“And I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus
Rollin’ down Highway 41” – Dickey Betts / Allman Brothers
Stewart Avenue was once considered part of The Dixie Highway project conceived around 1917 in an effort to develop roads to link the Midwest and Southern States. The suggestion was a bit odd as interstate travel at that time was customarily accomplished via the train system so building long roads, let alone paved ones, was not at the top of everyone’s agenda. According to the Georgia History site an entrepreneur named Carl Fisher acquired what we now know as Miami Beach in 1912 and was interested in facilitating automobile travel between Chicago and his new property. After all who wouldn’t want to spend vacations in the warm climate of southern Florida (never mind that it would take weeks to get there). Various states participated in the concept for various reasons though it still didn’t change the fact that auto travel across such large distances even on paved roads could take quite a while thus ersatz camping sites emerged to accommodate weary travelers. Checkout the aforementioned Georgia History site to see a picture of “Wilson’s Tourist Camp” which was located near Lakewood and Pryor Rd. (In the 1970s and 1980s this general area later became home to the salty “Joyce’s Tavern” a known hangout for the Outlaws Motorcycle Gang). Work continued on the Dixie Highway until 1927 after which the project was folded into the US Route System which sought to impose some national standards on the growing number of roads in the early to mid part of the 20th century. Ah how the bureaucracy grows.
In the book Prohibition in Atlanta: Temperance, Tiger Kings & White Lightning (page 133) we learn that The Avenue was a bootlegging route with farms and homes along the way sometimes providing a respite for runners of then illegal alcohol. One case involved the seizure of 10 gallons of alcohol and an alligator. The alligator I can definitely understand as any serious drinker (well anyone I would want to drink with) will always require entertainment along with the buzz. However, the 10 gallons seemed a bit lean and I’m guessing that the bootlegger had made a delivery or two prior to getting nabbed. Later in 1929 a woman transporting 150 quarts of booze, (divvied up for individual sale I suspect), led the Police on a chase starting in Hapeville proceeding up Stewart Avenue into Downtown Atlanta where she crashed her vehicle and escaped on foot. (Having grown up on Stewart Avenue I met many women of similar spirit and capability). All of this goes back to my fascination with labeling theory and it seems that once The Avenue experienced this kind of notoriety such events cemented it’s identity in the mind of the universe as a place forever and always to be associated with the baser desires in life. Even at it’s best it always a place to get “into something”. What struck me about the area was that I’ve never seen so many people so ready to fight over nothing. I suppose if you don’t have much financially or if education is not a priority then physical ability becomes the default marker for success. If there ever was a road custom made for the “Lower Chakras” then this was it.
“We cater to tourists and traveling salesmen. We don’t admit couples with local driver’s licenses” – Founder of the Alamo Plaza Hotel Chain
Since that time Stewart Avenue’s designations have included US 19 and State Route 3 although the most recognizable designation was/is as part of US 41 which ran between Upper Michigan and Miami, Florida. Those of a certain age will likely recall this highway being immortalized in the Allman Brothers hit, and enduring classic rock staple, “Ramblin’ Man”. Through the decades Interstate 75 replaced sections of US 41 in the sense that it offered parallel access with the added benefit of being an expressway. So after a point in time the appeal of using US 41 for any considerable distance rapidly diminished except perhaps for those with a romantic attachment to an older era or for those possessing a fear of fast traffic. I tried explaining to an old timer how one could shave hours off of a long trip by using I-75 but he wasn’t buying it. His philosophy was that, “Any man who needs to move that fast in life is running from something and can’t be trusted”. Prior to the wide spread adoption of I-75, families would happily cruise down US 41 on their way to Florida and take some time off at family friendly Motels such as The Alamo Plaza on Stewart Avenue which, according to Wikipedia, was part of the first ever US Motel Chain. I find great irony in founder Edgar Lee Torrance’s words: “We cater to tourists and traveling salesmen. We don’t admit couples with local driver’s licenses”. With all due respect to the goals and ideals of Mr. Torrance – The Alamo Plaza became well known for aiding and abetting LOTS of sex outside of marriage.
The second contributor to Stewart Avenue’s decline was the court-ordered busing that came down from the Supreme Court to desegregate schools. This was a national issue impacting the entire nation. Once it became clear that busing would in fact occur then parents started selling like mad. Each area had it’s own trigger. Someone identified a guy on Perkerson Rd as being the first in the area to offer his house for sale to a black family but it was already happening in many neighborhoods thus identifying a single homeowner seemed pointless to me. Block Busting had begun in earnest and I recall one day someone hammering on our front door and when I opened it there was this young woman who looked like Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension, (“Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon”), asking me if my family was interested in selling our home. Before I could speak she pointed down the street (to no house in particular) and said her agency was handling several pending transactions and that they were also “committed” to helping achieve desegregation in the nearby schools. So much for subtlety. The idea of course was for us to panic though she was wasting her time since my family couldn’t afford to move at that point so we were in it for the long haul. She was also wasting her time as by then any homeowner who had options had long since exercised them and split for the suburbs.
“Work the Womens [sic] not the Johns” – A Stewart Avenue Pimp
Some would say that a couple of other contributing events finalized the demise of the area including the Energy Crisis of 1973 which many (most ?) believed to have been nothing more than contrived marketing to justify price hikes. No matter the case the waits for gas were long and people whose work involved long commutes or transportation felt the pain. Also the end of the Vietnam War sent lots of veterans back to town and job prospects (for those even interested) weren’t particularly attractive so a pall set in that never really left the area. Established business like Caruso’s Italian restaurant pulled out though they later re-entered the area up the street near Langston. They packed it in for good as it became clear that those interested in finer dining had left the area. Porn shops opened up (more on those in a later post) and places like “Boobs N Booze” came into being. Street crime increased and the working girls had their own tales of woe. Guys weren’t paying after services were rendered. One of the more established prostitutes explained it to me – A guy under financial pressure seeks out comfort though his stress prevents him from “performing” effectively which leads to embarrassment, possible rage, and sometimes violence against the women – so the Pimp has to retaliate. But this can get weird because some of the Johns in the area had a capacity for violence that matched or exceeded that of the Pimp thus it became very dangerous all around and the Heat would come down. As one of the pimps explained it – the idea behind pimping is to “Work the womens [sic] not the Johns. Anything else cuts into the bottom line. Ya dig ?”
I’ll continue the narrative in a followup post and there are certainly more details to be discussed that outline the reasons for decline and it wasn’t all due to the reasons mentioned above though they were big factors. © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid