The ‘sterilization’ of Cheshire Bridge Road: How LGBT culture can thrive amidst new developments

Bobby Hamill calls it “the little red-light district” of Atlanta.

“You can get anything on Cheshire Bridge,” Hamill, owner of BJ Roosters bar, said. “You can get the best Italian food in the city. You can get the most amazing Thai food. You can get a blowjob. You can buy a dildo. You can get dry cleaning. Anything you need is on Cheshire Bridge.”

But the scenery of this eclectic corridor is changing: zoning allows for more apartment complexes to replace the patchwork of older retail and restaurant structures, and some worry what this may mean for the historically LGBT-friendly part of the city.

“Atlanta is already bad enough with Sherman coming through and destroying everything, burning all the buildings down, and to me it feels like the same thing,” said Teri Darnell, an out photographer who lives in the area.

Construction zone

“The community’s been in an uproar for at least a decade about wanting to get rid of Cheshire Bridge Road. They don’t want strip clubs. They don’t want the gay bars. They don’t want any of it. They tried to make it go away, and the legislation didn’t pass,” Darnell said. “This vision that the community had for Cheshire Bridge Road — making it a work/live-type of community — nothing came of that.”

What did happen was an economic recession, followed by developers swooping in.

“You see these huge gaps on Cheshire Bridge of things just being totally plowed down. Those are going to be another 300 apartments,” Darnell said. “They’re building apartments and storage facilities instead of having a planned community like the neighbors had hoped. Now it’s … becoming just a sterile place.”

The zone change to make Cheshire Bridge neighborhood-commercial was approved in the mid-2000s, and grandfathered in adult businesses. Alex Wan, an openly gay Atlanta City Council member, said that at the time, neighbors wanted a Virginia Highlands-like feel with bars, retail, offices and eateries that they could walk to.

“Basically what they’re saying is no new adult businesses could come in and the existing ones … if you’re doing something and we change the zoning, we can’t force you out. You can continue operating so long as you don’t expand your nonconforming adult business,” he said.

In 2013, the City Council moved to give these adult businesses five years to comply with the underlying zoning. This motion, which did not pass, was interpreted by some to be anti-LGBT and a slight against gay bars.

“The gay bars were never in question,” Wan said. “It was only those that were adult businesses. … The proposed zoning change was simply to impact those that were operating as adult businesses, and that would give them five years to wrap up what they were doing.”

The free market at work

“All the redevelopment on Cheshire Bridge is organic,” Wan said. “I’ve long said this corridor is ripe for some major developments going on. That’s why I’ve been trying to do whatever I can to make sure it realizes its full potential.”

He said the only tool the city government has in the development game there now is ensuring the new buildings comply with those zoning laws. No business owners have approached him to discuss leases running out on their buildings and what they should do if a developer purchases their land out from under them.

Hamill, who owns the property and buildings his bar and the next-door hair salon sit on, thinks the construction promises new customers, and plans to stick around for the long haul. He’s already turned down a number of offers from developers.

The Heretic and Jungle, which did not respond to interview requests, do not own their own buildings. Representatives from Tripps, located just around the corner from Cheshire Bridge, and Opus 1 were unavailable as of press time. Dean Chronopoulos owns both the building and the land for ROXX Tavern.

“[Losing a gay bar] would definitely make an impact, but I also think that because of its history, its background, because of the gay culture of the street, I think if some were to leave it would be filled in with other gay-owned, gay-themed, gay-friendly businesses because Cheshire Bridge has such a strong history of that,” Chronopoulos said.

Where everybody knows your name

Another transition, especially with rumors about looming closures of popular LGBT hangouts, is from “gay bars” to “neighborhood bars.”

“This is a gay bar, yes. But I welcome everybody. I want everyone to feel comfortable,” Hamill said. “As gay people, we don’t want to be segregated, so why do we segregate ourselves?”

He said one reason gay bars were so segregated before was because LGBT Atlantans had to hide from the anger and hatred toward them. Darnell echoed his sentiments, saying it was refreshing when she first moved to the area to see gay bars and businesses right on the street instead of hidden down alleyways.

“Cheshire Bridge is going through another evolution,” Chronopoulos said. “Cheshire Bridge has been, and probably always will be, an eclectic street, and its diversity gives it such a unique perspective of city life that it draws a lot of attention. … I think hopefully with the new residents on the street, that will just add more strength to our culture over here.”

No matter what happens, Hamill said he doesn’t feel LGBT businesses are being “squeezed out” by the new construction.

“I think it’s just growth,” he said. “Either you’re going to change with it or it’s going to pass you over. We’re all about change. I like change. It’s a little scary at first, but we’re going to make it.”