By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009; F06
For a novice, Atlanta can intimidate. The Georgia capital -- about a half-million people live there, with 4.5 million more in the surrounding area -- has some peerless attractions, yet they are sometimes overshadowed by the city's agonizing traffic, noodly sprawl and myriad streets with the same forename, Peachtree. In addition, the city comprises 25 communities (in municipal-speak, Neighborhood Planning Units), a crazy quilt in desperate need of a good seamstress.
But you don't have to get caught in the urban maelstrom. Safe havens await. Many of the neighborhoods surrounding downtown resemble spirited villages with independent hearts and souls. Each of the five east-side destinations I recently explored by foot (yes, that's what I said) boasts distinct characteristics, but all share the same Southern warmth that made this outsider feel like a neighbor, too.Cabbagetown
With a name like Cabbagetown, the area should be dotted with leafy heads; instead, I found the massive Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, the district's center of life from the 19th century until its closing in 1977.
"This is the old, old South," said Barb Kenney, vice president of the Cabbagetown Neighborhood Improvement Association and co-owner of the Milltown Arms Tavern (180 Carroll St., 404-827-0434). "If you want to see what the late 1800s looked like, come here."
The neighborhood's main strip is basically a short stride of real estate along Carroll Street. The tavern, which features pub games (darts) and fare (Guinness burger, fish-and-chips, tater tots), anchors one end. Village Pizza (No. 186, 404-586-0040), purveyor of gourmet pies and local artwork, sits next door. Beside it, the Cabbagetown Market and Little's Grill (No. 198, 404-221-9186), open since 1929, could be mistaken for a museum: An old Coke machine (10 cents a pop) rests silently by the swinging screen door, and cabbages wait patiently for takers. (According to legend, the neighborhood's moniker sprang from the residents' penchant for growing the vegetable.) At the Carroll Street Cafe (208 Carroll St., 404-577-2700), the food is modern, but the panorama is Atlanta Past, including the rainbow-hued homes once occupied by textile workers and the mill (now lofts) that dominates the skyscape.
Info: http://www.cabbagetown.com.Castleberry Hill
"We don't want to be SoHo, Chelsea, the Lower East or New Orleans," said Carolyn Carr, whose paintings are inspired by the graffiti scrawled on the train tracks visible from her loft window. "We just want to be Castleberry."
To be sure, the neighborhood boasts a dense concentration of galleries -- upward of 20 establishments along Peters and Walker streets -- as well as a robust community of artists who live and work in renovated warehouses. The district also holds ArtStroll every fourth Friday of the month, during which most of the retailers, traditional exhibit spaces or not, participate.
What makes Castleberry stand out from other art-centric areas is its hip-hop streak. Performers record in the neighborhood's studios, and on weekends, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces unload guests who come to hear well-known DJs. During my afternoon visit, I did not witness any six-figure cars, but I still caught the beat. At Slice (259 Peters St., 404-588-1820), a pizza joint, the banging soundtrack combined with diners dressed for the dance floor turned a meal into a warm-up for a night of clubbing.
East Atlanta Village is the groupie hangout for music listeners and performers. "If you chose one neighborhood as the music center of Atlanta, I'd say East Atlanta was it," said Scott Trinh, who works at Earthshaking Music, which sells instruments, CDs and more. "Musicians go to the bars here, they shop here, they drink coffee here."
A coterie of music venues and businesses occupies the small triangle formed by Flat Shoals, Moreland and Metropolitan avenues. The best-known is the Earl (488 Flat Shoals Ave., 404-522-3950), a top spot for indie bands, though the new 529 (529 Flat Shoals Ave., 404-228-6769) has a growing fan base. Some establishments also pair food and drink with tunes, such as the Graveyard Tavern (1245 Glenwood Ave., 404-622-8686), while Earthshaking Music (543 Stokeswood Ave., 404-577-0707) goes back to the basics, with drums and sticks.
The telltale signs of a hip territory: The neighborhood's name is reduced to an acronym (L5P) and the denizens' body parts display an explosion of ink. Often compared to New York's Greenwich Village, the district exudes a similar subculture ethos. "You'll find guys sitting on the street making jewelry, or trying to make music and wanting you to listen to it," said Andy Anderson, manager of Rag-O-Rama (1111 Euclid Ave., 404-658-1988), a used-clothing store spanning many fashion eras. "People here are trying to make a living doing what they want to do."
Copper John, for one, creates wire bracelets and necklaces at his outdoor studio, a curb by a parking lot. His pieces go for $15 to $20, and if you have a design in mind, he can twist it on the spot. On the same block, a dreadlocked musician named Evangelical was selling rope necklaces adorned with glass beads. The charms contain small pictures of performers: Bob Marley was still available, but the one of Evangelical on a spaceship spinning records had been sold.
The stores and restaurants echo the edgy street life. To get a snack at the burger joint Vortex (438 Moreland Ave., 404-688-1828), I had to pass through a giant skull, then sit next to a skeleton riding a motorbike.
Highland Avenue may be only one street, but it comes with two personalities. The lower portion, sometimes referred to as Poncey-Highland, is the outlier sister to the more mainstream Virginia-Highland. The Young Blood Gallery and Boutique (636 N. Highland Ave., 404-254-4127), for instance, carries works by local agitator R. Land, who uses his art to protest the mall- and condo-ification of Atlanta. The nearby Highland Inn (644 N. Highland Ave., 404-874-5756, http://www.thehighlandinn.com; nightly rates from $87) had a sordid past but has since cleaned up for overnight guests and local social bees drawn to its Ballroom Lounge, a basement bar that stages jazz bands, movie nights and recently a $2 comedy show.
On the other side of Ponce de Leon, the avenue that splits the personalities, the demographic widens, adding years and khaki to the mix. "In the morning, we get older retirees; for lunch, young professionals and students; and in evening for happy hour, groups of friends," said Gerald Tyler, general manager of Neighbor's Pub (752-C N. Highland Ave., 404-872-5440). "Then late night, we get the hard-core drinkers and partyers."
There is no buffer between the manicured homes and the boisterous businesses; I felt for the residents who lived next door to Neighbor's, which was broadcasting its weekly NC-17-rated trivia game over a loudspeaker. During the day, the scene is much mellower, with shoppers picking up post-prep-school threads at Strivers Row (774 N. Highland Ave., 678-973-0045) and cupcakes and artisanal cheeses at Belly General Store (772 N. Highland Ave., 404-872-1003). After dark, though, the girls in short skirts and the boys in long shorts come out for cocktails. Even "Gene Simmons" made an appearance, soliciting passersby to enter the 10 High Club (816 N. Highland Ave., 404-873-3607) and karaoke the night away.