Sunday, November 18, 2012


Our country's recent election results have the cable and internet political pundits focused obsessively on the demographics of a "new America," while many long-time established political leaders struggle to understand the shifts that have happened in the past couple of decades.  The historical truth is, The United States has always been a land where newcomers arrive looking for opportunities and "The American Dream," and in doing so, they enhance the consistency of, and add new flavors to, our proverbial melting pot.   They become Americans, and to a degree, America becomes them. 

The next demographic shifts are always happening in different parts of the nation, and one place where the next shift is already taking root is the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston.  Located about twenty minutes to the east of downtown Atlanta, Clarkston has transformed in the past 25 years from a sleepy, unremarkable small railroad town on the edge of Atlanta, to, as the New York Times recently described it, "the most diverse square mile in America."

Clarkston was founded in the 1830s, when the Georgia Railroad built a line through, what was at the time, mainly goat farms, and the area was often referred to as Goatsville and Angora Heights.  General W.W. Clark was the director of the Georgia Railroad at the time of the railroad expansion, and Clarkston was named for him.  Through most of the 1900s, Clarkston grew slowly and quietly on the edge of Atlanta and most of its residents were long-time Southerners.  Then, in the early 1990s, Clarkston became designated by several federal and national refugee serving agencies as a good place to resettle newly-arrived refugees fleeing some of the world's most brutal regimes and horrifying wars.  They arrived by the thousands, from Ethiopia, Viet Nam, Burma, Bosnia, Congo, Eritrea, Bhutan, South Sudan, Nepal, Gambia, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Somalia, Kosovo, Burundi, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sierra Leone. There are now more than 60,000 refugees in Clarkston proper and the surrounding neighborhoods.  Clarkston High School teaches young people from over 50 nations, many of whom have survived unimaginable circumstances.   As a friend of mine, who is a City of Clarkston council member recently told me, "our school challenges aren't standardized tests...our challenges are more along the lines of how to help students who were child soldiers, or saw their grandparents murdered in front of them." 

As with every new ethnic group before, the newcomers in Clarkston are becoming settled, getting educated, and starting businesses.   There are Asian and African markets, Somali clothing stores, and its easy, in this small town, to find a restaurant serving Ethiopian, Eritrean, or Nepali cuisine.  There are Buddhist temples, multi-cultural mosques, and Baptist churches on the same street.  The Atlanta School for the Deaf, located in Clarkston, the remaining old-timers, and a thriving and growing LGBT community deepen the town's diversity even more.  And, just last year, Creative Loafing named Clarkston as one of the "coolest" neighborhoods in Atlanta, and described it as a "post-hipster nesting place," and a "punk rock retirement village."  Clarkston really is the world's small town.  

I've been chronicling Atlanta for over three years now, and this chapter really hits home for me, because I live in Dunaire, a next-door neighbohood to Clarkston, and so this is really about my stomping ground.   It is an exciting place to call home, and I love having the opportunity to watch the future of America take shape right in my backyard.  

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Candler Park

Atlanta is a Coke town.  Maybe, more accurately put - Atlanta is the city that Coke built.   Coca-Cola, one of the most recognizable logos on the planet, was invented here, is headquartered here, and employs a whole lotta people here.  But, not a lot of people know the Coke story. 

Back in 1885, an entrepreneurial druggist named John Pemberton, began selling his newly invented "Pemberton's French Wine Coca" to Atlanta's upper class.  Pemberton's carbonated alcoholic concoction was infused with several key ingredients - caffeine from the kola nut, a mild sedative in the form of damiana , and cocaine.  Pemberton sold his drink as a medicinal beverage to relieve the medical conditions, and suffering of the business class, brought on by the stress of living in Atlanta's urban environment.  In 1886, Atlanta passed temperance laws to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol, and the ever-clever Pemberton reformulated his beverage by removing the alcohol and calling it Coca-Cola.   In 1888, another business-minded drug store owner, Asa Candler, purchased the rights to the Coco-Cola name and formula for $2,300.  Candler was a master of marketing, and in just a few decades, Coca-Cola became an American icon, albeit, after 1903, a cocaine-free icon.  

Asa Candler made millions off of his Coca-Cola acquisition, and he gave much back to his beloved City of Atlanta.  He gave a million dollars and a land grant to Emory University, allowing the school to move from Oxford, Georgia to Atlanta.  He had built the Candler Building, still standing in downtown Atlanta, as well as the Candler Building in New York City's Times Square.  

In 1922, Asa Candler donated the 55 acres that are now known as Candler Park.  Shortly after, the beautiful neighborhood surrounding the park became generally known as Candler Park.  Just about 5 minutes east of Downtown Atlanta, Candler Park is bordered by Inman Park, Edgewood, Lake Claire, Druid Hills, and Little Five Points.

Candler Park is now one of Atlanta's landmark intown neighborhoods, and real estate prices are pretty steep.  The homes are wonderfully diverse - gorgeous Victorians, classic Craftsman bungalows, and some ultra-modern gems.  Just a stone's throw from Downtown Atlanta, Candler Park, like so many of Atlanta's neighborhoods, feels like a self-contained, charming little village.  The community flavor is decidedly progressive, with a heaping helping of hippie-ness.  Anti-war yard signs, pro-peace bumper stickers, odd lawn ornaments, and yoga studios abound.  As do warm smiles, and genuine "good morning" wishes from passing pedestrians. I'd wager there are more purple houses per square block here, than in any other part of town.  

Friendly, walkable, beautiful, full of quirky character and community mindedness, Candler Park is everything a neighborhood should be.  Neighbors sit on their front porches and shoot the breeze with each other, and meet up at Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party for tea, a pastry, and good conversation.  It's that sort of community that inspired me to get back to this project after a year-long hiatus.  Nearly 3 years into this journey, it's time to get back to chronicling Atlanta.  

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Poncey Highland

As a transplant from Miami to Atlanta, it's been hard for me to publicly speak of one of the main avenues in the city - Ponce de Leon Avenue. In Miami, of course, Ponce de Leon  is pronounced with a strong Spanish rhythm, and I spent years perfecting it. But, here in Atlanta, it's most often said as Pawntz-da-LEE-on. At some point, in the not too distant past, it must've been Poncey-da-lee-on, hence the neighborhood situated around the intersection of Ponce de Leon and Highland Avenue - Poncey Highland. 

Poncey Highland was established as a "trolley suburb" around the turn of the last century, and most of the residences date to between 1905 and 1930.  In 1914, the Ford Motor Company built a manufacturing plant, which was later used by the Air Force for storage, and in the 1980s was renovated as loft residences.  In 1939, the art-deco Plaza Theater was built and, as a sign of the changing times, became Atlanta's first theater and shopping plaza with off-street parking.  

In the 1960s, the Georgia Department of Transportation began to acquire land to build a massive highway system and cloverleaf right through Poncey-Highland and the Copenhill neighborhood to the east.  Residents organized, protested, and litigated against the destruction of their neighborhood, for many years.  In the early 1970s, then-Governor Jimmy Carter, was able to stop the project and save most of Poncey Highland - but not before the entire neighborhood of Copenhill was demolished.  The whole area declined, and the land where Copenhill had been sat vacant for nearly twenty years, until the opening of the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in 1986.  In 2000, Jimmy Carter was one of the ribbon-cutters for Freedom Park, which now meanders over the land that was once the Copenhill neighborhood.  In the 1990s, and 2000s, Poncey Highland rode the wave of in-town resurgence, and became one of the city's most desirable neighborhoods. 

Today, Poncey Highland is a perfect example of what makes Atlanta so cool.  It's an in-town neighborhood, with an laid-back urban village vibe, lots of beautiful big trees and green space, eclectic shops and hip hangouts, and mostly older residential architecture with lots of early 20th-century character.  In many ways, Poncey Highland is a transition neighborhood between slightly more affluent Virginia Highlands to the north and grittier Old Fourth Ward and Little Five Points to the south and east.  Poncey Highland residents tend to be well-educated, progressive, and fairly affluent, and there is a bit of a "grown-up hippie" thing going on.  It's not the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the city, with European-Americans as nearly 80% of the residents, but like a lot of in-town neighborhoods, there is a strong Gay presence, and a definite Gay-friendliness. 

There is a hidden Poncey Highland that I was lucky enough to stumble in to while exploring for this project.  I hiked along the BeltLine (which is currently a series of abandoned rail lines that circle the core Atlanta neighborhoods and are slated to be transformed into a light-rail system with connecting parks and green spaces) and got an uncommon back-side view of the neighborhood. A lot of the shots I've chosen for this post are views from, literally, off the beaten path, but I think they still share a lot of Poncey Highland's essence. 

It's been nearly two years since I moved to Atlanta from Miami, and as I've tried to show here, I'm still fascinated by the prominence of texture and reflection of Atlanta, as compared to Miami's love of shape and color.  

Friday, November 26, 2010

Avondale Estates

Atlanta is the business, spiritual, and cultural capitol of the South.  It's a city of stories and history and, at the same time, a symbol of the New South and dreams of the future.  And, maybe more than anything else, it is a city of distinct neighborhoods and diverse communities.  In exploring the neighborhoods and communities of the metro region, I keep being struck by how often I find myself in places that don't remotely resemble what I thought Atlanta would look like before I first visited.  Avondale Estates is most definitely one of those places.

About seven miles east of Downtown Atlanta, just beyond Decatur, at the turn of the last century, was a small village and a few large farms collectively known as Ingleside.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Ingleside was known for its idyllic country residences and farmlands, all so far from the bustle of the growing city. 

In 1924, almost all of the land in Ingleside was purchased by a wealthy Atlanta businessman by the name of George Francis Willis.  After a trip with his wife to picturesque Stratford-upon-Avon England, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, Mr. Willis found himself inspired to recreate a quaint English Tudor-style village in the heart of America's South - so he purchased the land and hired an engineer and an architect to help him carry out his vision.  He called his vision for the South's first planned community, Avondale Estates.  

Work started soon after the land was acquired.  Within two years, the streets were laid out and paved, a Tudor-style commercial center and nearly fifty residences were built, along with a community park and pool.  Just two years after that, a lake was created and seventy-five more homes, mostly English Tudor influenced, were completed.  Construction all but stopped through the Depression era.  In the years after World War II, Avondale Estates grew into one of Atlanta's most beautiful and affluent suburbs, and it remains so today.  In 1986, the Avondale Estates Historic District was offically listed in the National Register of Historic Places, due to its wonderfully unique architecture and history as the only planned model community in America's South.  

Today, Avondale Estates is home to about 2,700 people., and  the town is known for  community participation and organization.  It's not a particularly diverse community, ethnically speaking, and almost 90% of the residents are European-American.  It has, however, attracted a signficant number of gay and lesbian couples due to its growing repuation as a liberal community, as well as its proximity to gay-friendly Decatur.  Less than 3% of the population falls under the poverty line.  

Throughout this project, I keep returning to ideas of texture and reflection and color and shape as structural expressions of a community, and I found that all of these themes became prominent in my explorations of Avondale Estates.  The stark Tudor triangles, sensible English textures, and thoughtful autumn colors reflect an uncommon elegance.  While similarly somewhat affluent communities often feel pretentious and remote, Avondale Estates exudes warmth and a welcoming charm - and that is possibly what allows this English village to survive in the American Deep South.