I’ve let my Atlanta experience sit in my brain for a couple of days before writing about it, because it was more emotionally affecting than I anticipated. (I’ll write separately later about the actual places I went.) Consider: This was a place I lived in for six or seven years. While there, I spent most of my time at work, or with my (then-)boyfriend, making relatively few friends outside of work, and no close ones. In fact, when I left, I took with me a lot of professional relationships that I’ve maintained, but no real friendships.
But what I discovered last week is that what I miss is not people — it’s the place. To my surprise, I realized that I love Atlanta (and the South, and if you want to argue that Atlanta isn’t really the South, well, take it somewhere else, because although I understand what you mean I don’t care; what I love is the South as it is, not as it was in 1960 or 1930 or whenever; but I digress) in a way that I don’t love New York. Sure, I like New York and I enjoy New York and I appreciate New York — I have a uniquely rich and interesting life here of a type that would be hard to achieve elsewhere. I understand why I am fortunate to be here. And yet…
In Atlanta I lived in a 1905 bungalow with original detail in a lovingly preserved, leafy neighborhood (Grant Park), one block from a large park and two miles from the center of town, with river birches in the front yard and a picket fence and four fireplaces, which I bought for under $250,000. Then I lived in a classic 1940 tract house, in an adjacent former streetcar suburb full of similar houses (Ormewood Park) that had all been so remodeled and modified and loved by their owners that it was difficult to imagine that they were all once identical.
That second house backed on five acres of tall-tree woods full of birds and animals, on a steep grade that ran down down to a gully. I had a pond with a bullfrog in it who somehow survived every winter to croak again in the spring. I had two decks, which I designed and had built, facing the afternoon sun. I had hedges of mallow running up the walk, and volunteer mimosa trees in the front yard which I protected, and a flag above the door that I changed every few weeks. I bought that house for under $150,000. Both times I went home-shopping, I had dozens of options — places I could afford, that I liked.
I owned and operated a neighborhood bookstore, and took part in community festivals all year round. I didn’t know my immediate neighbors well, but I knew plenty of people who lived within a short walk or drive. I was involved in community advocacy (bicycling, urbanism, parks), knew people who were more involved than I was. I shopped in neighborhood commercial districts where I knew many of the shopowners; I ate in good restaurants that were reasonably priced. I knew the manager of my local bank; I knew my city councilmember. When I needed something from a city or county office, which I occasionally did as a business owner, I could go downtown or to Decatur and get it taken care of in half an hour. Each of the dozen or so neighborhoods I frequented had its own character, but what they had in common was physical beauty (trees and architecture), homeowners and renters who felt proud to live there, and a sense of accessibility. They were nice places, loved by the people who lived and worked there, that ordinary people could afford, and they still are.
The small business climate was better than New York’s, because rent was cheap, which reduced your risk. My bookstore, objectively, was a failure, and it took me years to pay off the debt I incurred; but it was a positive experience overall, and the level of risk associated with opening a small business in a place where your rent is $850 a month (as mine was) is much gentler on the soul than the risk involved in opening a store in Chelsea or even Carroll Gardens. I survived, and I’d do it again.
In those years I didn’t have everything in the world, but I had everything I needed, and my life was rich and much more earnest than my life in New York is. I knew people (many of them, of a range of denominations) who were religious and serious about it and not idiots. I ate just as much “ethnic” food as I do in New York, and on average ate better American comfort food. (I ate much better pasta, and equally good Mexican food.) I enjoyed a wider variety of music than I do here, without having to apologize for it. I knew just as many creative people there as here, and experienced more organic, informal art on a routine basis, in part because many more young people could afford to “do their thing” in the general area without having to commute from an hour away. (Across from my old bookstore on McLendon Avenue, a 1500-square-foot commercial loft in a one-story corner commercial zone is currently for rent for about $1,000 a month.)
I traveled widely and easily throughout the South during those years. I saw every city and town in north Georgia. I spent significant time in and got to know Savannah, Charleston, Columbia, Greenville, Spartanburg, Charlotte, Durham, Asheville, Knoxville, Nashville, Little Rock, Birmingham, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Richmond, and Charlottesville well enough that I could give you credible tourist advice in, around, and on the way to all those places. I went to Chattanooga half a dozen times, and to the Dillard House above Clayton a dozen times.
In short, it was a terrific seven years, good for my soul. And it obviously didn’t hurt me professionally, since I’m doing fine now.
The problem with living in New York is that it takes a lot of work. Living comfortably in Atlanta, on the contrary, took almost no work. On a normal salary, I could afford to live in a beautiful house, in a neighborhood full of houses that ordinary people like me were restoring and making pretty for everyone to enjoy. Or, if I’d chosen to, I could have lived in raw loft space in a commercial conversion with interesting, creative neighbors. Much of what I needed commercially was a five-minute drive away, and within twenty minutes’ drive was as much variety as you can find anywhere in America save New York itself. I was five minutes away from a gigantic 24-hour Kroger, and 10 minutes from a much nicer Publix open until 10pm. Sometimes in New York, late at night, I miss that — being able to get in the car at midnight (as I sometimes did), drive five minutes, park right in front, and fill up the car with groceries.
Below are photos of my two houses.