An Intown Insider’s Insights: Atlanta Neighborhood Preservation

July 22, 2013

I don’t know about you, but in our almost 40 years of living in intown Atlanta, I have been frequently disheartened by the city’s – and let’s face it, the metro area’s – dismal record of historic preservation.  In spite of the herculean efforts of the preservation community, we seem to lose as often as we win (which, now that I think about it, is certainly better than pre-1970s Atlanta when no one seems to have even known the word “preservation” existed.)  If the words “progress,” “development,” “opportunity,” “world-class,” or “investment” are attached to a project, the building or block or district is as good as gone.

 
However…drive a mile or so outside the city center, and you will be in a neighborhood.  If you keep going – in pretty much any direction – you will pass through multiple neighborhoods.  I’m sure Atlanta is not unique in having so many vibrant, active, vigilant and, well, pretty neighborhoods, but other cities don’t seem to talk about theirs as much as we do.  Maybe it’s because Atlanta’s downtown living has only just begun to be a realistic factor in our life-style choices, or maybe it’s because our geography allows residential development to occur in almost any direction, but our neighborhoods seem to have been in the forefront of keeping the character and sense of place alive in Atlanta.

I am most familiar with the east side of the city, both north and south.  I live in Inman Park, and our immediate neighbors, The Old Fourth Ward, Poncey Highlands, Candler Park, Cabbagetown, Edgewood and Reynoldstown feel like, well, maybe cousins.  Whereas, the folks who live in Inman Park with us are more like siblings, and the residents of farther-flung neighborhoods – Lake Claire, Druid Hills, Virginia Highland, Morningside, Midtown, Grant Park, Ormewood, East Atlanta, Kirkwood, East Lake, etc. —  are kind of like second cousins, once removed.  Analogy over-reach, but you get the idea:  we feel like family.

 

Our reaction when we meet someone else who “lives intown” (as we like to say,) is a sort of shared smugness.  We’re the lucky ones.  We somehow managed, intentionally or accidentally, to snag one of those premium spots with access all kinds of desirable things:  shops, restaurants, services, walking and biking paths, public transit, sidewalks and trees.  And, most valuable of all, neighbors.
But I have to admit that the original impetus for many of us who moved here early in the process was not neighborhood as much as it was the houses.  The old houses had substance.  They had history, and real architecture, and quirks, and nooks and crannies, and spaces with archaic names (Butler’s Pantry?  Music Room?  Parlour?) and a kind of glamour – in spite of grime, vermin & bugs, lack of paint, and having to endure the indignities of having been converted into boarding houses and cheap rentals.

 
So we bought the old houses, which just happened to be in old neighborhoods.  And in the process of restoring the houses, we seem to have also given those neighborhoods new life.  So much so, that now it isn’t so much the homes that attract new residents as where those homes are.   The preservation of Atlanta’s neighborhoods happened in the best way:  organically, market demand driven, house by house, block by block, meeting each challenge in its turn and working together to try to solve our problems.  (Contrast that with the wholesale urban renewal model, which is top-down-we-know-what’s-good-for-you:  knock ‘em all down and build stucco condos on what used to be a neighborhood.  I wonder what Buttermilk Bottom would have looked like now if it hadn’t been Great Society-ed.)

 
I guess my point is that while Atlanta has had preservation disappointments, we have also had the joy of watching the city’s neighborhoods thrive and flourish.  And yes, there have been architectural changes made in some of them that might not make the National Trust jump with joy, but that too is a part of the history of those particular communities, self-determined and market-judged.  But the important thing is the rehabilitation of each neighborhood, in its own way and at its own pace.  And what seems to be universal among them are the relationships built among the diverse ages, races, economic levels, backgrounds and occupations in all our neighborhoods which have not only preserved homes and communities, but also nourished a spirit of leadership, volunteerism and  cooperation in our population that should make us all proud.  And hopeful.

Written by Pat Westrick, who has 30 years of Atlanta real-estate experience and over 38 years of hands on preservation experience as a resident of Inman Park.