Imagine waking up to an Atlanta that has lost all connection to the LGBTQ community — an Atlanta where even notable centers of queer activity such as Ansley and 10th and Piedmont show no visible signs of queer life. Unfortunately, I am here to inform you all that we may very well be on that course. And for a community group, where this queer “sense of place” dually refers to our “sense of belonging” within a particular area, it is possible Atlanta’s LGBTQ community is in for a rude awakening.
The Atlanta we enjoy today is the creation of queer community members that persevered through an era of discrimination. This discrimination played an important role in the development of explicitly LGBTQ-friendly neighborhoods, but also led to a lack of resources within the community itself. This is a problem we now face.
Nationally, the “American Dream” has begun shifting from the suburbs back to city centers where the queer community owns very little of the land on which its establishments are located. As a result, we are seeing LGBTQ spaces priced out due to the very location where they exist. As a general example of this, let’s consider San Francisco’s iconic bar, The Stud. It’s the first worker-owned cooperative nightlife venue in the United States. After new owners inherited the property, development potential encouraged the property owners to nearly triple rent for The Stud in 2016 from $3,800 to $9,500. In efforts to remain in place, the local queer landmark successfully became a San Francisco Legacy Business. However, the designation did not mitigate the development pressures threatening the business. Known across the United States as a symbol of queer perseverance in a gentrifying city, The Stud shut its doors in the spring of 2020. Similar things are happening in urban communities across the country.
We must not believe we are immune to this trend. Demand for intown property in Atlanta has reached all-time highs, just like other cities across the U.S. At the same time, LGBTQ commercial districts have significantly weakened, and an astonishing number of queer institutions like Backstreet and Loretta’s have simply been leveled for new apartment buildings in Midtown in which many of us may reside today. Similarly, Cheshire Bridge Road — a historically prominent LGBTQ+ commercial corridor — fell victim to years of rezoning battles that ultimately led to significant up-zoning with little effort to retain queer businesses. And still, a large majority of what remains to serve the LGBTQ community sits atop parcels of land owned by individuals outside our community — the most striking being the swath of land along the BeltLine known as Ansley Mall and Ansley Square.
Mitigating these impacts and preserving our “sense of place” in Atlanta is doable. Already, the Atlanta Rainbow Crosswalk, as small as this queer infrastructure project may be, has significantly uplifted the LGBTQ identity of Midtown and provided the community with a visible anchor within the urban landscape. This effort, like parklets and plazas created adjacent to queer establishments such as Eagle San Francisco, helps maintain a sense of queer pride and belonging as we grow.
A more traditional tool that can be used to enhance community resilience is historic preservation designations. As an example, a partnered effort led by Historic Atlanta was successful in documenting the building best known for housing the Atlanta Eagle. After providing the City of Atlanta with materials to legally protect the structure from demolition and eliminate development pressures, the city made the right call to initiate the process. Sadly, eight months of inaction by the city, during which the property owner neglected the building (forcing the Atlanta Eagle to close its money-making dancefloor while dealing with a pandemic) set up a lose-lose scenario for all. In the end, what is important is that the building is protected from demolition. The will was there; next time, we need only to work more swiftly.
As we accept the situation at hand, it’s time to continue to use old tools to our advantage and explore what new ones may be on the table if we want to retain the queer community in Atlanta. I know Historic Atlanta will be doing its part to save historic LGBTQ landmarks, but as a community, we must work with city leaders to push more aggressively to create the Atlanta we want to live in. We need to take ownership of our own spaces and ensure our community is no longer ignored in the planning process.
If we plan nothing, we will have nothing.
Charlie Paine is the co-founder of Historic Atlanta, an organization supporting and advocating for the thoughtful reuse of Atlanta’s historic resources. Paine is Chair of the organization’s LGBTQ Historic Preservation Advisory Committee.