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Pride and gentrification: How Atlanta’s LGBTQ community deals with development

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Not all LGBTQ establishments are being embraced amidst the city’s growth. What’s the true cost?

a picture of the gay bar beneath the massive mixed-use development’s construction
After three decades, Model T could soon face closure.
Sean Keenan, Curbed Atlanta

The clientele at Model T, a dive bar tucked beneath Poncey-Highland’s aging Ford Factory Lofts, is more a family than a collection of customers.

On Sundays, the owner, Jill Darmer, serves lunch to patrons free of charge. Day by day, the regulars and bartenders discuss everything from neighborhood rumors to personal problems.

On Wednesday afternoon, for instance, one longtime patron said he’d come in for a drink after spending two weeks taking care of his father, who’s in poor health. That same regular, with the help of the barkeep, also consoled another local who’s having health problems of his own.

On top of the personal emotions running high at what for years has been a popular Atlanta gay bar, Model T’s fate is uncertain. The gentrifying forces of the Beltline and a surging intown real estate market have threatened the nearly 30-year-old establishment with displacement—if not demise.

“I’m hoping we get to stay here, but I doubt it,” Darmer says.

As of today, Atlanta Pride—one of the country’s oldest and largest festivals celebrating LGBTQ culture—is in full swing, with upwards of 300,000 people expected. The advent of Pride’s 48th anniversary makes it an opportune time to examine how Model T and other businesses that have long catered to the local LGBTQ crowd have dealt with the city’s fast-paced development trends and, in many cases, the negative pressures of gentrification.

Given Atlanta’s famous (but totally questionable) “The city too busy to hate” moniker, some might wonder if adding new gay bars is imperative to maintaining the city’s cultural fabric. Acceptance, generally speaking, is the norm now, especially in sophisticated urban settings. And there’s certainly no shortage of Atlanta places where people of all sexual orientations can crack a beer together. Yet, with an estimated 4.2 percent gay population in the metro area, as the New York Times gauged it in 2015—a 2006 study suggested the city’s queer demographic made up much more (nearly 13 percent) of the population—one might expect to see gay bars cherished, not dwindling.

Is it a case of pride and prejudice, or simply the natural trajectory of a growing city amidst a more open-minded society?

Model T sits in the shadow of developer New City’s under-construction 725 Ponce project, a nearly $200 million mixed-use development—the largest new-construction investment on the Beltline thus far—that will bring abundant office space and an “urban prototype Kroger” where the infamous “Murder Kroger” had operated for about three decades.

In June, the bar’s Facebook page announced the building’s landlord, who isn’t associated with New City, would not be renewing the business’s lease. Model T is now operating on a month-to-month basis, expected to stay open until the end of 2018. On the other hand, Cameli’s Pizza—a bar and eatery that used to do business in the Ford Factory’s ground-floor retail strip—was afforded the option of upping its rent and sticking around, according to Darmer. (The Cameli’s Poncey-Highland location ultimately closed, although there’s another nearby in Little Five Points.)

Model T was not given such an option, Darmer says. And it’s not alone among LGBTQ-centric businesses in Atlanta with proprietors who are frustrated, having faced similar tribulations.

“I’m for progress; I really am,” Darmer says. “I really want this thing to work for [New City]. There’s a 12-story office building; they’re rebuilding Kroger. But I think somehow people are missing out on what Atlanta really is,” she adds, nodding to Hotel Clermont’s revamp as a good example of maintaining Atlanta’s culture.

Dumpsters and construction fencing outside the entrance to Model T.
Sean Keenan, Curbed Atlanta

On Cheshire Bridge Road, near Lindbergh, the once-bustling gay nightclub Jungle was forced to shutter in late 2017. The community of renters at an apartment complex rising adjacent to the nightlife spot wouldn’t gel with the culture of Jungle, said the building’s new owner, according to Wussy Mag.

In 2013, a gay hotspot in Midtown called The Armory at the corner of 6th and Juniper streets was razed to make way for high-rise apartments, according to Project Q.

And almost a decade before that, Backstreet, another LGBTQ club in Midtown, shut its doors when the City of Atlanta decided it could no longer serve booze 24 hours a day. (The city reportedly also claimed the establishment was a haven for drug use and prostitution.)

There’s a creeping suspicion among LGBTQ circles—and other longtime Atlantans—that developers don’t much care to maintain the existing gay culture of the districts in which they’re building.

At Model T, Darmer is frantically scouting around for a new location. But so far, she says, the effort has been fruitless.

In the meantime, there’s at least one major mixed-use development that’s primed to introduce a new queer establishment in Atlanta: Downtown’s Underground Atlanta redevelopment project by South Carolina-based developer WRS, which is welcoming a new gay dance club and cabaret called Future. That makes the Underground development an outlier among the myriad, major real estate investments in town.

Of course, Underground Atlanta is shaping up to be different from other mixed-use projects for plenty of reasons. Right now, the only tenants operating at the downtown site are a Foot Locker shoe store and the Masquerade music venue, which, coincidentally or not, relocated from Old Fourth Ward as a Beltline-adjacent apartment development moved forward.

The dimly lit concert hall, known for debuting local grunge, punk, and hip-hop acts, as well as international musicians, isn’t what people have come to expect from Atlanta’s more glitzy mixed-use projects. But it’s found a place in downtown, avoiding the fate of longstanding LGBTQ establishments.

Atlanta newcomers might not realize that intown neighborhoods like Midtown wouldn’t be what they are today without an influx of gay culture decades ago.

“The energy that followed the Stonewall riots of 1969 influenced the hippies, progressives, and queer activists who moved into Midtown in large numbers, setting the neighborhood on a path to becoming Atlanta’s LGBT safe haven for decades,” according to a Midtown Alliance historical compendium. “In the 1970s, swaths of Peachtree Street and Piedmont Avenue were dotted with restaurants, bars, and clubs that catered to the gay community” and bolstered the local economy.

In the mid-1980s, Blake’s On The Park opened on the corner of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue, at the southwest corner of Piedmont Park. It was one of the first LGBTQ bars with windows and a streetside front door, according to Midtown Alliance. And it still thrives today.

In the late 1970s, Bulldogs opened on Peachtree Street, which today is witnessing the rise of a slew of apartment towers and office buildings.

The Hanover West Peachtree high-rise is being built behind Bulldogs.
Sean Keenan, Curbed Atlanta

While watering holes such as The Armory and Backstreet have shuttered as high-rise apartment complexes and condo projects ascend in the area, Bulldogs survived, perhaps by carving out a niche as a predominantly black establishment with a loyal customer base.

Just this week, plans were revealed for another glassy tower that would rise within feet of Bulldogs’s walls, raising the question of how long such an establishment can hold on.

Across the street from Model T on Ponce de Leon Avenue, another gay bar, Friends, appears to be basking in the Beltline glow. With developments such as Ponce City Market nearby, the customers seem now to have fatter pockets, as one bartender explained this week. But the vibe has remained largely the same.

Regina Simms, Friends’s general manager, says, like many neighboring spots, the bar has seen rent prices jump as more developments crop up in the area. But unlike Model T, traffic from the Beltline and Ponce City Market has both boosted and diversified its customer base.

“There’s just so much activity that we just can’t help but to get some of it. It’s been good for us, but the situation [at Model T] is just horrible,” Simms says.

Then again, Friends isn’t so impacted by change as Model T’s, where the front doors are obstructed by Dumpsters and construction fencing. But that isn’t stopping longtime locals from coming in, such as Blondie, the famous dancer from Clermont Lounge up the street.

Blondie, a Model T regular, enjoys some downtime this week.
Sean Keenan, Curbed Atlanta

Still, to some, it feels like the city’s gay bar stock is waning. (Statistics on the prevalence of LGBTQ establishments today versus, say, a decade ago are tough to come by). One thing is clear: When such businesses are priced out of evolving neighborhoods, they’re rarely replaced.

But Johnny Martinez, a gay man and co-owner of two bars in Sweet Auburn, says he doesn’t think that’s necessarily a sign of distaste for LGBTQ culture in Atlanta.

“That may have more to do with the cultural changes and acceptance of gay men and women in society,” he tells Curbed Atlanta, meaning Atlanta’s increasing tolerance for people of all walks of life has dampened the need for new LGBTQ-focused institutions. “At the same time, you see more small towns with gay bars than ever before.”

Of course, Atlanta still finds opportunities to celebrate its LGBTQ culture, which is evidenced by Black Pride in September and Midtown’s massive Pride festivities hosted each year since the 1970s.

Even with the intermittent closures of Atlanta’s gay bars, the growing attendance at the festival is a testament to the fact the city’s LGBTQ culture is far from faltering.

And yes, Atlanta’s Pride Parade kicks off at noon Sunday.

A large rainbow flag is carried down Peachtree Street in Midtown, seen from above.
Pride Parade’s in years past have brought droves of people—gay, straight, or otherwise—to Atlanta.
Michael Kahn, Curbed Atlanta