By King Williams
On a very warm Tuesday evening, two days before the Fourth of July, I decided to take a run near Stone Mountain Park. Instead of just simply running at the base of the park, I decided to go through Stone Mountain Village.
What I saw next really perplexed me. Vacancies abound, no nightlife of any sort outside of a coffee shop off the main drag and a newly opened pizza shop.
It’s summertime and the strip should be poppin,’ but it feels like it’s 50 percent vacant and 90 percent of the remaining businesses there are closed.
This is a problem for this community. There’s a stunning lack of food, drinks, and nightlife here, meaning that money – both figurative and literal – is being left on the table. Revitalizing our small commercial corridors like Stone Mountain Village is key in shaping the future of metro Atlanta’s growth.
Stone Mountain Village suffers from a few problems:
1) a lack of connection to the park itself, 2) bad urban planning, 3) it’s a terrible legacy as a holdover monument to white supremacy and finally, 4) a lack of businesses led by representatives of the future demographics of Georgia.
1) Connecting to the park
One problem with the village’s Main Street is that it’s much less of bustling central thoroughfare as it is a small single side of a pass-through road with no apparent design standards.
Another major issue is that the Village and the park are disconnected from each other.
East Mountain St., the two-lane road going from the park to Main Street, has no connective tissue to drive commerce between the two locations.
This, in turn, presents an opportunity to convert some homes into commercial spaces, restaurants and event facilities. This would also be a great time to build secondary landscaping projects and increase mobility for those with disabilities.
These improvements can open up more opportunities for an increased tax base, a stronger commercial corridor and benefits that current residents, the park and the village can all participate in.
2) Urban Planning
Like many places in metro Atlanta, most of the planning is done using older ideas on how to design urban spaces. It’s in my hope that should this area redevelop, it’s with people who are planning for the 21st century and not the 20th.
Stone Mountain Village suffers from a combination of bad design related to segregation, car-centered planning, poorly organized parking lots and a lack of connection with pedestrian walkways.
Some of these changes would include redirecting the flow of traffic that cuts through Main Street, removing the parking lot on Main Street as well as eliminating all street level parking.
There is also an immediate need to improve the pedestrian experience by having sidewalks on both sides of every street, installing street lights, better directional signage and offering better wayfinding.
Due to all of the surface level parking and vacant lots in the area, now would be the time to develop denser. By developing more mixed-use, 2-5 story buildings on those empty lots along with integrated parking decks in order to increase walkability throughout the whole village.
Additionally, there is an active freight train that runs parallel to Main Street, which has no pedestrian barriers or effective lighting. On the opposite side of that train is – you guessed it – another open lot with even more adjacent surface level parking.
3) Stone Mountain Park and Stone Mountain Village both have to reckon with its historical and continual connection to racism
Stone Mountain is a great park with terrible connections to white supremacy and it must reckon with that history – an open embrace of racism and symbol of hatred carved into literal foundation the community.
The enormous carving of confederate generals was created nearly 60 years after the Civil War.
Support for the carving was starting to gain traction in 1916, one year after DW Griffith’s film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ became a rallying cry for the rebirth of the KKK on top of Stone Mountain. Led by the Daughters of the Confederacy, whose support of a racist state government and on land owned by actual KKK members the Venerable brothers.
That film led to a resurgence of popularity for the of the group and an increase in racial violence across the U.S.
But getting rid of these monuments would be a problem due to 2019’s passage of SB77, which protects historical (confederate) monuments statewide.will be hard to remove the street names, markers and especially the carving from the mountain. SB77 also makes it very difficult to remove any similar monuments from the state and is punishable by jail time to anyone who attempts to remove them on their own.
In the case of Stone Mountain, it’s further complicated by the fact that while the park is a state landmark, it is actually owned by the state of Georgia but is managed Herschend Entertainment. The company also owns Dollywood and (checks notes) the Harlem Globetrotters.
There have been some efforts to shed the past, like the counter-demonstrations during KKK rallies in 2019 (during Super Bowl weekend no less), unification church services, NAACP calls for removal and even an online proposal to replace the confederate symbols with rap duo Outkast.
4) Supporting the next generation of Georgia’s entrepreneurs
The irony of Stone Mountain is that the city is currently 76 percent black, DeKalb County as a whole over 70 percent non-white and the average age is 35 according to the US census.
But when it comes to the current businesses that could be there, not many seem to even cater to this market. This should be seen as troubling to anyone involved in that community.
One notable exception is Gilly Brewing Company, a fusion coffee house owned by black millennial husband and wife duo Daniel and Shellane Brown. The shop is located in the old Stone Mountain Mayor’s House and was the only place open after 5 p.m. during my time there this week.
Built by slaves, the Mayor’s House was a Civil War holdover that was a former hospital for wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. It’s this type of adaptive reuse of historic buildings by younger entrepreneurs of color that should be embraced and used to help fill in the many vacant storefronts in Stone Mountain Village.
It’s people like the Browns, who are the ones who will bring Stone Mountain Village into the 2020’s – young, vibrant entrepreneurs of color, who understand the past, acknowledge it and build upon it.