By Guest Columnist WILLIAM VANDERKLOOT, a film director/producer with a unique insight into Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood.
Note from the author: The following is based on my (imperfect) memory, so please take the dates as general in nature.
A few years ago Google announced it would archive older images from its Google Maps StreetView program to create a StreetView History section for various cities. StreetView is less than 10 years old, but decades from now it will be a local historian’s delight. I only wish we had StreetView back when I moved my company to the Old Fourth Ward in 1979.
Like the proverbial frog submersed in slowly heating water, familiarity with our immediate surroundings makes us oblivious to incremental change. That is until one day we suddenly realize almost everything is different. That happened to me regarding my studio in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood.
I started my film production company in a 7th Street apartment in 1976. Two years later my one-bedroom space was too small for all my editing and production equipment. I had to find another place to work.
A friend told me about vacant offices in an old warehouse at 750 Forrest Ave. It was a large open space with a rusted roof and crumbling wooden loading dock that faced a parking lot dotted with weeds growing up through cracked asphalt. Upstairs were a few small offices, and I rented two. One was my office and the other was the editing room.
Late 1970’s – Early 1980’s
The building at 750 showed its age. Our parking lot was encircled by rusted chain link fence, partially obscured by fast-growing Kudzu that cascaded down from the adjacent railroad track. Vines had to be constantly trimmed back, or they would take over. There are a reason people in South Georgia call Kudzu “mile-a-night.”
Forrest Avenue ran straight east from Downtown and jogged north to connect with North Avenue just before Manuel’s Tavern. Adair Street curved around the back of the 750 building and connected to North Avenue at the Sears Automotive Service Center and adjacent to Excelsier Mill. Nestled in this industrial section of Adair were a number of warehouses, one of which housed Kelly’s Seed and Feed, home to an innovative theater company and the famous Marching Abominables.
Our area was industrial. Across the street from our offices was the Blue Circle Concrete plant, which had a constant stream of giant cement trucks churning up dust as they noisily drove back and forth. Next to Blue Circle was Benton Brothers Film Express, a company that specialized in the exclusive transport of film reels to movie theatres.
Next door to 750 was Halls Wholesale Flowers, a large warehouse full of cut flowers. Occasionally, the delightful scent would waft through my open window. Just up the hill from Hall’s were three busy Ivan Allen Office Supply warehouses. On the corner of Forrest Avenue and Glen Iris was the Forrest Avenue School, which had been closed years earlier.
In view of our parking lot was an active railroad track. Almost every year, the colorful Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus train would slowly pass on its way to a siding in Piedmont Park for the duration of their Atlanta run.
On the other side of the tracks was the closed Western Electric Telephone Factory, which was being transitioned into artist lofts. The rest of the area was mostly overgrown and dotted with abandoned buildings and sidewalks that had not been maintained for years. Save for a few homeless people and prostitutes, the area was empty of pedestrians.
Sprinkled through this industrial landscape were a few single-family homes. One of the homes operated an [illegal] meat-and-three restaurant that served a great lunch. The place was always packed, but it was unfortunately shut down a few years later by the city.
We grew to love this derelict building, and when we learned that it was going up for sale, we bought it. Multiple warehouse tenants occupied most of the building. As our company grew, we slowly took over more and more of the premises and built edit rooms, sound mixing studios and shooting spaces. We named our studio division, Magick Lantern.
During the weekday, Forrest Avenue was busy with truck traffic, but on weekends it was a ghost town. When I worked on weekends, the area seemed so quiet it was almost eerie, like one of those sci fi movies where all the people have been removed from Earth. And there was always the unexpected.
One Sunday afternoon while I was editing a film, there was a tapping on the window. I looked up and saw a ragged man with shoulder-length hair and a crumpled paper shopping bag. He mumbled something inaudible, and then pulled a reel of 16mm film out of the bag. I met him at the door, and he explained he was heading to Georgia State University to give a talk and show this film. Unfortunately the film was damaged, and he asked if I could help. I repaired his film, and he was very grateful. As a token of his appreciation he gave me a signed mimeographed poster. My guest was Wavy Gravy, one of the notable counter culture figures of the ’60s. I remembered him from being at the Woodstock festival, which I attended in 1969.
Mid 1980’s to 1990’s
Forrest Avenue, named after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, was renamed, Ralph McGill Boulevard after the noted Atlanta journalist and editor of the civil rights era.
The abandoned school at the corner of Ralph McGill and Glen Iris, known as the Forrest Avenue School, was leased to a number of local arts groups. It was the first home of IMAGE Film Video Center, the predecessor to the Atlanta Film Society. As a founding IMAGE board member, I spent a lot of after-hours time at the facility. We renovated a large space with editing rooms, offices, and a large screening room for events, like the judging of the first Atlanta Film Festival. Unfortunately, IMAGE was forced out of our newly renovated offices, in a space grab by the Nexus Photography group.
Across the street from the school was the abandoned Creomulsion building where they once produced cough syrup. Art Director Guy Tuttle and his movie prop company, Special Projects, bought the building. It was great to have a trusted film industry supplier right down the street.
The arrival of the Carter Presidential Center changed the landscape in more ways than one. The placement of the Center’s buildings required the closure of one end of Ralph McGilll Boulevard, so it no longer connected directly with North Avenue. The beautiful grounds and operating restaurant injected energy into the neighborhood. The opening ceremony featured a VIP guest list that included then President Ronald Reagan. The day before his motorcade passed in front of our building, the secret service checked out our offices and interviewed our staff.
We volunteered our services to the Carter Center and worked with their team on dozens of film and video projects – many were pro bono. We even hosted President and Mrs. Carter at our studio for shoots. A Presidential visit seemed a long way from the kudzu-covered parking lot.
A related part of the Carter Center construction was a plan to build a connecting highway from Ponce de Leon Avenue to Boulevard and the Downtown Connector. The land for this highway was already vacant, because a decade earlier, the Georgia Department of Transportation had planned to build I-475 to link the Downtown Connector with Stone Mountain. Dozens of homes in the Old Fourth Ward, Poncey Highlights, Virginia Highlands and Morningside were leveled to make way for this proposed highway. Citizens rose up and eventually stopped it, but it was too late for many homeowners.
Local neighborhood wounds were still raw when the DOT proposed this connector highway for the Carter Center. Many thought it was the camel’s nose in the tent – a first step to building a renewed I-475. There were mass demonstrations around town and at the Carter Center.
A compromise was hammered out. The DOT would build the four-lane parkway, to be called Freedom Parkway, but it would end at Ponce de Leon Avenue, and it would have a maximum speed limit of 35 mph. It would not be I-475 redeaux.
Despite positive impact of the Carter Center and Freedom Parkway, the area still had the feel of an urban outpost. One of our tenants was beaten and robbed as he walked from Glen Iris to the studio.
On another occasion, our out-of-town clients were scared out of their wits when their cab from the airport was at the stoplight at Boulevard and Freedom Parkway. Suddenly the Atlanta Police Department’s Red Dog Drug Squad appeared and a gun battle ensued with another car of alleged drug dealers. Shots flew right over their taxicab. Luckily our clients were unharmed, but they never again returned to our studio.
While our business suffered events of periodic vandalism and minor burglary, the perception of Downtown crime always seemed worse than the reality. I was perplexed when people from the suburbs would tell me, almost proudly, the only time they would ever come Downtown would be to drive to the airport.
We had to cajole many of our clients north of the Perimeter to visit our studio. When they did, we’d take them on a tour of the area and out for lunch. Most would be favorably impressed with the neighborhood. One time I convinced a skeptical executive to attend an edit session. During a tour he admitted the neighborhood had a really great vibe. That impression might have been tempered a bit, when on returning from lunch, we entered our parking lot to see a scraggly homeless man, dressed only in stained underwear, using our hose as a shower.
Change continued one building at a time. The telephone factory lofts were now full of artists, and Turner Broadcasting based their mobile video trucks in the back. Next door, the empty NuGrape factory was renovated into condominiums, which sold out quickly. There was a slow, but steady, influx of young creative people to the area, but it couldn’t stall some business downturns. Sears closed its store on Ponce and retreated to the suburbs, leaving the giant building empty. In our immediate vicinity, Blue Circle Concrete, Benton Brothers and the Ivan Allen warehouses also closed. Things grew even quieter as the train track was no longer active and became completely overgrown.
Mid 1990’s to early 2000’s
We suddenly had a new neighbor. Georgia Power built a large maintenance facility behind our building in what was an overgrown Kudzu field. In the process they closed Adair Street and its connection with Ponce. The old warehouses that were once home to Kelly’s Seed and Feed were torn down.
Suddenly there was a mini construction boom. Condos popped up along Glen Iris and the adaptive reuse of the southern Dairies factory on North Avenue created offices and retail space. New condos appeared at Ralph McGill and Freedom Parkway, where Jane Fonda once made a home.
An intriguing article in the paper prompted me to volunteer our services to Cathy Woolard, then president of the Atlanta City Council, to create a video to introduce a concept by Ryan Gravel, called The Atlanta BeltLine. Jane Fonda graciously agreed to narrate the project.
In the late 1990s we built a soundstage and further renovated our building. Across the street the abandoned Blue Circle concrete property was transformed into Block Lofts. The Benton Brothers property was leased into Sunbelt, a company that sells and rents large high lifts and scaffolding. We bought one of their units for our studio. Creative companies moved into the area, including many in the film business like Pogo Pictures, Color Bay, Lab 601, Primal Screen, and Artifact Design.
Ponce de Leon Avenue was undergoing its own renaissance. The City of Atlanta bought the old Sears building and installed a number of city offices, including a police precinct. Across Ponce a large retail development began to take shape. It included a Home Depot, Staples, Harris Teeter grocery store and a Borders Books, among others.
The influx of new residents and businesses brought new places to eat. In addition to Manuel’s Tavern, Excelsior Mill, Tortillas, and the Majestic, new places sprung up on Ponce, including Eats, Fellini’s Pizza, and the Righteous Room.
For every new business that appeared, others closed and their buildings abandoned. One of the Ivan Allen warehouses became a music rehearsal venue called Thunderbox, but the other two buildings remained empty. The city sold the old Forrest Avenue School arts center to investors and reduced city government space in the Sears building. Only the police motor pool remained. The old C&S Bank at the corner of Glen Iris and Ponce, which had briefly been a video production studio, became Cactus Carwash. The destination restaurant, Two Urban Licks, opened in the Telephone Factory, and many artists moved out as rents began to rise.
Mid 2000’s to Present
The peaks and valleys of the economic cycle were reflected in changes to our neighborhood. Atlanta police moved out of the Sears building and it essentially became vacant once more. Two Ivan Allen warehouses were demolished and turned into Amli Parkside apartments, which faced the new Historic Old Fourth Ward Park. The bad economy claimed Halls Wholesale Florist, but a few years later, the building was renovated into Venkemann’s restaurant/music venue and an Emory Healthcare office. Across the street from 750, a Christmas fire destroyed the Tower Lounge, and it was reborn into Bantam Pub, a delightful tavern and eatery.
In 2012 when the BeltLine Eastside Trail opened, the stage was set for a significant transformation of the area. The once sleepy neighborhood of the 1980s and ‘90s had awoken to an influx of new residents. The opening of Ponce City Market greatly accelerated that trend.
Evening sidewalk traffic changed in ways unexpected. In the early days of my time in the O4W, while driving home from work, I would see homeless men making their way up to the abandoned train tracks with their bedrolls. Today in the evening, I see young professionals walk up to the BeltLine on the same path, now paved, carrying their yoga mats.
Change is always a fraught subject. Many of us have invested years of time, energy and resources into building the O4W neighborhood with a brighter future in mind. However, I doubt anyone could have imagined the extent of the transformation that is happening today.
The most dramatic change began in earnest a few years ago. Special Projects sold their property at Glen Iris and Ralph McGill. Soon construction began for a large townhome complex, “starting in the mid $600’s.” Across the street, where the old Forrest Avenue School once stood, a massive residential development, The Aster, is almost complete. Up the hill from the studio, where Ivan Allen once had warehouses and music echoed in Thunderbox, another towering residential development is leasing luxury apartments. I wonder how long those lovely single-family homes across the street will hold out.
I sold the 750 property and the Magick Lantern studio business a few years ago to a company that continued the operation. On many mornings I still visit the O4W as a cyclist on the BeltLine and the Freedom Park Trail. The tempo of change seems to increase with each passing day, as another construction crane appears on the horizon. At the Telephone Factory, Turner’s mobile operations have moved out, and in their place is the huge New Realm Brewing Company, which faces the BeltLine. On Ponce, the famous ‘murder’ Kroger has been demolished, and in its place will be a high-rise office building and a brand new Kroger, with direct access to the BeltLine and Ponce City Market.
In January, it was announced that Georgia Power sold its property adjacent to my old studio. Appropriately named New City, the plans show an enormous complex of sleek buildings to house and entertain the creative class pouring into the area. It’s a sea change.
Just a short time ago, it was announced that my old studio 750 was also sold to New City to be part of the $750 million development. It is not hard to imagine that in five years, the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, where I worked for almost 40 years, will be unrecognizable. Whether that is good, bad, or in-between, depends on one’s perspective.
Perhaps those who are wistful of the past are just overly sentimental. As for me, I fondly remember the thrill decades ago when everyone at our studio would run out into the parking lot to watch the circus train move slowly along the Kudzu- lined tracks toward Piedmont Park.
The train, the tracks and the circus are long gone, but the Old Fourth Ward is alive and kicking. I wonder what it will look like on Google StreetView 2040.
Note to readers: William VanDerKloot is a director and producer of films and television documentaries. He founded VanDerKloot Film & Television, Magick Lantern Studios and Little Mammoth Media, which were all based in the Old Fourth Ward for almost 40 years.