Count me among those who consider the redevelopment of the two-block Buckhead bar district a colossal mistake.
Maybe that’s because when my wife Lori and I were dating, we frequented the likes of the Buckhead Saloon, LuLu’s Bait Shack and the East Village Grille, among others.
Or maybe it is because late one night, at Ray’s New York Pizza, the manager saw us holding hands and staring deeply into one another’s eyes. He declared in his thick Italian accent that everyone who stands in that specific spot gets married someday.
I gave him the raised eyebrow. He promised it was true.
Ray’s became our late-night spot. The same manager always stopped us and jokingly asked if we were married yet.
Back then it was said there were more than 100 bars in the area bordered by Peachtree, East Paces Ferry and Pharr roads and North Fulton Drive. Ray’s was on Peachtree near the intersection with Pharr.
That part of the Buckhead Village, the east village, was just a bunch of places to drink and eat all in the same area. It was the one place in Atlanta you could go on a Thursday night and see several groups of friends and acquaintances, and peel off with whoever, whenever.
Quite by accident, it became a destination, a place to be.
And then it wasn’t.
Those bars and restaurants drew some ne’er-do-wells. It all came crashing down in 2000 with the murder of two men outside a Buckhead bar, with a famous athlete among the suspects. The attention was too much for old Buckhead. The murder was just the latest, but it was one of the highest-profile crimes in the country.
The bars closed — the land beneath them sold for an estimated $210 million and was redeveloped as the Streets of Buckhead, now Buckhead Atlanta.
There is a shimmer of hope in last week’s announcement that a new owner has purchased the retail part Buckhead Atlanta. The new company is Jamestown, the developer responsible for Atlanta’s Ponce City Market and the Westside Provisions District.
The problem with the original vision of a new Buckhead village is it wanted to be something it’s not. There were allusions to creating a Rodeo Drive vibe, the famous street Beverly Hills. But Buckhead has an identity all to its self, distinct and separate from anything anywhere. Why would someone try to make our community into something you can see and experience somewhere else?
The result speaks for itself. I like the walkability of the newish project, but I don’t have much of a reason to hang out there besides grabbing a bite to eat. Lord knows I am not in the market for a $1,000 belt.
The new owners could bring in some businesses that harken back to what Buckhead was once. I’m talking longer ago than the bar scene with which I am so familiar.
The center of life in Buckhead for a generation was the Wender & Roberts Pharmacy, complete with a soda shop. For my age, the main reason we went to Buckhead was to buy a sports coat at the Buckhead Men’s Shop or a replacement hammer at Buckhead Hardware. Let me add this was a $75 sports coat, not a $10,000 couture jacket.
Buckhead Atlanta would benefit from a gathering spot for the neighborhood teens or a reasonable men’s store and maybe a few bars with names like Aunt Charley’s, C.J.’s Landing and Grandstands, all old Buckhead haunts.
That brings me back to Ray’s. After Lori and I married, we happened to run into the old manager one day. We were beyond excited to tell him we got married.
To our chagrin, he laughed, admitting he used that line on nearly every couple every night. He said it was a different spot every night.
That sums up the old Buckhead bar scene. It was a lot of hucksterism, from the guys selling roses to gigantic fishbowls of food coloring and liquor, with a plastic alligator thrown in for good measure, and a lot of alcohol-fueled chaos.
I’m not advocating going back to that, but a bit of that would help scruff the place up, make it more Buckhead and less a Beverly Hills wannabe.
With a little imagination and a little understanding of what our community is at its heart, the east Buckhead Village can combine the old with the new, and give us all a true community gathering place.
From what I have seen, the new owner may be a step in the right direction.