The caboose at Star Iron and Metal will stay, but all the junk is going as the property may very well end up looking like the apartment complex looming in the background. Bill Torpy / btorpy@ajc.com

Torpy at Large: Another piece of old Atlanta on the scrap heap

As Atlanta hurtles headlong into the land of live-work-play, as it rushes to construct apartments with attached retail and office space all over the place, well, then something’s got to give.

This time it’s Star Iron and Metal, a scrap yard on Howell Mill Road, an area on Atlanta’s hot northwest side where apartments are popping up like mushrooms in a wet cow pasture.

But for the fading caboose on its premises, you wouldn’t notice Star Metal while passing. In fact, the 1.77-acre property is an eyesore in a gentrifying corridor. It’s a reminder of Atlanta’s working-class past and will close at month’s end. The caboose goes with the land.

There are those who will miss the sense of adventure, of walking into the scrap yard and searching for random items that stoke the imagination.

At any given time, you’re liable to bump into movie set designers, artists, remodelers, junk pickers or the simply curious.

Celebrity TV chef Alton Brown once cooked a ham in the yard. It’s no wonder, it was a shoot for “Scrap Iron Chef.”

“We’re the only place in town you can walk around, pick and buy retail stuff,” said proprietor Scott D. Hammer, whose family took over the business four decades ago. “It’s the end of an era.”

His father, Elliot, who died in 2014, bought the yard after moving to the city in the 1970s, carrying on a long tradition of many Jewish families who made a living through the generations in the scrap business. It was a hard-nosed, boom-or-bust endeavor, and the yards were situated in places where commerce and industry thrived.

Hammer’s yard was mainly a commercial metal business, yet he created a bustling retail niche that made the place a haven for pickers.

His motto was, “If I don’t have it, it’ll come through the yard and then I’ll have it.”

David Heany, a frequent visitor, said Elliot Hammer was “one of my go-to guys,” an adviser when it came to building, art, rehabbing or whatever. Heany, a plumber and an artist who created and owned the popular Star Bar in Little Five Points (no relation to the scrap business), said knowledgeable, hands-on guys like the late Elliot Hammer are a vanishing breed.

So, too are places like Star Metal, at least in the city. “It’s unfortunate there aren’t any walk-around scrap yards any more,” Heany said. “It’s a huge resource loss for people who think that way.”

He and others waxed nostalgic about places like The Wrecking Bar near Little Five Points, now is a brew pub, or Central Metals, a large junk yard a few blocks south of Star Metals that is now an expanse of apartments.

Rick Golsen understands. His family’s business, Atlanta Metal, was located for decades near DeKalb Avenue until a developer called in 2007. The land was adjacent to the proposed Beltline. Golsen, a man in a buy-and-sell business, realized he was in an enviable situation. “Let’s sit down,” he told the caller. He now runs his business in a larger space in Smyrna.

Golsen’s business is now busy and large enough that he can’t let the curious wander his lot. Liability and lawyers have changed all that.

“Industries change,” he said. “Families used to run businesses. They’d let people walk through the yard. Now most (dealers) won’t let them. Businesses change, ownerships change. The city changes.”

Cities do change. They must. They’re like sharks — if they aren’t moving and feeding, they’re dying.

Atlanta is moving and feeding and Star Metal is getting devoured.

Elliot Hammer saw what was happening in the area and wanted to move nearby and keep the business going. But he died before that occurred and the younger Hammer has an estate on his hands.

Besides, the price of metal is in the toilet.

Interested buyers have been frequent visitors at the yard. “Everyone’s been wanting it,” said Hammer. “I knew it was inevitable. You have to move on.”

He can’t divulge the property’s next incarnation. But it’s not hard to imagine what it will be, what with the trendy restaurants and apartments increasingly surrounding it.

Melvin Carmichael, 83, grew up on the near west side and has worked at Star Metal since the 1970s. While walking around the yard, he talked about the stockyards, slaughterhouses and meat-packing businesses that thrived nearby.

We walked the increasingly bare and picked-over grounds. Still, there are old sets of golf clubs, tools, compressors, stoves, an iron spiral staircase, a lawn tractor, bathtubs, piles of bikes, unidentifiable rusting contraptions and Carmichael’s abandoned Dodge Diplomat.

“Some people come pick for little things,” he said. In the background, Kelin Perry, an architect who likes to commit art, wandered the yard, filling a box with odds and ends.

Carmichael will miss the environment. But, he added, “Every place has its time.”

And time is up here.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X