Note that this will be Part one of a two part series on the role that crime played in the demise of Stewart Avenue and the resulting negative reputation that persists until today.
In October of 2017, plans were announced to create a Zone 3 Atlanta Police Precinct on a square of land close to the former location of The Fire Place Lounge (an attempt at creating a “classy joint” on Stewart Avenue). The proximal area contains at least one new gas station which presages a nascent form of progress to which the Precinct would add a sense of safety. For those who remember the area in the 70s I think the new precinct would be across the street from what was once Thoni’s (pronounced “Thone-Eyes”) gas station – a dirt cheap but poorly maintained fueling establishment. The last time the city paid significant attention to this area resulted in the name change to “Metropolitan Parkway” which was a ham-handed attempt to “push the reset button” on south side history. The motivating event (and nadir of what was already a bottoming out period) was a bachelor party turned double murder that took place at the once wholesome Alamo Plaza. Some guys didn’t like it that the prostitute they had hired turned out to be a transvestite so payment became an issue and the pimp fired off some fatal shots. Overreaction all around. After that, no one wanted to know anything about Stewart Avenue. Anyway I think the precinct relocation project makes logistic sense as it would provide convenient and rapid access to many areas within Zone 3 while making future expansion much easier than it would be were the Precinct office to remain at its present location on Cherokee Avenue.
Zone 3 has its own Urban Dictionary entry which I suppose is a form of recognition “reppin’ the O-3 all day long, bitches!” although the entry has questions as to whether East Point and College Park are part of any Zone when they, as cities, maintain their respective police forces. Speaking of East Point. When I was a kid it was one of those cities with oppressive law enforcement that preyed on residents as a source of income. Speed trapping “outsiders” is one thing but leaning heavily into your own community is another level altogether. In my experience they preyed mostly on younger drivers and generally anyone who seemed incapable of hiring a decent defense attorney. Things that Atlanta City police would generally NOT pursue (driving with no shirt, loud muffler, cracked windshield, busted license plate bulb), would be pounced upon by East Point’s finest and if there just happened to be some underage drinkers in the car or a pack of rolling papers then all the better. A friend of mine was pulled over for “singing while driving” ! The cop’s analysis was, “Acting the fool like you did coulda caused a wreck. That rock music is too loud anyways”. Ah yes officer, so was it perhaps that “hippie music” that attracted your attention with the hopes of finding a “lid of grass” or two upon which to base your application for sergeant ?
For those who forgot or just weren’t around then, the State of Georgia used to have an annual car inspection requirement that could easily be met by slipping some extra cash to the “inspector” (usually a bored-out-his-mind gas station attendant) who would, for enough money, deem a go-kart as being fit for the road. I once assiduously studied the inspection requirements and walked through the parking lot at Stewart Lakewood shopping Center with the checklist in hand. It didn’t take long to realize that few automobiles could legitimately pass the evaluation or remain in good enough condition over time to comply for more than a few months. So almost anyone could be “legally” stopped. Cops could say, “I stopped you because you car is unsafe to operate – I could impound your vehicle right now”. So then, the reason for the stop could be to create the reasonable suspicion required to make the stop in the first place ! (If you just experienced a “what the fuck” moment then congratulations). While the inspection law might not have been conceived specifically to bypass the 4th amendment rights of citizens it most certainly was exploited by various municipal law enforcement groups (almost always smaller cities) to do exactly that. Once the state abandoned the annual inspection approach and moved to the emissions model then things improved considerably but it took some time.
Fairness requires me to say that the Atlanta City Police didn’t really engage in this behavior nearly as much as did East Point, College Park, and the Ga Highway Patrol. Probably because Atlanta Police had its own internal problems and they could always find plenty of felonies to address thus eliminating the need to build a budding (no pun intended) career on hassling long hairs and returning Vietnam veterans. As an example of this different attitude, I was, at the time, driving a junked out, barely-held-together-with-bondo Pontiac Le Mans that was so visually offensive that an Atlanta City Cop pulled up next to me just to say, “I could write you a bunch of tickets but your car is a form of entertainment to me – it makes me laugh whenever I see it”. And then he sped off. I didn’t know whether to be insulted or thankful. Bondo was used to fix holes and dings in the body of a car. The idea was to fill, sand down, and paint but for those of us with real clunkers there could actually be more bondo filler on and in the car body than actual metal. And if you didn’t care to paint the car (or have the money to do so) then it looked all patchwork-like (see picture) especially so if there was an abundance of rust which could produce a kind of car leprosy effect. I had so much rust on the car that I made sure to get an updated tetanus shot.
Back in the 70s the police didn’t do much in terms of patrolling on Stewart Avenue at least in my experience. Once the frequency of low-level street crime reaches a certain level in any area the cops start to ignore it because they realistically cannot address it in any meaningful way. Plus, they get the idea that the community isn’t really doing much to help itself so why bother ? The city then decides to redirect police resources to other locales where complaints are being made by well-heeled citizens whose voice might more easily be heard in the Mayor’s Office. It’s a true sign of transition when cops start blaming you for being a victim of petty crime. “So why were you walking around late a night anyway ? What did you expect ?”. There is some tragedy here in that domestic violence winds up being all too common in these environments and if someone doesn’t have much money then it becomes very difficult to “stay somewhere else” even for a night or two while things cool off at home. I would see women from time to time with bruises and black eyes stroll into the store avoiding eye contact. It was clear something wasn’t working at home but what recourse did they have ? Many of them didn’t work or if they did there wasn’t enough money to leave. This is why some of the waitresses up at the Huddle House would spontaneously leave town with a truck driver. While such a move could look completely irresponsible it could have been the very thing that kept them out of the hospital (or worse).
Whew. I got off track there. So back to East Point…. I had the misfortune of rear-ending a friend of mine. His car I mean. So I got a court date in front of the infamous “Judge Duffy”, a well-known hater of long hairs and, in my view, probably anyone who had NOT participated in one of the World Wars. (I guess The Korean War too). As we sat awaiting the case, an unhappy defendant put on an exhibition of flagrant courtroom defiance:
“Don’t make no difference what you gone do Judge. I ain’t gone bow down to you. In fact YOU da one that gone bow down to ME”.
The courtroom erupted into laughter not because of what the guy had said, but because of to whom he had spoken. Duffy went apoplectic and his gavel oscillated faster than a piston in Richard Petty’s Plymouth at the Dixie 500. By the time order was restored, the lunatic had been dragged out by the bailiffs. I had also been laughing just because everyone else had but then Duffy calls my case and is staring straight at me. “Oh no – he saw me laugh”. He quickly asked if the damage had been addressed (it had) after which he slammed the gavel and shouted, “$35 or 10 days”. So I realize that he has to offer an alternative to the fine in case a person doesn’t have money. But 10 days ? I mean 3 days I could see. Maybe 5. But 10 ? It was then I noticed that the courtroom clock read straight 10 a.m. Hmmmm. Of course, I chose to pay the fine rather than become a guest of the East Point jail which, as I was told by an indigent defendant, “wasn’t really that bad”. “Besides”, he said, “I could use the rest. My old lady is driving me crazy”. I never thought of jail as a possible respite from marriage but perhaps his relationship had some quirks not commonly found in the typical union. So much for connubial bliss. It was also helpful to know that, “No one does the full-time anyway unless you make trouble. You would do at most 4 days out of 10“. Good info but I still had plans that did not involve eating jailhouse food.
There was some intersection of interests between East Point and Atlanta City Police relative to an area in West End called Dimmock Street which was a “stop and cop” – a place to purchase weed typically the absolute worst quality available (so I was told). It was so well-known to police that they would mess with the dealers in the winter by rolling up hard and extinguishing the flames from the burning barrels the weed merchants had going just to keep warm. The dealers would scamper like roaches as the cops blew in and laughed triumphantly as they doused the fire. Sure, they would make arrests now and then but it was just as likely to be customers as dealers. A lot of the customer traffic came from College Park and East Point so the respective police departments of those cities would be on the lookout for cars with loads of “young punks” to roust on the suspicion that they were “holding” something especially if they were coming down Lee Street (which turns into Main Street) from West End. See, going through West End towards downtown was a favored route to rock concerts at The Omni. And while not everyone was interested in Dimmock Street (or what could be bought there) the cops didn’t care and assumed that any group of young people coming from that direction after a certain hour at night just had to be up to no good. Going back to the inspection thing – a noisy or smokey tailpipe would be all that was necessary to pull someone over.
I’m going to end Part 1 here as I’ll need to transition to the more serious types of crime and how it impacted the area. I don’t want to cram too much into one post so I’ll post Part 2 soon.