Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Key to the City

My friend Sonya has a favorite expression which I'm fond of using. She always prefaces tales of her myriad adventures by saying, "So there I was, sittin' at home, mindin' my own business."

View of Downtown Atlanta from Buckhead
Maybe I wasn't exactly sitting at home that day in September, 1981, but when Al Bartine called me into his downtown Chicago office to tell me that our operations were being relocated to Atlanta, I really had been minding my own business and didn't quite know what to say. Having spent considerable time working at and supporting our Atlanta regional office, I had made friends there, and yet, I had never considered going so far as to move there, since I thought (silly me) that moving was always at one's own discretion and on one's own timeline. You found a place you liked, and you figured out how to get there. Even though I had grown up in the South, in Memphis, the place I'd always envisioned living was somewhere within a fifty mile radius of Los Angeles. That day in Chicago changed everything.

When I had first visited Atlanta on business with my boss, I had observed several things:
  • The city, although geographically located in the American South, seemed to have strong Northern overtones. Many people sounded like Midwesterners or Northeasterners, yet it was quite easy to find good barbecue.
  • People drove fast. I was used to commuting on Chicago city expressways and downtown city streets every day of the week, but driving in Atlanta was a horse of a different color, and I was more than a little scared.
  • There was no perceivable order to the layout of the streets, and combined with the aggressive driving, this made for some challenging navigation.
  • Even though there was a sense of gentle, relaxed Southern hospitality, Atlanta was possessed of an equal sense of assertive self-confidence.
  • I kinda liked the place.

My wife Karen and I took stock of our situation in Chicago, and given the attractive move package and career options, we relocated to the city over Memorial Day weekend of 1982. Owing to the remarkably high temperatures that first Saturday, we had to run to a department store to buy shorts, which we had not owned in Chicago. On the way into the Richway store in suburban Roswell, we walked behind two men in overalls chewing on sticks of hay, something we probably wouldn't have seen in the North Shore Chicago neighborhood which we'd left only days before. I raised an eyebrow, because to me, this didn't look quite like the urban South that I remembered from my youth.

It was probably about three or four years later that my schedule of commuting, working long days, business travel, and studying for my master's program began to catch up with me. I found myself lamenting that I was living in what appeared to be endless suburbia. Granted, it was a very nice, well-planned flavor of suburbia, and I hadn't seen anyone else eating hay out in the open, but nevertheless, I was longing for the elements that defined Atlanta, the city whose motto was simply "Resurgens" (Latin for "rising again"), coined after it began its rebirth from the ashes of the Civil War. After all, this was the place I'd heard called "The New York of the South." There had to be something that I was missing.

Atlanta in 1871
Growing up in Memphis, my work, education, and recreation were mostly confined to the city limits, so when I moved to Atlanta, I was expecting to find a bustling city core. But in the early 1980's, the Atlanta scene was all about outward growth. The city had no natural boundaries, and suburbs were being built at an astonishing rate, unlike anything I had ever witnessed. Indeed, real estate analyst Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution proclaimed in those days: "It is altogether probable that in terms of land area, Atlanta is the fastest-growing human settlement in history." It was hard to keep up with it all.

I had almost given up finding the true Atlanta when something fortuitous happened. Early one sunny Saturday afternoon, as I was lamenting yet again about the endless sprawl, Karen told me that she'd had enough of my fussing. She ordered me to get in the car and said she was going to drive us somewhere. I asked where, but she refused to tell me. She seemed dead serious, and I deemed it an unwise time to argue the point. We headed off down the highway toward what I thought was the city.

Downtown Avondale Estates
About thirty minutes later, we drove into Avondale Estates, an "in town" neighborhood a few miles east of downtown Atlanta, where my wife's friend Ginna Evans had grown up and still lived. Ginna and Karen had talked at length about Avondale, and Karen had passed some of that along to me, but I was absolutely overwhelmed by what I saw that day: beautiful vintage homes of all sizes on pristine lots, people out walking, massive trees spanning the streets, and a charming downtown defined by Tudor-Revival style architecture. There was a peacefulness to Avondale which was the perfect panacea to all my lingering post-relocation anxiety, and for some reason, I felt immediately at home, even though I'd never visited there before. We drove up and down the streets of Avondale, then headed to the bustling DeKalb Farmers Market, with walls of Asian spices, rows upon rows of freshly picked produce, and a massive fish market. We bought some oversized, delicious cookies and ate them in the car, and I realized at that very moment that I had just experienced one of those pivotal moments in my life: I had stumbled upon something which looked very much like the essence of the true Atlanta.

In the ensuing years, Ginna and her family adopted us. We spent countless hours in Avondale, attending family events of all sorts, and I especially enjoyed hearing the stories Ginna's parents and friends told about what Avondale and Atlanta had been like when they had moved there so many years before. Over time, I began to realize that these were the same sorts of stories I would have been hearing had I been back home in Memphis; indeed, this was very much like that home, just a few hundred miles east. Going to Avondale made me feel good, like I had grown up there and belonged there. Even though I didn't live in Avondale itself, its sense of community was what began to tie me tightly to Atlanta.

For a few weeks in 1995, I actually became an honorary citizen of Avondale. We had moved from Atlanta to Charlotte in 1993 as part of a corporate relocation, but two years later, after our company was bought out, we opted to return to the familiarity of the city. I took a job in Atlanta while my wife and children stayed back in Charlotte until our house could be sold. I commuted back and forth every week, but having no convenient place to hang my hat during the week in Atlanta, I was delighted (and relieved) when Ginna's family offered me their upstairs room. We had fine dinners (Ginna's family at one time owned a chain of Atlanta restaurants), did the dishes, mowed the lawn, and in the evenings, watched the Braves on the living room TV or cruised around looking for houses. Those were some splendid days, and I am forever grateful to the Evans family for helping me make it through that period of transition.

View of Midtown Atlanta from Piedmont Park
Eventually, I became an Atlantan. It's been 33 years this Memorial Day that I've lived here, except for those two years away in Charlotte. Even though I live in the northern suburbs, I've learned the ins and outs of the city. I've wandered endlessly from one part of town to the next, and in the process, I've grown to love the place. I've made wonderful friends here, many of whom share the common thread of growing up in a Southern city in the 60's and 70's. I reflect on those good times, but I also look forward to the next wave, because the city is growing yet again, this time from the inside out, with a myriad of in town neighborhoods rebuilding and expanding to meet one another. Few things make me happier than sitting outside on a patio as the sun goes down, observing the diverse patchwork of humanity and style that defines Atlanta and watching the glow of the lights as the city's heart beats on steadily into the night.

Meanwhile, quiet little Avondale Estates, having played second fiddle in recent years to the burgeoning neighboring city of Decatur, is experiencing a renaissance of its own these days, and I can't wait to see what's on the horizon. But every time I drive to it or through it, I will always remember that afternoon in 1986 when I really and truly found a home that perhaps had been waiting there for me all along.