The Local Perspective

Athens residents express their concern over the city's recent commercialization

M elissa Tufts, the director of the Owens Library and the Circle Gallery at the University of Georgia College of Environment and Design, has seen the small town, economic boom story happen before. A lifelong Georgian, Tufts grew up in Atlanta during the 1950s and 1960s, and saw first hand how a growing population, commercialization and urban development could affect a city, its people and its culture.

“Atlanta had an incredible street life,” Tufts remembers. “A lot of people out on the street, hanging out on 14th Street and on Peachtree. There was a lot going on and as little kids, we would ride our bikes down to Rich’s in downtown Atlanta.”

Yet, as she watched the houses on Peachtree Street being torn down, only to be replaced with high rises, Tufts noticed how the culture of the city changed with the new development.

“When Mr. Portman and his ilk came in and built these huge skyscrapers, it took people off the streets,” Tufts said of the Atlanta born, neo-futuristic architect and real estate developer. “And suddenly, it was a very scary place to be as a little kid on your bike.”

"It was a very scary place to be as a little kid on your bike."

- Melissa Tufts, CED Director, Owens Library/Circle Gallery

Tuft’s memory of Atlanta being transformed into a sprawling metropolis has left a lasting impact. A resident of Athens since 1979, Tufts firmly believes new, national stores such as Urban Outfitters, J. Crew and Zaxby's take away from the local entrepreneurial spirit and creativity currently offered in downtown.

“They lack the individualistic spirit and the creativity of our independently owned businesses,” Tufts said. “By their nature, they can't have the same character as, say, Wuxtry, Jackson Street Books or Community. The problem with chains and corporately owned businesses is that they have a model that they have to follow. They have to come and force their imprint on our community.”

Athens local Meera Naqvi feels the same way about the new national stores.

“It changes the character of downtown,” Naqvi said. “I think having Urban Outfitters and J.Crew downtown, it almost feels like they are sucking money out of Clarke County, rather than keeping it local.”

Indeed, the Classic City prides itself on being a hub for locally owned businessess, culinary talent and quirky shops. Athens is also home to a variety of historic landmarks and buildings, which has prompted the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation to recognise downtown Athens as a local historic district, preserving the area from extensive changes.

The resentment towards large, national retailers and businesses developing in downtown has sometimes resulted in strong, if not dramatic, actions, which Tufts and Naqvi remember vividly.

“At one point, in the 1990s, Gap came here and was very short lived as I recall,” Tufts said. “We sort of boycotted it, which wasn't very nice of us, but a lot of us felt it wasn't in the spirit of an independent Athens.”

“I remember when Starbucks came years ago and we had a local coffee shop, The Blue Sky,” Naqvi said. “Starbucks came in and then The Blue Sky closed. At that time, someone got angry enough that they went and threw a brick through the window at Starbucks.”

"At that time, someone got angry enough that they went and threw a brick through the window at Starbucks."

- Meera Naqvi, UGA Graduate Student

Indeed, a strong contingent of residents believe locally owned businesses are a part of what makes the Classic City special. When asked the question, “What is unique about downtown Athens?” for the downtown Athens Master Plan 2012 survey, 21% of the 630 responses cited locally owned businesses as an answer.

Yet, not every Athens resident is up in arms over the recent residential and commercial developments.

Edward Wilde, an Athens landlord and business owner, feels that those who oppose the developments need to take action to merit their complaints.

“If half the people who are complaining about these new developments would come downtown and shop, we wouldn't have to worry about maintaining the local shops or the local character of downtown,” Wilde said. “If you want downtown to maintain and have small businesses and locally owned shops, you have to come downtown and use them and not just, for example, order your books on Amazon.”

Naqvi feels the same way and shops at local retailers and boutiques as much as possible.

“Shop local as much as you can afford to because it helps pay for kids soccer lessons or vacations or it helps people put food on the table, people who you live next to, people who you go to school with, who you play with,” Naqvi said. “I think it's really important.”