Category Archives: Southern States

Atlanta local

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Atlanta’s neighbourhoods are slow weekend cool. With a couple of days in the city, you can dip into war and politics (civil and racial), go visit some pandas, and then settle back with a bagel and the papers and let warm sun and the sound of slide guitar wash over you and pretend you live in one of those big houses with porches and pumpkins, oak trees and cicadas. Best of the in-town neighbourhoods for walking tourists are Virginia Highland or ‘the Highlands’ and Little Five Points, and both are within easy strolling distance of each other, divided by one of the city’s big green spaces just east of Midtown (and close to Driving Miss Daisy territory).

Little Five Points is like the best corner of Camden Lock but on a mini-scale (which is weird because everything else around these parts from roads to servings is on a maxi-scale) and without 95% of the people. It’s a curious mix of vintage clothing stores, seedy bars, small designer boutiques, vinyl shops, new age mullarkey, well-heeled liberals and pierced, dreadlocked, deferential grunge students hanging out in a quasi-alternative way. Allow a good hour to root through the Clothing Warehouse if 70’s Americana is your thing. Dave now looks like Hunter S Thompson.

Mostly what’s on sale in the Highlands ‘hood is cupcakes, bikes, bagels, dog grooming and Aveda products, but happy afternoons can be spent at the huge warm wood tables in the cool deli, Belly, before migrating a few doors up the leafy street to Atkins Park – Atlanta’s oldest licensed tavern – for dinner (boiled peanuts & sea salt followed by cornbread-crusted North Georgia trout with Bourbon brown butter apples and mash), and then Blind Willie’s for blues. Among Bill Sheffield’s finger picking, mournful, thigh-slapping tunes was a rendition of Rainy Night in Georgia, which was pretty appropriate given that it was indeed a rainy night.  On Thursdays you can head a bit further to the Diesel Filling Station – yes, a converted filling station, for the Dirty South Trivia quiz – but it wasn’t Thursday. Anyway, this is mid-priced dining heaven, and for budget dining heaven there is the Majestic Diner (on the Highland-Poncey intersection) dating back to 1929, surely unchanged since the 50s and a lovely thing indeed with its chrome and red counter stools and booths and flashing neon. Lovers of retro will also be dazzled by the art deco Plaza Theatre, an artsy cinema in the same strip.

This isn’t core tourist zone and accommodation is limited, but I found by accident and stayed at the quirky, wonky-floored, friendly and sweetly-priced, Highland Inn. A couple of bearded hipsters were discussing bands and a wedding party (red satin strapless, and suits and Converse trainers) was pushing its way through reception with their master of ceremonies when we arrived, and all greeted us cheerily as they went outside to smoke and glug beer before lining up with their partners to enter the ballroom lounge. This is a good sign. Prices seem to vary widely. I booked online for around $50 a night, then booked an extra night over the phone for a ‘discounted’ $90. But still. The Highland Inn is on 644 North Highland Avenue Northeast  Atlanta, Tel 404-874-5756.

It’s quite hard describing exactly where these neighbourhoods are so my best recommendation would be to Google them. Incidentally, the affable Jennifer Alice Acker, who works at the Clothing Warehouse recommended The Goat Farm, a venue that’s risen phoenix-like from the ruins of an old industrial site, where grass grows in the buildings and events are staged in the ruins with seating on rope swings from girders, Atlanta’s modern skyline as a backdrop. Hoping there is a performance happening when I return.

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What is Atlanta?

Martin Luther King and Margaret Mitchell were both born here (although they would have had somewhat different takes on the state capital of racially-segregated Georgia). And so was Coca Cola. Strictly speaking it was concocted in Columbus, Georgia, but prohibition era production started here, and Atlanta remains the global HQ. Atlanta also has a zoo with pandas in it, the world’s busiest airport, and hosted the Olympics in 1996 but the city still feels weirdly local. Possibly because, aside from Downtown (conference centres, major hotel chains, venues) and Midtown (with upmarket shopping, galleries, malls, smaller hotel chains, as well as some seedier strip malls, ‘checks cashed’ loans offices, tattoo parlours and Taco Bells and whatnots in pockets that haven’t yet had their makeovers) Atlanta comprises ‘intown’ neighbourhoods which roll along fairly autonomously and have their own character and charm – like Little Five Points and Virginia Highlands. I didn’t find Uptown. Everything is loosely connected by MARTA a transport system that’s utterly unfathomable. I saw a bus stop once (as in stop for people to get on and off) but only once. Tickets can be bought at train stations, and I never found one of those. (I asked the night receptionist for directions to a MARTA station and she said, and I have to say, somewhat witheringly, that she had never used public transport to get here in her life.

I tend to ignore these, but Top Visitor Attractions include the not-to-be-missed 23-acre Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site: the house he grew up in, Ebenezer Church he preached in, papers and documents relating to his life and the wider civil rights movement at the King Center established by Coretta Scott King. His grave is here in the middle of the reflecting pool, with its extraordinarily poignant epitaph ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last’. Apologies for grammar but I’m in a rush to check out of the Highland Inn and head to Alabama. Anyway if you’re not all churned up and teary here, your heart is stone and your politics suspect. For the record, Margaret Mitchell’s house over on 10th street, pilgrimage destination for ladies of a certain age, is pretty awful and has net curtains. I’m not surprised she sat there and escaped into the flight of fantasy and old south history mix that is Gone With the Wind. To be fair, she, herself, called it ‘the Dump’.

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, 450 Auburn Avenue, N.E. Atlanta, Tel 404-331-5190. Info on The King Center. Also Margaret Mitchell House & Museum, 990 Peachtree St, Atlanta, 404- 249-7015, and World of Coca-Cola (which I am genuinely sorry to have missed) 121 Baker Street Northwest  Atlanta, Tel 404-676-5151. See also somewhereville’s ATLANTA LOCAL for info on shopping, eating, sleeping in the oft-overlooked in-town neighbourhoods.

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Atlanta’s guilty pleasures

I’ve been out to Atlanta airport to drop off the car and wave off Dave who’s flown to London for a couple of days because the band he manages is playing. Took a few rides on the driverless train (mainly because I left a bit of kit in the Chevy). My new friend Soleil told me Atlanta was the heartland of the ‘dirty South’. She’s got friends with tattoos on their faces who could show me a good time. Attractive though this is, I do need to do my laundry and fancy the guilty pleasures of watching trash and eating junk food, just for one night.

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Car radio

Great preaching from the pulpit and from WGCR, a station broadcasting in the Asheville area of North Carolina. I think. Went over a hummock and lost the signal before he stopped for a station check, if he ever did. Recorded on iPhone only for the audio, although dirty, fly-spattered windscreen and low late afternoon sun are proper authentic.

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Southern hospitality, North Carolina

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We drive through red and yellow trees and a muffling carpet of leaves and arrive at a cluster of wooden cottages in a place where people have soft lighting, rugs and dogs and the air smells of wood smoke and pine. This is Hillsborough, where Dave’s brother, Simon, lives, and the kind of place you don’t drive a zillion miles to see unless you have a friend to visit, which is a pity because hanging around here, poking around the hardware store, buying coffee at Cup o’ Joes, lying in bed listening to the sweet mournful whooo-hooo of the rumbling night train is – in my humble opinion – a treat, in the way that your average bonafide tourist attraction (wagons, pioneers) is not.

It’s a calm patch within a strangely rural-sophisticated triangle, The Triangle – North Carolina’s golden triangle indeed (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill), home to several colleges, buzz-worthy chefs, artists, intellectuals, producers of artisan bread / cheese / butter / salami and so forth. There’s a river that Simon’s son’s dog, Bowler, swims in, woods and trails, historic houses, great restaurants and live music venues but I’m not sure what visitors to Hillsborough would do apart from drool over the houses and envy the people that live here. Oh, and eat.

A load of us head to the Eddy, talk through slide guitar and eat Cane Creek House Smoked Pork Chop stuffed with prosciutto and local smoked farmer’s cheese over sweet potato mashers and local collards. I don’t, sadly, have room for the Apple Cider Goat lady Chevre Cheesecake with gingersnap crust.

On a vaguely food-related theme, here’s a recipe I found in a Carolina Woman magazine on a table outside the local produce market, taken from a new collection ‘Around the Southern Table: Coming Home to Comforting Meals and Treasured Memories’ by Rebecca Lang. ‘All Things Sweet Potato Casserole’. Special for Thanksgiving, I reckon. Get 4 & 1/2 cups of mashed sweet potato, 4 large eggs, 2/3 cup of heavy cream, 1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, 3/4 cup butter. 1 & 1/2 cups crushed gingersnaps, 3 cups mini marshmallows. Mix it all together, put it in a 13 x 9 inch baking dish and shove it in the over at 350 degrees for 28 minutes. (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist). Serves 12.

Anyway, I recommend The Eddy, part of an old converted mill. 1715 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road  Saxapahaw, NC, (336) 525-2010

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O. Winston Link

Got lost. I faced the phone and carefully annunciated Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park into the SatNav microphone a few times and the closest we got was ‘sign on my way to your room’ and ‘gone on my way to your room’. I don’t know. Up to now the SatNav’s been limiting itself to geographical locations on its Google map. It’s like it’s been listening into my conversations with Dave and extending its range, adding a bit of vocab. Suffice to say we didn’t find the Skyline Drive but did end up a bit snippety on the wrong side of the tracks in Roanoke, facing the O. Winston Link Museum.

Link’s the magnificent Brooklyn photographer who photographed the steam trains of the Norfolk & Western Railway, the people that worked on them and lived by the tracks, and the whole folksy, nicer, simpler days, when the rural waiting rooms served as meeting house, post office, general store, women travelled with hat boxes, and conductors handed out lollies to children along the route through Virginia on Saturdays.  His five-year project came to an end in 1960, just two months before the end of steam.

Equally joyful on the eye was the museum building itself, the former station: a sleek, modernist gem, partly intact, designed by Raymond Loewy, father of US industrial design. Loewy is a legend. His other projects included the packaging for Lucky Strike cigarettes, logos for Shell and US Mail, Coca-Cola bottles and the Studebaker.

O. Winston Link Museum, 101 Shenandoah Avenue, Roanoke, Virginia


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