Cover Story: I like south downtown Atlanta the way it is

I know SoDo is rundown, weird and a little scary. That’s why I love it.

I’m standing in Rondo, the spiritual goods store on Mitchell Street in downtown Atlanta. The shop is heavily perfumed, the sickly sweet scent of candles and various herbs, soaps, sprays and oils. Thin volumes line the tops of the vintage glass display cases: Unhexing and Jinx Removing, Famous Voodoo Rituals & Spells. At Rondo, you can purchase sprays to help you with a court case, find love or find steady work. You can buy Sampson Snake Root and Master of the Woods, two herbs to help you cast natural spells, or “keep away evil” soap. The ceiling tiles are water-stained and coming loose, the walls in the back corner are crumbling somewhat. This shop has been open 67 years, and it’s just one of many treasures to be found in these few blocks of downtown, a part of the city that many Atlantans look upon with unease, or fear, or pity.

Not me. Downtown Atlanta, don’t ever change.

I know it’s a naive sentiment, and in many ways it ignores numerous problems chronicled in the stories that surround this one. But it’s the way I feel. I have a real and ferocious love for the part of downtown that much of the rest of the city considers an embarrassment, something to be fixed.

I love the people, the vintage signs, the oddball stores. I love that downtown Atlanta has a street life. I love that, unlike the rest of the city, the businesses here are mainly individually owned, and in many cases downright weird. I love the wig shops, the grill purveyors, the church clothiers. I love the vintage claustrophobia of Fairlie-Poplar, like the buildings were built too close but made beautiful to compensate for it. There’s something about this part of town that feels so Atlanta, like there’s nowhere else on earth you could be. You can’t say that about Atlantic Station.

I fear for downtown Atlanta the way I feared for Times Square, back when it resembled the set for a post-apocalyptic fantasy, all deserted peepshow theaters with random poetry written on the marquees and randomer people wandering the streets. It was flawed and a little scary and also a bastion of authentic New York weirdness that is now dead forever, having given way to Disney megastores and corporate glitz. Times Square now has millions of visitors every year who spend millions of dollars on things they could probably get at the mall up the street from where they live in Ohio or Tokyo. But real New Yorkers loathe the new Times Square, despite the city touting its revitalization as one of the great achievements of the Giuliani era.

I’m not saying we should leave downtown Atlanta to crumble. All those signs I love, all those stores, need attention and restoration. I wonder if there’s some middle ground, some way that we can retain the flavor and personality of downtown as we help to lift it up, that much of our support go to mom and pop businesses rather than big developers. We’ve got enough boutique hotels. Cleaning house, getting rid of businesses like Rondo and Oh! My Nappy Hair to make way for Sephora and H&M would be a tragedy.

We need voodoo shops and wig stores and gold teeth purveyors far more than we need another mall. We need them far more than we need a “Times Square South” as well, which is exactly what developers are calling a proposed office building downtown that would include a video wall on its facade meant to evoke the feel of Manhattan’s gaudiest intersection.

Ugh. If that happened, I might just have to hex someone.