May 20 – June 6, 2021.
If you have been following along with our adventures for a while you have probably read some mention of Cabbagetown, the little Atlanta neighborhood where we owned and lived in a house for 4 1/2 years before we went nomad. After our first season of sailing, we returned to Cabbagetown, and because we didn’t have a place to live we fell into an annual seasonal stint of house sitting in the neighborhood. For eight summers we moved from house to house almost exclusively in Cabbagetown, taking care of people’s pets while they went out on adventures. Pet sitting while living in one location allowed Greg to start a summertime painting business with Paul, a friend and neighbor, and for me to pick up some odd jobs earning us more money for our travels.
Cabbagetown is special to us, but not just because it gave us a place to work and live those eight summers. It has become symbiotic with our travels, allowing us a rest from all the adventuring and support to keep going. Some of our closest friends live in Cabbagetown, and it seems every time we have returned our experience in the neighborhood has grown, including new friends and closer bonds with the old ones. Still, Cabbagetown is not only special because of our personal relationship with it. It is special because of its rich history and the people who have filled it up over time, sustaining that history even as it has radically changed over the last 140 years.
In 1881, German immigrant, Jacob Elsas, established the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill in Atlanta. Laborers from the nearby Appalachian Mountains were recruited to come work in the factory and a small community of shotgun houses was built around the mill as homes for the workers. It might have been the vegetable hawkers who found that their best seller in the neighborhood was cabbage, it could have been the constant smell of cooking cabbage wafting out of the mill village onto the busy streets that pass by the neighborhood leading to the heart of Atlanta, or maybe even a derailed train spilling a load of cabbages which were quickly collected by the resourceful mountain transplants, but somewhere along the way, the growing community was dubbed Cabbagetown.
Although poor, Cabbagetown was a neighborhood rich with community where everyone knew everyone, kids roamed the neighborhood freely, and neighbors gathered together on their porches in the evenings.
The mill operated until 1977. And when it closed its doors the neighborhood went into a decline. Many workers left to find new jobs elsewhere. Some that stayed struggled. In the 1980s artists and musicians started moving in. One of the more noteworthy was “Panorama” Ray Herbert Jr. who documented the neighborhood with his panoramic camera.
When the fate of the old mill building was up in the air, the neighborhood worked with developers to preserve the building and turn it into turn lofts.
Today Cabbagetown is in full gentrification mode. Many of the artists and musicians of the 80s and 90s have either died or moved on. And only a few residents remember the tight-knit community of mill life. But still, art and music flourish and even though the medium wage of residents has steeply risen the neighborhood still retains a sense of the mill village where most people know each other, neighbors gather for impromptu events, and individuals pull together to help each other in times of crisis.
Greg and I no longer spend our summers in Cabbagetown. And last year the pandemic prevented us from even making a visit. But just this spring we were able to squeeze in a short trip to the neighborhood. Most of our friends were vaccinated and it was like a reawakening, a fractured and virtual family getting back together in real life.
We spent most of our mornings during our visit walking an old friend, Dave. Dave, the dog, lost his brother dog, Bob, last year. His new, younger brother dog, Dougie isn’t shy about letting anyone know how happy he is to be alive every single second of the day. We volunteered to give Dave a short break from the excitement. Dave seemed to look forward to his small escape and I took the opportunity to bring my camera along on our walks to document my favorite neighborhood.
* All pics are click to enlarge. Once you have them enlarged you can view them in a slide show.
** There are an awful lot of pictures. Honestly, I tried to narrow it down. If you are reading this in an email, it is probably pretty long. The photos are more artfully presented on the blog. Click here to see the post on the website.
Today the Fulton Bag and Cottonmill has been transformed into rental apartments (The Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts) and condominiums (The Stacks). Because of the National Historic Designation of the neighborhood, the developers had to adhere to strict guidelines when renovating. Many parts of the old mill remain like the water tank and the stacks. Inside the lofts, other historical fixtures were retained which meant that stairwells turned into apartments now have a set of steps going nowhere.
The mill is a little over a mile from downtown Atlanta and sits next to a CSX transfer station. Marta (Atlanta public transportation) runs a rail on the north end of Cabbagetown right by the old mill building. Throughout the day, you can hear the hum of Marta train whooshing by at regular intervals.
A gate keeps the apartments and condos private but if you are lucky enough to have friends that live in one of the lofts you might get an invite to view the city from the roof of one of the buildings. From time to time different organizations have conducted tours through the historic buildings but I don’t know if anyone is doing so anymore. If you can find a tour, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
Cabbagetown is the home to many restaurants and businesses scattered through the neighborhood. One thing I love about many of these businesses is that they are owned by people who live in the ‘hood. You will find a concentration of these businesses on Carroll Street. A couple of notable ones on this main drag are Carrol Street Cafe and Little’s Food Store.
Carroll Street Cafe was once the photo studio of the Photographer “Panorama” Ray Herbert Jr. Inside the restaurant, you can find some of Ray’s large panorama photographs on the wall.
Little’s Food Store opened in 1929 to cater to mill residents. It moved into the present-day Little’s building on Carroll Street in 1941. In the 2000s the store changed hands a few times and is now operated by Brad and Nina Cunard. It still operates as a neighborhood market and retains a kind of old-timey charm. Inside, besides groceries, there is art on the walls by local artists and a lunch counter serving up hamburgers and hot dogs.
The Krog Tunnel
There is only one way to get to Cabbagetown from the north and that is to go through the Krog Tunnel. The tunnel is graffiti-ridden but unlike other places in the city where graffiti is routinely removed or painted over, here the powers-that-be look the other way. The layers of paint in the tunnel are thick and its canvas is constantly changing. Every weekend people flock to the tunnel with cameras and video recorders. They pose with the art, take promotional photos, and make music videos. I think I heard at one time that it was one of the most photographed places in Atlanta.
Cabbagetown has three parks. The smallest is Three Points Park. For a long time, Three Points Park, a small triangle of land, was just a place to grow weeds where three roads intersect. The small tract was privately owned. Then a neighbor dug up the owner, got him to donate it to the neighborhood, and solicited ideas as to what to do with it. Put a giant gazebo on it! The neighborhood decided to go with a simple idea, a few plants, and a stone bench.
Esther Peachy LeFevre Park is dedicated to Esther LeFever (the park’s official name is misspelled). LeFever was a Mennonite and an activist who created The Patch – originally a daycare center in Cabbagetown which turned into a community center providing support for residents as the mill was closing in the 70s.
The largest park in the neighborhood is Cabbagetown Park. This park was once the home of an elementary school. After it closed in 1981 the buildings became derelict. Developers were interested in the property but the neighborhood wanted a park. Eventually, neighbors petitioned the city and got their greenspace. In 2003 the school building was demolished and Cabbagetown Park was born.
In order to maintain the park, a fundraiser is thrown every fall called Chomp & Stomp. Chomp & Stomp is a bluegrass and chili festival. Streets are shut down and lined with vendors. Stages are set up in both Esther LeFevre Park and Cabbagetown Park. There are games and lots of beer. Over 25,000 people attend. It is one of the best festivals in Atlanta.
Supporting the CSX transfer station that hovers over Cabbagetown is a giant wall that runs along one edge of the neighborhood from the mill to the Krog Tunnel. Unlike the tunnel where graffiti was often celebrated, the residents of Cabbagetown didn’t like to see random graffiti spill out onto its defining northern border. A neighborhood vigilante used to hide and trees at night and jump out accosting taggers. Tall bushes were planted to make the walls inaccessible to the illegal art. And for years the community discussed ways to solve the problem. Then in 2011 Forward Warrior came to the rescue and invited artists to come paint murals on the tall gray walls. Once or twice a year dozens of muralists return over a long weekend to paint over old murals. It is quite an event to walk along the wall and watch new paintings develop. And, as hoped, the taggers mostly respect the art keeping their tagging in the tunnel, and Cabbagetown’s vigilante came down from the trees.
But the CSX wall doesn’t host the only murals in the neighborhood. There are also the Stacks Squares, several murals painted on businesses, and an unofficial mural site in a vacant lot at the end of my old street.
Almost every year on the first Saturday in June for the last 50 years Cabbagetown has been hosting a reunion for all the folks who have left the neighborhood. As the mill closed down in the 1970s people left to find opportunities elsewhere. But despite the new distances between old friends the neighborhood was still a “family.” And every year that family gets back together in the place it was born for one day.
Many people have headed up this reunion over the years but for the past several years a descendant of the mill’s original owner, Jake Elsas, and his wife Nina have taken the reins of keeping the tradition and history alive. Jake and Nina run the Patch Works Art & History Center (currently virtual) which they created to “preserve, sustain, and maintain the historical identity, relevance, and integrity of Atlanta’s Cabbagetown.” The Reunion is usually held on Carroll Street but this year was moved to Cabbagetown Park.
Bands were set up in the Joyce Brookshire Memorial Amphitheater. Joyce Brookshire was a folk singer raised in Cabbagetown whose family moved to the neighborhood from the Appalachian Mountains to work in the mill. She went on to be a touring and recording artist in the 1970s and 80s. The music this year at the festival ranged from traditional folk to rock-n-roll. All the bands either had a member who currently lived in the neighborhood or some connection to its storied past.
A few originals
Marshall and Ronnie are a couple of Cabbagetown originals. The brothers grew up in the neighborhood back in the 40s. They know everyone in the neighborhood. If they don’t know you, you apparently have managed to walk by their house undetected. Ronnie likes to “hold court” and tell jokes on Carroll Street when he isn’t watching a western on TV, listening to music, or hanging out on his porch swing. Marshall can usually be found in his woodshop where he handcrafts chests, cabinets, and shelves from streetside discards. Stop by their porch and Ronnie will tell what Cabbagetown was like back in the day. Stop in Marshall’s workshop behind the house and he will show you what he is working on – some old piece of furniture he found on the street and has refurbished or a secret compartment he has added to one of his original pieces.
A Social Consciousness
Shortly after the George Floyd murder members of the Cabbagetown community started protesting during rush hour at a busy intersection in front of a long-shuttered gas station at one corner of the neighborhood. When we visited in June they had been holding down that corner almost nightly for nearly a year. Sometimes their numbers were huge and sometimes only one person would show up. But the dedication persisted. The vast majority of people driving by gave supportive honks and waves.
As you walk around the neighborhood almost every house displays some kind of sign of unity, social conscience, call to action, or political stance. Now that we have been traveling on the east coast for a while we have passed through many “liberal” neighborhoods but I have seen none other that seem so dedicated to social justice as Cabbagetown.
A stroll through the neighborhood
Cabbagetown is about is 17 square blocks plus the mill complex. It covers about 0.141 square miles. But still, if you live in the neighborhood it can take a half-hour or more to walk from one side of the ‘hood to the other. Residents call this “neighbor-lag.” As you stroll through the community you are sure to see a friend. You stop and chat. If you are walking a dog he/she gets terribly bored. If you are in a hurry or just don’t feel social you carefully plan a surreptitious route to your destination. But mostly everyone just goes with the flow and enjoys catching up with friends, learning a little gossip, or making impromptu plans.
I feel like I have just scratched the surface of Cabbagetown here. There are so many stories, people, and places I’ve missed. There is so much more I could have elaborated on. But hopefully, you got the gist of it. And perhaps you see why it is so special.
It is quite possible that I will be sharing this post on any one of these sites this week: My Corner of the World, Travel Tuesday, Wild Bird Wednesday, Through My Lens, Skywatch Friday, Our World Tuesday, and Sharon’s Souvenirs. Check out these links to see what other people are doing all over the world!