Rarely, for any reason, do I disclose the location of the nooks and crannies of the ever-changing Atlantan landscape where I find solitude, peace, and resolve – all invaluable assets in a time where everything is seemingly available at one’s fingertips. At the drop of a dime an email, phone call, Facebook message, any sort of notification can intrude on one’s conversation with oneself. For this project I offer, hopefully at not too costly an expense, one of the spaces I have found solitude in this city, Joe’s East Atlanta Coffee: located on the corner of Glenwood and Flat Shoals, nestled in an East Atlanta Village community that is rich, diverse – a term we will not examine too closely – and lastly, home. This is where I go on Saturday mornings to grab ‘White Gold,’ a subtle mix of milk and honey. The theology of a cup of coffee has been examined by Leonard Sweet, on a corporate level, yet there is nothing more organic and fulfilling than a home-like coffee niche. A place the community can truly ground in, as Walter Rodney would put it.
“Touching home” may seem to be a warm phrase but for myself, and many others, this means that we are visitors in a place that was once home. A returning from exile, of sorts, with very little chance of re-orientation in an intimate sense. Before I left the city limits this area was my world. From my mother’s extra jobs during the East Atlanta Village strut, from timely haircuts at “In Tha Kut,” and sun fries from the Heaping Bowl, this was – is – home. Ask anyone who is a product of this neighborhood that may still be around, they can tell you that things have changed. In 1997 when my family moved further down Flat Shoals to Clifton Church, we noticed that things were a bit different. We noted that crime was down, and it was apparent that the bike lanes and pedestrians had become more prevalent. To what does this change owe itself? At age nine I had no clue, and today at twenty-seven I am still forming one.
Regardless of the underlying reasons, the question for us is quite clear: was change for the better? Departing from the clarity of the question, we aren’t certain. We know the property value has risen, crime has gone down, the area is full of eclectic business, refreshed institutions. The uncertainty arises in the absence of those who were once there, and begs the question “where did we go?” as an interviewee put it. As a Black child of Atlanta, I understand that development within the perimeter – to say nothing of the much broader Southern and the American projects – is often synonymous with the eradication of Black life, Black industry, and Black reality. Now, this sense of reality for the most part, since reconstruction, has been rooted in alienation, social programs, and a solely aesthetic involvement in the cities’ development. To be homeless at home, to be solely a product of what is dictated through policy is not to be at home at all.
Now, it would be remiss to leave the inevitability of change unacknowledged. It would be even further remiss of me to leave the reality of our integration unacknowledged. Life, that which we hope for, is a gift and as people who believe in a higher power we do not take it for granted. However, what we know to be certain, perhaps as certain as change itself, is death. I believe that we may not be able to question the probability of life, death, and change, however, if we are following a Christian example – and thus engaging with other Abrahamic examples – then we know that we are deeply concerned with the quality of one’s life and death, and the dignity that ought to remain central in our public and private dealings with one another.
The turning away from the aforementioned sort of engagement is present in the emergence of the American project on varying levels, especially if you are not White. In Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, for example, we find a dialogue between a Black Christian minister and a Hindu minister who is aware of Thurman’s introduction to the American project was through bill of sale and a Bible. Thurman cleverly sifts through this conundrum that a person of color in the Christian faith must – engaging with Jesus as a subject, way to live, not an object – but I mention this as an example of the differences of power, and the transgression from upholding the dignity of another we have practiced in this country.
Furthering our discussion, what does this mean to be at peace? To find solitude in Atlanta? The answer to this question is a matter of one’s perspective, or put another way, the city “Atlanta,” only monolithic in name, is in conversation with her citizens in different ways. In setting forth Joe’s as a space I find refuge, comfort, and sometimes quiet, it is this space I decided to use as a platform to find what it is that East Atlantans, and those who visit her, would find as refuge. My question of the people who agreed to participate was simple: In what ways has this area served you, and in what ways could this be improved?
Fairly simple to answer on the surface, I thought originally. However, as I began to approach persons to question I found that though the question was simple, it served as an entry point to diverse answers from the “congregants” of this neighborhood. I have chosen three narratives to highlight that best answer the questions at hand: Effective community based ministry, asset-mapping, and what one seeks in visiting and living in a space such as East Atlanta Village. While sitting in Joe’s, outside on a bench, or at Grant Central Pizza, I have taken these three narratives and sought to capture what I have in my notes based off of our conversations. I spent hours, happily reading, writing, doing my best not to appear awkward or assuming in my aims to interview folks. See below:
“We’re bringing in a new world, in a new time
Youngblood, get yourself together…”
“I’ve lived in the East Atlanta area for the past seven years, so far it has been a wonderful experience. My wife and I are somewhat local, we came from Gwinnett County where we met! I like it here because of the schools, and the close proximity of everything we need. Food, for example, there’s a Kroger just down the street, as well as a corner store in EAV should we need it. We decided to move in 2006 because of the pricing of the houses and the schools. So far we really like our neighborhood, everyone is pretty close-knit and our neighbors are friendly. We don’t go for walks too late, though, but for the most part it is safe to walk and enjoy the scenery. My wife has an old moped she uses to get to and from work, so far safety’s been good aside from crazy Atlanta drivers. Honestly there isn’t much to complain about, my commute is short, I love it here, and we should be expecting a family soon! I come to Joe’s quite a bit, it’s an easy commute on Saturday mornings and the same for Thursday evenings. One thing that irks me a bit about the area is how fast people drive on Moreland, and how much trash there is sometimes. I’m not sure if it’s the City of Atlanta, or whoever is responsible for it, but it gets to be somewhat of an eye-sore. That would be my one suggestion about the area, to pick up the trash and maybe find a way to make Moreland a bit safer for bikers/alternate transportation.”
“When night falls on the City of a Hundred Hills, a wind gathers
itself from the seas and comes murmuring westward. And at its
bidding, the smoke of the drowsy factories sweeps down upon the
mighty city and covers it like a pall, while yonder at the University
the stars twinkle above Stone Hall. And they say that yon gray mist
is the tunic of Atalanta pausing over her golden apples. Fly, my
maiden, fly, for yonder comes Hippomenes!”
“I’m a mid 20’s tech consultant, so I like living in this area. It’s not cheap, but living with roommates helps. I like this area for, perhaps a strange reason, but parking is pretty reasonable. I usually have friends over so it’s important they have somewhere to park. Plus, parking in EAV (and L5P, if you know where its safe from Parking Enforcement) is really good. The brunch spots are great. Church? Now, when it comes to church, I float around in the area. I like Village Church because it’s close, and I’ve been to Eastside a few times. One weekend, my roommate and I went to First Iconium Baptist. Personally, I think its cool that my favorite bar is right down the street from a church, its just something you don’t see much. I like that I have several churches at my fingertips, and I’m glad there is a younger crowd in the area. My one wish though, is that we had more older members in some of these churches. We have a few who I see every now and then from the towers, but aside from them there aren’t many. Sometimes it’s great to have a wise voice every now and then. I come from Columbus, GA and I’m used to older members. It started out fun, but I kindof miss the wisdom. The only thing that gets annoying is when people ask me for tech advice. It’s good I can help, but I really would like some management.”
“Seeds don’t grow by the farms they are
Gentrified, sent alive to me, beliefs
The agnostic priests
Optimistical paths so predictable to rituals”
“I’ve been here for 36 years. I moved here from Chicago in 1979 to go to Clark College. I graduated with a degree in psychology and started working as a mailman. I used to live over by Chosewood Park and it was a pretty decent neighborhood, I moved over to Gresham Avenue in ’84 and have been there ever since. I mostly keep to myself, I have a few friends who come by every now and then, mostly my grandkids and daughter. Honestly, it’s easy living and I can get exercise when I want. Walking is pretty safe. Church? I used to go to Ebenezer back in the day, and I was there when First Iconium opened up (which used to be Moreland Avenue Baptist), but I stopped going there in the past 10 years. I keep to myself, and you can find me on most days (if the weather is alright) outside of the T-Shirt Lady’s store on my perch! No problems for me really, the neighborhood is nice and it treats me well. I’m not much of a church-goer anymore, but maybe I will be some day. I usually just go grab something to eat at the regular noon hour when my buddies get out of church.”
… These are three of seven people I interviewed. Again, these are quick synopses of conversations had while sitting in Joe’s – Jeff, and Greg, I mean – whereas I ran into Elroy on “his perch,” as he calls it, on my way back to my car walking up Flat Shoals. I was moved by these conversations given my narrative before the interviews were introduced. I am not certain if this caught my eye due to my being in seminary, but I was surprised (pleasantly? I’m not certain) to find that many of the interviewees had very little formal relationships with a church. Each seemed to be incredibly open to talk about food, bookstores, favorite places to go to, but when I brought up church there was more times than not an awkward pause. It was as if our conversation had begun to transition from a surface conversation to a more personal one and everyone wasn’t ready for it, honestly. At least the first time talking to a complete stranger.
So what was learned? On the outset, one ought to be careful when bringing their experience to any location and assuming that, in any way, it is the totality of the experience for everyone else. This is my sin, essentially, and I was happily tempered in my understanding of what a “gentrifier” is, and what brings the need for a new church, with new focus, in a changed neighborhood. Second, I was perplexed to find that there was very little involvement in organized religion. This isn’t to say that community isn’t present, because it is, but there are more ways than one that people gather in community. This can include church, but I think in this area what happens outside of the four walls of the churches that are present make the community that much richer. Lastly, and most importantly I argue, is that as easy as it may seem for one to do so, painting a neighborhood as a monolithic entity does the community no good. This is an offshoot of the first point of assuming one’s experience is everyone’s experience, and under this umbrella one affords themselves the opportunity to see the assets present in the area. Finding how businesses served EAV was easy, and out of this ease I found that a great way to build bridges between persons and examine who has what skill (Greg the tech consultant or Jeff’s wife, on moped maintenance) and how they can be put to use. I’m still not sold on church planting, where in Atlantan history I can’t help but tie it to gentrification and development at the expense of the other, however I am a fan of what is taking place in EAV, and usually you can catch me at Joe’s on a Saturday, having a White Gold, and trying to make sense of solitude in the city.