Atlanta City Series

Historic Atlanta Is Dead. Can These Young Creatives Revive It?

April 24, 2015, 8:34 a.m.

AT­LANTA—A goat­eed man named Klimchak chants, ac­com­pa­ny­ing him­self with beats on the bowl that he’s us­ing to mash up chick­peas to make enough hum­mus for the 20 self-de­scribed cre­at­ive refugees in his audi­ence. Gathered around tables in­side a dimly-lit barn, each of us has been giv­en a car­rot re­cord­er, which is pretty much what it sounds like—the mouth­piece of a re­cord­er, at­tached to a hol­lowed-out car­rot that has fin­ger holes. When every­one joins in, the res­ult in deaf­en­ing, though some­how har­mo­ni­ous. After a few minutes, both song and hum­mus are com­plete, and those car­rots are used in the ap­pet­izer for to­night’s five-course meal at the Goat Farm Arts Cen­ter. 

“You should see his oth­er shows,” says Al­lie Bashuk. She works here, and is draw­ing a multi-colored moun­tain on our table­cloth with some cray­ons. To­night’s per­form­ance is just a pre­view for staff and friends be­fore the show of­fi­cially opens. Klimchak still is work­ing out some kinks in the act. The syn­thes­izer on the wok didn’t co­oper­ate when he was fry­ing up shrimp for the main course, so he chanted some more.

If it’s not already ob­vi­ous, the Goat Farm isn’t a tra­di­tion­al arts cen­ter. Think of it more as a for-profit real es­tate com­pany and com­mune, with artists liv­ing and work­ing on a 12-acre in­dus­tri­al com­plex of brick build­ings that once were equipped to build cot­ton gins. The cen­ter rents out stu­di­os to 450 artists and star­tup en­tre­pren­eurs, tak­ing a por­tion of that in­come to sup­port 150 con­tem­por­ary arts shows each year—from gal­ler­ies and con­certs, to per­form­ances like the one from Klimchak. Though the neigh­bor­hood goes by a dif­fer­ent name today, it sits in an area west of Midtown that used to be known as Blandtown. The irony is not lost on the ec­cent­rics who oc­cupy the space.

Mark DiNat­ale, the cen­ter’s dir­ect­or of op­er­a­tions, com­bines the style of an urb­an cre­at­ive with the ci­vil­ity of a South­ern­er. Sit­ting in the War­horse, a cof­fee shop where cus­tom­ers pay what they want, we dis­cuss the vast re­devel­op­ment hap­pen­ing across At­lanta right now. The old haunts and neigh­bor­hoods where the cre­at­ive people used to live and work, he says, are get­ting priced out. 

“There’s this feel­ing that there’s no place for them,” he says in the con­ver­ted gar­age, as a black­smith works on his leath­er ap­ron a couple tables away. “The cre­at­ive class is try­ing to find a place in the city that they can call home.”

If DiNat­ale thinks of him­self as a refugee, then the Goat Farm is a refugee camp. And like many refugee camps, it’s at full oc­cu­pancy. But there’s a move­ment un­der­way among so­cial en­tre­pren­eurs, urb­an plan­ners, and artists across the city to re­vamp a for­got­ten part of At­lanta, and the Goat Farm’s high-dens­ity mod­el might have room to help.

South Down­town is a largely va­cant neigh­bor­hood a few blocks from Centen­ni­al Park. It was home to the old World of Coca-Cola and is now mostly pop­u­lated by gov­ern­ment build­ings and aban­doned store­fronts.

The neigh­bor­hood’s biggest at­trac­tion is Un­der­ground At­lanta, a cobble­stoned shop­ping cen­ter con­sist­ing of build­ings erec­ted dur­ing Re­con­struc­tion. Though Un­der­ground has gone through many lives over the past cen­tury—bust­ling cen­ter of the city, aban­doned stor­age area, night­life hot­spot, crime mag­net—the city has tar­geted it for ma­jor re­devel­op­ment. 

A new con­tract­or is gear­ing Un­der­ground’s new­est in­carn­a­tion to­ward res­id­ents in­stead of tour­ists. May­or Kasim Reed wants it to be “the liv­ing room for the com­munity,” he tells me, re­fer­ring to $200 mil­lion of planned pro­jects that could in­clude a mixed-use gro­cery and re­tail store for nearby Geor­gia State Uni­versity stu­dents. But be­fore any plan is fi­nal­ized for the neigh­bor­hood, that group of young urb­an in­nov­at­ors wants a say.

A block from Un­der­ground in the M. Rich Build­ing—which housed one of the first de­part­ment stores in the South, and where Mar­tin Luth­er King, Jr. was ar­res­ted for a sit-in—Ro­hit Mal­ho­tra and his team at the Cen­ter for Civic In­nov­a­tion are host­ing a work­ing group ses­sion for the South Down­town Ini­ti­at­ive. CCI tries to make the pub­lic sec­tor more ef­fi­cient and in­crease civic en­gage­ment by part­ner­ing with non­profits, so­cial en­tre­pren­eurs, and gov­ern­ment agen­cies that are work­ing on sim­il­ar is­sues. Or­gan­iz­ing a plan to re­vital­ize the very neigh­bor­hood where the or­gan­iz­a­tion is headquartered only makes sense.

With brick walls, hard­wood floors, and not a cu­bicle in sight, the cas­u­al work­space is the per­fect set­ting to start build­ing a com­munity plan. The couple dozen people in the room have seen what a lack of com­munity en­gage­ment in re­devel­op­ment has done across At­lanta. Sur­really ar­ti­fi­cial neigh­bor­hoods with brand new con­domin­i­ums and fancy stores like At­lantic Sta­tion are scoffed at for not be­ing more em­blem­at­ic of this city. In South Down­town, they may be able to avoid that kind of re­devel­op­ment.

“We can dream up and ima­gine what the his­tor­ic cen­ter of At­lanta can be,” Mal­ho­tra, the founder and ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of CCI, tells the group of vo­lun­teers, who are tak­ing ad­vant­age of the free pizza be­fore the col­lege-like, late-night brain­storm­ing ses­sion be­gins. “Those de­cisions can­not hap­pen in silos. It can’t hap­pen with one per­son mak­ing a de­cision. It can’t hap­pen with a group of people mak­ing a de­cision. It must be a com­munity pro­cess.”

The room splits up in­to three groups: coders who are build­ing an on­line map of the neigh­bor­hood’s as­sets with the help of Code for At­lanta; people mak­ing a story map to tell the his­tory and fu­ture op­por­tun­ity of area, led by a wo­man who works at the Car­toon Net­work; and folks find­ing ways to have more people fill out a Google form that asks At­lantans what they cur­rently think of South Down­town, what they want it to be­come, and how the area can ex­pand.

Mal­ho­tra leads the third group. In Vans sneak­ers and an or­ange zip-up, he asks his group to find ways to reach out to new people. There are no dumb ideas in this ex­er­cise, he says. Each idea is shouted out, goes on a Post-it note, and is then dis­played on the board be­hind him. He sets the timer for 10 minutes, and they be­gin.

“Block party!”

“Can­vassing!”

“Tar­geted Face­book ads!”

“Candy!”

“Come on,” Mal­ho­tra in­ter­rupts. “Get cra­zi­er!”

“Skate­board­ing parade!”

“Llama chase!”

While their ef­forts may be dif­fer­ent than the ini­ti­at­ive run by CCI, the Goat Farm is be­hind the same goal to re­vital­ize South Down­town. Fol­low­ing our din­ing/per­form­ance art ex­per­i­ence, Bashuk de­scribes the Goat Farm’s South Down­town ini­ti­at­ive, which they’re call­ing Beacons. In­stead of bull­doz­ing over the beau­ti­ful, old build­ings in the area, she wants to work with landown­ers to ren­ov­ate empty spaces, em­bra­cing the his­tory, and bring­ing in artists who can build a new com­munity.

“It’s worked here, and why it’s worked here is be­cause it’s been or­gan­ic,” Bashuk says. “When you bring in a bunch of artists in­to derel­ict spaces, they feel like they have a lot of liberty to do whatever they want. And they do it at low cost.”

The Goat Farm would join some of the artists that have already made their way to South Down­town, in­clud­ing those at the Mam­mal Gal­lery. Across the street from a half-empty build­ing that fea­tures a mur­al say­ing, “I’m not a play­er, I just read a lot,” the art space has brought a hip­ster crowd to an oth­er­wise un­in­hab­ited block.

Bri­an Egan, one of the guys who launched the space in Septem­ber 2013, looks for­ward to the day when the bar­ren street which the gal­lery sits will have all the amen­it­ies of an art dis­trict, where people could do some win­dow shop­ping, get cof­fee, and look at used re­cords. People, he says, need to take a risk and cre­ate something new out of the un­as­sum­ing prop­er­ties. His build­ing used to be a gay nightclub, but it had the bare es­sen­tials to make an amaz­ing art gal­lery—bars on both floors, a lot of open space, big win­dows to bring light in.

“It was too beau­ti­ful a space to pass up,” he says. “In gentri­fic­a­tion, I feel like artists are brought in first be­cause they have the vis­ion to see what a space can be­come be­cause they’re cre­at­ive people. They don’t see a mess. They see po­ten­tial awe­some space.”

No one knows this bet­ter than Dash­board Co-Op, a non­profit that brings art in­stall­a­tions to va­cant prop­er­ties. Be­fore the Mam­mal Gal­lery even moved in, Dash­board oc­cu­pied the space in 2012 for their show “No Va­cancy.”

For three weeks, two artists who didn’t know each oth­er were not al­lowed to leave the build­ing as they ren­ov­ated the former nightclub and cre­ated a show. They were giv­en pre­paid cell phones they could use to ask for food and sup­plies, which ap­par­ently in­cluded 50 gal­lons of horse lub­ric­ant. Clear­ing rooms and pulling up car­pet, they found syr­inges, rats, con­doms, two pool tables, a Galaga ma­chine, and a dun­geon. When they fin­ished, they per­formed a vign­ette and showed off the first floor, painted floor-to-ceil­ing in pink and peach zig­zags. After a month­long show­ing, the Mam­mal Gal­lery guys moved in.

Beth Malone, one of Dash­board’s cofounders, says their shows can have pro­found ef­fects on the spaces they take over. “What piece of the gentri­fic­a­tion pie do we have?” says Malone, sit­ting in her new gal­lery near Geor­gia Tech, which fea­tures a mold of a po­lice cruis­er with pages from the Mi­chael Brown grand jury testi­mony crumpled up around it. “Let’s try to find places that are neg­lected. Where are the purse strings not show­ing up? Where are the city lead­ers not show­ing up? Where is civic im­prove­ment not hap­pen­ing? Let’s find those places and let’s bring art there. We con­nect people through the arts in un­as­sum­ing places.” (It’s a mod­el they’re tak­ing to De­troit for an up­com­ing show in an old pickle fact­ory.)

With the com­bined ef­forts of these mil­len­ni­als, there’s an un­usu­al po­ten­tial for this area right now. It’s a neigh­bor­hood where artists and so­cial en­tre­pren­eurs can both oc­cupy. And since the area is mostly un­in­hab­ited, they aren’t dis­pla­cing poorer pop­u­la­tions as hap­pens in so many oth­er cases of gentri­fic­a­tion. There are just about 400 people who live in South Down­town. Kyle Kessler, who works full-time at CCI on the ini­ti­at­ive, is one of them.

“South Down­town is the au­then­t­ic At­lanta,” Kessler says. “You might get a piece of the city when you’re at the World of Coca-Cola. You might get a piece of it at Pied­mont Park or the Belt­Line, or if you’re in some of the less eco­nom­ic­ally de­veloped parts of town. But this is where all that stuff col­lides.”

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