As its Eastern neighbor, Old Fourth Ward, blooms into a high-end haven from what was once labeled “blighted industrial lowland,” it’s something of a wonder that South Downtown hasn’t achieved a similar, fast-paced renaissance. After all, it’s home to already-built infrastructure like public spaces and solid, historic buildings. Plus, there have been multiple attempts to revitalize the space already. But in a city that’s gentrifying fast—and maybe too fast—approaching change with an emphasis on community, art and the million little things that comprise a good neighborhood, this slower-growth method might be a welcomed change of of pace.
Kyle Kessler, an architect and Community Program Manager for the Center for Civic Innovation who’s lived in South Downtown for years, has become one of the neighborhoods biggest advocates by addressing the myriad of little things that make a neighborhood work, from knowing the local businesses to fixing broken sidewalks.
“We’re trying not to take it from a top-down, big-idea approach,” Kyle explained. “A lot of what I’ve been doing is making sure people know their neighbors—that they’re introducing themselves or being introduced after they move in.”
And in a sprawling city like Atlanta, knowing your neighbors can make a world of difference for local residents and businesses alike. For example, someone recently asked Kyle where they could find a notary, and he was able to point them to a place Downtown, whereas Google may have given options in Midtown, Buckhead, etc. And as more business heads Downtown, like the ever-expanding film industry, the social entrepreneurs at Center for Civic Innovation, the coding bootcamp The Iron Yard and art galleries like Eyedrum or Mammal, keeping them local seems even more important.
“It’s a challenge here because there’s a sort of daytime economy and night time economy,” Kyle said. Most of the stores just open during the week when the government workers are here. Then at night, you have a lot of residents and folks coming in for the art shows and special events. We’re trying to connect those two.”
Like the question of the closest notary, connecting the day-life with the night-life is largely a communication issue, and the message is: if you’re a daytime office worker and you dread sitting in traffic on the way back to wherever you came from, consider sticking around because there’s a lot going on in the evening. For those who coming out for the evening, Kyle hopes they’ll consider office space, studio space and look at places to live in the area as well.
“We’re not necessarily trying to attract people who are looking for skyscrapers and five star dining,” Kyle said. “But people who like a little grit and character and what makes Atlanta unique.”
Other than knowing the neighbors and promoting local businesses, there’s also the issue of maintenance: fresh paint, clean, well-lit spaces and smooth sidewalks. In fact, the first block party South Downtown had a few years ago was to celebrate convincing the Department of Public Works to fix some broken sidewalks. And one less public safety hazard is definitely a reason to celebrate.
As the revitalization process continues, Kyle said they’re working with organizations for the homeless and churches on how to take care of the people with the closing of the shelter at Peachtree and Pine.
That inclusivity is an integral part of making a neighborhood work, especially for South Downtown. The annual Elevate public art festival, coming up in October, is something of a showcase for inclusive ideology. This year, along with numerous events and exhibitions, the festival is planning a free outdoor dinner where residents of Atlanta—from the homeless to the government employee—will be invited to sit down for a meal. The festival champions artists and the role art plays in developing neighborhoods. In South Downtown, there are organizations like Elevate and the Goat Farm attempting to make art a sustainable feature, rather one that gets pushed out once the neighborhood gentrifies. It's almost like the people working together in South Downtown are practicing a conscious, inclusive gentrification, and that's a pretty disruptive concept for Atlanta.
“Huge changes, I don’t know,” Kyle said (however modestly) about the work they’ve done in South Downtown. “But there are lots of buildings that have been vacant for maybe a decade or 20 years, and now we’ve got businesses in them. And there are people who assumed nothing would ever go back there.”