Athens, Georgia: Live Music, Lively City
A Hip City that’s ‘Organic, Internally driven’
By Herb Hiller
Athens appears like a vivid sash atop the green campus of the University of Georgia, like an art installation endowed by the university’s two-billion-dollar economic impact that turns Athens-Clarke County into a virtual city-state.
Its downtown of 24 square blocks perches above a campus that’s three times its physical size, and with 50,000 students, faculty and staff, makes up almost half the entire county population.
It’s blue in a sea of political red. It’s extroverted, sophisticated and casual. Its muse seduces buttoned-down careers meant for Atlanta, re-directed toward lifestyles as coffee roasters, artisanal brew-makers, and signature retailing that attracts multi-generational followings.
When the owner of Junkman’s Daughter’s Brother, a beloved odd-lots store announced his retirement after almost 30 years d”flagowntown, his send-off evoked tributes worthy of a retiring famed football coach.
Athenians revere a soaring but decaying wooden railroad trestle across the North Oconee River and a campus mausoleum for deceased UGA English bulldog mascots (the current “dawg” lives in a custom-designed air-conditioned dog house).
They boast about a near-downtown tree that owns itself, and a double-barreled Athens-forged Confederate cannon that stands in front of City Hall after having failed in field trials, first tearing up a cornfield before destroying an un-targeted cow.
Number One Music Town
The city ranks as “#1 College Music Town in America” (Rolling Stone), and as “Live Music Central” (New York Times), with as many as 150 live bands and solo performers a week on stage. Mega-rockers R.E.M. grew up in Athens. They championed the town.
Locals hailed (and decried) the rockers’ up-front support for back-to-back election wins of ‘90s reform mayor Gwen O’Looney. The band called its 1983 debut album “Murmur” with a picture of the abandoned Georgia Railroad trestle; the album has since helped keep the relic on the east side of downtown from demolition and hallowed it as “Murmur Trestle”.
Downtown is well preserved as an historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The district extends six blocks west to include antebellum mansions which now make up fraternity and sorority rows.
Notably restored in the core city are two performance halls: the once African American-only Morton Theatre, still with the colorful ornaments of its vaudeville era, and the gilded and twice-restored Georgia Theatre that suffered a roof-collapsing fire in 2009. Its owner vowed not to let it die on his watch, and re-opened two years later with an Athens indie rock band.
Spring streets flame in azaleas and redbud, while dogwood cloaks entire blocks snowy white. Athens still compares to the beautiful town found in 1867 by John Muir on his thousand-mile walk from Kentucky to Florida that he named “the only one in the South that I would like to revisit.”
Finding your Bearings
The world shows up in fall for UGA football at 92,746-seat Sanford Stadium. The Campus promotes conferences that pull thousands more from around America. People want to meet in Athens. The modern Classic Center for conventions incorporates a convertible ice hockey rink and the 1912 Fire Hall No. 1.
Helped by its historical setting, downtown feels like 21st century America with young people everywhere. They’re Asian, African, European, Anglo-American. The chef at Holy Crepe is French, the desk clerk at the Hilton Garden Inn Japanese. They walk and bike. An Athens planner I met commutes three miles from home, cycling with his three-year-old daughter in a backpack to drop off at day care on his way to work. Thinking people propel Athens life: new buildings have to be LEED certified.
For me, Athens culture showed whole one twilight at Melting Point next to the Foundry Park Inn. The early show featured the New York touring band Matuto. The scene buzzed with the local brewery, Terrapin’s, Hopsecutioner draft IPA selling for $3 a mug. Young families made up a third of the early house. When the band singer announced, “This one’s for dancing.” a girl danced with her dad. An hour earlier, they might have been touring UGA’s State Botanical Gardens.
Like the 7,500-some freshmen who roll onto campus late each summer, visitors find their bearings fast. The best hotels are downtown. They’re walking close to everything. Park your car. Leave it.. Bring a bike or rent one. Ride the hills or the flat 3.5-mile North Oconee River Greenway that rims downtown to the east, below Murmur Trestle.
You can ride a low-fare Athens bus or the free-in-fact fleet run by UGA to reach attractive century-old neighborhoods where many of UGA’s good earners live. Stroll Cobbham, Boulevard, and Five Points, home of Earth Fare, the natural foods market.
The physical heart of downtown is its middle six blocks, with College Avenue bisecting the main corridor from Washington Street to Broad Street. Retail, restaurants, and bars coexist here.
For locals and hipsters it’s from Pulaski Street to Lumpkin Street on the west side between Hancock Avenue and Clayton Street, an area that encompasses bars like the Manhattan, Flicker, and Trappeze [cq], as well as Cine movie theatre, the newly opened Creature Comforts brewery, restaurants like Ted’s Most Best and Clocked (popular for burgers), and venues like The World Famous, 40 Watt, Little Kings, Georgia Theatre, and the Caledonia Lounge.
For college kids, their heart is more from Thomas Street to Lumpkin along Broad Street to Washington, filled with bars and restaurants, as well as retailers that sell UGA apparel and women’s clothes (Heery’s for high end, Pitaya and Cheeky Peach on Hull Street for affordables). Students queue up by the hundreds at Ben & Jerry’s for Free Cone Wednesday.
At the start
No city existed where in 1801 the University of Georgia located its campus in a hilly northeast part of the state a half day’s ride by horse from Augusta. The town started only five years later, the juxtaposition marked by the UGA campus arch on West Broad Street. Planters and commercial people settled. They raised cotton and after the Civil War built mills that developed a textile economy along the North Oconee.
By the ‘20s, Athens had 28 daily trains and sat on a transcontinental highway. After WWII, returning GIs doubled university enrollment to almost 8,000. UGA integrated without convulsion. Factories sprouted along highways, then shopping malls, among which the 1981 opening of the Georgia Square Mall, drained downtown commerce.
Downtown grasped the challenge. It put utilities underground and planted trees, installed benches, and quickened the rehabilitation of its historic buildings begun In the early 1970s with the successful fight against demolition of the city’s oldest house — the 1820 Church-Waddel-Brumby – and its conversion to a house museum and welcome center. The Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation joined the patronage mix of historical societies, of garden clubs and arts foundations. A symphony orchestra, dance and theater groups all have their seasons.
Retailing and the music scene repopulated empty storefronts. The new downtown so attractive to students and nearby residents began to draw seniors and, following them, biotech and healthcare industries.
The City Today
Twenty years after the big mall opened, Athens became the city visitors find today. It’s clean and comfortable. It’s can-do. It supports Slow Foods Athens, three farmers markets, some 10 farms that sell veggies by subscription, and Hands-On Athens that provides volunteer maintenance, repairs and landscaping improvements for low-income homeowners.
There’s Bike Athens, a rails-to-trails group, and the city lately hosted the first Georgia Trail Summit in 15 years. Five nonprofits house the homeless. The only shelter candidate I saw while walking downtown already had bus fare for Atlanta Airport and a ticket to start over again in Anchorage.
There’s hardly a downtown shop not worth looking into. All have their stories.
George Dean’s and its on-site predecessor for a century have supplied campus with preppy tweeds and seersucker suits. Tricia Ruppersburg runs the Aurum jewel works. She came to school in 1975 and couldn’t leave. Dan Wall runs Wuxtry Records, the oldest record store in Georgia that’s full of regional CDs (along with 30,000 classical LPs). He started out playing in bands.
Bizzarro Wuxtry is all about comic books, managed by heavy-bearded Devlin Thompson, most of the year in shorts and sandals. Devlin grew up in Clemson, a college town he couldn’t wait to leave, came to school at UGA and has never left. Among the tchotchkes in Frontier, I met Devin Morris, who came for college, left and came back.
Among places to eat, Hendershot’s, in the Bottleworks, is a cool restaurant-music hall redevelopment of an old Coca-Cola bottling plant near Fire Hall No. 2 that now houses the Heritage Foundation. A block away behind gritty brick walls is The Grit, Athens’ top vegetarian restaurant. Try Transmetropolitan for pizza and the Last Resort, ridiculously affordable for lunch, wallet-emptying for dinner.
Also, Mediterranean inspired dishes at National feature seasonal foods from regional farmers, and La Dolce Vita popular for reserved-in-advance group feasts. Just beyond downtown: 5&10 on Milledge Avenue for Low Country dishes, and Heirloom Café and Fresh Market in Boulevard that favors local farmers and community with heritage dishes. The weekly Flagpole details the music and food scene.
Jeff Montgomery best summed up the city for me. Jeff is Athens-Clarke County’s public information officer. He says about the city, “Athenians don’t want a downtown that opens at 6:00 or closes at 6:00. The place is organic, internally driven,” a point made by the telephone hold music for City Hall (and for background on ACTV, the government access channel). It’s all Athens.
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Herb Hiller writes critically about mainstream tourism and about one of a kind places. Two of his three books have won top awards of the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation and of the North American Travel Journalists Association. An expanded version of his story about Kearney appears in his book, “Unmarketed Travel. ” He lives in Deland, Florida.