Talk of the Town - Revival skills November 06 2002

One bedroom loft/condo in Old Fourth Ward

The two-story,
cinderblock condos on Ralph McGill Boulevard in the Old Fourth Ward are evidence of the area's slow revival. The small seven-unit development attracted Jeff Wheeler two years ago when he was looking for a place in town. He liked the industrial feel — and the fact that they were new, small and quiet, and just a few minutes from Virginia-Highland, Midtown and downtown.

Inside, it's just big enough for a living room and a kitchen, and a spiral staircase leads up to a lofted bedroom. Plus, he transformed his postage-stamp-sized back yard into a peaceful Zen garden that doubles as a swath of nature for his black Labrador retriever, Disco Bear.

CL: The back yard looks simple, but I bet it took a lot of work.

Wheeler:Yeah. This place used to be a bike shop and small engine repair shop, so when we began digging, I found all kinds of parts that had been buried for years. I only kept one thing I found. [He hands me a crumpled metal plate that looks like a child's failed attempt at creating a paper airplane.] There's two-and-a-half tons of Tennessee stacked stone that I wheelbarrowed back here.

So where there once was garbage, now there's goldfish.

Yeah. I wanted something peaceful back here. I have three goldfish. I had bullfrogs, but they died. And I feed the fish too much. The skinniest one is Bert; the fat one is Ernie; the speckled one's Oscar.

The grill looks like it could've been used here when this place was a working machine shop.

Yeah, the top of it is made from an old transmission case. A friend of mine welded it to a base. It's pretty simple.

How did you adapt to living in such a cozy, little loft?

I definitely wanted something small. When I lived in Memphis, I had a house with a pool. My weekends were always taken up by cleaning the pool, taking care of the yard. Now, I come back here and weed-eat the little grass I have. It allows me to have much more of a social life.

Do you ever have any problems in this area? I mean, it still has a less-than-savory nightlife, right?

Last year we had a series of break-ins to our cars. It was the same guy, and one night one of the neighbors caught him and chased him down the road. Since then, we haven't had any problems. It's actually a really quiet street.

And that motorized scooter I saw inside. Do you ever get around on it?

Yeah. I'll go up to Fellini's on Ponce or down to Piedmont Park. I do a lot of rock-climbing, and I'll go over to the place on DeKalb Avenue, Wallcrawlers.

Seems like you must have some stories, motoring along Ponce on that.

Well, I do have one. One night I was a little drunk and riding around on it. I wiped out at the corner of Boulevard and North avenues at 1 a.m. I sat down in the street with all the drug dealers and prostitutes. They were all laughing at me, but it was fine. I had some interesting conversations.