Star Bar’s future could be a new model for protecting Atlanta’s musical culture
By John Ruch
The Star Community Bar redevelopment controversy must be one of those “Avengers, assemble!” moments for subcultural Atlanta.
Because this is not just about that bar and the fate of Little Five Points. It’s new condo owners’ noise complaints about bands in East Atlanta Village. It’s the City Council’s move to easily shutter nightclubs as “nuisances.” It’s Atlanta once again demolishing or demonizing the sources of maybe its greatest product — musical culture.
It’s also not just about Star Bar and its landlord, a situation typically low on info and high on heat. It’s about rethinking the broken property model that causes such chaos by disempowering the cultural tenants who create value, and new ways of doing things that can provide them stability and equity.
But L5P is the crucial battleground because it’s a neighborhood that already has a legacy of winning such fights and coming up with such alternative models. What happens here will inform the futures of punk, metal, hip hop and other venues across the city.
Like most working-class subcultures, the punk and metal communities represented at the Star Bar are not used to winning and are frequently bullied by a dismissive majority. A community meeting about the development hosted at the bar on Sept. 18 showed the fans’ sharp intelligence but was strategically unfocused. Meanwhile, some media coverage has freely used disparaging adjectives for its neighborhood by writers who would never dare insult rich communities as, say, antiseptic and phony. As a journalist who actually goes to Star Bar, I’ve heard a bit of this attitude in recent conversations — “someone with a prestige job hangs out with those people?”
A related prejudice is that nostalgia is the only reason someone would support a 30-year-old venue. The implication is that anything centered on youth music culture must be naturally dying when its first generation got boring and old.
Sure, a lot of old-timers hang at (and own) Star Bar, but dissing that is like saying libraries should be shuttered as worthless nostalgia for old stories. I’ve heard amazing underground lore at the bar, much of it unrecorded anywhere, and you always learn something from drinking with the occasional rock star, like the guys in ATL’s Grammy-winning metal monster Mastodon. Sitting next to me by chance at the Sept. 18 meeting was Michael Gamble of Wild West Picture Show, a band from the bar’s early days in supporting the alt-country scene. He recounted how his late bandmate Tom Gray penned the later Cyndi Lauper hit “Money Changes Everything” – an artistic effort that certainly shed light on our current human condition.
But plenty of new bands, comedians, drag performers and others play the bar all the time, often drawing young crowds. Being ignorant of that says more about the speaker than the venue, and of how subcultures continue to be undervalued as disposable in Atlanta. Maybe if we started calling bars “business incubators” for the arts, the attitude might change. The historical disregard is already changing with such efforts as the “Atlanta Punk Rock Collection” at Emory University’s Rose Library, where Star Bar show flyers are among the artifacts. Randy Gue, an assistant director who helped put together that collection, noted the diversity at a recent Star Bar show — last year’s reunion of seminal Atlanta hardcore band Neon Christ and newer opening acts, which drew hundreds.
“The bill and the overwhelming crowd represented the past, present and future of Atlanta punk,” said Gue. “It was a fun and joyous celebration of Atlanta music and the importance of place. And it could have only taken place in Little Five Points at the Star Bar.”
Neon Christ frontman Randy DuTeau told me he was impressed by that show’s “multigenerational, multicultural crowd” and the “eye-opening” performance by Upchuck, one of Atlanta’s newest punk stars. “It told me that people still wanted to play loud punk rock music and they’re gonna find a place to make it happen,” he said.
DuTeau used to go to the bank that preceded the Star Bar in its building, spending his cash at Wax ’n Facts records across the street. He said he’s “disappointed” in the possible demise of the bar. Now working as a tourism director for North Augusta, a town in South Carolina, he said he gets the progress development can bring, but poses the question: “Do you want to completely forsake the story of the community for the new and shiny?”
Redeveloping the Star Bar site, DuTeau said, “almost, like, commodifies the counterculture” that made L5P so desirable in the first place.
That’s the classic dilemma of gentrification. So it was 50 years ago when other developers – among them Star Bar’s current landlord and now co-developer Scott Pendergrast – proposed a more community-minded way. Even now, he’s proposing to build a new space for the bar — which co-owner Dusty Mumma says would be bigger than the existing one — in the basement of a new commercial building on the site. And amid all the heat, former bar co-owner Jim Stacy acknowledged at the meeting that Pendergrast has “leaned over backward” for years to keep the business going with below-market rents and some kind of special deal during the pandemic.
But this solution also smells of the kinder, gentler version of ye olde gentrification and displacement often used to soothe the consciences despite the same results. How would the bar, its fanbase and its musical culture survive a lengthy construction period? Could it afford the new rent? Would new residents of multifamily units proposed on the other end of the property put up with living next to a rock bar?
These are dilemmas largely because we just accept traditional modes of development that are often extractive, rapacious or plain greedy, encoded in law ages ago by some pretty lousy people. Thus the Star Bar conversation is already devolving into a binary NIMBY-vs.-YIMBY hot take beloved by Urbanist Twitter, punk anarchists and others bound to clash. But there are many other directions to go.
A few hours before the Sept. 18 meeting, I took a historic walking tour of L5P conducted by the Atlanta Preservation Center and the L5P Business Association where the Star Bar was a prime topic, but also put into a large context of a consciously rebuilt community.
One historic legacy is a neighborhood that knows how to rise up and cause good trouble for developers to halt bad plans and buy time to improve others. In the 1970s, L5P was among the communities that almost unthinkably stopped a freeway from being built in what is now Freedom Park, a far harder challenge than a beloved bar. The alternative turned out to be pretty good.
In the 1990s, it was an attempt by chain stores to enter a neighborhood redeveloped with small businesses in mind. A chain drug store aimed to take over a supermarket space, which would have directly competed with beloved local pharmacist Ira Katz. He recalls a hundred people showing up for an opposition rally that scared the chain away in favor of his Little Five Points Pharmacy. He says that after the freeway war, “we were ready for another fight — the David versus Goliath kind of thing.”
And it wasn’t just about being hip or counterculture. “Overall, it’s a very special community, unlike what you see in suburbia,” Katz said. He notes the tenant mix is deliberately diverse to this day so that locals can get a lot of what they need on a walk, in a symbiotic small-business culture.
The tour noted examples of alternative business models that helped ensure some of those things. The Point Center building next to Star Bar is also getting a remake by the developers, but cannot be torn down because developer Kelly Jordan (today a SaportaReport contributor) put a historic preservation easement on it decades ago in exchange for financial benefits in an award-winning effort. Today, the building is still home to the BOND Community Credit Union, which was formed to fund mortgages for locals when big commercial banks would not. And there’s the Little 5 Points Center for Arts and Community, established in the 1980s as a nonprofit to ensure affordable homes for a diverse array of arts organizations, the radio station WRFG and others.
There are many other models out there. Community land trusts where locals could own shares and dictate development instead of private for-profits. Commercial condos where businesses get equity. Landmarking protections that save the building and provide eligibility for tax credits that could subsidize an affordable rental deal.
Outrage has bought time — reportedly at least until January — and it would be well-spent advocating a model that could collaboratively support an owner, a bar and its subcultural community rather than pitting them against each other. And show Atlanta how it’s done.
After all, as Stacy, the former co-owner, noted in the meeting: “‘Community’ wasn’t in the name of this bar by accident.”