Members of Avondale Estates’ art scene weigh the pros and cons of the city’s growthAvondale Arts Alliance President Isadora Pennington hosted a "sneak peek" of Avondale Arts Center on Jan. 11. Photo provided to Decaturish.
By Nina Thomas, contributor
Avondale Estates, GA — Avondale Estates, known for its Tudor-style architecture and being the home of the first Waffle House, is also home to a vibrant and welcoming art community.
Taking a turn on Pine Street from Avondale Road, where My Parents’ Basement and Banjo Coffee can be seen, will bring you to an area called the Rail Arts District. This walkable area includes the 40-artist home of Little Tree Art Studios, the guitar-lined wall of Mr. John’s music school at Olive + Pine, and Fiber Parts textile arts workshop.
Even on a cold January weekend, the farmer’s market is bustling in the Town Green and artisans sell crafts and handmade items out of a retro camper in front of Banjo Coffee.
But a new wave of commercial development in the city will likely drive up the price of land and rent. Some in the city’s art community worry they’ll be priced out of the community they’ve been beautifying for years. Others in the art community welcome the opportunities development can bring. City officials say they support the arts, but don’t have any control over the economy.
Construction fences surrounding the arts district haven’t blocked the positive energy flowing into the thriving arts district. More than a dozen volunteers showed up ready to put on gloves and clean up the Avondale Arts Center on Jan. 21, knowing full well it is slated to be torn down in January 2025.
The President of Avondale Arts Alliance, Isadora Pennington, is overseeing the transformation of a building owned by Avondale Estates Downtown Development Authority (DDA) into the Avondale Arts Center. The agreement is that the Alliance can use this building as a community arts hub until the building’s demolition. In its place will be a new hotel right next to a new retail space.
A spokesperson for the city told Decaturish that art is “an integral part of the city’s identity.”
“We are delighted to partner with the Avondale Arts Alliance to create a space that highlights local artists, fosters a sense of community, and attracts people to our downtown business district,” Development Authority Chair Dave Deiters said.
According to the city’s website, city officials have made plans for “high-quality development to enhance the quality of life” for residents. The city says the new development will diversify the city’s tax base and make Avondale a “primary destination in Atlanta.”
Marghe Means, owner of LIttle Tree Art Studios since 1998, sees the development positively. She thinks it will be an organic evolution and collaboration with the arts community.
“I don’t see the arts going anywhere,” Means said. “We want this part of Avondale to be a destination and place for the arts. I see this as a synergistic collaboration between the artists and the developers. There are already so many creative businesses in the Rail Arts District, from music to visual arts.”
Pennington said there is a familiar way that an art community flourishes within a city. It starts with the artists themselves. Those committed to their passions are finding inexpensive places to live so they can afford to focus on their art without worrying about paying exorbitant living expenses.
Pennington moved to Atlanta in 2007. She only paid $550 for rent.
“I found that I could focus on my art because Atlanta was an affordable place to live,” Pennington said.
She moved to Avondale Estates in 2020 and fell in love with the art scene. After the Pandemic, she noticed a new era of art emerging. A Queer Art Show in Banjo Lounge in early 2023, hosted by the Alliance, had over 90 attendees in the small space.
Other artists also noticed the support for the city’s art scene.
“I’ve been to art shows at the MET Atlanta that didn’t have close to that many people. People didn’t show up there, but people showed up in Avondale,” said Lowkey, one of the featured freelance artists in the 2023 art show, and a volunteer at the community clean-up day on Jan. 21 at the Avondale Arts Center.
Pennington believes as artists move to affordable places, it frees them to spend their time beautifying their communities and making them brighter for everyone living there. Then, developers looking for opportunities see the value of this beautification, start buying real estate and prices go up.
“As rates go up, it moves out those artists who beatified the community in the first place,” Pennington said.
Ellen Powell, the city’s spokesperson, said the city understands the concern and wants to support the arts community.
“Development is happening on private property and the market rates are controlled by those property owners, not the city,” Powell said. “The city and the downtown development authority are doing what they can to promote the artists and encourage their success.”
Lowkey moved to Atlanta six years ago and has lived in many areas of Atlanta including East Point and Sandy Springs. They had no idea about Avondale’s Art Scene until they moved to the area and started getting involved.
“I moved to this area in search of affordable housing so that I could have an art studio in my home,” they said. “I was pushed out of my studio before, and it’s so hard having to choose between affording housing and my art.”
Lowkey said most art studio space is underground, and you have to “know someone who knows someone” in order to find an available and affordable space. Large corporations find these spaces, purchase the property, and then hike up the prices.
“I was dumped out of my studio space before by a large company who wanted the real estate,” they said. “That’s why I believe the Avondale Arts Center will be good. They’re making it free for artists. I was looking for a place in Atlanta that was conducive for creating art and had a community of other artists. Avondale is that for me.”
Interest from other artists is creating economic pressure within the scene.
Means said that Little Tree Art Studios has 100 percent capacity with a waiting list. They know the demand is there for affordable spaces.
“It’s true that we’ve seen prices go up in other parts of greater Atlanta, but we are committed to remaining affordable,” she said. “We know our competition, but we also know our value.”
Pennington is hoping that the city will see the use, demand, and need for spaces like the Avondale Arts Center and look for a place for them once the demolition is scheduled. In addition to opening the center, the Arts Alliance is taking a page out of Decatur’s book by working on unique ways to incorporate art in public places.
“There is a lack of exhibition space and public art that we are working on. We’ll be painting utility boxes and bike racks to pull together the entire district,” Pennington said.
The city says artists will enjoy some benefits from Avondale Estates’ growth.
Powell, the city’s spokesperson, said that the long-term vision for the city includes “a walkable, vibrant downtown that should bring visibility to the arts community and encourage people to slow down to frequent the businesses and studios within Avondale Estates rather than driving through it.”
She also said that the city’s zoning ordinances are “designed to encourage redevelopment of existing buildings which can provide spaces for creative entrepreneurs.”
Pennington hopes that what happens. She hopes Avondale’s thriving arts scene will influence the direction of other communities as well.
“I would love to see the arts continue to flourish and spread to the outskirting communities of Atlanta,” Pennington said.
Pennington believes the Avondale Arts Center is a forward step to making the arts community more solidified in Avondale Estates, and sees it as a way to pull all the artists together. She sees something big happening in Avondale and thinks it bodes well for the future.
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