Breathing new life into South Downtown
Can Atlanta’s arts communities survive and thrive in an area primed for drastic change?
Orchestrating South Downtown’s colossal revamp will entail something of a balancing act for the developers that have scooped up scores of intown properties. Can they polish the place without sanding down its cultural identity? Will the neighborhood’s artists, venue owners, and weirdos head for the hills if its graffiti-laden side streets are peppered with artisan soap shops and high-brow watering holes? Only time will tell. But there’s no denying that big changes are afoot for the streets that hold some of Downtown Atlanta’s most celebrated DIY art and music haunts.
The American arm of German developer Newport Real Estate is currently reimagining dozens of South Downtown properties strung along Peachtree, Mitchell, and Broad streets, with plans to spruce up the area via road diets — sacrificing automobile lanes for bike paths and walkways — retail revamps, and retrofittings of historic buildings. The neighborhood could see considerable changes by springtime.
The infamous Gulch, a mammoth swath of parking spaces and train tracks surrounded by Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the west, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the south, and the CNN Center parking deck on the northeast, is staring down the barrel of an overhaul the likes of which the neighborhood has never seen. Amazon might even commandeer the plot for the future site of its second headquarters. Atlanta made the 20-strong short list of prospective cities to host the internet retail giant’s HQ2.
Amid an abundance of other blueprints sketched to give South Downtown a much-needed makeover, Underground Atlanta — which hasn’t wooed substantial business in years — awaits a primping that, much like the aforementioned redevelopment efforts, has Atlantans wondering how the local culture will change with the times.
There’s no denying that words such as development, gentrification, and urban living, in Atlanta, have become synonymous with cultural colonialism. The real estate blitz is, no doubt, a harbinger for an overhauled version of South Downtown. But stakeholders who thrive on the cutting edge of the city’s arts, music, and cultural institutions — the Masquerade, Eyedrum, Mammal Gallery, and Murmur — are notably optimistic that efforts to jump start the heart of the city mean opportunities for positive change. But it’s up to the city’s Downtown arts dwellers to harness its potential.
The Masquerade is a longtime staple of Atlanta’s bustling and rambunctious music scene. It’s a household name for punk rockers, hip-hop heads, metal maniacs, and everything in between that, in its previous North Ave. location, hosted shows by such lauded and far-reaching acts as Nirvana, Kendrick Lamar, the Cranberries, and more, when they were relatively unknown artists at the beginning of their careers.
In December, after nearly a year of settling into its new home in Kenny’s Alley at Underground Atlanta, the Masquerade signed a 10-year lease to stay put. The lease came as a sigh of relief, and a sign of some permanence for the club that was ousted last year from its North Ave. home of nearly 30 years to make way for boutique shopping and fine dining on the Beltline.
After a brief shake-up with plans to relocate to northwest Atlanta — a nearby residential landlord sued to put the kibosh on plans to start anew across the street, citing concerns of expected noise complaints and other disturbances — the Masquerade’s new home in Kenny’s Alley serves as ground zero for the multiplex’s turnaround.
WRS Inc. Real Estate Investments, the development boss behind the recent buy of Underground, aims to wrap the Masquerade in a mix of new retail and residences, leaving some skeptics concerned about the club’s future. Will the hallowed concert hall succumb to the development trend of bulldozing history and culture? Ponce City Market, which towers near the Masquerade’s original location, offers a glimpse at the city’s tendency to inject abandoned properties with lucrative, luxurious places to hang — er, spend.
Nevertheless, the Masquerade’s leadership isn’t batting an eye at the changes to come. In fact, they’re embracing their new digs with open arms, reaping the benefits of existing in this too-long-neglected slice of Downtown Atlanta. And for that, management is grateful.
As with years prior, the Masquerade is booking more and more shows at its latest setting, says Greg Green, the venue’s booking manager. A survey of the venue’s February show calendar reveals performances by everyone from Pittsburgh, PA, punk act Anti-Flag to Chicago’s hyper-sexualized rapper Cupcakke.
The first order of business after signing a long lease is to build out of the three-part music house, which will turn Heaven — the largest among the Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell stages — into a bigger auditorium, primed for nearly 1,500 concertgoers. The venue is adding a balcony by expanding upward into what used to be the Underground Atlanta food court.
“The Downtown neighbors have expressed happiness with having us here,” Green says. “They like having music here, and we certainly hope we can be a catalyst for growth on the property and Downtown in general.”
The proximity to Georgia State University student ticket-buyers and MARTA doesn’t hurt, either.
When asked if the prospect of uncontrollable nearby growth could hamper the booking practices of the Masquerade (i.e. would the venue have to book quieter, tamer acts?), Green says, “No way.”
“I don’t know that [WRS] really knew what we were, other than a music venue that was coming temporarily at first,” he says. “But over time, they’ve come to appreciate what we have to offer, and vice versa.”
Green says the venue’s new location, unlike the former, is shielded from noise leakage that could ruffle the feathers of the WRS tenants slated to fill in the spaces adjacent the venue. In response to concerns that Underground could evolve into a posh counterpart to Ponce City Market, Green says, patrons can continue to expect the same old, same old.
WRS’s plans are still largely up in the air.
However, April Stammel, vice president of Newport U.S., which will oversee some parts of the neighborhood just south and west of Underground, says that her firm wants to maintain many of the neighborhood’s favorite spots, although what exactly stays and goes remains to be seen.
“We’re not going to be able to keep everybody that’s there, but we’re certainly going to make every effort to try,” Stammel says. “One of the things that attracted us to this neighborhood was its arts scene.”
“How do you manage natural evolution, but at the same time be respectful of existing businesses and people and not have displacement?” asks Jennifer Ball, Vice President of Planning and Economic Development at Central Atlanta Progress, which helped concoct Downtown’s walkable, more transit-friendly master plan. “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. Generally speaking, Downtown is already much more affordable than many other places within the city, which is why some of the arts organizations found their way here.”
Says Green: “There’s an opportunity for the artistic community to thrive along with the business community, as well as the educational community.”
And each of these communities can still play a role in the area’s redevelopment. Representatives from the Newport have attended regular meetings of Neighborhood Planning Unit M. WRS has hosted a couple community meetings as required by City Council following the community protest of the abandonment of Alabama and Pryor streets.
Newport, in particular — now that’s it’s in the tail end of its acquisition phase — is seeking community input as the developer moves forward with its plans. And other artistic venues have been showing up for community discussions, in an effort to help shape their surroundings.
As the wave of change to South Downtown looms on the horizon, denizens of the Broad Street Arts district — Mammal Gallery and Murmur, along with Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery a block away on Forsyth Street — weigh in with their thoughts and feelings about their respective places in Downtown’s future landscape.
Interviews conducted by Alex Patton and Doug DeLoach. Some comments were edited for clarity.
What have you brought to South Downtown?
Chris Yonker, who co-owns Mammal Gallery with Brian Egan: What Mammal has brought to the neighborhood is more people. People who hadn’t seen this neighborhood before — different kinds of people, depending on what we book. Some shows we might have people who are mostly in their 40s. Others nights are people mostly in their 20s. We host film screenings, dance recitals, art shows, concerts, we even have studios in here. We just started bringing a lot of different people down here who never had a reason to hang out for an extended period of time.
Brandon Sheats, Murmur, Executive Director: [Murmur] tends to be the first stop for a number of artists that are trying to be seen and heard. South Downtown is still new enough that we can present pretty much whatever we want. If you’re not an established visual artist yet, we’re a pretty good fit for that down here. Murmur is an art gallery masquerading as a film studio, masquerading as a performance stage, masquerading as a comedy house, and it’s all weird as shit, but somehow it fits together.
Grace Kim, Eyedrum Vice-Chair: Physically, piece by piece, over three years, the volunteers of Eyedrum have applied an investment of sweat equity, passion, and skills to transform a derelict, century-old, marginally utilized property into a functional community art space where two to five performances happen weekly. Where art exhibitions are constantly installed, exhibited, attended, and de-installed, and where community members meet for discussions, planning, learning, and creative exchange.
Chris Gravely, Eyedrum Build-out Committee Chair, Music Committee: Eyedrum’s gallery is an incredible jumping-off point for up-and-coming artists. Our rooftop has hosted unforgettable experiences including dance performances, film screenings, and concerts. Our location has also allowed us to serve the surrounding homeless community by providing water and a snack or letting someone earn a temporary living by doing labor during build-outs.
Tracy Woodard: Eyedrum Board member: For years, Atlanta had a vertical hierarchy for artists. You had to graduate from a top 10 art school, have an exhibit in New York, and then make your name at Arts Center in Midtown. In a sense, Eyedrum has democratized that process and given a voice to marginalized artists who otherwise could not afford the big-name galleries.
Patrick Di RitoDo you feel a responsibility to the Downtown arts scene that you’ve helped create?
Yonker: Mammal co-founder Brian Egan and I have assumed some responsibility that we weren’t necessarily aware of when we opened Mammal. That responsibility is not to put our opinions out there, as much as it is our responsibility to provide the platform for other people who have things to say, and try to be open-minded about how many points of view there are.
Sheats: Between us and the owners of the others places around here, we know that we’re going to get older and want to do different things with our lives. So the idea is to create enough physical space, enough talent, and administrative and curatorial space for people to be able to pick up where we leave off, and go somewhere else with it. We’ve done a lot to move toward that. We’ve recently had arts dealers coming down to look at people’s work. Things like that contribute to the longevity of work like this, even if it turns out to be in a different place.
How has the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium affected the neighborhood?
Yonker: Mercedes-Benz Stadium hasn’t necessarily changed anything yet, but it will. As with any large development project or anything with that much money behind it, it’s going to bring a lot of change. So far, the only thing it has really brought is traffic. Any time there’s a football game, it’s craziness down here. There will be more projects developed around it that may change things for us. It’s just one puzzle piece to this whole Downtown push that all these developers are getting in on.
Kim: Aside from the obvious problems of traffic and the logistics of getting folks into Downtown, the stadium reinforces the Atlanta drive-to-and-through, commuter-consumer culture, which is a significant barrier. We need more restaurants and bars and entertainment businesses, which will bring exurbanites and suburbanites and ITPers to South Downtown where they can experience art and culture and other types of nightlife.
Do the Downtown development projects being discussed make you nervous?
Yonker: I’m not nervous because this is going to happen all the time. Anywhere you are trying to run a business, the neighborhood will change over time. You just have to figure out how you fit in and how you can evolve with the neighborhood. If you don’t want to evolve with that neighborhood, find another one that you do want to grow with. I might feel totally different about this neighborhood five years from now, and maybe I won’t want to be here. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Kim: I am nervous because the future is truly unknown. Articles like this one do not help assuage the anxiety that the creative community feels, nor does it empower people to see beyond the bankrupt trope of the all-powerful developer versus the victim-arts/community organizations. At the same time, I am excited because we have an opportunity to nurture a downtown that truly reflects the vibrancy and utility required by Atlanta’s diverse community.
Brandon EnglishSheats: We could hit a recession, although we’re kind of recession-proof, as none of us are in it for the money. All of us are volunteer organizations down here. Newport could’ve said, “We want to make you into a coffee shop or a grocery store,” or something like that, but they know that Murmur is important to the community here.
Being down here has made us kind of underground and ground-level at the same time. We have a number of people who want us to stay underground, but at the same time we have people who are established looking at us, wanting to know how they can get into our space. We’re willing to challenge ourselves and our community, and reflect on that as positive change.
Woodard: As much as I applaud development in my beloved city, I’m afraid Atlanta will go the way of San Francisco and price out of everything that made it unique.
Neil Fried, Eyedrum Treasurer and Film & Tech Committee chair: If the property value goes up too quickly it will be hard for a DIY arts organization to compete. It’s likely we will have to change or move. By change I am talking about becoming a professional arts organization with a board of directors, which pays the bills and attends the black-tie events. That is not what Eyedrum is at its core. Eyedrum is made up mostly of artists who curate and facilitate shows. When artists and musicians are touring, they seek us out because they have heard about our DIY multimedia core.
How have your dealings with WRS or Newport gone so far?
Yonker: They are doing their best to understand the culture of this neighborhood. A lot of times you see development companies have an idea of what they want to do with an area, and they’ll just cut and paste over what’s already there. Newport has taken a light-handed approach to seeing what is already down here, and what’s good for the neighborhood, and then adding to that ecosystem rather than tearing everything out and starting from scratch. They’ve been good about talking to us before making any moves, which is refreshing. Like if they want to paint murals down here, they talk to us about doing it to keep the money in the neighborhood rather than flying down some random-ass artist that none of us know.
For an arts organization, a development company coming in is almost supposed to be a game of cat and dog, like we’re supposed to hate each other. Technically, they’re just coming in and fixing a lot of the broken stuff on these buildings and letting us stay in them. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Sheats: Their ownership out of Germany came down to meet with all of us, and they get that you can’t have civic life without art and culture. When people say “live, work, play” they mean all kinds of bullshit. Newport gets that it can only happen in an organic, slow, sometimes painful way. There’s an idea that places like South Downtown can attract attention as a place for people to hang out, and that middle-class people want to live within walking distance. Look at a neighborhood like Little Five Points: There’s plenty of nice homes in that area surrounding the arts and retail district. That area has been nicely developed without hurting the personality of the neighborhood, which development companies understand is important for the property value of the homes nearby. If it weren’t for those scrappy-ass theatres down there, those places wouldn’t be worth as much.
Kim: The Board and Officers of Eyedrum have met with Newport regularly, about once every three or four months, since the fall of 2016 when Eyedrum was made aware of the interest in purchasing the property in February 2017. I personally attended two of the three public meetings hosted by WRS. With Underground being a close neighbor, I am very concerned about WRS’ decisions. I have attended Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association meetings and Central Atlanta Progress’ Downtown Master Plan community meetings. Newport has been minimal in its PR efforts, but consistent in terms of delivering content regarding vision and timeline. My questions are: How will the local government, particularly the City of Atlanta, engage with the community and Newport in the development process? How will the philanthropic community and business investment community engage with the community and Newport in the development process?
Fried: Assuming they follow through with tangible support for Eyedrum and other arts organizations and partners in the community, Newport seems to have a good vision. They said their investors have “patient money,” which implies a long-term investment in things like lifestyle amenities on the street. Eyedrum is determined to make sure those commitments are fulfilled.
Kim: It’s important to note that inequitable conditions in Atlanta existed before WRS and Newport stepped into the downtown scene. Just because Newport bought certain properties does not mean they created these dynamics. However, these conditions and dynamics are becoming visible because the eyes and ears of our communities are now on the arts organizations downtown. Personally, I am not looking for Newport to save our souls, no matter how much their slow money might support organic development of South Downtown. The community of Atlanta should own Atlanta; these developers are not, and could never be, the voice of the community. The challenge lies in figuring out to what extent we can work side by side. How much is the community willing to contribute — in terms of financial investment, attendance, volunteering, learning, and participation — to own the future of Downtown?
How do establishments like Mammal, Murmur, and Eyedrum fit into the future of Downtown?
Yonker: Ideally, I’d like to stay in this neighborhood. I like the area and the people who hang out down here. It blew my mind how much of a sense of community there is. A lot of people care about this neighborhood, and want to do good things for it. I’ve been asked if I see Murmur or Eyedrum as competition, and I really don’t. We’re all just curious about what each other are doing. I hope that even more stuff pops up in the future to a point where people can get lost in this area.
We aren’t gaining actual financial stability by running art galleries. I don’t make shits-worth of money running this place, but I have made social capital for myself. If I want to start another project somewhere else or do another thing, I have the ability to do it now that I can say I started Mammal Gallery. That’s the best thing you get from running an arts organization and no one can take that from you. You can use it in another place if you have to, but the longer an arts organization is around, the more beautiful layers it can add to its story over time.
Sheats: We’re the wildcard. We do things that others sometimes don’t. Mammal came down here before any of us, and their focus is so solidly on music. We deal with misfits a lot. We keep local, national, and sometimes international acts here that might not be accepted anywhere else.
Murmur isn’t trying to go anywhere. There is no other place in the city where you can get as much accessibility as South Downtown. We all have a desire to get this right, without an idea of what right will even look like. I don’t know what’s after this that isn’t gentrifying in a very harsh way. There’s this idea that there’s an impermanence to what we do, and there’s a necessity to continue that sense of impermanence so that everyone has a place to explore and figure their shit out.