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.
“Targeted Facebook ads!”
“Come on,” Malhotra interrupts. “Get crazier!”
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.”