Head east from Atlanta past Decatur and Avondale Estates, beyond the foreboding DeKalb County Jail, over Interstate 285, through the frenetic commercialism of Memorial Drive, and a couple of miles before Stone Mountain, branch right onto Rockbridge Road, and then left into the City of Pine Lake. If your dashboard has a thermometer, it’s here the locals swear the numbers will start dropping, even in the swelter of an Indian summer, right alongside your blood pressure.
Now slow down. And behold the funky little city that sprawl forgot.
Amidst a growing region that prides itself on bigger, taller, and more in general, Pine Lake covets diminutiveness, the sense that it’s pretty much finished. With less than 1,000 people tucked into its one-square mile, Pine Lake is DeKalb County’s littlest city and among the smallest municipalities in metro Atlanta’s major counties. North Fulton’s Mountain Park counts less than 600 denizens, and Gwinnett’s Rest Haven just 64. Meanwhile, down south, Clayton County’s smallest, Lake City, is a relative metropolis of 2,781 people, per the most recent U.S. Census data.
But Pine Lake is something else. Maybe by virtue of its proximity to Atlanta, just 12 miles west, and those snarling expressways, there’s a feeling of otherworldly detachment to this quiet, eclectic, forested, “micropolitan” place, which has been coined “Arts’ Natural Habitat” and “Little Asheville.”
Three roads lead in, and two out, to this rectangular city laid out in an urban-style grid. Colorful bungalows are interspersed with older ranches and fairytale cottages, alongside midcentury-style creations that defy description and rustic, barn-like habitations. You might see a carousel horse on a front porch and a Mona Lisa window covering on the exterior of the next. In the breeze you’ll hear an inordinate amount of wind chimes. But you won’t find mailboxes, which would discourage folks from catching up down at the post office.
It’s also weird. By design.
As a village that doesn’t float the mainstream, Pine Lake has long been a haven for artists, musicians, writers, poets, academics, graphic designers, LGBTQ couples, and free-spirited retirees who travel the country in vintage, teardrop-shaped trailers parked in so many front yards.
Where else in metro Atlanta can you ask the police chief—a thoughtful, hilarious Brooklyn expat named Sarai Y’hudah-Green who writes existential poetry—to describe her constituency and hear a reply like this:
“It’s like a crazy, 2019 version of Mayberry,” says Green. “I mean, super ramped-up, with guitars and artists and nosey neighbors and super cool freakin’ kids. And a little bit of everybody else. It’s like crazy seasoning salt. Some of everybody. And I’m not even going to tell you that these folks are not—uh—out there.”
Lest we forget the communal nucleus, the 12-acre lake itself.
It’ll play host this weekend to Pine Lake’s main festival, LakeFest, where more than a dozen bands will jam, the food and drink will be plentiful, and the beach will be open for one last swim.
LakeFest started 19 years ago as “a kind of glorified yard sale,” says Pine Lake Mayor Melanie Hammet, whose trio, Cosmic Gospel Hour, will play Sunday at noon, with Herroner on guitar. In discussing the significance of the lake, the mayor gets philosophical, if not a little “out there” herself.
“As a geographic psychology, it’s really fascinating, because what happens is, you enter Pine Lake and drive downhill to the lake,” she explains. “Which means that everything flows down toward the lake emotionally, and in terms of runoff; the impact in every way, it takes you to the lake. That’s one of the reasons our zoning is so environmentally specific. If we were doing like a lot of cities and paving over everything, we’d end up destroying this ecological center of what makes the city amazing. It’s really, really interesting.”
Pine Lake was incorporated as a city in 1937, but for years it’d been marketed as a recreational escape from the “Big City” to the west, a place to camp and plunge off docks and diving boards into cooling lake water. Plots initially sold for less than $70.
The relatively small lots by country standards (20 by 100 feet) helped contribute to a feeling of quaintness. Over time, some parcels were merged together, but most houses remain fairly small, which the mayor says encourages residents to get outside, socialize, and explore.
Explorers these days include legions of kids, which marks a change from the primarily adult population of yesteryear Pine Lake. (Families priced out of intown neighborhoods have uprooted for the city’s more affordable housing stock, says Hammet. A flyer posted for a “cute cottage on a flat lot” on Laurel Road, for instance, markets a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with quirky charm to spare. The price: $139,900.)
“I can just imagine what it’s like to grow up here,” says the mayor. “The streets are little, and you can walk to your pal’s house, or you can bike to wherever. And another big thing here with the kids—huge—they’re all tree-climbers. You walk down the street and hear this noise, and you look up, and it’s like the tree is infested with kids. It’s great.”
Over the decades, the tents and cabins of Pine Lake weekenders became standalone houses, and permanent residents multiplied. A mayor’s office and city council were formed, alongside a police force that counts three full-time officers today.
Like seemingly everyone else, Chief Green stumbled on Pine Lake by word of mouth from friends or family. She came aboard the police department in 1997, took the helm in 2002, and still cherishes the intangibles that small-town policing affords—the fulfillment, she says, that major metropolitan forces can lack.
“I see kids here that, when they were little, I was chasing them around, trying to get ’em dropped off at school,” says the chief. “Now they come back, want a letter of recommendation for the military. To be able to see things come full circle—you don’t always get that. You get a chance to see the changes. It’s like the difference between turning around a big boat versus a small boat. You feel effective.”
It’s a scorching mid-September evening, and flags in front yards with a snagged trout on them—“Welcome to the Lake”—seem too pooped to flap. But from the lake there’s splashing, and kids chasing each other on a new playground near the restored beach house. A diverse DeKalb citizenry is exercising on trails around the lake, near the butterfly habitat and wetlands. Out in the water, a half-dozen shells shine in the evening light on what’s called Turtle Island, established by Girl Scouts. The birdcalls seem as ubiquitous as porch-side laughter.
As with many topics involving Pine Lake, the mayor laughs at her salary—$3,600 per year, before taxes—and says a palpable sense of humor is a hallmark of her community. When the conversation veers toward conservation and the future in general, however, the laughter subsides.
Pine Lake has two appointed panels—one focused on arts, the other environment. On the latter sits a precocious 12-year-old girl (and devout tree-climber). Getting young constituents involved early, the mayor believes, is key to protecting what makes Pine Lake special.
“I sometimes wonder, you know, you have this city that’s almost like a mom and pop grocery in the land of Amazon. What is the future of a place this size?” says Hammet. “[These] are cities that are never going to contribute to hospitals, or ports, or major road projects. But these places are going to be where the morale of community gets constructed. In times like these, it’s these little places that hold us together.”