Neighborhoods - How did Little Five Points get weird?
And how long can it stay that way?
When Pam Majors was a child, her father would come home each night with his truck filled with random items he'd purchased that day in metro Atlanta shops that were going out of business. Her parents would sift through the day's haul, which her dad would then sell in one of his salvage shops. When her father retired in 1981, Majors, then in her early 20s and living in Candler Park in a house she purchased for $29,500, went through the flotsam and jetsam of his life. She discovered rare finds and gems such as old Beatles notebooks and 1950s leather jackets and saw a chance to put her spin on the wares. In 1982 she opened a shop next to a former methadone clinic in the business district nearby called Little Five Points. The store's name was biographical and authentic: Junkman's Daughter.
In the mid-1970s, Majors says, half the neighborhood was vacant. The other half was "old mom-and-pop things that had been there forever." But that quickly started to change as people started moving to the neighborhood.
"It was my type of energy that was going on," Majors says. "A lot of artists, creative people, and students. And we all at one point kind of knew each other. You'd go to places and it would always be the same group. As the neighborhood living situation was evolving, the retail neighborhood started evolving. Everything was starting to grow. New energy was coming in and people were starting things."
In the following years, Little Five Points would establish itself as Atlanta's most eclectic, independent, and bohemian retail area, a shopping and entertainment district that catered to locals, OTPers, and tourists looking for offbeat items and up-and-coming bands, and drifters ranging from the down-on-their-luck to train kids looking for a handout. But for all the colorful murals that adorn the walls and dreadlocks that wave in the wind, L5P is not just an enclave of hippies, gutter punks, and punks — it's arguably Atlanta's most full-service community, with a grocery store, pharmacy, dentist, counselor, optometrist, pizza joint, shoe store, bicycle shop, and even a credit union. Some businesses have been located there 30 years.
Little Five Points is also in a peculiar spot. It's sandwiched between two affluent neighborhoods in a booming corner of Atlanta. As more and more people move to the area, bringing with them their own ideas of community, the question comes to mind, as it has every time a new business that might not jibe with the retail district's DNA opens nearby: How long can a neighborhood keep its personality?
NAMED AFTER THE INTERSECTION where multiple trolley lines and five streets met, the commercial district grew in 1920 after the former city of Edgewood, now Candler Park, was incorporated into the city and the trolley lines were built. Around that time, Downtown's Five Points was a mini-Manhattan packed shoulder to shoulder with businessmen and families in their Sunday best out to do their shopping or catch a show. Scott Ball, an Inman Park resident and principal with Commons Planning, a nonprofit civic design firm, says Little Five Points was the alternative to that Downtown glitz. Instead of buying a top-of-the-line bowler hat, you could find a more affordable brim. Rather than shelling out a large chunk of your paycheck to see a staged production, you could go to one of the four nickelodeons in L5P.
"You could pay a nickel to get on a streetcar in Marietta, see a movie in Little Five Points, go to a soda fountain at the Pendergrast Pharmacy that's now the Clothing Warehouse," Ball says. "And there for a nickel you could get a malted."
The area was, according to Robert Hartle Jr.'s thorough The Highs and Lows of Little Five: A History of Little Five Points, "ordinary." But as Atlanta grew outward, Little Five Points, just like Five Points, saw investment and interest turn elsewhere. By the late 1960s and 1970s, the business district that Hartle says once boasted "three grocery stores, four drugstores, three barbershops, and three movie theatres," was largely rundown thanks to white flight and the imminent arrival of a freeway that would have likely replaced all of Little Five Points with pavement, hotels, and gas stations. The storefronts had turned into oddball junk and antique shops. On the corner of Euclid and Moreland avenues sat the Redwood Lounge, a notoriously rambunctious watering hole that earned a reputation as the first stop for newly released inmates of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.
Were it not for a tight band of mostly young residents and activists, the surrounding neighborhoods would be a far cry from the affluent, picturesque communities they are today. Hippies, families, and young singles unable to afford Virginia-Highland prices or who were flushed out of Midtown started moving in to Candler Park's modest bungalows and Inman Park's mansions that had been chopped up into boarding houses. They started fixing up homes and building a community. They were of a progressive bent.
"A lot of people who are committed to diversity wanted to live in a neighborhood where there would be different economic classes, spiritual traditions, races," says Linda Bryant, the founder of Charis Books, a feminist bookstore that opened in 1974. "There were a lot of people who shared those values."
Residents created a cooperative pre-school. With the leadership of Inman Parkers John Sweet and Stan Wyse, a group of active residents called the Bass Organization for Neighborhood Development, or BOND, created a credit union after the C&S Bank branch on Moreland Avenue wouldn't issue loans. The C&S branch is now Star Bar. The credit union is still in Little Five Points and accepting deposits.
The residents were militantly active. They famously faced off bulldozers trying to build a freeway that would have blasted through much of Inman Park and Candler Park. There's a reason why Moreland is so wide near Euclid Avenue and Freedom Park exists. After residents scored what appeared to be a cease-fire from the state, they realized they could turn Little Five Points, an area that was mapped for demolition and a freeway exit, into a true community asset. In addition to potentially warding off a second wave of bulldozers, it could just be good for the neighborhood.
Making that vision become a reality would not have happened without Don Bender and Kelly Jordan. Bender, a Mennonite turned Quaker from Delaware who came to Atlanta to work with impoverished communities after claiming conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, settled in Candler Park in the early '70s. So did Jordan, a jovial Summerville, Georgia native who bounced around the Southeast as a child with his father, who worked for Sears. They were attracted by the neighborhood's activist energy, small-town vibe, and promise.
In 1972, Bender helped start Atlanta Intown Development Corporation, a group of neighbors who would pool whatever cash they had to purchase and renovate the most dilapidated house on a block. "There were too many marriages going down the toilet because people were renovating their houses while they tried to live in them," he says. They would then sell or rent them. Profits were used to purchase another property.
After the group renovated six houses, it bought a strip of storefronts that wrapped around Euclid and Seminole avenues. After pleas to the owner of the Redwood to try to clean up the joint, the group purchased it as well and turned it into the Little Five Points Community Pub, an open-to-all gathering spot where residents could hold meetings, imbibe, and hang out. Bender tended bar, a sight considering most Quakers abstain from alcohol. The process continued. Jordan, who was only 25 at the time, rounded up people to chip in $1,000 or $2,000 to help purchase the Point Center Building located at the intersection of Euclid and Moreland avenues, which was then home to Charis Bookstore, Sevananda's original location, and a junk shop known as Mr. Ed's. The second floor was completely vacant.
In 1975, the communities came together to create a plan for Little Five Points' future. They went door to door to inform neighbors about meetings and surveys in the credit union's newspaper called the BOND Community Star. The results would guide neighborhood leaders in recruiting tenants. What came back wasn't incense shops or places to buy tapestries. Residents wanted a pharmacy, a dentist's office, a restaurant, a grocery store — the building blocks of a community. And they wanted independent businesses.
Jordan dropped off fliers promoting the Point Center Building around town, including Emory medical school. The area caught the eye of Richard Shapiro, a Brooklyn exile. He opened a dental office in the building despite its crumbling walls and obvious evidence of squatters, he says, because the district reminded him of Greenwich Village. "It had a real neighborhood vibe," he says.
Newly elected Mayor Maynard Jackson named Little Five Points and Lakewood Heights as intown revitalization districts, helping to connect the neighborhood groups and investors with funding, government grants, and the strongest ally possible in City Hall. When the owner of the theaters that later became Variety Playhouse and 7 Stages threatened to demolish the then-vacant buildings, Jackson helped tap the brakes, giving Jordan and Bender a chance to save the buildings. Word-of-mouth plus cheap rents attracted upstart businesses with nothing to lose and everything to gain: Wax n' Facts, which opened its doors in 1976; Unidentified Flying Objects, a store dedicated entirely to Frisbees and disc golf; Crystal Blue, an outlet selling mystical gems and geodes; Junkman's Daughter; and others. At the same time, everyday independent businesses, such as the pharmacy and dry cleaner, also moved in. Over time, the crowds attracted more crowds and Little Five Points became known as a community unlike any other in metro Atlanta.
A narrative has been peddled over time that the men and women who bought the buildings, helped bring businesses into L5P, and helped stabilize it over the years were hellbent on creating a hippie utopian experience. Jordan disagrees with that idea. Bender says it's been overstated.
"The Pub probably had more PhDs than any other business ever ... These were people many of them just ... well, very progressive in their point of view. Very much believing in self-determination," Bender says.
"This was serious community grassroots activity," says Jordan, who was influenced by community revitalization efforts he saw taking place across the country as he drove to the West Coast after his sophomore year at Emory University. "Serious get your hands dirty with the real way the world works for people who were not — none of us were — trained to do it ... Seriously. People started a federally chartered community credit union. Like only 2 percent in the whole country were community credit unions."
AS THE TIMES HAVE CHANGED, so has Atlanta. Neighborhoods once considered places to avoid are now outside many people's budgets. The Clermont Hotel, a former flophouse, is becoming a boutique hotel. Murder Kroger will become a 12-story office building.
Inman Park and Candler Park today are two of Atlanta's most desirable intown neighborhoods with listing prices starting around $525,000 for a three-bedroom house. The Atlanta Beltline is only a half-mile away. The generation that watched Little Five Points go from anonymous to quirky will, over time, be outnumbered by younger families and people with no connection — or sense of loyalty — to the business district. What's preventing Crystal Blue from becoming a bougie boutique with $50,000 couches? Could Crate and Barrel edge out Rag-O-Rama? In other words, how long can Little Five Points remain Little Five Points?
One thing in the neighborhood's favor, Shapiro says, is its zoning. Little Five Points was Atlanta's first neighborhood commercial district, a special type of zoning category that sets a community-decided limit on the number and size of businesses that can locate in a specified area. For example, no stores larger than 5,000 square feet can locate in certain properties, helping to protect it from some big-box chains. The controversial arrival of the Edgewood Retail District down Moreland, which brought Lowe's, Best Buy, and Target, helped chill some of that threat in the area. And the limited availability of parking could also ward off some big-name retailers that bank on serving motorists more than pedestrians.
A potential new addition to the neighborhood has recently sparked chatter and some grumblings. In September, the Candler Park Neighborhood Organization heard from the new owner of a Moreland Avenue property Chipotle was considering opening in the space. A Chipotle spokeswoman said the chain does not comment on new openings until "a lease is signed and construction scheduled."
Corporate chains have posed a threat to L5P before. But they've been fought off or peacefully absorbed into the mix. Some chains and businesses might see little opportunity in the Little Five Points clientele. In the early 1990s, area residents scared off a corporate pharmacy chain that proposed a location near Little Five Points Pharmacy, a beloved early tenant that remains one of Atlanta's few independent apothecaries. An equally loud uproar erupted when Starbucks moved in on Moreland Avenue. People even expressed concern over the arrival of American Apparel. Yet Java Lords and Aurora are still brewing coffee. Boutiques have come and gone, but the independent vibe has remained.
Culture is another issue, and one that's been played out over the years. "Bohemian is a tricky identity," Ball says. "It's very easy for that to become an 'anything goes' environment. And really the owners of the property and shop owners do not have that attitude. They like and try to foster a sense of cultural and political openness. But they are very focused on a culture in a positive sense. They're not anarchists."
In 2014, the L5P Business Association created a special district to help fund infrastructure improvements in the area. High on its list — but still in its early stages — is building a parking deck that could be located underneath Bass Recreation Center playing field off Austin Avenue. The project could include mixed-income or senior housing circling the sports field. Bender and a team of others hope the facility could help sustain the district as an entertainment and cultural hub and help 7 Stages Theatre and Variety Playhouse pull in more patrons, plus attract more restaurants. Horizon Theatre recently won a highly competitive arts funding award that would help pay for street performances in Findley Plaza, which Ball says could help add another dimension to the street life.
The reality is that L5P has always been changing, just staying true to its DNA. Whether that continues is up to the various property owners and the next generation of people who flock to the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club, the Vortex, or any of the shops that line the multicolored strip of Euclid and Moreland, who move into nearby homes, or take the reins of existing businesses. Agon Entertainment, the owner of Athens' Georgia Theatre, last year purchased the Variety Playhouse from longtime owner Steve Harris, and is planning a $1 million renovation.
"I guess it will depend on the next generation." Shapiro says. "If there is the kind of love for the neighborhood that we've had for the last 20 to 30 years and if that carries over into the next generation."
Bryant says that new generation "is not going to do the same thing we did. If they did it would become passé pretty quickly. But that new generation is working in the same spirit of cooperation and desire for change — and a sense of wanting to create a place for independent voices."
Majors is retiring this year and passing Junkman's Daughter on to her son, who's moving from Los Angeles to oversee the business (he's keeping the name). She says he's already putting his spin on some of the inventory, moving some items out of circulation. The change is exciting but can occasionally make Majors bite her nails.
"He totally remodeled the shoe department this week," she says with a laugh. "He got every semblance of me out of there ... They've been doing a lot of things on their own. It's going to be interesting to see what it becomes. It's going to stay the same but it will definitely have a little bit different personality — just as it did when I took the goods from my parents' stores and added my own twist."