West Midtown isn’t a real place. It’s a sign of successful gentrification efforts.'UpperWestside' mural, at the corner of Collier Rd and Defoor Hills Rd in Northwest Atlanta photo by King Williams
By King Williams
A few weeks back I had one of my usually spirited debates on Twitter, in this case it was about “West Midtown.” The debate had me then going to ask the question towards my other social media channels. Is “West Midtown” A) a real place and B) have you heard of it?
The responses to the debate was more of an indication of not only who identifies with “West Midtown” but also the direction of the city of Atlanta as a whole. That led me to asking my own father, who has worked for years part-time at the ACE Hardware on Howell Mill Road, in the heart area some people call “West Midtown”.
Me (to my dad): Where is West Midtown? Have you heard of it?
Dad: (pauses) What?
Me: It’s not a real thing.
Dad: Do you mean west of Piedmont?…
Me: …It’s a new real estate thing…that area off Howell Mill, Chattahoochee Ave –
Dad: (cutting me off) That’s what they call it? Don’t nobody call it that…Hell, they did the same thing with East Atlanta (Village)…it sounds like more of a sales pitch.
The debates that emerged online, centered on people new to Atlanta (New Atlanta) calling the region from Atlantic Station further into the Westside as “West Midtown”. The crux of the debates centered on people new to Atlanta only knowing the areas of Atlantic Station onward and further into the Westside as ‘West Midtown’.
Here’s the thing – “West Midtown”, “West Town”, or “Upper Westside” for that matter, aren’t actually legitimate places. They are prime examples of negative “placemaking” or the idea that prior to gentrification efforts, “nothing” exists in a region and it needs to be remade image of its marketers.
Adam Harrell, co-founder of the “West Midtown” based ad agency Nebo, knows a lot about the evolution of the area’s name and brand.
“If I asked someone to come to the office, or to meet at Octane [coffee] — you’d often have to explain ‘we’re west of Midtown.’” Harrell said. “From there it was co-opted into a much broader area [West Midtown] as the place became popular.”
This isn’t the first time geographic regions of a city change names based on developers’ whims. It’s been happening across the country for decades.
When it comes to gentrification, renaming areas are par for the course.
The creation of the “West Midtown” brand, like many other renaming projects throughout the country, was done primarily as a real estate play.
Some of best and most famous examples of these renaming strategies were seen in New York City’s frenzy of gentrification in the ‘90s, Many de-industrializing warehouse districts became the new epicenters of cool and commerce. This was similar to the phenomenon sociologist Ruth Glass, the creator of the term ‘gentrification’ noted in London, 30 years prior in the 1960’s.
This renaming effort worked well in places such as Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and became the starting point for the last 20+ years of rapid gentrification in Brooklyn.
But sometimes the renaming strategy doesn’t work… (checks notes), ever heard of SoHa? This was the failed rebranding initiative of the southern section of Harlem, near Central Park failed to capitalize on the ongoing gentrification of Harlem.
The problem with these renamed neighborhoods is that they are typically rebranded only with the interests of new residents in mind, forgetting about the needs of the residents who’ve lived there all along.
“West Midtown” is for ‘New Atlanta, not Old Atlanta’
The idea of “West Midtown” is built upon the efforts of Richard Martin, the owner of Midtown West Associates who some consider the architect of the identity of ‘West Midtown’ as we know it. He created Midtown West Associates in 1994 and his first development, Brickworks started in 1995, It was featured in a 1999 Atlanta Business Chronicle article on his plans for the area.
Martin’s visions for condos, office space and revamped warehouses in the district was initially meant to serve tech companies at the time of the early dot-com era. It’s taken 20 years to reach this point but his idea on the district’s future was ahead of its time.
“West Midtown’s” evolution would happen with the de-industrialization of the district and burgeoning cool arising from a mix of nightlife and artists moving into the area starting in the 1990s/early 2000’s. Despite this mix, building in the area didn’t really take off until the mid-2010’s. Combined with the burgeoning Westside Arts District, this section of the westside began to show signs of having the “cool factor” that is so crucial to early stage gentrification efforts.
The Compound nightclub on Brady Avenue was being featured in numerous rap videos throughout the 2000’s on MTV. Tt has evolved so that now it has it’s own section of Youtube videos today. Additionally, by 2009 the Westside Arts District was already getting mentioned in the New York Times. This, and other factors piqued the interest of young professionals looking for neighborhoods where they could settle in.
“I mean we [Nebo Agency] moved over here in 2008, when they were still doing the Westside Art Walk, when Creative Loafing was still calling it the Westside…But Star Provisions, the Westside Provisions district – that was the flipping point – it used to be a UPS or public storage there before” Harrell said.
During this same time period the on Marietta Street, there was the Atlanta Uptown Comedy Corner, a comedy club where comedians such as Steve Harvey, Rickey Smiley, Chris Tucker and even Dave Chappelle would come to perform material in Atlanta. Due in part to the success of ‘West Midtown’ the , which 90 year old building that housed the comedy club but has now been demolished to make condos and has since relocated to a castle in Hapeville.
Since the post-recession rebound of the housing market, combined with the rise in social media in the 2010’s, cities across the world essentially have become the new, digital, real estate staging that areas. Food blogging, Yelp, location sharing apps such as Foursquare, ScoutMob and Instagram have done more to grow organic reach of what happens when people are clamoring for true ‘cool’ experiences.
‘West Midtown’ as brand is taking over all of the real Westside
For decades most of “West Midtown” was known as the Industrial/Warehouse District, or more often by its name of the streets – Chattahoochee, Marietta St, Huff Rd, etc. – If you are from Atlanta, the idea of “West Midtown” is something you’ve seen grow, but it likely means nothing to you.
It must be said that the majority of the areas that encompass “West Midtown” are in fact the products of the already existing neighborhoods of Home Park, Blandtown and Howell Station/Knight Park.
But now this success has created a larger rebrand of “West Midtown” extending further west and southwest as other areas. Areas such as English Avenue, Vine City and Bankhead Highway are now being included in new real estate marketing efforts, social media posts and the vernacular of people who definitely aren’t from here.
“West Midtown” gets at a larger issue of who is Atlanta developing for?
If you know, you know.