Back in high school I was supposed to be afraid of going into Cabbagetown. It was the wrong side of the tracks (literally, in this case, since MARTA and CSX make up one border of the district), and occasionally people would sing the first few notes of “Dueling Banjos” when it came up. But I always loved Cabbagetown, especially in those rock-bottom days of the late 80s/early 90s after the Mills shut down and before the area was gentrified. It was a fascinating part of Atlanta; a pocket of Appalachia tucked away in the big city. Here’s a little history:
“Cabbagetown is one of Atlanta’s oldest industrial settlements, built for employees of the South’s first cotton processing mill in 1881 during the heyday of southeastern textile mills, [the largest of which] was Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills, built just a few miles down the eastern rail line from downtown. Jacob Elsas, a German Jewish immigrant who owned and operated the mills, beckoned white laborers from the rural South, including the Southern Appalachians, [with] the promise of wages, health care and housing… Elsas built a small community of simple frame one- and two-story shotgun and cottage-style houses flanking the Mills, and in the fashion of similar paternalistic mill owners, attempted to provide his workers with everything he believed they needed (including the occasional ‘picture show’). Everyone in this community worked in the Mills – men, women, and children. This grew a tightly knit, semi-isolated community of people whose lives were anchored to the Mills as well as the rich culture and heritage they had brought with them. [In the late 70s, Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills] shut down completely. Some of the workers left to find work, but many stayed, in keeping with a strong land ethic. Robert Coles describes having been told the following from an Appalachian family (outside of Cabbagetown) that succinctly captures this land ethic: ‘We stay put if we can help it, and if we can’t, we still stay put.’ Though abandoned and in disrepair, the Mills were a rare example of Atlanta’s earliest industrial architecture and was added to the National Historic Register in 1976, in addition to the original houses surrounding it.” (Crampton, Dr. Jeremy W. Cabbagetown, Atlanta: (Re)Placing Identity. Seminar on Ethics and Politics of Cartography, Dept of Anthropology & Geography, Georgia State University, Spring 2002.)
I suspect the fear was more mistrust because it was tightly knit and semi-isolated, as Appalachian communities tend to be. I remember being stared at suspiciously while walking down Powell Street in ’95, though it wasn’t long before hellos were exchanged and the chill was gone. (It also didn’t hurt that my boyfriend, now husband, comes from a prominent McCaysville GA/Copper Hill TN family – a fact I proclaimed repeatedly.) This was back in the days when folks like Panorama Ray (RIP) were around, steadily turning Cabbagetown into an artist’s enclave because it was so cheap to live there. And Appalachian communities may be insular, but they’re also wonderfully musical, intense and creative. I recall a few budding Howard Finsters in the neighborhood.
In the late ‘90s, the Mills were renovated into lofts, condos and townhomes, and gentrification began in earnest. Cabbagetown is now an intown hipster neighborhood with – as far as I can sense – very little of the old Appalachian vibe. I’m glad it’s vibrant, because deep down in my urbanist soul what matters to me is a thriving city, but it saddens me to know that it might all be forgotten in another generation. So here is my small attempt to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The Krog Street tunnel, by the way, is supercool.