West Midtown isn't a real place. It's a sign of successful gentrification efforts.

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”. 

Hoke Street overlooking new Waterworks Park
Photo by Kelly Jordan

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.

(SCENE)

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.

‘UpperWestside’ mural, at the corner of Collier Rd and Defoor Hills Rd in Northwest Atlanta photo by King Williams

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.

The Corner of Marietta Street and Brady Ave. To the far, upper right can be seen Brickworks, the catalyst building that spawned ‘West Midtown’.
Photo by King Williams

“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.

Pricey condos listing in ‘West Midtown’ at the corner of Brady Avenue and Marietta Street
Photo by King Williams

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.

King Williams is a multimedia documentary film director and author based in Atlanta, Georgia. King’s documentary “The Atlanta Way: A Documentary on Gentrification” will be released this Summer. He is an associate producer on the upcoming Sara Burns (daughter of documentarian Ken Burns)/Dave McMahon’s 2019 documentary – ‘East Lake’ – on the former East Lake Meadows housing project. King can be reached at [email protected] or @iamkingwilliams on Instagram and Twitter. His number is: 470-310-1795.

14 replies
  1. Avatar
    Carlton Hargro says:

    Well, I live in West Midtown, and I dig it … I like that I can walk out my place and go eat, check out a few galleries, grab some coffee, walk to concerts at Terminal West, etc. Plus: I'm close to downtown, Buckhead, Midtown and the West End. Not everyone is looking for some super-residential experience. That's not my thing. P.S.: I owned a home in the West End for almost a decade, back when it was far from gentrified, so I've experienced all sides of city living.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Mike says:

    You pretty much contradicted yourself in your own story King Williams. This article seems quite angry to be honest. What exactly is "old Atlanta". Does that mean, a place where nothing ever changes- O
    or does it begin on what you remember? I'm sure many areas aren't the same as they originally were, but that doesn't make it bad. You mentioned "Bankhead" in your story, but what parts of Bankhead? Do you know the largest neighborhood on "Bankhead" now Donald Lee Hollowell Pkwy is Grove Park…yet you still called it Bankhead? Do you know that Fortified Hills was the original name of that same neighborhood on the Westside, yet you still called it "Bankhead"?

    At what point is change good? Yes, many of the areas used to be something different, but that doesn't mean that it's bad. Open your eyes and stop drinking the "gentrification kool aid".Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    SMurph says:

    This whole article is disingenuous. The prevalence of the word gentrification in particular seems inaccurate for this area. This area has had well-to-do residents going back for many years prior to the mid-90s. Most of the small bungalows that line the streets that are perpendicular to Howell Mill and Northside drive have been occupied by yuppies who sought affordable small homes in the core of Atlanta long before the massive new mixed-use development sprung up all over in recent years. And most of the area being redeveloped is actually, as noted in the article, warehouses and commercial buildings. Many of these buildings were empty and derelict. In fact I've been working in this area for 25 years and very few single family homes or older apartment complexes have been removed in the area. Pretty much all of the development is along major commercial arteries like Howell Mill, Northside Drive and Chattahoochee Avenue. With just a few new buildings turning the corners on to the adjoining smaller local streets. And frankly this area was hip long before these new developments. Art's communities like the Goat Farm, King Plow and places like Northside tavern have been around since the early 90s or earlier. Frankly the area is a perfect example allow a few quality developments adding density associated with some lively entertainment and arts can really be a catalyst for positive change in a grand scale. Got lots of respect for the "West Midtown".Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Andrew says:

    I don't really understand the point here. In the 90s, I worked in a warehouse on Old Chattahoochee Ave. Believe me, there was nothing there worth crying over. There was nowhere to eat lunch and the area was totally unwalkable. Everyone I worked with agreed it was not a nice place to spend any amount of time but it didn't matter, because there was no residential development nearby. Of course, there were some nicer residential areas not far away – and I don't think those are the areas the author of this article is concerned about. So, what is the concern? The loss of a wholesale furniture warehouse to make way for a hipster coffee shop? Back in the 90s, as the article said, we struggled to even describe to people where this warehouse was located. It was always something like: "oh, we're over on Chattahoochee after you go over the train tracks. Oh, you don't know where that is? It's sort of off Howell Mill north of the reservoir – like, 14th St if you come west from Midtown…" OMG – "West Midtown" is so much easier…Report

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Shaun says:

    This whole article seems entirely unnecessary and stupid. If I knew absolutely nothing about the truly damaging effects of gentrification (such as squeezing renters and kicking longtime homeowners out of their neighborhoods) and only read this article, I'd be saying "bring on the gentrification". The area was largely empty brownfield sites and large warehouses/commercial before. So what if they're calling it "West Midtown" now.. get a life.Report

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    John says:

    So what is Midtown? I guess I really should not capitalize it. Correction: what is midtown? It's a place, right? Thanks for the history lesson though. BTW I live on the west side but not in town,Report

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Scott says:

    I don't really understand how this area became "gentrified" when it was nothing but derelict warehouses and mostly abandoned property. Also, everyone I know from ATL knows exactly where West Midtown is, I've never had to explain it. Weird article…Report

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    Sara Riney says:

    Just so you understand this photo…. There was a business called "upper westside market" in this space. It was a shortlived antique mall type of stores with new and used items.
    Upper Westside Interiors – Antiques, Interiors & Artist Market
    2060 Defoor Hills Rd NW, Atlanta, GA 30318
    (404) 254-0626
    https://maps.app.goo.gl/wppLxVQA3wtYit1p7Report

    Reply
  9. Avatar
    Donald Baxter says:

    Atlanta has always been about "imagineering." You know, that Disney term used to describe a place that is marketed well but likely has no real reason for being. If you can find a copy of Charles Rutheiser's "Imagineering Atlanta," read it. This explains atlanta well. Then read Keven Kruse's "White Flight."

    Atlanta has been all over changing names to put lipstick on a pig–since the days of when the City decided it wouldn't "do" to have white people and black people living on the same streets. I'm Atlanta native and I love the place, but I see it for what it is–always has been–and always will be: A Chamber of Commerce marketing exercise. As they say in Savannah, "if Atlanta could suck as hard as she blew, she'd be a seaport."Report

    Reply
  10. Avatar
    Shawn says:

    Thanks for this article. I lived and own my property in the English Avenue community and Carver Hills which is considered West Midtown. If you allow people to take our culture to fit their own, our children will have a false sense of security. Their identities will be taken away like changing the names of our streets, schools, and other cultural things that Atlanta affords everyone❤️ Thanks again#atlantanative#hughesspaldingbaby#fatherwasatlanticsteelemillcraneoperator#englishaveelementary#suttonmiddleschool#northsidehighschool#johnfkennedysummercamp#salvationarmyboysandgirlsclubafterschool#picsummerjob#formernpupresidentoftheEnglishAvecommunityReport

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.