Gay bar threatened by MARTA plan, historical preservationists say

A popular Atlanta gay nightclub may be threatened by MARTA’s plans for a new light rail station.

MARTA plans show the station would be built in the same area The Heretic currently occupies at 2069 Cheshire Bridge Road. Stephany Fisher, a spokesperson for the transportation agency, said Friday the plans are preliminary, and undergoing review, but "all options are still on the table."

Historic preservationists, bar patrons and employees are not comforted.

“They’re just trying to get rid of gay bars,” longtime Heretic customer Terry Dale said while enjoying a drink Thursday. He and employee Matt Wortham said sentiment of the gay community is that the city of Atlanta and other public agencies, such as MARTA, want to see all gay bars gone.

A new MARTA station in the area is a good idea, they said, but not at the cost of The Heretic, which, for decades, has been a strong thread of the LGBTQ community on a stretch of road stitching together adult-themed businesses with old-school destinations such as the Colonnade restaurant.

Worries over the future of The Heretic came after MARTA made a presentation on the Clifton Corridor project to several nearby neighborhoods, Charles Paine, chairman of the LGBTQ historic preservation advisory committee for the nonprofit Historic Atlanta, said.

The project aims to connect Lindbergh and Avondale MARTA stations with light rail. Construction of the Clifton Corridor project is scheduled to begin in 2022; the new light rail line would begin operations in 2026, according to MARTA’s timeline.

In a letter addressed to MARTA CEO Jeffrey A. Parker and Chairman Robbie Ashe on Nov. 23, Paine, on behalf of Historic Atlanta, wrote he would like MARTA to avoid getting rid of “a potential historical resource associated with the LGBTQ community.” He added MARTA should “immediately begin looking at alternative locations,” for the proposed Cheshire Bridge station.

Since Historic Atlanta sent its letter, MARTA issued a statement saying the Clifton Corridor project is undergoing “an exhaustive environmental review that takes into consideration all properties, landmarks, and natural habitats that could be impacted.” Once the review is complete they will reach out to involved parties, according to the statement.

MARTA also states they will comply with federal regulations regarding historical properties and “will ensure that Historic Atlanta is included in the formal consultation process.”

The owner of The Heretic did not respond for comment.

The Heretic is one of Atlanta’s earliest lesbian establishments and has remained a “safe space” for members of the gay community for close to 50 years, Paine said. “To lose The Heretic is to lose the last monument to LGBTQ history along Cheshire Bridge Road, a street once rich with LGBTQ history and activism,” he said.

“The number of these safe spaces has decreased significantly over recent years as zoning laws change and leases are not renewed. Like most communities, these LGBTQ spaces live off each other and the end of one place could begin a domino effect. I fear that losing The Heretic to eminent domain could be catastrophic for the LGBTQ community that already has so few safe spaces left,” Paine said.

Wortham and Dale share a similar view. They said zoning changes that allow residential development near gay bars bring noise complaints from homeowner’s associations. Those complaints can eventually shut down bars.

“They try to complain you out of business,” Wortham said.

“This shuts down, gay night life is pretty much over,” he said. He believes this to be true because unlike many other gay bars, The Heretic has a dance floor and regularly hosts productions and events that serve a large audience, and not just a niche of the LGBTQ community.

Historic Atlanta cited in their letter to MARTA the potential of The Heretic to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although the site has not been nominated by Historic Atlanta for the National Register, they consider a nomination for the Georgia Register an achievable goal for 2020, according to Paine.

“Historic Atlanta hopes to secure funding within 2020 to complete an LGBTQ Historic Context Statement for the City of Atlanta in efforts to help the city determine the significance and condition of our LGBTQ historic resources,” Paine said.

For now, bar patrons can still enjoy The Heretic.

“I love this bar. I have always loved it,” Dale said.

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