Friday, July 21, 2006

The Old Main Drag

I finally got my hands on a book I've been wanting for a while -- "Ponce de Leon" by George Mitchell. Not the legendary fountain of youth-seeking Ponce, but rather, as it's billed in the subtitle, "Atlanta's most famous avenue."

Ponce -- which lies a block to the south of me -- is one of the streets that best defines Atlanta, along with Peachtree. It cuts through much of the heart of the city, but never is absorbed by the surrounding neighborhoods. It's got Virginia-Highland and Midtown to the north, Poncey-Highland and, uh, probably something else to the south, but Ponce de Leon is an entity all its own.

Like the most interesting parts of Atlanta, Ponce gives off an air of seediness, of departed elegance, but Mitchell's book seems to indicate (I've yet to really read it-- it's a collection of interviews with Ponce's denizens-- just skimmed and looked at the pictures) that elegance was long, long ago. The book was published in '83 and Ponce looks much worse in the pictures than it does now. Also more vibrant, perhaps, though that well may be romanticization on my part. Definitely more of a community. On the flip side, definitely more junkies and hookers.

Ponce as it stands now (for non-Atlantans) is gentrification in action, at least down at my eastern end. ("Central" Ponce is still pretty depressed, "West" is getting pretty hip) A number of new condo and loft projects have popped up in recent years. In Mitchell's book, Ed Loring, the head of the Open Door Community Center (a homeless support project), says:

"Five years from now, places like the Open Door will be condominiums, and the Ford Plant will be a shopping center with restaurants and all those kinds of things."

23 years later, the Open Door is still around (I checked -- it's just around the corner from me) and the Ford Plant, while it has a bunch of shops, is still a dump (PPA synergy: this is the same Ford Factory that's across the street from the former Ponce de Leon Park), but on a more general basis, Loring's prediction has come true. For me, it's a fine line. On one hand, I'm all for a clean Ponce; on the other, I'd rather see Ponce keep its sort of scuzzy character than become a reflection of yuppified boredom.

In the interlude since Mitchell's book was published, who knows how many businesses have come and gone along Ponce (two worth noting, just from my personal experience: an Oi! record store, cannibalizing an old office supplies shop, and Tortilla's, a good cheap Mexican food place that's memorialized here). I'm surprised to see the number that have survived -- Mirror of Korea, Lake Chiropractic, Mary Mac's, and of course the Majestic and Clermont among them. And then there's those I just know from legend, places long gone before I even contemplated the possibility of living here -- Plaza Drugs, Ray Lee's Blue Lantern. Beyond that the photos are a glimpse into places I never knew existed. Diogenes? Smith House? Krystal? An interesting look at a neighborhood far removed from the one I know now.


a. said...

I don't know how fine the line needs to be. Gentrification is typified by the outside world forcing its own footprint on a community. An idealization usually governed by "yuppified boredom" or City Hall politics. Obviously, the problem with gentrification isn't that it cleans up bad neighborhoods - it's that it takes those neighborhoods away from the people who've built them for generations.

For every hooker/dealer on the corner, there are (in cities I've known, not Atlanta) a dozen different families who've built their lives there. If the neighborhood is to clean up, the only way to do it - and keep the soul of Ponce Avenue (etc) - is to involve those people who have made it a real community.

The intention of gentrification isn't always bad, I suppose. The problem is that it so often takes away a community's soul - the very people who built it - and replaces them with nothing but attractive buildings.

(Just a thought. Great post.)

gsdgsd13 said...

All good points, and the type of thing I should take into account before tossing out half-assed one-line analyses as gospel.

Something I hadn't really thought of until I read your post -- there really aren't homes left along Ponce. There are lots of people living there, but almost invariably it's in upscale, one-bedroom condos/apartments. The families that did build their lives there (and there are a bunch in Mitchell's book) have, it seems, already been driven out.

(just for completists' sake, I can think of three non-high-income buildings: the aforementioned Briarcliff Summit -- the giant building I wrote about before -- which is still, I believe, aimed at the elderly; and two "residential hotels," the Clermont and Ponce de Leon)

The caveat I should offer every time I write anything about Atlanta, too -- I've lived here for seven years, spent probably half of that denying it to myself, so anything I write about the city and the identity is probably a bit suspect. But, that's never stopped me before. :)