Then and now: The Hot Corner and African American culture in Athens

By Ansley Walker

Seven-year-old Barbara Thompson would dress in her Sunday best and walk to Hill First Baptist Church for 11:00 a.m. service. At the sermon’s close, she sprinted out of the church doors, raced her three brothers past the magnolia trees outside of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and continued up Washington Street. A block ahead she could see her best friend, Sandy, sitting outside of Morton Theatre. Sundays at the Hot Corner were the backdrop to some of her favorite summer memories. Now 57, Thompson rarely visits the area she once loved, as it’s become unrecognizable.

A place that at one time defined itself with gospel music and family businesses has been replaced by a popular spot for predominantly white students and residents. The patrons aren’t the only change to the area, as minority shop owners are also absent from downtown commerce. The decline of black business owners, and a result consumers, at the Hot Corner asks a louder question: What happened to African American culture in Athens?

Known today for its trendy restaurants and bars, the intersection at Hull and Washington Streets existed as the center for African American culture throughout the twentieth century.

“The Hot Corner was home for so many of us,” Thompson says. “Growing up in this town and watching it change in a bad way, it hits you hard.”

Thompson is not alone in her concern for the changing face of African American culture in Athens. Racial tensions rose last year when minority students spoke out about discrimination they faced at bars downtown.

A shot named the “N*****ita” at Confederate-themed bar General Beauregard’s ignited a national scandal. The controversy gave birth to a new conversation about the discriminatory culture downtown that many African Americans face.

While the African American community has been impacted by racism, many members look past the negatives, and try to celebrate their future.

Homer Wilson has watched the face of African American culture change for half a century. Owner of Wilson’s Styling Salon, flanked by the Manhattan and World Famous, has remained a staple for the African American community throughout its 55 years in business at the Hot Corner.

Wilson understands the frustration behind a change to the Hot Corner culture, and on a larger scale, African American life in Athens. However, he promotes a positive increase in diversity amongst store owners rather than focus on the current absence of minority business men and women.

“Diversity breeds only good things,” Wilson said. “While I’d like to see more black shop owners for my community’s sake, I think diversity in general will bring a stronger economy.”

To understand the ways in which African American culture has changed downtown, look back to the history of black business owners in the early twentieth century. Everything started with the Morton Building.

From the opening of Morton Building in 1910, African American business owners completely controlled the Hot Corner, says Lynn Green, managing director of Morton Theatre. The center of black commerce included the office of Ida May Hiram, the first African American woman to become a dentist in Georgia. The building also housed black doctors, dentists and pharmacists.

The Morton Theatre, owned and operated by African American, Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton, hosted infamous stars such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. At the time, it was the major entertainment facility in Athens for the black community.

“The morton has always had a special place in the African American community in Athens,” Green said. “The renovation of the building throughout the 80s and 90s represents past Hot Corner patrons and owners receiving their due.”

Green started work when the facility was in its 87th year. While she missed the theatre and Hot Corner in their prime, Green has been able to identify changes to black business within the past 20 years.

Gentrification is the easy answer concerning the loss of minority business owners, says Green. In the 70s, ownership shifted, and a result rent prices soared. White business owners moved into the upper floor offices in the Morton Building, displacing black business owners to other areas.

For some the move was relatively harmless, like Brown’s Barber Shop that moved out of the Morton to the corner spot across the street. For others, it meant closing down their family’s livelihood.

Today, Athenians are still experiencing displacement due to commercial and residential prices. Thompson grew up on Reese Street, but had to move to a smaller house on Chase Street when the Historic Cobbham district became a popular living area for students.

“It’s like I can’t retrace the steps of my childhood,” Thompson said. “While many parts of my black community remain, important things to myself and my family have been taken away from us.”

With the number of African American store owners and patrons on what seems like a perpetual decline, many residents wonder what can be done to preserve and promote black culture in Athens.

“We honor it [black history] everyday,” Green said.

She observes her heritage every time she steps into her office. The Morton Theatre served as an anchor for the Hot Corner and it still does today, Green says.

The historic theatre hosts concerts, church services, weddings and other private events for the community just as it did in the past. The theatre makes sure to welcome all audiences to honor integration amongst Athenians.

“We proudly share our history as a cornerstone of the African American community,” Green said. “We work everyday to continue the legacy into future generations.”

While multiple community gatherings occur at the theatre every month, one event downtown is recognized for its devotion to honoring black history.

The Hot Corner Festival is a celebration along Washington Street meant to observe and admire the historical significance of African American culture in Athens.

Wilson heads a committee that plans and produces the event. Festivities include gospel and soul music performances, dancing, community praying and spoken word poetry. While enjoying the collective atmosphere, attendees can experience what Wilson calls, the most “authentic and righteous” soul food in the South.

“The festival is used to celebrate the past,” Wilson said. “But also look to the future. We hope that young people will come and hear the history of black business in Athens, and be inspired to start their own shops.”

From encouraging young entrepreneurs to teaching new residents the cherished history of the Hot Corner, the festival is always a “spiritual, good time.”

Last summer was the fifth festival Barbara Thompson has attended. While she remains a self-proclaimed pessimistic about the future of black lives in Athens, Thompson views the festival as a successful event in informing people about the Hot Corner.

“It’s the one day a year my children can understand what my life was like at their age,” Thompson said. “It’s a special day.”

The 16th annual Hot Corner Festival will take place on June 10-11 this coming summer. Expect Wilson to be manning the main stage, Green to be listening to her favorite poets and Thompson to be reliving the days she hopes to see again.

 

Facade Grant Program highlights historic restoration downtown

By Ansley Walker

Within the past few years, the face of downtown Athens has morphed from a small retail based community to a bustling town with large chain businesses. All the change has Athenians concerned and confused about the disappearing face of the Classic City. Down the street at College Square big changes are happening, but not changes that people ought to fear. In fact, they may not even notice the difference.

The historic buildings downtown act as the backbone to the town’s unique and charming character. With the popularity of local boutiques and restaurants, the structures that hold these shops are often overlooked, and as a result, their appearances have
deteriorated. Weathered and worn throughout the years, the 100-year-old
buildings need help and the owners have been presented with an opportunity to
restore their buildings to the original condition.

In the past year, a shift towards restoring the appearance of old buildings downtown began with a new program launched by the Athens Downtown Development Authority. The program allows that $10,000 be awarded to business owners within the Downtown Athens Historic District, who propose renovation or repairs to bring the exterior of their building back to its historically appropriate condition. The Facade Grant Program was created with the hope that by providing a financial incentive, building owners downtown would invest in restoration to improve the appearance of their storefronts, said program manager Christi Christian.

“We are very interested in maintaining the historical character and appearance of our downtown buildings,” Christian said. “They play a huge part in that Athens charm that draws visitors to our beautiful city every day.”

While a recently new program, Christian spent months researching historic preservation programs throughout the state and thought about what best suited Athens’ needs. To the receive the grant, the proposed projects need approval from the Historic Preservation Commission. As well as a “certificate of appropriateness” from the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department. From there, the Facade Grant Committee, which Christian serves on, considers the projects within the scope of the ADDA’s annual$15,000 budget for the program.

Recipients of the grant are awarded half of the total project cost, or up to $10,000. While owners may have additional plans for the building’s interior, the grant money is to be allocated for external renovation and repairs with the exclusion of signs and awnings. The grant money is awarded based on project completion, through a reimbursement plan.

So far, three businesses have taken advantage of the grant. The first building to receive funding through the program is located at 220 E. College Ave. across the street from its owner’s namesake, Heery’s.

Rusty Heery’s project to restore the upstairs facade above Subway spurs from fire damage dating back to the 1980s. The right side of the building was badly burned, and while it was rebuilt, no architectural details were put back.

“Taking on this project became much bigger than we ever anticipated,” Heery said. “You can’t find people to do the work that was around in 140 or 150 years ago.”

The main problem with historic buildings is that the materials needed to restore the property are simply obsolete in modern construction. The amount of custom tin work and small decorative details needed to restore the building perfectly drove the price to around $100,000, or in Heery’s words “cost prohibitive.” A year later and Heery says the project is almost done.

“Very few people will ever even notice that the work was done, but I’ll notice,” Heery said. “Other college towns can be so sterile, and even if they have 50-year-old structures, they don’t have the character like buildings in downtown Athens.”

Coincidentally, another building undergoing restoration through the program is located catty-corner to the Heery’s project. The Wuxtry building, famed for a record store that brought together lead members of the band R.E.M., exists in poor condition today.

Native America Gallery is one of four stores that resides within the building and owner Tim Stamey proposed the restoration to the building. While not the property owner himself, Stamey recognizes that maintenance to the external structure is necessary. Restoration will not only positive for its appearance, but preservation work also promotes responsible energy use and can prevent water damage.

Stamey was met with what he calls “creative conflict” when the Historic Preservation Commission rejected his proposal to use the industry standard vinyl-clad windows in place of large wooden windows. The commission said that use of the new windows would go
against what is considered “historically appropriate.” Stamey countered that vinyl windows were used in renovation to the buildings two decades ago before the area was a local historic district.

Historically appropriate windows almost always means wood-framed windows which are more expensive, harder to find and harder to maintain than common, modern vinyl-framed windows, says Christian. With restoration work today, trying to perfectly match windows or other details with their original materials can be illogical and dangerous.

A few months later, and the windows are being manufactured now and paint colors are being chosen for the facade. Stamey said the opposition was a good thing and that it made him double check that he was making the right choices concerning the building.

“Historic preservation is not a cookie cutter thing or always black and white,” Stamey said. “You have to work with the property. It’s a case by case issue. Always do what is best for the building.”

At the end of the day Stamey says preserving the uniqueness in every building is the main objective. The ideal restoration brings the building back as close to its original condition as possible, while making it easy to maintain moving forward.

Christian says the ADDA is “thrilled” to have projects going on in such a visible, high-traffic spot on College Square, with the hope that students and passerby’s who usually don’t think to the history and importance behind downtown architecture will give the structures another look.

 

The oldest thing in a changing town

By Ansley Walker

Anne Shepherd, owner of Chick Music, shares her story of family, a love for historic downtown and how despite big changes to Athens retail, she kept a piano store alive for over 50 years.

A reporter walks into Chick Music on Clayton Street and asks to speak to the owner. A salesman points to the back where a matronly woman with brown hair types at a desk. The reporter approaches and asks if she can speak with Anne. To her surprise, the woman looks to her right and says, “Someone’s here to see you.” A pair of bright eyes rimmed by large, circular glasses peek out from the corner desk, and down the stairs descends an assumed grandmother.

“Excuse me ma’am, are you Anne Shepherd?” the reporter asks.

“I call myself the ‘oldest thing in downtown Athens,’ but I’m also known by that name,” she replies.

For 51 years, Anne Shepherd watched through the windows of her company, Chick Music, as downtown Athens transformed. She recalls the period when “everything” was downtown. Car dealerships, grocery stores and funeral homes all congregated in downtown Athens and coexisted with the family retail shops. As a small business owner, Shepherd experienced firsthand the transfer of retail power from the local owners to the large chain businesses that occupy downtown today. She once served as a block captain for what used to be a family of small retailers, but today can name the store owners she knows on one hand.  

Lewis Chick opened Chick Piano in 1942. As a lover of music, Shepherd’s late husband, Billy, started work at the company straight out of high school in 1947, says Shepherd, so buying the business in 1965 felt natural.

In a place where retail shops come and go, Chick Music defied the odds and the store became an iconic Athens landmark. Shepherd has committed more than half her life to the business and attributes the company’s success to a strong work ethic. At 86-years-old, she never misses a day of work.

“The good Lord said to work six days and rest on the seventh,” Shepherd says when asked why she hasn’t retired. “I do that.”

Despite the company’s overall success story, Shepherd and her business have experienced their share of obstacles. Some years ago, the city pursued streetscape construction and started with Clayton Street. The predicted time to finish the project was about three months, which stretched to almost two years, says Shepherd.

With their front door blocked and the street without parking, Shepherd feared her business would fall under. On the contrary, business surged as people would park on Washington Street and walk down to the backdoor.

“We’ve had a lot of good faithful customers that carried us through,” Shepherd said. “They want us to succeed.”

The relationship between Chick Music and its customers goes past the standard of good customer service. The family run business notoriously treats their patrons as such; family. Three generations of Shepherds operate the store as it is today. Shepherd’s four children grew up in the shop and stayed in Athens to work at the family business.

When asked about the single greatest hardship as owner of Chick Music, Shepherd ran her fingers down the pearls hanging from her neck and sighed. Husband, father and co-owner, Billy, died in 1988, and Shepherd wasn’t sure how to move forward. She had promised her husband that she wouldn’t sell the company, but many times felt the stress of making that promise. Shepherd credits her ability to overcome this time with the help of her customers, and more so, her family.

 

After the loss of their father, the Shepherd children took on more responsibility to help their mother run the business. While she manages to delegate the workload, they all know she’s still in charge.

“There’s not much difference between her at home than in the store,” says son and store manager Van Shepherd. “She’s got a mother complex over the whole business.”

From across the store his mother chimes in, “Don’t say I’m a control freak.” Van and the other workers laugh.

“She’s got them teacher ears,” piano department manager Ben Robinson said. “She can hear you from a mile away.”

“It’s like cheers without the alcohol,” said guitar instructor Kevin Flemming about the store dynamic.

Looking ahead, the former president of the Athens Downtown Council says she’d like to see a rebirth of the historic classic city. She recounts walking down Clayton Street; flanked on either side by an abundance of local retailers.

“It’s disheartening to see so many restaurants and so little retail when you know what it used to look like,” Shepherd said.

No matter the future appearance of downtown, Anne Shepherd will always be an irrevocable piece of Athens’ character.

A Walk Through Historic Downtown

Downtown Athens is a place of constant change. With new restaurants and boutiques at every corner, Athens can seem unrecognizable compared to its former self.

Anchoring the town to its past are the historic buildings downtown. The amalgamation of buildings dating back to the early nineteenth century give Athens much of its personality and unique appearance.

Many of the buildings are showing their wear after a hundred or so years. With a new program in place by the Athens Downtown Development Authority, the historic buildings owners are able to receive up to $10,000 to put towards renovating the facade.

To learn more about the historic buildings of downtown Athens, I took a walk with former University of Georgia Campus Architect, Danny Sniff. Sniff, who has a masters in historic preservation, spoke about specific building’s histories, popular architectural designs in Athens and how new facade projects were being handled.

The order of images in this gallery mimic the route Sniff and I walked. The captions provide context to our location, but more importantly the remarks made by Sniff about the building. Click on the first image to read the caption, and continue through the gallery by clicking the right arrow.

To learn more about downtown Athen’s historic buildings, check out the following links.

http://achfonline.org

http://www.visitathensga.com/about-athens/heritage/athens-historic-districts/

http://achfonline.org/facade-grants/

 

 

 

Map: Facade Grant Program in historic downtown Athens

In 2015, the Athens Downtown Development Authority initiated a grant to incentivize historic restoration. The Facade Grant Program can award up to $10,000 or half the cost of the proposed project. The ADDA is “thrilled” that the three businesses that have chosen to take advantage of the program are all located near or at the popular intersection of Clayton Street and College Avenue. All three projects differ in their restoration needs, but have the same goal in mind: bringing the building back to its original state.

This map portrays the three building locations. Zoom in to see the Downtown Athens Historic District. To learn more about the buildings and the restoration project, click on the point.