What's the Future of Castleberry Hill as an Arts Neighborhood?

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Photo by John Ramspott.

This weekend’s BURNAWAY fundraiser features performances and artworks on a theme of Atlanta’s cyclical building patterns. Appropriately, the fundraiser will be held at the Granite Room in Castleberry Hill, a neighborhood once touted for its potential as a definitive arts neighborhood that has lost its prominence in recent years. Though several venues have closed in the past few years, Castleberry Hill still boasts a fair number of galleries, as well as running title of Creative Loafing’s Best Neighborhood for the Arts. Certainly Castleberry Hill is not the only Atlanta neighborhood with gallerists shuttering their businesses, but does a larger number of galleries and a yearly festival or two make it a healthy place for the arts?
It seems every decade Castleberry Hill has a moment in which its ascendancy seems guaranteed. In 1992, the New York Times published an article on Castleberry Hill’s mushrooming lofts as a sign of Soho’s influence on cities as far South as Atlanta, Georgia. What made Castleberry Hill unique, according to the author, was the sense of neighborhood identity. Yet over a decade later, Creative Loafing published a feature on Castleberry Hill’s burgeoning art scene discussing once more the rise of luxury lofts and the community atmosphere, but also the sizeable gaps in development in the area and lack of essential resources like a park or grocery store. After the economic crisis, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that condos in Castleberry Hill became a tough sell, even compared to other Atlanta neighborhoods. This sporadic and inconsistent development has led to Castleberry Hill feeling more like a desert with an occasional watering hole than a thriving cultural center.
Gene Kansas, the owner of a commercial real estate firm and host of AM 1690’s Sidewalk Radio, summarizes the problem: “[The development] started small, and there weren’t enough people around to sustain traffic during the week.”
One night a year for the past three years, Flux Projects has descended upon the neighborhood, filling every available space with performances and attracting a remarkable audience (click here for BURNAWAY’s review of the FLUX 2011). But when the night is over the neighborhood looks all the more empty.
When asked why BURNAWAY chose Castleberry Hill for this year’s fundraiser, cofounder and Editor-in-chief Jeremy Abernathy responded, “We’ve thrown the annual fundraiser in a new location every year. First was the Goat Farm Art Center. Last year was an industrial space on Krog Street, a spot previously used for filming hip-hop music videos. And this year we’re bringing the party to Castleberry Hill.”
“We were one of the first arts groups to use Goat Farm’s Goodson Yard for a large-scale event,” Abernathy continued. “There was metal equipment all over the place, from steel barrels to old tractor parts, but we cleared out as much as we could and made the place sparkle. This was before gloATL took residence there, and nowadays, groups from Georgia Shakespeare Festival to the Hambidge Center have thrown fundraisers in that same space. Each year we’ve had an element of surprise on our side. Castleberry Hill has been a key neighborhood in the local art scene for years, but aside from the annual FLUX event, activity there has receded into the background somewhat. In that sense, choosing the Granite Room is a way of mixing things up yet again and showing the area some renewed love.”
It would seem BURNAWAY’s choice of venues is a sign of change rather than an instigator. The Krog Street event, though a lively experience that verged on the magical every time a train rolled by, was not followed by any spike in activity in the area, and it is likely that the Goat Farm’s surge in prominence was already well in effect by the time of the first BURNAWAY fundraiser. But Castleberry Hill, though diminished, has certainly not lost its sense of potential.
The neighborhood has several endemic issues that need to be addressed, the most serious of which concerns Atlanta’s ongoing transportation issues. A recent 11alive story blamed the closing of the Mitchell Street Bridge, one of the two thoroughfares between Castleberry Hill and downtown Atlanta, and the contemporaneous economic crisis for the dramatic pause in growth.
Gene Kansas believes addressing transportation issues will do a lot for the area and cites the Atlanta Regional Multimodal Passenger Terminal (MMPT) as a crucial instrument in Castleberry Hill’s revitalization. The MMPT, the second of Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” initiatives in Georgia, will fill a 120-acre area of land located northwest of Castleberry Hill called “the gulch.” The proposed MMPT will be the region’s major passenger terminal with facilities for intercity passenger rails, buses, and future transportation including a high speed rail, light rail, and streetcar. According to Kansas, “You need something major like that to bring Castleberry back around, being that it’s disconnected from the city and that there are more options in the arts now than there where when Castleberry was coming into its own. Otherwise, it’ll take 10 to 15 years.”
There’s no guarantee, however, as to whether this accessibility will help bolster the arts in Castleberry Hill. “I’ve learned that it’s the areas with valuable real estate that have the arts, but that development happens for very different reasons,” said Kansas. “Midtown was not really an arts district, but after the Orly Crash the memorial that went up became the Woodruff Arts Center, and what made that happen was big business. Then you’ve got something like Living Walls in the Old Fourth Ward, where they’re taking advantage of available space. Castleberry is a whole other [type of] area.”
(Click here for Paul Boshear’s essay on the Orly Crash and here for a Sidewalk Radio episode on the topic.)
Skot Foreman, a New York-based gallery owner who used to operate Skot Foreman Fine Art in Castleberry Hill, recently paid a return visit to Castleberry Hill. His feeling was that the neighborhood’s solution to the barrenness plaguing Castleberry Hill was at the expense of the arts scene. Foreman wrote, “I left ATL for NY in late 2004 … when the neighborhood felt like it was at its artistic zenith. Although there was definitely still an edge, there existed an interesting balance between gallerists, artists, other retail, and residents.
“The monthly art walks were highly attended, which definitely drove sales, and there seemed to be buzz in the air about the Castleberry’s gallery scene,” said Foreman. “I do recall, however, at neighborhood meetings many residents foretelling caution about clubs wanting to relocate downtown as they were being ‘displaced’ from Buckhead. On the other side of the argument were residents who wanted more eating and drinking options, which was completely understandable to me and [is] what the whole idea about living in a downtown environment was about! So it was obvious it was becoming a divisive issue.
“Unfortunately,” Foreman continued, “much to my dismay and disappointment, when I returned … the neighborhood somehow had lost that magical balance and had traded its artistic identity for that of clubs and bars that don’t necessarily seem to cater to its local residents. It seems that there are so many bars clustered along Peters Street now, that I am not sure what the future holds in Castleberry for the arts in the near term.”
Foreman ended on a positive note. “That said, have faith in the creative class; they usually see opportunities far in advance where the rest don’t!”
With that statement, Foreman raises a crucial point: though city infrastructure is an integral component of Castleberry Hill’s future, the work necessary towards making it a thriving arts community will be done by individuals. Small businesses like Boxcar Grocer, a local and organic-driven small grocery to rival Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco’s Mission District or The Get Go in Marfa, Texas, are making the neighborhood a more appealing place to live. Dashboard Co-op’s government-sanctioned takeover of a vacant house a few blocks from Castleberry Hill for Nathan Sharatt’s Come Inside Me was a high point in Atlanta art this summer and a great example of artists and curators taking advantage of space in a neighborhood that’s come under hard times. If rent stays low and community amenities keep improving, there’s a very good chance artists will continue to look to Castleberry Hill as a place to live, create, and show work.