The Cleaners sparks new life in Lakewood Heights
Adam Babar builds artistic collaboration out of a decaying space
The Cleaners appears abandoned upon first glance. Cracked asphalt in the parking lot, wire mesh protecting half the storefront, and strips of peeling white paint bear signs of neglect shared by countless buildings across the southeast Atlanta neighborhood of Lakewood Heights.
In July 2014, three local musicians began renovating the space as a blueprint for a community-driven artistic renewal, a model for sustainable development, and a realistic alternative to gentrification.
"This is where all the poor artists are moving after getting kicked out of East Atlanta Village because the rent was getting higher," Adam Babar says.
Babar moved to Reynoldstown six years ago and remembers the exodus of artists and musicians who, like himself, were forced out by aggressive development in an area previously defined by economic strife. His father has owned the Cleaners for about 30 years, but Babar handles most of the operations. The small patch of Lakewood Heights he inhabits represents an opportunity to prove economic growth and community engagement can coexist. "We want to make a comfortable space that is open for anyone to come to, where there's music and any sort of expression that anyone would want to put up there," David Gray says.
Gray, Babar, and John Cable were the first tenants in the upstairs portion of the Cleaners. The three faced a significant hurdle when they decided to renovate the building. The roof had fallen in, holes littered the floor, and leftover trash from squatters was abundant even though half of the downstairs still functioned as a normal dry cleaning business.
"We were told it was haunted when we first moved in," Babar says. He chalks up the ghost stories to the hurried footsteps of squatters.
Babar, Gray, and recent tenants Daniel Betts and Daniel Bailey make up a portion of the local genre-defying nine-piece known as Faun and a Pan Flute. Cable also has a foothold in Atlanta's art scene as a contributor at the Goat Farm Arts Center. They originally plotted to find a space on South Broad Street to host Faun rehearsals, art exhibitions, and a reading room. The Mammal Gallery, an emerging DIY space on the same street, was an early inspiration and model of success they sought to emulate.
"The Mammal Gallery had created something amazing in a place that had been forgotten," Gray says. "That was, for me, why I had the motivation to do this." Contacting the owners of South Broad Street's abandoned storefronts proved difficult, and renovating a partially functioning building in an economically depressed part of town became the most viable option.
There was an important advantage to the Cleaners besides cheap rent and a family connection. The four viewed the space as a blank slate, free from the influence of landlords. "If you bought some place that was already fixed up, then you wouldn't have the freedom to do whatever you wanted to with the space," Gray says. "Not only are we renovating it, we're shaping it."
The artistic and managerial liberties help to balance the intimidating amount of work still remaining.
Downstairs a musty room half-filled with rusted machinery, forgotten clothes, and miscellaneous trash sits parallel to the functioning portion of the Cleaners. A lone extension cord jutting out from the clutter is the only evidence of the few shows held in the room. "It's a little dangerous to throw shows here right now," Babar says.
Danger aside, the room represents one of Babar's most ambitious goals: creating an all-inclusive reading area, listening space, and art gallery.
An abandoned, box-shaped storefront adjacent to the Cleaners will be his trickiest challenge. The tiny store, Babar has dubbed it the "safer space," has no power, no water, and a tangled web of rusted pipes take up an entire corner of the main room. Still, performers ranging from comedians to slam poets have already taken the stage with crowds spilling onto the street.
A safe, inclusive, and mindful atmosphere is central to the Cleaners' ethos, though it's not obvious from the safety hazards plaguing nearly every room. One of its defining features will be the absence of a venue mainstay: booze.
Unlike many established and DIY spaces, Babar, Bailey, and Gray emphasize the importance of no alcohol sales. "Usually you go to a venue and drink a lot of beer, get hype, and go home," Gray says. "We want to have a spot where people can come and continue to critically engage."
The music recorded there reflects the push and pull of inclusion and inner-city anxiety. Faun and a Pan Flute has started to use the Cleaners as its writing and rehearsal home base. "As far as Faun goes, I think that the room we write the music in does play into what we're doing, but I couldn't describe it," Bailey says. "Compositionally, I think it's mostly unconscious."
Suffer Dragon, the side project of Babar and Betts, absorbs the clanging murmur outside in more literal ways. When recording, Babar often leaves in the outside clatter of blaring car alarms, arguments from passers-by, and the unending roar of traffic. "If we're recording and outside noises pick up, I think it should be part of the music because it was part of what was happening when I was recording it," Babar says.
That spirit of engagement makes the space an important outlet for community outreach in a neighborhood blighted by urban decay. Less than a mile southwest of the Cleaners, a sign welcomes all those who enter "Lakewood Heights, Holistic Health Oasis." Finding evidence of that oasis is difficult. The sign precedes the massive Aaron's Amphitheater, followed by a string of vacant storefronts, lonely parking lots, and sprawling warehouses.
The history of Lakewood Heights shares a common narrative with many inner-city Atlanta neighborhoods. A 1998 redevelopment plan from the Georgia Conservancy titled "Workshop 2 Lakewood Heights" details how the neighborhood has "suffered from several decades of outmigration of population, business and jobs to the suburbs."
The suburban migration in turn left Lakewood Heights with failing infrastructure, vacant buildings, and a patchwork of socioeconomic woes. The plan becomes more optimistic, and commends the neighborhood's "dedicated residents, friendliness, and loyalty to the community." The success of the Cleaners as a positive member of the community hinges on its ability to incorporate and centralize that loyalty. "Ideally we don't exclude anybody," Bailey says. "In a way, we're already intruding."
They initially feared upsetting neighboring families with noisy concerts and the often dissonant sounds of Suffer Dragon's and Faun's music. "There's lots of older folks and families and we're these seemingly rowdy kids," Bailey says.
Signs of resistance have been sparse, but troubling. An attendee at one early concert was punched in the face by an attacker. On another occasion a friend's moped was stolen. Yet overall, the surrounding community has supported the Cleaners' cause. One local landlord, George Petrandis, was immediately impressed with the Cleaners' early renovations and bought the adjacent "safer space." He handed Babar the keys to the building that same week. "He wants us to turn it into a coffee shop/venue/pop-up shop/gallery space," Babar says.
Another landlord, Carrie Amestoy, let Babar choose the tenants for her empty rooms. Now in addition to the majority of Faun, members of Warehouse, Red Sea, Polish Nails, and Hellier Ulysses have found a new sanctuary in the low-cost opportunities of Lakewood Heights. The neighborhood's most high-profile transplant, however, is Lonnie Holley. Roughly two years ago the lauded folk artist and musician bought two storefronts across the street from the Cleaners to use as recording and art spaces. His manager, Matt Arnett, lives near Lakewood Heights and originally brought Holley out to witness the community's warmth.
Holley's work engages the same core of creative sustainability central to Babar's ambitions. His sculptures give new life to discarded vestiges of civilization. Broken picture frames, exposed wires, and bits of scrap metal form surreal collages of recycled beauty. He first encountered Babar as he was throwing away stacks of hangers, urging him to stop. "Clothes hangers have always been apart of my art," Holley says. "I told Adam, let's not throw it away, and we created a project called 'Not Just a Hangar.'" Many of his makeshift sculptures adorn a neighboring community garden, adding a glimmer of vitality among the barbed wire fences nearby. Holley, along with everyone at the Cleaners, hopes to eventually develop the garden enough to open a farmers market.
Sharon Dennehy, owner of Nelson Street Gallery in Castleberry Hill, along with tattoo artist Miya Bailey, are plotting their own stake in Lakewood Heights' artistic renewal. In July, the pair plans to open Notch 8 Gallery in a large building only a few blocks away. Creating community in an unfamiliar place is nothing new to Dennehy. "I always hearken back to moving into the Virginia-Highland area," Dennehy says. "Back in the '80s people would say to me, 'Why do you want to live there?' Now look how that's grown and changed."
She plans to host art galleries, film screenings, art classes, and a few featured exhibitions each year. Her plans with Notch 8 Gallery mirror the same emphasis on collaboration central to the Cleaners.
Art galleries and experimental venue spaces are conspicuously absent from the meticulous list of recommendations in the Georgia Conservancy's redevelopment plan. There's a small mention of an "artwork display," but mostly Lakewood Heights' assessed needs boil down to better housing, more job opportunities, and a greater police presence. Yet the benefits of arts-oriented public spaces for struggling communities are obvious to residents like Holley who have spent entire careers juxtaposing art and urban decay. "Anytime you add artistic elements to someone's daily trip to the bus, they are more likely to participate and feel free to do so," Holley says.
But Dennehy, Holley, and the team behind the Cleaners fear success more than failure. "The last thing I would want to happen here is the starting of a snowball of gentrification," Bailey says.
Babar and company want to develop their small patch of Lakewood Heights, but in a markedly different way than the condo-heavy monochromatic landscape spreading throughout East Atlanta. As members of the new wave of artists in Lakewood Heights, they hold a unique power to mold collaborative spaces and shape the blighted landscape. "It's important to curate what is going to happen so no one gets removed, neglected, or stripped of their home because we came here and started something that got out of hand," Bailey says.
Dennehy is also hyper-sensitive to the possibility of sparking a wave of gentrification across the neighborhood. "I feel like the creatives come in, and part of that is wonderful and leads to progress, but then it gets oversaturated and overdeveloped," she says.
Gray concedes the onslaught of mixed-use developments, creeping in like summer kudzu, isn't always bad. Those kinds of projects signal economic growth, new neighbors, and much-needed jobs.
"The problem arises when someone comes in to develop something and they don't have any knowledge of what was already there culturally and they have no interest in it either way," Bailey says.
The backbone of inclusive and economically viable development begins with a conversation. When Dennehy started planning Notch 8 Gallery, she talked with neighbors and assessed their needs, hoping to create a space for established artists and beginners alike. The act is simple, common sense, and crucial for integrating within the community. Like Notch 8, the Cleaners is still a work in progress. Babar has to decide where to dispose heaps of trash and ancient machinery before any condo developers start knocking on the decaying wooden door out front. But the formidable amount of remodeling ahead is secondary to the belief that development means growing within the existing means.
More than anything else, the community-driven ethos of Lakewood Heights' new breed of creative developers will transform bygone buildings, overgrown lawns, and industrial eyesores into an artistic rebirth.
Video shot by Dustin Chambers | Produced by Chad Radford and Joeff Davis