September 21, 2016

White Privilege in Downtown Athens

City Dope

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of UGA. Photo illustration by Larry Tenner.

Pratt Cassity is wigging out about downtown gentrification.

Once, downtown Athens was a place for everyone—including minorities and low-income residents who didn’t have the option of getting in their cars and following the department stores out to the mall. But lately, downtown’s been undergoing what Pratt Cassity, director of public service and outreach for the UGA College of Environment and Design, calls a “demographic tsunami” fueled by affluent students that threatens to engulf it.

“Are we offering the downtown user a canned experience?” Cassity wondered during a Sept. 15 talk on campus entitled “Where Have All the Wig Shops Gone? White Privilege and Downtown Development,” sponsored by the Student Historic Preservation Association. (Wig shops, Cassity asserted, are a good rough measure of whether a downtown has been successfully revitalized. Downtown Athens’ wig shop left three years ago.)

It’s a question plenty of Athenians have been asking for years. Urban Outfitters. The specter of a downtown Walmart. Longtime locally businesses close their doors and are replaced by chains. Last week, owner Irvin Alhadeff announced Masada Leather would close after 40 years. In its place comes High Country Outfitters, an Atlanta chain. More chains fill up the ground floors of new high-rent developments.

The authenticity issue is tied in with gentrification and race. “Within a mile radius of City Hall is an extremely high percentage of Athens’ working poor,” Cassity said. They’re the people who benefit the most from being within walking distance of jobs, stores and services. What is there downtown for them? Cassity juxtaposed the recent postponement of a vote on an anti-discrimination ordinance proposed in the wake of dozens of reports of African Americans denied entry to downtown bars with the news that Athens scored just 19 out of 100 in the Human Rights Campaign’s recent municipal rankings.

It’s been going on for decades, really. The Hot Corner, the old Jim Crow-era African-American retail district centered at the intersection of Washington and Hull streets, is now mainly hipster bars, with just a couple of black-owned businesses remaining. Wealthier whites are pushing out the less-wealthy whites who pushed out the African Americans. Circle of life.

What is new are all of the luxury apartment towers that have popped up downtown, bringing an influx of students and money that’s changing the face of downtown once again. “Is it good or bad?” Cassity said. “Time will tell, but I guarantee you we did not predict this in 1991… It’s a topic of constant communication and discussion. Everyone is confused.” Is Athens in danger of becoming San Marcos, TX, where Texas State University became, as Next City called it, the college that ate a city? Perhaps, if it continues to homogenize.