know a city. It’s how I became familiar with SF in many ways and it’s been a big help in other cities too, now including Atlanta. I spent about ten hours in the library at Emory doing research that led to this and this. Research took me to neighborhoods I’d never visited before in South and East Atlanta–neighborhoods that lots of people would find a bit frightening. And yes, I approach every city I visit as a research project to some extent. It can be exhausting. That’s why I have historically preferred to travel alone–or at least one of the reasons.
I toured some outlying areas too, in search of adventure and old supermarket carcasses. On one of these drives, I also managed to meet up with Joseph and BJ for dinner. Joseph and I have been reading each other’s sites for many years (although his is regrettably no longer active) and we’d met only once before, accidentally in the Atlanta airport between flights. It was nice to have a chance to talk, meet BJ, and eat quite good Indian food.
It was a good trip. There will be more of these and (I hope) better documentation, just like in the old days, now that I’m traveling solo again.