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Atlanta breaks up the party

It's last call for a famous nightlife district. But before upscale shops take over the area, revelers are living it up.

July 05, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Red snapper shots were lined up at the bar at Tongue and Groove the other night when D.J. Jamal tossed a thumping reggae track onto the decks. A woman in a green sundress began to grind against a man in a crisp shirt with such force he sent a stream of tequila into the air.

The party was just getting started. But for Scott Strumlauf, 40, the nightclub's owner, it felt more like last call. He stood at the edge of the dance floor, struggling to comprehend that this was, finally, the end of an era: This week his 13-year-old club will close its doors.

By the end of the month, bulldozers will raze Atlanta's most famous -- and infamous -- party district.

For more than two decades, young Southerners have celebrated singledom, marriage and divorce in Buckhead Village, a four-block enclave in northeast Atlanta.

Now the squat, luridly painted buildings that hosted a whole generation of bar hoppers and clubbers -- rich and poor, white and black -- will make way for Buckhead Avenues, an 800,000-square-foot mixed-use development of high-end stores, boutique hotels and soaring condos.

"The party is over," said former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, head of the Buckhead Coalition, a group representing local businesses. After a string of high-profile slayings and other violence, the group persuaded Atlanta officials to prohibit clubs throughout the city from serving alcohol after 2:30 a.m.

For now, Buckhead Village is a garish ghost town. As the bars close and the drinking comes to a stop, the district seems only more and more hung over. The yellow awnings at Cafe Tu Tu Tango are ripped, and the windows at the Lodge sports grill are smashed. The parking lot at CJ's Landing is empty except for a pile of toilets and bar stools.

Many Atlanta developers, business owners and residents look forward to the village's makeover, but feelings are more complex among those who frequent the remaining pubs and clubs.

Some, like Bethany Perez, a 27-year-old who partied here for years after college, made special trips to the village last week to say farewell.

"It was just like a block party every night," Perez said as she left Steamhouse Lounge, a seafood restaurant, and took in the empty streetscape. "What's happening is horribly sad."

A substantial number of people who drink and party in the village, however, are happy that the area will be redeveloped.

"It's a pretty nasty neighborhood, given the property values," said Rachel Cantrell, 27, who was on her way to Fado Irish Pub. "It doesn't make sense to have one-story buildings here. Mixed-use, high-end shopping: That's the way to go."

Many reject the idea that race played a role in the neighborhood's demise, as suggested for years by longtime observers.

"It was more about getting the riffraff out," said David Kreidler, general manager of Tongue and Groove. The nightclub had sought a more upscale clientele, introducing VIP banquettes in its last renovation. The owners plan to relocate in Buckhead.

The struggle over Buckhead's identity is in many ways a microcosm of the underlying tensions in Atlanta between rich and poor, young and old, white and black.

The young, racially mixed crowd that flocked to the village at night did not mesh with residents of Buckhead, one of Atlanta's wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods, a lush and sedate suburban area that boasts some of the Southeast's most luxurious homes and malls.

"It's a tale of two cities," said Frank Ski, morning host of V103-FM, an R&B and hip hop station. "The people of Buckhead don't want just anyone from Atlanta coming into Buckhead to party."

When Atlanta annexed Buckhead in 1952, the village was a traditional neighborhood business district with a hardware store, drugstore, beauty shop and laundromat. Following a downturn in the 1980s, the City Council loosened parking regulations for cocktail lounges, restaurants and bars.

By the time Atlanta put on the 1996 Olympics, the village was a major scene, with more than 50 establishments selling liquor. Before long, residents began to complain about noise, traffic and crime, which in turn drew accusations of racism.

The conflict reached a boiling point in 2000 when Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who is black, was arrested in connection with a double homicide at a post-Super Bowl party at Cobalt nightclub. Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. Later that year, a white male police officer was accused of striking a black woman, fracturing her eye socket during a scuffle. As policing stepped up, allegations of racial profiling abounded.

But race is no longer such a focal point. Criticism of the redevelopment centers on how Atlanta -- with a burgeoning young population and a tourist industry that depends on young professionals -- will cope without a centralized nightclub district. Some wonder whether the party district's demise will hamper the city's ability to attract young people.

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