South Downtown sees revival as an artistic community

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

In 2000, Brian Egan discovered South Downtown via a school field trip to the Georgia State Capitol and the World of Coca Cola, back when it was located by Underground Atlanta. He stayed close to the neighborhood in the coming years.

“l ended up going to GSU, and walked from Castleberry Hill through South Downtown almost every day for two years,” Egan says. “You can feel the history when you walk the streets of downtown. In a lot of ways it is the last vestige of old Atlanta.”

That history attracted Egan and his business partner, Chris Yonker, who took over 89 S. Broad St. in 2013 and transformed the space into Mammal Gallery, a new music venue and art venue. It counts among several arts organizations that have transformed South Downtown into a hub of creativity, where large, colorful murals adorn numerous buildings and visitors mingle at the galleries.

“Although it needed lots of work, the building was perfect for what we set out to do,” says Egan, the gallery director. “It had big windows in the upstairs for art shows and, since the location had previously been a nightclub, there were things like a bar, sinks and bathrooms already in place.”

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

South Downtown, the area between Marietta and Decatur Streets and east of Castleberry Hill, has seen the city’s ebbs and flows. An important economic epicenter in the 19th and 20th centuries, Broad Street and the adjacent avenues used to be lined with bustling retail and other businesses. The area’s architecture reflects such bygone trends as ornamental details and large windows.

“South Broad Street is one of the most pedestrian-friendly areas in the city, in the shadow of the State Capitol, at the center of downtown — and purely neglected,” Egan says. “The established businesses, many of them generational, have suffered as a consequence. That’s not to say that this was an area without culture and community. There’s a long history of artists and creatives living and working here dating back to the 19th century. South Downtown is the historical core of our city.”

After the World of Coca Cola moved away from the area in 2007, and Underground Atlanta became a second thought for tourists, South Downtown stayed dormant — but not for long.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Living Walls, an annual arts conference, drew attention to the area with large colorful murals. In 2011, the annual ELEVATE program, hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, brought temporary public art to Broad Street and triggered discussions about city design and affordability through art. In 2014, the Goat Farm invited 20 artists to decorate dumpsters during ELEVATE.

The Goat Farm’s Beacons program also supported the area by helping local artists and organizations rehabilitate and renovate buildings. With support, artists find an affordable location for their work and help revitalize the neighborhood.

Mammal Gallery has attracted musicians and artists from local neighborhoods and beyond, and encouraged them to fill the walls of the venue with art and to address social and economic issues within the community. “Over the last three years, it has been inspiring seeing multiple arts organizations get into spaces in South Downtown and collaborate on a programing level,” Egan says.

“Witnessing the growth of the arts district here is amazing,” says Kris Pilcher, artist and co-owner of Downtown Players Club, another mainstay in the area since 2015. “Mammal Gallery laid the groundwork for what this area has become. They have gone from a scrappy DIY space to a full-on cultural institution since they began. In other words, community has led to our success.”

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Downtown Players Club, co-owned by Pilcher and Elizabeth Jarrett, is a performance-based community center that offers resources to help foster creative collaboration for local performers. “The addition of Eyedrum, Broad Street Visitors Center and Murmur has solidified this area as a proving ground for Atlanta’s young creatives, activists, and even young entrepreneurs,” Pilcher says.

While the area is currently thriving, development and gentrification are threatening to price out the artist’s paradise brewing on South Broad Street. Recent building purchases in the area may raise the prices in the emerging arts district and push out these nonprofits.

“Until the art organizations, small business owners, residents and city officials work together to build a district plan that protects and fosters arts and culture, the long-term fate of South Downtown is up to the highest bidder,” Egan says.

Pilcher agrees. “My hope for South Downtown,” he says, “is that it can become a beacon of creative and responsible growth that listens to the needs of its community members and acts on them.”

Mammal Gallery. 91 Broad St. 678-744-7095.

Downtown Players Club. 98 Broad St. 678-773-1132.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Creative outlets [info box]

In additional to Mammal Gallery and Downtown Players Club, these arts organizations contribute to South Downtown’s revitalization.

Murmur. This nonprofit focuses on promoting DIY media and providing affordable artistic resources to the community. 100 Broad St.

Eyedrum Arts and Music Gallery. A nonprofit art space and venue with a focus on contemporary art and experimental music, Eyedrum moved to South Downtown in 2014. 88 Forsyth St. 678-813-7860.

C4 Atlanta/Fuse Arts Center. C4 Atlanta, along with the Fuse Arts Center, provides art entrepreneurs with the tools needed to succeed in the Atlanta business community and beyond. 115 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. 404-969-2787.

Insider tips

Jump on the Living Walls iPhone app to see a map of the public art in the area.

Looking for a new co-working space? Stop by the Fuse Arts Center to find creative community and an affordable desk for your small business.

Murmur, a DIY media arts organization, frequently offers free zine and arts workshops for adults and children.