Downtown Atlanta Market Comes Back to Life

October 6,2010

Jeanne Bonner

More people are visiting the Sweet Auburn Curb Market in downtown Atlanta. And they're discovering Atlanta's only public market as it undergoes a quiet revolution that's as much about race and class as it is about commerce.

Deborah Kudelka has had her eye on the Sweet Auburn Curb Market for a decade. She finally opened Ciao Bocca, an Italian lunch counter, there this summer.

"Ten years ago it wasn't that great. Five years ago, I graduated from culinary school and I still wasn't happy," she said. "Three months ago I walked in here and signed the lease."

So what's changed at the market? Well, for one thing ..

"Honestly, it's cleaner," Kudelka said.

In the past year, a coffee shop, a bookstore and a Greek restaurant have also opened. Some of the changes mirror the transformation of the neighborhood, which has been home primarily to African-Americans for decades.

Eddie McHarris began shopping at the market four years ago when he moved to Atlanta from New York. He lives nearby and said new people have been coming into both the market and the neighborhood.

"A lot of Caucasians are coming in and buying up old properties," he said. "A lot of businesses are moving into the neighborhood, and when that happens, you move a certain type of people out of the neighborhood."

But this is not a simple story about Blacks and Whites. It's also a story about class and change. Almeta Tullis is an African-American graduate student at Georgia State University. She's also a longtime customer of the market who recently began working there. Here's how she describes the shift:

"It's not just a race thing or a time thing or a change thing. It's a generational thing," she said. "As things like Trader Joe's move into Atlanta, people's tastes change and the way they want to see food presented changes."

Decades ago, Sweet Auburn was a thriving market for black and white residents in the heart of the city. It began as an outdoor market. The one-story brick building on Edgewood Avenue opened in 1924 when the market moved inside.

Over time, the market's reach shrunk. Regina Berry has worked as a butcher at the market for 41 years.

"It's not like it used to be," she said. "It used to be a lot of people, just about every day."

Until recently, the bulk of Berry's customers have been African-Americans from the neighborhood. And many of the market's customers have been low-income. Pam Joiner, manager of the market, said most of the vendors accept food stamps.

"Up until about a year and a half ago, I would say 70 percent of the shops in the market depended on EBT -- food stamps," Joiner said.

As middle-class residents left the neighborhood, the market deteriorated. And the city of Atlanta, which owns the market, had its hands full with other problems.

When Joiner became manager five years ago, the market was in debt, and had vacancies. Asked to do a preliminary analysis, she concluded the market wasn't viable.

"We had vacant spots that we couldn't rent because the roof was falling in because we had so much water damage," she recalled.

The roof was fixed, thanks to federal stimulus funds, and vacancies are now few. Grindhouse Killer Burgers is the most successful vendor to arrive since Joiner took over the market. The burgers have developed a cult following.

One Thursday afternoon in late summer, a line had formed at the burger counter. Tim Santelli, who works in downtown Atlanta, was waiting for his order.

Showing off his lunch, he said, "This is the Grindhouse burger. The double and some fries."

Owner Alex Brounstein is pleased with the success. He's opening a second location on Piedmont Avenue. But he's mindful of what's held the market back.

"I think people stopped shopping here because there wasn't stuff that they wanted," he said. "So now people who live in Grant Park or Inman Park or Midtown they go to Whole Foods. That's where they shop. Or they go to Publix but they shop in the organic section."

In fact, there are lots of things you still can't get at the market, Brounstein and others say.

"You still can't get a boneless breast of chicken in the market from any of the butchers," he said. "There are no high-end butchers in the market - it's more odd parts of pig and stuff like that."

Grindhouse appeals to the new pool of customers, who are often described as urban pioneers. They are young people reclaiming intown neighborhoods that were once run-down.

For example, when Tullis, the Georgia State grad student, first visited the market eight years ago, she said an organic coffee shop was unimaginable there. She now works at Cafe Campesino at the market, and loves the variety of foods you now see at the market.

"You can get candy, and burritos, and smoothies and Greek food and Georgia produce, all in one place, and it's amazing," she said excitedly.

Tullis said she wants to see the old and new vendors co-exist. There's always tension, she said, when things change. But she doesn't want to see the market lose its distinctive flavor.

"You still got your pig ears and you can still buy your whole pig here and it's different now but it's still inclusive I feel like of that Southern flavor," she said before her shift one day. "If the pig ever goes away or the collard greens go away, then it just wouldn't be what it is and what it should be."

The Sweet Auburn Curb Market is open six days a week.