On Edgewood Ave., iconic nightlife scene takes a hit but still sees demand to party

‘I wish that all of those bars had stayed closed, but I also want them to be able to make a living’

Late at night, just east of downtown Atlanta, a colorful lineup of bars and clubs comes alive every week. Lights and music escape from 100-year-old brick buildings covered in vibrant murals. If enough people come out, police may close off the street to cars, giving it a raucous block party atmosphere.

Welcome to Edgewood Avenue, which has evolved into one of the city’s premier nightlife districts — a diverse corridor in the heart of the city where it’s easy to walk from bar to bar and hit several spots in one night.

“There’s an energy on Edgewood that I don’t think you get in other parts,” said Johnny Martinez, one of the owners of Joystick Gamebar and Georgia Beer Garden, both located on Edgewood. “There’s a little bit of the wild, wild West to it, too.”

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

But as the pandemic dealt a blow to Atlanta’s nightlife industry, a scene it is known for around the world, it hit Edgewood especially hard. Beloved spots like Mother Bar and Kitchen, Bone Lick Southern Kitchen and The Music Room were forced to close permanently. Some places that are still in business said they are just treading water until the pandemic is over.

Last week marked one year since since Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp mandated that bars and clubs shut down in response to the virus’ spread. Beginning last summer, bars and clubs were allowed to reopen under statewide guidelines, but businesses on Edgewood instituted a range of different safety measures, some more relaxed than others.

While some bars enforce strict capacity and spacing limits, at other spots patrons party indoors with minimal social distancing. Recent social media posts reveal crowds of patrons indoors, most without masks, on the dance floor or around the bar.

“I wish that all of those bars had stayed closed, but I also want them to be able to make a living, so I can’t blame them,” said James McConnell, who co-owned Mother, which had a gastropub atmosphere and second-story dance floor. “It was something where it felt safer to cut our losses than go into more debt.”

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

From its famous strip clubs to neighborhood watering holes, Atlanta’s nightlife culture has become an important part of the local economy, but it’s been especially vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. Nearly 40,000 bar or restaurant jobs in metro Atlanta were lost in the last year, according to Georgia Department of Labor data from February.

“COVID has been like the Hunger Games. Whoever survives this is going to be better on the other side. That’s been our goal. Just to survive,” Martinez said, adding that the economic impact of COVID has “been like its own sort of virus that has taken some people out and some people not.”

Tough decisions

Spirits were high at Our Bar ATL in early March 2020. It had just opened at the corner of Edgewood and Hilliard Street, the brainchild of a group of friends who saved up to open their own place. The pandemic hit a few weeks later, forcing Our Bar to pivot to to-go food service. They have since opened back up to traditional bar service, welcoming patrons on weekend nights and hosting karaoke nights, tie-dye popups and charity events throughout the week.

Much of the decision to reopen rested on finances. The bar wasn’t eligible for Paycheck Protection Program loans at the beginning of the pandemic because it didn’t have an established payroll yet.

“We still had to pay the bills. We wanted to keep our staff employed,” co-owner Sung Hyong said. “We’re new, we’re one year old. We don’t have savings. All of our savings went to the bar.”

Credit: Courtesy/Anitra Isler

Credit: Courtesy/Anitra Isler

Our Bar is one of 44 businesses in the Old Fourth Ward area that signed a pledge last year committing to taking safety precautions to combat the pandemic. Hyong said bartenders and other staff generally feel comfortable working, though they have had some COVID-19 cases among staff.

Other bars that reopened in the last several months have also reported COVID-19 cases among their employees, though business owners largely said they have implemented safety precautions and take their employees’ health seriously.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Despite the possible health risks posed by reopening, many bar owners said they were under financial pressure to do so. Several are still worried about staying afloat.

“No one is making these decisions easily,” said Emma Tinsley, the executive director of the Old Fourth Ward Business Association. “These nightlife businesses are owned by community members. They are locally owned, and they don’t have that many resources to survive right now.”

‘Atlanta is wildin’ out’

The crowds on Edgewood are smaller now than they were in early 2020, but some places still have lines going down the sidewalk. City Council President Felicia Moore drove through Edgewood on a recent Saturday night, part of a quest to check out Atlanta’s late-night hotspots.

“Nobody has on a mask. I guess this is a no-pandemic zone. I don’t understand it,” Moore said in a video that was live-streamed on Facebook just after 1 a.m. on March 14.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

She passed Café Circa, a restaurant and lounge that had a line outside the door. It reopened last summer and has drawn groups of patrons on weekends and during its large daytime brunch parties.

“Some jobs can work from home. In this industry, you can’t do it from home. You can only implement and take measures to be precautious,” said Nahomie Lagardere, a manager at Café Circa.

Next door, the campy bar Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium — better known simply as Church — has rules to reduce occupancy and promote mask-wearing. Its humorous, religion-themed interior decorations now hang next to signs with messages like “Bartenders will NOT serve you without a MASK on!”

Owner Grant Henry knows the mask requirement might not be popular with some prospective customers, and he isn’t making as much money now, but he sticks with the rules for the safety of his staff. Church has had to temporarily close twice due to COVID-19 cases.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

“We were at a point where if we don’t reopen, I’m just going to go bankrupt and lose everything,” Henry said. All but one bartender was willing to come back to work.

On Church’s back patio, Alex Berry recently celebrated her upcoming 35th birthday with a group of friends.

“I’ve generally been pretty safe about going on out in Atlanta, because Atlanta is wildin’ out,” Berry said, adding that she felt safe sitting at a table with some close friends outside. “Seeing Edgewood, seeing the traffic, it’s kind of concerning. ... My personal opinion is that a lot of people don’t care, for one, or they have already gotten it.”

At Joystick Gamebar that night, the doors were locked and the lights turned off. Its owners have kept Joystick and the beer garden across the street closed except for private events, but they are set to reopen this month.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Gearing up for summer

Many on Edgewood say it sometimes has a rowdy, Bourbon Street-like feel at night, as it’s become more common for people to play music and socialize outside on street corners, in parking lots or at the local Exxon gas station. While it’s a lively scene, some business owners worry it is becoming disruptive and potentially unsafe.

The Edgewood district has not been left out of the city’s spike in crime, including street racing and shootings. Just last week, a shooting outside Ghost Bar at about 2 a.m. left a bystander injured.

Last summer, a group of merchants called on the city and Atlanta police to do more to control the impromptu street parties, which local business leaders say have led to at least 10 shootings over the past six years.

Business owners on Edgewood have sought more investment and attention from the city, especially as development in the area continues and its popularity grows. Hilton is planning a new, 125-room hotel near the corner of Edgewood and Boulevard. Developers are also hoping to build a new, four-story mixed-use building at that corner.

“I feel like we’re at a pivotal point where as soon as COVID subsides, then it’ll start building in a different kind of way,” Henry said.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Kemp is set to lift restrictions on large gatherings next week and pare down the rules bars must follow, which could pave the way for a return to business as usual.

As warm weather returns and more people get vaccinated, business owners are hoping business can return safely at pre-pandemic levels. Popular haunts that went out of business since the start of the pandemic are already being replaced by new bars and clubs; the building where Mother used to be is now a restaurant and bar co-owned by rapper 2 Chainz.

“We’ve already seen on Edgewood, as the weather gets warmer,” Tinsley said, “people are ready to get out and party.”