You can gauge the financial viability of an area by the number of non-essential businesses it offers. By non-essential, I’m referring to cafes, bakeries, curio shops, and ice cream parlors none of which address required needs in the way that pharmacies and grocery stores might. An abundance of non-essential businesses means there is plenty of money in the area for recreational activities that, in tighter economic times, might not be possible. While I mention an ice cream shop in the title, it is more as a reference to a bygone era of considerable prosperity in the Stewart Avenue corridor rather than as a nostalgic pointer to a favorite childhood experience. I wasn’t that big of an ice cream fan but I loved the social opportunities it provided. Dipper Dan was part of a chain and the one at Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center was located between the The Huddle House and The Barber Shop were most of the employees could have just as easily been moonlighting at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island such was their penchant for buzz cuts. There were a few guys who could actually style hair beyond the boot camp look though if the customer was young, they 1) didn’t give a damn what you wanted and 2) enjoyed mowing down fledgling long haired punks as a means to restore order to a society driven mad by hippies and their backers.
Conway’s Nose Hair
The owner, Smitty, was a nice guy and I had a crush on his daughter who, like me, went to Perkerson elementary. So, if I could, I would try to line up a cut with him but usually wound up with one of those surly “barbers” who smelled of last night’s booze and whose shaky hand work would inevitably result in a laceration or two. These guys never acknowledged their mistakes, let along apologized for them, choosing rather to silently break out the Styptic Pen to arrest the bleeding as if nothing had ever happened. To their credit, they were fast. Get in the chair, get buzzed, and get gone. One of my most vivid memories was a guy with Conway Twitty style hair sitting in the chair while getting a manicure. I had never seen a man getting his nails done although the bigger issue was that he had enough hair emanating from his nose to form the basis of a curly mustache. One of the barbers got around to trimming that away (I thought he would need hedge clippers) and I immediately filed that image under the category of “things to never let happen to myself if I can possibly help it“.
Meeting Girls At The Mall
Oh, but this was supposed to be about the Ice Cream shop. There were multiple area locations of Dipper Dan with one opening up at the brand new Greenbriar Mall whose introduction dealt a serious blow to Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center. Greenbriar was an air conditioned, in door Mall with a number of attractive stores and restaurants of significantly larger size and variety than anything else in the region. It also gave a comfortable backdrop for that “teen thing” to happen where you could meet up with your friends and maybe check out the girls from the other schools – if you couldn’t find any from your own. While it was generally frowned upon to seek inter-school companionship, lots of flirtation happened, which might lead to some dirty looks, or even a fight, coming from guys for stealing THIER women ! Kind of an odd accusation since if that were actually true then why were THIER women giving us phone numbers in the first place ? Of course, there is that type of girl who will flirt just to see if she has something that anyone might be interested in yet has no intention of moving beyond that. Part of your job is to try to figure it all out. (Good luck with that).
Ice Cream Kisses
Dipper Dan had this blend called “Rainbow” which was a swirly combo of different flavors. Sort of like Lucky Charms Cereal in ice cream form. It was very sweet but not as sweet as the Bubblegum flavor, infamous for inducing vomiting in the little kids who were attracted to the orange fright wig color. I’m pretty sure they had a mop dedicated exclusively for vomit collection and, of course, no one wanted to be on clean up duty. It was pretty much a job assigned to the new employees most of whom were teenagers. Another frequent problem was the kids who dropped their cones even before their parents had paid for them ! Anyway, Dipper Dan was a place to get a cone and if you could get a girl to share a milkshake with you then you knew you were onto something. Two straws, one shake, sitting across from one another – staring into each other’s eyes ? It was almost like a kiss. There was no actual contact being made (maybe your respective knees under the table) but no one could really complain since it was pretty wholesome and very Norman Rockwell.
Chili Three Ways
There were still plenty of non-mall, standalone malt and shake shops in the area such as Dairy Queen and Zestos. There were some drive in places like Steak and Shake which offered something called “Chili Three Ways” sometimes known as “Three Way Chili”. One night my Mother and Father took me there and for some reason I made the observation that “Chili Three Ways” sounded like an illicit sexual act or something that one might see in a Times Square Peep show (like I would have known). My Mother didn’t react well to this, thinking maybe that I was an emerging pervert with a food fetish. Truth be told, I don’t know what made me say that except maybe I had been listening to George Carlin’s “Class Clown” record which provoked some subversive thinking. My Father reacted by spraying coke out of his nose as my Mother hit him for laughing. It took a while, but he stopped to say, “Son, That’s not a thing to say, especially in mixed company”. I acted contrite but on the ride home he kept making eye contact with me in the rear view mirror almost breaking out in laughter again. He couldn’t come out and say “good one” (until we were alone).
I don’t recall exactly when Dipper Dan closed but once the White Flight took hold and families bolted from the area, lots of those “non-essential” businesses shut down. Even the various hair places and dry cleaners closed because there wasn’t enough discretionary income floating around the area for those businesses to pay rent. The only sure things were the car lots, liquor stores (people drink in good or bad economies) and grocery stores. Sure, there were the NoTell Motels, some pizza joints and bars but once the families left so did the family businesses. Now, all this said. I notice that a new bakery has opened up on Sylvan Rd which looks to have three (!) cafes: Blendz Cafe, Rosie’s Coffee Cafe, and Bakery Bourgoyne (technically located on Evans Drive). This is astonishing to me and also lifts my mood considerably because if these kinds of establishments can flourish then perhaps a resurgence will occur ?
Perkerson Park, situated in Southwest Atlanta, had been largely ignored for decades before it experienced a resurgence courtesy of a Disc Golf Course which has flourished in the location since its debut in 2011. It amazes me that this general area continues to be ignored by developers given that before the real estate bubble Capitol View had some action and Sylvan Hills was being eyed by a number of land speculators. Since that time, however, investors continue to hold on to their money waiting to see how the Belt Line project will progress. While I’m aware that people started moving into the area as far back as the 90s the growth has never been comparable to that experienced by neighboring areas such as East Point and College Park. Years ago I ran into a buzzed hipster who claimed to be a reporter / writer for Creative Loafing (if i recall correctly – I was probably buzzed also). She was telling anyone who would listen that she had just closed on a “cool house”. Upon making an inquiry as to its location I was met with the classic hipster response of “Oh I’m sure you won’t know where it is but if you must know it’s Capitol View”. Rather than engage in a back-and-forth with someone hell bent on one-upping the universe, I offered a simple, “You’re such an urban pioneer”, which she mistook as a compliment. Back to the geography – it’s important to note that the official address for Perkerson Park is 770 Deckner Avenue which produces confusion for those unfamiliar with the area as there is a nearby street called Perkerson Rd. which hosts the Jeremiah S. Gilbert house located in the neighborhood of Perkerson Woods. In reality Perkerson Park is more aptly described as being in Sylvan Hills so the proximal street names can be somewhat misleading.
Wholesome Jam Sessions
A reader of this blog informed me that in the early 1960s the majority of Perkerson Park “action” was mostly of the “wholesome variety” with the pavilion being a favorite hangout for teenagers and church groups. My source also tells me that local boy turned music star Tommy Roe would show up for the occasional jam session as he was perfecting tunes like “Sheila” though he was somewhat protective of that particular composition perhaps sensing that it would be a hit. Later there was The Spontaneous Generation who was destined for the big time and had some success with Up in My Mind. (backed with a cover of The Who’s Pictures of Lily). They never realized their full potential due in part to an unfortunate accident involving keyboard player Terry K who remained in the region for quite some time thereafter making music now and then produced by local music teacher Jon Lloyd. Another band that jammed there included Enertia though there were other musicians worthy of note whom I will attempt to cover in a future post.
Relative to aesthetics and geography Perkerson Park was lush green and in close proximity to Sylvan Hills High School (The Golden Bears) which insured a lot of use by students. (Exactly what they “used” there varied with the times). The Park was comprised of two major parts – the upper level which contained three baseball fields (one for softball) and the general recreational area that included a tennis court and a pavilion. The levels were bisected by an unimpressive creek that ended into some woods which provided an easy escape for marijuana smoking kids seeking to avoid the law or bullies looking to rip them off. Those not experienced with navigating that back patch of woods (or too stoned to do so) would inevitably trip on the underbrush or run into trees. You then had to loop around behind Cahoon Street and emerge between one of the duplexes to complete your escape – not that I would know anything about that.
“You Bitch. How Could You ?”
In my first year of Little League the ball fields were unkempt with over grown grass and a creaky old score board with metal numbers. In my opinion this was the best situation as we could play baseball in peace without hyper competitive parents injecting their madness into our games. As the 70s progressed I noticed that some of the dads would drink liquor at the game and harangue coaches to get more playing time for their “gifted son” who might very well be just an average player. Some of my coaches were “fans of the flask” themselves and weren’t above getting a little tight to deal with the lunacy of the parents. One of our coaches passed out during the game and we let him sleep it off as we knew how to deal with tactical game issues as well as he did. The funny thing is that while in his semi-coma state he kept muttering, “you bitch, how could you” under his breath. It became a tag line at practice and later games. I’m also pretty sure more than a few affairs got started at the ball field bleachers as some of the dads would zoom in on women whose husband always seemed to be traveling. The pickup action would start even before the game as some guy would slide onto the bleachers next to a Mom and open with the line, “so what team does your son play for ?”. In reality it was a small world then and people more or less knew who was in the market for action as the gossip traveled rapidly. But it was still kind of tough to watch such garish displays wholly lacking in polish. To put it bluntly these guys had no game and even I could see that.
Each team was sponsored by a local merchant such as Holton Dodge or Millirons Garage (I played with the brothers Larry and Donald) though we were individually required to sell chocolate to raise additional funds to further supplement the league’s bank account. As if that wasn’t enough each team also had to select a “Team Queen” who was usually a sister of one of the players although a cruel dad singled out an effeminate player as a possible candidate. It all escalated to the point where they had a beauty pageant to select the prettiest Team Queen. It was a total circus and I got tired of showing up because of all the activities that had nothing to do with baseball combined with the coaches becoming all “big league” and competitive even though most of them really had no solid ideas about the game let alone how to teach the fundamentals. Worst of all they took note of whose parents showed up and benched any kid whose parents (or parent) didn’t show up. In effect bowing to pressure to play the children of the loudmouths and sponsors. This, combined with the fact that my folks were fighting at home led to a personal malaise and a corresponding slump on the field. What had once been fun was now a total drag. I do have to give props to one of the umpires, Don F., who cheered me up and was very encouraging.
Being Too Good Can Be a Problem
Most parents were completely delusional about the true extent of their kid’s actual talent and it was only in the face of “real talent” that it became clear that their son was probably not destined for the big leagues. As an example there was a young black kid named Daryl Underwood who hit home runs with great ease and he regularly embarrassed the league’s best pitchers by effortlessly “moon decking” any type of delivery that came his way. Despite his obvious ability (or perhaps because of it) he was denied participation in that year’s All Star team. This was one of my first personal experiences with overt racism and it puzzled me that the league would forgo the superior abilities of a player simply because of skin color but the coach was overheard saying in a rabid tone that that year’s team was “goddamned going to be 100% lily white“. This all became academic at least for that moment when Daryl died not long thereafter having fallen out of the back of a pick truck on the way home. There was another great athlete named Jeff Culbreth who was far too good for the Little League scene and after a successful high school career in baseball, football, and basketball he was drafted by the Braves though spent only one year with their Greenwood team before returning home and also meeting with an untimely demise.
Ah before I forget – here is a picture of one of the sponsor pages from my 1970 version of the Perkerson-Sylvan Little League bulletin. Check the end of this post for more pictures. If you grew up in the area get ready for a trip down memory lane mes amis.
Quaker State Hair Mousse
The Park was also a place for backseat romance for the younger crowd but guys like James B. (a mostly toothless illiterate gas station attendant) enjoyed taking his conquests there for some action which he would relate to us (completely unsolicited mind you) at Bros Three. He had a habit of punctuating the sexual aspects of his story by sharply inhaling air which made a whistling sound as it rushed over his bare gums. The volume and duration of the resulting sound corresponded to the level of pleasure he had experienced. Once he started down this road there was no stopping him so you would just have to walk away if it got too vivid. He would usually be smoking no filter Camels during these performances and if he inhaled too deeply or quickly he would double over into a paroxysmal coughing fit. Upon recovery he would behave as if nothing happened and then offer, “but it was soooo goooooood”.
James worked at the Shell station at the corner of Stewart and Cleveland which was operated by Raymond Hoffman a straight-laced import from Pennsylvania with whom I later worked at Banks’ Liquor Store. James was pretty good with gas station activities and this still being the era of full service gas stations he had plenty of work. It also put him in direct proximity to lustful women who would drive into the station in various states of undress. I believed him as we experienced the same phenomenon at Bros Three with the Drive in Window which was actually more of a door. The trouble though was that these women were usually unappealing in the extreme at least as far as I was concerned. Some of the older guys, or guys with lower standards, would happily roll the dice.
James was not what you would call a hygiene fanatic. On Friday he would have a couple of day’s worth of accumulated oil in his hair which had dropped from the grease rack under which he spent most of his time doing oil changes and lube jobs. Gobs of the stuff would still be there on Monday afternoons when he stopped by for a few beers. It functioned like sort of a hair Mousse. As he had pretty thick hair it kind of worked but he had this continual petroleum smell that followed him around. Every time he lit up a cigarette I was afraid he might burst into flames. None of this seem to deter his conquests. James had a daughter who took a liking to me and she would drive up to Bros Three and ask if I wanted to “go parking” with her. She would catch me on the way back from taking trash to the dumpster (how romantic). It’s not that she was bad looking just that after having endured many of her Father’s conquest stories, combined with the whole petroleum hair gel thing, I really couldn’t get enthused. I mean what if she too enjoyed making that whistling sound ?
I cannot reasonably capture the significance of Perkerson Park in a single post. I just wanted to present an overview here. There are many more stories I could relate but I’ll save them for the book ha ha). Anyone with personal experience of the Park will have their own tales on offer – the proverbial good, bad, ugly. And depending on the era of your experience it could be innocent memories of teenage romance, a family reunion or a church barbecue. Or …..maybe a bad (or good) acid trip, a great band, or a fight between those types who had no other way to distinguish themselves except by violence. In fact my last time at Perkerson Park was not a positive one as it seemed to be inhabited by those with no promising job possibilities so they didn’t know where else to go. I mean once you start closing in on 30 you might want to consider making some decisions that don’t involve getting blasted in the Park. And while I can understand the appeal of such actions and wasted plenty of time doing nothing myself – I kind of knew that it was best to move on. © 2017 The Stewart Avenue Kid
And finally here are some more excerpts from the 1970 Perkerson-Little League bulletin:
This site is dedicated to Stewart Avenue located in South West Atlanta, GA. Just as a simple matter of triage – if the names “Crystal Palace, Perkerson Park, The FirePlace Lounge, The Roman Lantern, Jolly Fox, Purple Onion, 72 Lanes, or FunTown” mean anything to you then you are probably in the right place. I say “probably” because it is likely you have done some Internet searching to determine if there is anyone who remembers these places and, more importantly, has anything interesting to share. It’s okay if you don’t want to admit to your current spouse, friends, or social group that you might have spent some time in these places (ha ha). But at this point I should point out that there are more wholesome references to the Stewart Avenue area which hearken back to a simpler time before the infamous early 70s “white flight” that triggered a general economic decline that has never really stopped. I’m talking about the slot car racing places in the space that became Shakey’s Pizza, or Caruso’s Italian restaurant, the Drive in Theater that became Arlans department store as well as the outdoor Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center that had many cool places, (e.g. Federal Bakery, Dipper Dan Ice Cream, Pet Jungle, and Orange Julius). That was in fact a kinder time that I will handle in another write up though for now let’s start with the grittier aspects of “The Avenue”, which is all anyone seems to remember anyway.
If The Avenue were a person it would be in jail or a mental institution or possibly both. In it’s heyday it was like a charming Mafioso who could appear to be your best friend and make you feel connected, buying you drinks, introducing you to women. But the moment you borrow money, which is what he has been setting you up for all along anyway, and find yourself unable to pay the principal, (let alone “the vig” ), then he will gladly grind you into dust while telling you, “Sorry, but I can’t have people thinking I’m soft”. The Avenue indulged most every vice at apparent low cost but there was always a time for collection, which could be years down the road or, as some found out the hard way, right there on the spot. The only thing consistent about The Avenue was its inconsistency. Beat downs for the smallest of infractions were common although anyone familiar with the territory understood the protocol and codes of behavior so the victims were usually of the flashy newcomer or loud mouth variety. However, the protocols in effect on one day might be completely ignored the next or reshaped in some way so as to rationalize spontaneous violent behavior. Also there were many loud mouths on The Ave it was just that they had taken the time to establish a support system to help protect them in case of conflict.
Let me be clear. I didn’t grow up NEAR Stewart Avenue I grew up ON Stewart Avenue and the difference is obvious to anyone who knows the area although for most people it’s not something one would normally lay claim to as an achievement. That’s okay. At the time most people wanted to protect their reputations and not screw up their chances for advancement that could lead to a predictable straight life though you would still find them at Dee Ford’s on “Nickel Beer Night” being paralytically drunk while listening to Dee work through one of his classics such as “I Want to Do Beautiful Things To You (In The Morning)”. The Avenue was mostly an antidote to boredom but it was easy to take it too far. A person seeking an innocent after work cocktail, (“Let’s go drink one” was a frequently heard invitation), could easily wind up at The Crystal Palace until 5 a.m. and, the next day, have only vague memories of activities that, if true, would require Miranda protection and an experienced criminal attorney should legal inquiries be made. Most people just wanted diversion and generic intoxication and were willing to take the consequences. A painter gets paint on his clothes and an electrician gets shocked so being on The Avenue would inevitably involve the accumulation of embarrassing experiences that could actually be pretty fun but had the potential for full on ugliness. As time went on and The Avenue got meaner the risk was greater especially given that a random drinking mate might have zero investment in the so called “straight life” thus a bloody barroom brawl resulting in a manslaughter charge was not a real problem for them. In some cases it could raise one’s credibility. It was just part of the territory.
Every day after school I rounded the corner of Langston turning left onto Stewart past Sylvan Motors and past the gaggle of hookers blurting out promises of carnal delights every time they saw me. Once I got to know them, (not in the Biblical sense I assure you), I might even stop now and then to exchange some banter as I moved on to work at Brothers Three package store located in a lot next to the 166 overpass just down from Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center. These women would amaze me with their tales of cheapskate johns, unimaginable perversions, and dreams of finding a way out of the life. Despite their sometimes soul crushing stories I always had a feeling of returning to a familiar, safe place – a place where I could be myself and experience life without censorship or as part of a sermon being delivered by a moralizing preacher who later that week would be sampling the pleasures offered by one of those ladies of the evening I encountered each day. (I would know because they would tell me). With the passing of each day it was as if I was being exposed to some cosmic ray that resulted in an aura the color of a neon beer sign that became noticeable to my friends at school. More than one person said I “corrupted” them though I was just a doorman to a demented party and what someone did after gaining access was on them. Early in life I came to understand that there are people who really enjoy being outraged and it’s all just an act. Their reactions of offense are just for show designed to convince themselves that they aren’t responsible for what is going on around them and maybe they aren’t. However, they could always leave the party but few did. In any case many later moved away when their families bolted to the suburbs in the early 70s, which is something my family probably would have done had we been able to afford it. Some of those people did come back for a visit – they had had a serious taste and loved to drop in now and then for some sweet action that could never be found in the suburbs.
Anyway this is just a “hello, is there anyone out there who can relate” kind of post and I’ve seen various Internet discussions on specific locales, such as Stewart Lakewood shopping center or The Southeastern Fair. I’ve contributed to a few of those blogs though I’m interested in more recognition for this part of town as there is a lot more to discuss and document than just the sleaze and party mentality that many associate with the area. I do want to get past that element as lots of families lived there (some still do) and it represented essential life experience for many of us who remained during a pivotal era for both the area in particular and the city of Atlanta itself. Many lessons were learned most of which have largely been ignored by existing city planners and neighborhood revival groups although I’m largely supportive of them and their efforts to bring things back if something like that is possible. I had to laugh when a young, hipster type told me about the “cool house” he had just bought “across from a place you’ve probably never heard about called Perkerson Park”. I asked what his address was and he flipped out when I told him about some graffiti in the basement of his house that a friend of mine and myself had put there back in 1974. I took a chance on assuming that the “artwork” was still there and indeed it was.
For the time being “The Avenue” lies dormant under the “new” name of Metropolitan Avenue which was given by City Hall after some Northside guys experienced a nasty bachelor party run-in with a transsexual hooker and his/her pimp. It was a classic consumer case of “we didn’t get what we paid for” although the “Returns department” issued a “lead refund”. So the City stepped in, closed down the the Alamo Plaza, (once a wholesome motel for families making the trip down to Florida down via Highway 41), repaired some potholes, did some repaving, and applied a new name with little expectation that anyone would buy in to the idea that it would change anything. But it was all that they could really do. I mean by that time it was all on ice anyway and it became like the end of a Japanese monster movie wherein Godzilla would slip down deep into the ocean to cool off until a future seismic event would disturb his slumber at which point he would reemerge hot for action. Will The Avenue ever return ? And if it does will it pick back up where it left off like a binge drinking uncle ready for a new bender or will it perhaps be ready for some much needed rehab ?
Prior to the economic recession the neighborhoods surrounding The Avenue such as Sylvan Hills and Capitol View were slated for gentrification and increased sales activity occurred before it all ground to a halt. Some developer was intrepid enough to erect a condominium complex across from what used to be Thoni’s gas station but the timing was bad and units didn’t sell as expected despite the touted proximity to the Airport and Downtown. Nearby East Point definitely experienced a revival and pockets of West End had some growth. But unfortunately, The Avenue remains an expansive barren automotive killing field where numerous former used car lots once stood. Even the prostitutes and petty thieves are gone – well most of them anyway. You can’t rip people off if there is no one to be ripped off. In any case there is much, much more to say about Stewart Avenue and this is just a start. Please feel free to contribute. © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid