On a sunny Sunday afternoon recently, a DJ spun tunes in the sleek, cozy confines of Hippin Hops—a new brewery whose front doors open wide onto Glenwood Avenue—while friends gathered on sidewalk picnic tables or played cornhole on the patio. It felt good to be back in a welcoming neighborhood hangout, and even better after a couple of the brewery’s fine beers. The menu, which bartenders amiably walked customers through, features a half dozen; the saison-style Bier Saigon was delicate and fresh-tasting, and an IPA called the Baby Mama Drama was briskly fruity without being overpowering (though, if fruity’s your thing, you can get this one served in a pineapple). The beer is the main draw here, though a menu of Southern-ish food—baked oysters topped with Cajun spiced shrimp, lobster and waffles, gator bites, and a by-the-book shrimp po’boy—is entirely solid. (If a bit spendy: Expect to pay $6 for a side of unremarkable fries with that sandwich.) Founded by husband-and-wife duo Clarence and Donnica Boston, Hippin Hops stakes a claim as the first Black-owned brick-and-mortar brewery in Georgia, but, happily, its days as the only such establishment are numbered: Atlantucky Brewing, by members of Nappy Roots, launches this year in Castleberry Hill. And the Bostons are already expanding, with planned locations in East Lake and Stone Mountain. 1308 Glenwood Avenue, East Atlanta Village, 678-713-2739
Fresh faces appeared this spring in the kitchen at Tiny Lou’s, the dim, swank restaurant below the Hotel Clermont, and, if I may anticipate your question: Yes, there is still a dessert on the menu named for Blondie, Atlanta’s stripper laureate. Under previous management, pastry chef Claudia Martinez earned acclaim for her Ode to Blondie—who performs at the Clermont Lounge—and I’m very pleased to report that Charmain Ware, her successor, has upheld the dancer’s good name and then some. Now called Hello Blondie, the dessert in its current form is absolutely bananas: Specifically, it is a banana blondie, hidden under creamy layers of hazelnut praline and caramelized namelaka, a kind of white chocolate ganache. The balance of the menu, from executive chef Jon Novak (formerly sous chef at the Napa Valley restaurant Torc), comprises favorites of the French bistro—fans of steak frites and good burgers will find both here—and other elevated preparations like a chicken “duo”: one leg whose skin has been alchemized, by way of confit, into a rich lacquer, plated with a beautiful slab of potato and poulet pressé—fine slices of chicken and tuber layered like a napoleon, its surface buttery and crisp. The menu changes seasonally, with other recent highlights including foraged-mushroom risotto, asparagus with poached egg and ramp pistou, and a salad of spring greens and rhubarb vinaigrette. 789 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Poncey-Highland, 470-485-0085
Like a cicada on a 17-year schedule, shedding its youthful exoskeleton to embark in search of a mate, 8Arm undergoes an occasional profound metamorphosis. Shutting down in April following the departure of redoubtable chef Maricela Vega, 8Arm emerged several weeks later in an entirely new guise, reconfigured by owners Nhan Le and Skip Engelbrecht in the style of a Japanese izakaya. That’s a world of flavors away from Vega’s plant-forward, locally rooted but globe-spanning cooking—but in no way a bad thing. New executive chef Hiro Endo (Ginya Izakaya) and chef de cuisine Allen Suh offer both pitch-perfect renditions of Japanese street foods—like gooey-centered takoyaki: spheres of battered octopus, decorated with umami-rich bonito flakes and Kewpie mayo—and bespoke creations such as a spicy tuna roll with fermented chili paste, pumpkin oil, cucumber, and just a hint of brown sugar. Vegetal and candylike at once, the dish is enchanting. Delicately flavored chilled vegetable ramen will especially hit the spot at the height of summer, and the rest of the small plates on the menu—seaweed salad, sweet and smoky grilled skewers, many nigiri—will reward repeat visits. One might quibble with one aspect of that menu: The only way to view it is by scanning a QR code, a rising dining-world trend that (like the restaurant’s cashless policy) seems needlessly exclusive—what about diners who don’t have smartphones?—as well as a vibe killer: We should at least have the option of putting our phones away at dinner, especially dinner as head-turning as this. 710 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Virginia-Highland, 470-875-5856
Genius is forged in the fires of necessity and, this past year, in the oven at Nick Melvin’s Lake Claire home, as well. Leaving a job at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q when the pandemic hit, Melvin (who cofounded Doux South Pickles) turned to selling breakfast burritos out of his driveway. He amassed a following that’s set to grow now that he’s expanded Poco Loco into a takeout counter in the old Dish Dive space, across from East Lake MARTA. Your mileage may vary, but, to me, Melvin has seized on the perfect setup. Here’s how it works: You go, you get a tremendously good Tex-Mex–style burrito—a chewy handmade flour tortilla encasing richly spiced fillings like achiote-roasted pork shoulder, beans stewed with Pine Street Market bacon, and cauliflower “chorizo.” Then, you get a second burrito, and maybe a third, fourth, and fifth—these guys are frozen, so you can heat them up at home at your leisure. Then, you select some groceries from the cold case, with ever-changing options including green chili pork, beans, pints of salsa and chimichurri, and housemade tortillas. Plenty of restaurants have gotten into grab-and-go during the pandemic, but the abbreviated menu Melvin has assembled here is no less than irresistible. Check each week’s menu online and consider ordering ahead—currently, Poco Loco is open only Thursday through Saturday. 2233 College Avenue, Kirkwood, no phone
Every spring, Atlanta’s Papadopoulos family celebrates Easter in big Greek style, with a locally famous blowout involving music, ouzo, and an egg hunt. And—importantly for our purposes here—a feast of spit-roasted animals, among sundry specialties. Not long after Easter 2021, the family (who own Athens Pizza in Decatur) brought those meats to the masses with Karv Kitchen, where they serve a kind of fast-casual version of the roast beasts prepared by chef Sandy Papadopoulos at the annual shindig. It abuts a Five Guys on the ground floor of an apartment development overlooking busy Peachtree Boulevard; suffice it to say, the food outshines the location. Similar to how Chipotle has burritos and bowls, the basic unit here is the “Karv,” either a wrap or a “stack” atop rice, fries, or potatoes. That’s the first choice of several diners will make: Next one selects a meat (rotisserie chicken or pork, slow-cooked lamb, short rib) and a “flavor profile” combining various ingredients, sauces, and garnishes. Because I can only be me, I went the route that involved the most french fries—that’s the “Greko.” I ended up with a fluffy pita stuffed with hand-cut fries, supertender chicken thigh, pickled veg, mustard, and a rich, tangy tzatziki sauce—it was pleasingly spicy and so juicy (not a complaint!) that next time I might get it over rice. Meatless options are not only available but plentiful and thoughtful—for instance, a corn-avocado salad with the sheep’s-milk cheese kefalotyri and tempura-fried zucchini and eggplant chips. No ouzo, but there is beer. 5126 Peachtree Boulevard, Suite 200B, Chamblee, 770-710-0119
El Vinedo Local
As if following a long slumber, this airy, urbane South American cafe from proprietor Robert Kaster has awakened slowly over the course of the spring. Initially, El Vinedo Local (“the local vineyard”) was open only for breakfast, lunch, and coffee, with the promise of wine and dinner on the near horizon as of press time; someday soon, one hopes, patrons of the Fox Theatre, a stone’s throw down Peachtree Street, will even be able to drop in after a show for a late-night nosh and a nightcap on the restaurant’s handsome patio. No matter the time of day, a visit pays in delicious dividends. Chef Bruno Vergara, most recently of South Main Kitchen in Alpharetta, turns out delicate arepas and empanadas (including empanadas Criolla, stuffed in the style of Vergara’s native Uruguay with ground beef, olives, and hard-boiled eggs), Argentine-style choripán sandwiches (filled with chorizo and chimichurri, served with yucca fries), and a lively ceviche of Georgia shrimp, crunchy plantain chips, cilantro, and Meyer lemon oil. The coffee (fair trade, organic) is from Americus roastery Cafe Campesino, and a majority of the wines will be from South American producers. 720 Peachtree Street, Midtown, 404-596-8239
Tum Pok Pok
The Mekong River separates the country of Laos from the northeastern Thai region of Isan, with some culinary tendencies shared across the waterway: heat, funk, lots of salads. Those elements are also characteristic of the invigorating fare at Tum Pok Pok, a new Isan restaurant on Buford Highway from Adidsara Weerasin, who owns Bangkok Thyme in Sandy Springs. On the numbered menu, it’s best to start at the top: #1 is lab kao tord, a spicy, slightly sweet, lime-spiked ground-chicken salad, laced with cilantro and shredded ginger and served with the lettuce leaves it’s meant to be eaten off of. The sharp heat, the herby tang, the tender meat—they’re set off beautifully by peanuts and crunchy clusters of sticky rice. You’ll want to order a series of these street food–style plates, so why not move on to #2: lemongrass-scented e-sarn sausage, whose heat is amplified by coins of raw ginger and a chili dipping sauce. And speaking of heat, don’t skip the cleansingly fiery som tum pla lah—papaya salad with fermented fish sauce (#12)—unless it’s in favor of a full som tum platter (#14), which also has pork sausage, boiled eggs, and other goodies. (The restaurant’s name is inspired by the sound of chilis being beaten in a mortar in the preparation of som tum.) Pad Thai (#17), several curries, and other, more standard Thai fare is available further down the menu. The dining room is charmingly cluttered with colorful decor. 5000 Buford Highway, Chamblee, 404-990-4688
La Calavera Pizza
One of the very first lousy things to happen last year was the January closure of La Calavera, where Mexico-born, Atlanta-raised baker Eric Arillo crafted sourdough breads and sweet Mexican pastries including conchas and (in season) pan de muerto, the bread of the dead. Now, Arillo and his wife and business partner, Dale Ralston, have resurrected La Calavera (Spanish for “skull”) as a pizza joint. On a recent weeknight, the deck ovens were cranked up and the pair were vending pies from a takeout window off the side of the building, offering 16-inch circles and grandma-style square pizzas they call ladrillos, or “bricks,” because “they’re red, hefty, and have four corners.” Fair enough. Ladrillos—which are lovely, soft inside and crisp at the edges—are also notable because they’re available by the slice, at $2.50 per, with toppings extra. Full pies include the Homeboy, with mushrooms and Spotted Trotter pepperoni, and the Luna, with fresh and shredded mozz. More toppings wouldn’t be terrible, nor would a more interesting selection of composed pies, but one can’t fault Arillo’s excellent sourdough crusts, made with white, whole wheat, or gluten-free flour. (Vegan cheese is also available.) The whole wheat, in particular, provides a welcome bit of sweetness and plays off the dried herbs sprinkled on the pies. 1696 Memorial Drive, Kirkwood, 404-697-7030
People began to gather on the pier at daybreak—in ones and twos at first, dog walkers and early birds and retirees, but the crowd grew as the sky lightened and the sun pierced the horizon over the ocean.
Actually, the sun was not the only thing piercing the horizon. Some improbable object, too, chugged steadily forward across the water. From the pier, it looked like St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, but yellow and sort of steampunk—less like a boat than a piece of heavy construction equipment. Which, essentially, it was: The VB 10,000, as the machine is called, is a heavy-lift vessel, the biggest of its kind built in the United States, and it had sailed from Florida. Its destination was the Golden Ray, a 656-foot freighter that capsized in St. Simons Sound with some 4,200 cars on board, the largest cargo shipwreck in United States coastal waters since the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989. The ruined vessel had lain there for more than a year. And the VB 10,000, which could lift 7,500 tons—built by the company Versabar to install oil platforms, or salvage those wrecked by hurricanes, in the Gulf of Mexico—was here to clean up the mess.
The VB 10,000 sailed up a shipping lane that runs, straight as an airport runway, from the open ocean through the straits between Jekyll and St. Simons Islands. Crews approaching at dawn see Georgia’s coastal islands—with Cumberland way over to the left, Sea Island on the right—lit up by the rising sun. Eventually, the scene narrows to reveal the condo-lined beaches of St. Simons at starboard and the forested shores of Jekyll on the port side. The Sidney Lanier Bridge rises in the background of this tableau, with the colonial-era city of Brunswick just beyond.
The Port of Brunswick is one of the busiest on the East Coast for a specific kind of traffic: the enormous, car-carrying vessels known as ro/ros, for “roll on, roll off.” They’re basically floating parking garages, with thousands of vehicles in their holds that can be loaded or unloaded via a ramp that lowers off the ship. Brunswick is a conduit for imports and exports of 12 major auto brands, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz USA. The Golden Ray had just picked up a load of Kia Tellurides and other vehicles when it tilted over.
Now, the ship rested on its side on a sandbar, its big maroon keel pointing southwest, visible from Highway 17 and the surrounding islands. Doug Haymans, the director of the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, could see it from the window of his office beneath the Sidney Lanier Bridge. “You sort of get the sense of a dead, helpless animal laid out there,” Haymans said. “You see other ships sail past it each day, and you have to wonder, if ships were animate objects, what the ship thinks about its brother laying on its side.”
The Golden Ray had been there so long that it had become a fixture of the landscape and of the local imagination. Placards on the pier directed onlookers to a website for more information. A gift shop on Mallery Street sold T-shirts with an illustration of the Golden Ray and a little witticism: SHIP HAPPENS. Patrons at Barrier Island Brewing, near the King and Prince resort, could order a beer called Golden Ray IPA.
The VB 10,000 consists of two barges joined in catamaran formation, with two 240-foot lift gantries arching between them. By the time the vessel showed up at St. Simons, the Golden Ray had been encircled in a one-mile environmental-protection barrier, a system of netting and pilings meant to catch debris while the ship was dismantled in situ. On the morning of October 27, 2020, the barrier was opened, and the VB 10,000 maneuvered inside. Straddling the wreck, the lift vessel would attach to a heavy chain that crews had looped beneath the Golden Ray, then pull the chain upward and back and forth, moving it in superslow motion—seven feet per minute—to cut through the hull. Eight cuts would be made, the body divided into seven pieces, and, by this means, finally—finally—the ship would, at long last, be rescued from its ignominy.
Some historians find it useful to talk about, for instance, the “long 19th century”—the idea being that historical periods are defined less by arbitrary stop and start dates than they are by earth-moving events and, really, feelings: According to this schema, the 19th century didn’t begin at midnight on January 1, 1801, but rather with the French Revolution in 1789, and it didn’t end until the onset of World War I in 1914. Future scholars may find it similarly useful to refer to the long year 2020, for reasons I don’t need to fill you in on. In late 2019, a cluster of pneumonia cases were reported in China that would bloom into a global pandemic, bringing the world to a standstill that has not yet ended. Over roughly the same time period, the dismal carcass of the Golden Ray has loomed over St. Simons Sound, emanating its own surreal inertia while simultaneously—perhaps?—reflecting our own.
As the most recent year dawned, a columnist from the Brunswick Newsissued a series of humorous predictions. “I would give a definite date for when the Golden Ray will be fully removed from St. Simons Sound, but these are my 2021 predictions,” he wrote. “I’ll save that one for 2022.” Nobody died; some levity is permitted.
From the perspective of the Golden Ray, the long year 2020 commenced shortly after midnight on September 8, 2019. Arriving the day prior from Jacksonville, the ship had offloaded some subcompacts and taken on the SUVs, then left port under the control of Jonathan Tennant, an experienced harbor pilot. (When certain large commercial ships enter U.S. ports, they’re required by law to be put under the control of local harbor pilots, such as Tennant—experts on the ins and outs of area waterways. Pilots board incoming ships in the open ocean; on the outbound transit, once they’ve guided the vessels from port, they disembark onto small boats that bring them back to shore, like a taxi.) Transiting past Jekyll Island, Tennant initiated a starboard turn out to sea that he’d made thousands of times. As he would put it in a 2020 hearing, part of a Coast Guard investigation into the accident: “Everything was just as normal as could be until it capsized.” The results of the investigation have yet to be released, but testimony has suggested the Golden Ray may have been unstable due to the way the vehicles were loaded and the fact that, on an earlier leg of its voyage, the ship had let off water ballast. In short: It may have been top-heavy, rendering a routine turn treacherous. As the ship settled onto its side, Tennant realized the situation had become “a lifesaving event, not a piloting event” and saw “fear in the faces of the people around me”—members of the Golden Ray’s 23-person crew, mostly from South Korea and the Philippines. He tried to assure the captain, he testified: “We’re going to be okay, we’re on a sandbar and the calvary is coming, the Coast Guard is on the way.”
As rescue boats arrived on the scene, most of the crew were able to evacuate via a fire hose lowered down the side of the ailing ship. In his own testimony, Coast Guard captain John Reed said that, when he reached the shipwreck just prior to daybreak, having driven overnight from Charleston, he saw smoke, smelled fire, and heard “large crashes inside the hull every few minutes,” from what he presumed to be vehicles breaking free of their tethers. Four crew members were still unaccounted for at that point. Initially, Reed testified, “there was a great deal of doubt concerning any remaining survivors.”
The following morning, more than 24 hours after the capsizing, the missing men were located, alive, in the engine room. Rescuers drilled holes to share food and water and used leaf blowers to force fresh air into the sweltering space while they devised a plan to extract the stranded men. Reed feared, he said later, that cutting into the hull might create sparks that could cause an explosion. But he also feared the remaining crew members wouldn’t survive until they could retrieve the proper salvage equipment. Finally, responders drilled a series of overlapping holes through the almost inch-thick steel hull of the ship, gaining access to three of the four seamen, with the last trapped behind explosion-proof glass that had to be scored, then broken with an ax. About 40 hours after the ship went down, all of its crew were safe. The Golden Ray—partly owing to Tennant’s decisive actions as the vessel overturned—had come to rest in relatively shallow water on a sandbar, likely saving lives and allowing the port to reopen partially in a couple days and fully after a couple months.
The worst was averted, but the ordeal was just beginning. The Golden Ray held nearly 400,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil, which began to leak into St. Simons Sound as responders worked to stabilize the wreck. Though they were able to pump most of it out, it’s unknown exactly how much fuel oil remains on board—and how much ended up on the shorelines and in the marshes of St. Simons Sound. The Altamaha Riverkeeper, which spent the autumn of 2019 working with local charter fishermen to monitor pollution in the area, estimates that some 30 miles of shoreline experienced oiling to some degree, out of the roughly 120 miles that make up the estuary. The contamination was compounded by Georgia’s exceptionally high tides, which lifted the oil into the salt marsh in places and left it there, in horizontal lines across the marsh grass, as the waters receded. Fletcher Sams, the Riverkeeper’s executive director, showed me pictures on his phone of some of the scenes: “It looks like somebody got a can of black spray paint and just drew lines through the marsh,” he said.
Sams tracked the spots where oil was located on maps that he shared with members of Unified Command, the ad hoc body charged with responding to oil spills. It consists of a representative of the federal government (in this instance, the U.S. Coast Guard), the state government (Georgia DNR), and the “responsible party” (typically, the vessel owner, which, in the case of the Golden Ray, is the South Korean company Hyundai Glovis).
Doug Helton, whose office is in Seattle, visited the scene as a representative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Emergency Response Division. Helton told me that he “missed” the Exxon Valdez on account of being in graduate school but that he’s been involved in every major oil spill since, including the Deepwater Horizon, which discharged roughly 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. “In terms of the amount of oil that was on the ship and the amount that was spilled, it was relatively small compared to an incident like the Deepwater Horizon,” Helton said of the Golden Ray. But in the immediate aftermath of the wreck, locals feared the worst, and some in the tourism industry—charter fishermen, for instance—reported slower-than-usual bookings due to concerns over pollution.
In October, it was determined that the Golden Ray was too structurally unstable to be refloated and hauled away. It would have to be demolished in place—hopefully before the arrival of hurricane season 2020. By the following spring, though, as demolition efforts ramped up, responders found themselves contending unexpectedly with a global pandemic that was disrupting supply chains, sparking lockdowns, and impeding what was already shaping up to be a fiendishly complicated salvage operation. Salvors began welding custom-made lifting lugs onto the hull of the Golden Ray: 16 pieces, ranging in weight from 35 to 85 tons, that attached to the top of the wreck like plates on the back of a stegosaurus and that the VB 10,000 would use to pick up each piece of the dismantled ship. But hurricane season arrived before the cutting could get underway. Next, 10 responders tested positive for Covid-19. The Coast Guard announced two delays, pushing the operation to late October. Observers started to get itchy: Then Senator David Perdue and Buddy Carter, who represents the coast in the U.S. House, sent a letter to the Coast Guard complaining of the postponements.
Others took it in stride. Local boat and trolley tour operator Cap Fendig—an amiable St. Simons lifer who serves on the Glynn County Commission—started offering a Golden Ray tour, which I joined one day along with about a half dozen others, including some visitors from Tennessee. Setting sail from Morningstar Marinas aboard a small craft called the Puddle Shuttle, we approached the wreck from the north. “You are now in the position of where the ship was coming out,” Fendig said as we floated in the sound, a few hundred yards off from where the actual wreck lay. He told of its capsizing, then described how a chain would cut through the ship’s hull to take it apart: “It’s like a necklace, ladies,” he said. “When you pick it up out of your jewelry box and bring it up to your neck and you clasp it? But they take that chain and start seesawing with it.” That’s what the VB 10,000 was for. Chain finally in place, cutting began just a few days after Election Day.
On a chilly morning in early January, I drove east across Jekyll Island causeway, toward rays of sunlight just beginning to appear over the low scrubby island trees. I met Sams, of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, in the parking lot of the Jekyll Island Pier, where we stood talking as a barge passed carrying the massive severed stern of the Golden Ray. It glowed in the light of dawn—blue and white up top, covered in algae and assorted marine gunk on the bottom, where it had sat in the water for the past 16 months. The stern was the second section to come off; the bow came first, as salvors work their way toward the ship’s interior. The first two sections were structurally stable enough to be lifted onto barges, which would transport each around the Florida peninsula to a recycling facility in Louisiana. The salvage becomes more delicate as it progresses, and it’s expected that the interior pieces of the ship won’t be as strong. They’ll be disturbed as little as possible, transferred to floating dry docks and then removed to Brunswick for further dismantling. At least, that’s the plan.
Sams was looking for oil released from the wreck as it was being dismantled. The ocean was receding and, as the day warmed, we walked the high-tide line, where, he explained, the water would have deposited new pollution among the usual seaweed and marsh wrack. Various other objects, too, washed up with the tide, among them cut flowers and pieces of broccoli—the sea harbors many mysteries. There were also tiny splotches of oil, which looked like mud until you smelled them. The night before, Sams had texted me photos he’d taken as he walked in the dark with an ultraviolet light, which causes oil to glow. “Horse shit will glow the same color,” he said. “That’s where the smell check gets dangerous.” We rounded the northern tip of Jekyll and made our way toward the ocean side of the island and its famous Driftwood Beach.
Sams and other environmentalists are pushing for a natural resources damage assessment, or NRDA, a comprehensive state and federal analysis of the environmental effects of the Golden Ray incident, which would also include a plan for their remediation. “There’s already been damage,” Sams said. “You need to get a grasp on what’s been impacted, how bad, and what needs to take place to fix it.”
That decision may wait until the salvage is complete. In December, Doug Haymans of the Georgia DNR told me: “We’re certainly not at the point of calling for a NRDA. We’re in the data-collection phase.” (The DNR, Haymans said, would be one of three “trustees” in the study, along with NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.) He continued, “You look around the estuary, and you have to ask yourself: Where’s that permanent, long-lasting damage? This isn’t an Exxon Valdez. This isn’t a BP”—referring to the Deepwater Horizon, where BP was a responsible party—“where there’s millions and millions of gallons.”
On our way back to the pier, Sams and I ran into a cleanup team from Unified Command—Sams told them he’d made marks in the sand where he’d found oil or debris. The crew were just one component of a multivalent environmental response on display that day, and just about every day last winter: Offshore, responders in boats fished objects out of the water, and spotters in a helicopter overhead looked for sheening. Sensitive ecological areas had been surrounded by boom—materials that can either absorb or deflect oil, while nearby vessels could be dispatched, singly or in formation, to collect it. Two shrimp boats had been retrofitted to trawl for debris. Teams combed the beaches looking for pollution that could be as small as a drop of oil or as big as the fender of a car that had fallen from the wreck.
The Golden Ray cleanup is shaping up to be potentially the most expensive maritime salvage operation in U.S. history—with costs projected by the ship’s insurer, in May 2020, to exceed $400 million. (The responsible party and its insurer are on the hook for cleanup costs thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed following the Exxon Valdez spill. Regarded as a highly successful piece of modern environmental legislation, OPA 90 is also one of the last major pieces of federal environmental legislation on the books. Last year was its 30th anniversary.)
The environmental responders and scores of salvors—from technicians maintaining the cutting apparatus to divers checking the chains—have turned St. Simons Sound into a hive of activity. The first cut, completed in November, had originally been projected to take 24 hours but ended up taking three weeks; the second cut began on Christmas and took nine days; the third cut commenced in late January. The work progresses slowly.
After the summer Covid-19 outbreak, Unified Command decided to quarantine the operation’s most critical workers. Since September, more than 100 salvors have been living in isolation at Epworth by the Sea, a serene St. Simons retreat center. So far, the operation has extended its lease twice—most recently through May.
One of its residents this past winter—and one of the youngest workers on the project—was Catherine Teige, who graduated in 2019 from SUNY Maritime College. The Golden Ray is her first major salvage project. She entered the bubble in early January. After 75 days, she’ll have the option to take some time off, but, when we spoke in early February, Teige thought she might stay on: “For most of last year, we were in the planning process. I want to see all the planning come to life, you know? We’ve already cut two sections of the wreck”—the third cut was then underway—“but being on the VB, it happening right in front of me, is just surreal. It’s awesome.”
Workers are on 12-hour shifts, round the clock. There is a weight room, a game room. It’s peaceful—after all, it’s a retreat center. The off-hours are mostly for sleeping. “Sometimes, I play ping pong with the guys after dinner,” Teige said, and laughed: “And I have my little ice cream.” Site work is overseen by two veteran salvage masters, who trade shifts. One of them, Jim Conroy, told me about the rhythms of life at Epworth, where members of his crew have now observed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. “The guys, you know—most of them shop,” Conroy said. “It’s amazing. I’ve never seen so many packages show up.”
“They do . . . online shopping?” I said. Well, it’s not like they can go out and see the sights. And many of us who are not quarantined at Epworth by the Sea also have spent these last long months in our little rooms, in our little apartments or our little houses, looking out the window, checking Twitter, eating our little ice cream, going for little walks, consoling ourselves with one-click ordering. Our bubbles may be bigger and more porous; but it’s often difficult to escape a sense of being inside, looking out.
Speaking for myself, anyway.
“Yeah,” Conroy said. “Some days, you can’t even get through the lobby with all the packages. To me, the unknowable thing is—you gotta shop that much? You need that much?” He laughed. “I guess as temperatures change, they’re buying clothes. And a few things to keep themselves entertained. There’s a lot of PlayStations on the site, that’s for sure.”
When did you know that there was something special about “Atlanta Influences Everything” as both a slogan and an ethos? When the world started thanking Atlanta for “saving democracy,” it made me realize that although Atlanta Influences Everything as a consultancy was established in 2015, never before have those words rang as true as they did after November 3, 2020, and January 5, 2021—where people from disparate sectors who may have never even met or collaborated before are saying the same, unifying rallying cry about this imperfect city they all find themselves living, working, and creating in.
I look often at how it came together in Austin. Austin is known for Tex-Mex and its live music scene but, most notably, South by Southwest. They have been able to leverage that “Keep Austin Weird” culture and draw major brands like Oracle and Tesla.
Atlanta is getting its fair share—Microsoft and Airbnb are setting roots here, for example. There’s even some recruiting communication happening between Atlanta and the UK in terms of where certain companies will land post-Brexit. It’s no coincidence that the UK’s music scene and urban culture—the world’s, really—mimics Atlanta’s to a T.
People and companies are moving here, but they have to be guided on how to connect with Atlanta authentically. And until now, no one has been having that discussion or doing that kind of intentional onboarding.
That’s what we’re trying to do on the other side of November 3 and January 5, where we sit with brands and discuss how they can connect the dots and both harness this newfound energy around Atlanta and honor the way Atlanta’s cultural, corporate, and civic sectors have been cultivated. Atlanta should be continuing to build infrastructure and capacity around those three pillars. The world has already thanked us in advance.
What would you say to someone looking to start a business in Atlanta? There’s nowhere in the country that has this ease of life coupled with the true metropolitan experience you can find in Atlanta. I can have a house in town and a farm 15 minutes outside of town, and I can enjoy both of those lifestyles intermittently throughout the week. The outdoor life here is incredible: We’ve got eight perfect months. Then, you blend in the culture of this melting pot that is Atlanta, mixed with an old-world, real culture, Southern culture.
If you’re a young entrepreneur, and you lay out the options of where you want to go build a company, there’s really no better place. No major city in America is a better place for all the cycles of your entrepreneurial life than Atlanta because this is a great place to be young, it’s a great place to have a young family, it’s a great place to raise your kids, it’s a great place to grow old. Whereas New York is a great place to be young. L.A. is a great place to be young. San Francisco is . . . not great for much.
How do you get professionals who could work in Silicon Valley to come here? I think it’s useful for people to have spent time on the West Coast; it’s almost like the rumspringa that the Amish have. You reach a certain age, get out, go experience the world, see what it’s like. We don’t have to try all that hard for them to come back to Atlanta. They like the work/life balance, the nature, the trees we have. The entrepreneurial scene is growing so much that they get the best of both worlds. I used to tell my recruiters, Go to the West Coast and just hang out at Babies R Us. As soon as anyone on the West Coast has a baby, they want to come to Atlanta.
How do you hope to see Atlanta evolve? I would love for it to be more walkable and rideable. I would love to see the BeltLine grow even more and have more bike lanes everywhere. But that’s a selfish thing. Or, really, a Mailchimp thing: Thirty percent of our people walk, ride, or use alternate transportation to work. When we moved to Ponce City Market, we loved the bike valet, bike racks everywhere. But our employees just swamped it. [PCM] told us, You’ve got to deal with this. We actually had to use 1,000 square feet or so of our space for bike storage.
What would you say to someone looking to start a business in Atlanta? I say don’t. Leave all the talent for me. Joking aside, the city is full of creative talent because of all the huge consumer brands that are here. The music, film, entertainment industry, and now the growth of the entrepreneurial and tech communities, are also adding to the talent pool.
When you first moved your company to Atlanta, you talked about connecting and listening. What has the city taught you? I’ve been here two years now, this April, and the city has certainly welcomed me, my family, my company with incredibly open arms. It feels like we’ve been here for a while.
So, I’m really getting a sense for what’s going on in the business community here, and I’m trying to learn this place as authentically and as slowly and enjoyably as possible. We never wanted to be the folks who come to the city and try to claim everything within it.
I’ve seen that movie before in high definition, out in the Bay Area around 2008, where a lot of folks moved there which increased real-estate and housing prices and pushed folks out. I’m hopeful that doesn’t happen here, but I think—because of Atlanta’s strong roots in activism and diversity that’s already entrenched here—there will be a formidable pushback against that.
In the past, a lot of the migrations have been to coastal cities, where job opportunities and industry trends were thought to be. Now, I think people are going to realize how important community is to that equation.
Atlanta is everything we thought it would be: the richness of diversity here, the celebration of Blackness and culture and the feeling of inclusion in that culture, the fact that my son gets to go to a school that is wonderfully diverse. Coalescing family and Blackness and the density of genius is the advantage. What a great place to live—capital L.
You’ve launched restaurants in neighborhoods without a lot of dining options. How do you decide where to open new spots? I don’t move by money—money don’t move me. Every decision I make, I move because I know that it’s going to have a long-term effect on the people who consume it. Slutty Vegan is a community-based business, right? We sell burgers and fries, but the community piece is really more important to me.
I decided to put Slutty Vegan in underserved communities where there’s a lack of resources—food insecurity, food deserts, places where developers aren’t really attracted. People want to eat better. They just need access to resources, even if it starts as vegan comfort food. I’ve been purchasing the land in which I put the Slutty Vegans, so now I’m developing communities and revitalizing communities while selling burgers and fries and helping people reimagine food. It’s a win-win across the board.
I don’t have to go into an area where it costs me $200 a square foot just to be beside a Chipotle. I can go into a space where it may not be as attractive, but I can make it beautiful.
In April, Maricela Vegaleft her job as executive chef at 8Arm—the hip, subversive restaurant on Ponce where her acclaimed cooking was informed by her Mexican heritage and her commitment to local foods and social justice. She is not, however, leaving the Atlanta culinary scene: Vega will focus on Chicomecóatl, the “social enterprise” and food pop-up with which she initially made a name for herself.
Taqueria del Sol—the beloved chain founded by Eddie Hernandez and business partner Mike Klank—celebrated 20 years in business in 2020. A James Beard Award nominee, former drummer, and native of Monterrey, Mexico, Hernandez is known for putting a Southern spin on Mexican favorites and, in 2018, published his first cookbook: Turnip Greens & Tortillas: A Mexican Chef Spices Up the Southern Kitchen.
EH: I moved to Atlanta at the end of ’87. The Connector in the downtown area was under construction. [laughs] It was different than what I came from—I was in Texas. The things that were available in Texas were not available in Atlanta. So when you talk about making Mexican cuisine, it was pretty difficult because of the lack of ingredients. You had to be resourceful and try to find what you could, the best way you could. It was mainly fine dining—nobody wanted to come to the middle. I thought Atlanta was lacking a restaurant scene that was affordable, creative, and bringing something different to the table. It was either Southern all the way—fried chicken, greens and cornbread—or fine dining.
MV: I was raised in Dalton. We only had a couple of tienditas that offered the ingredients that my parents were accustomed to. It’s really an interesting thing to consider about how much has changed—now you can go and get tomatillos and Topo Chico and, you know, everything anywhere. I got here in 2007, 2008. After I had worked under several chefs, I started branching out on my own in 2015. That’s really where I developed my cuisine, which was very much plant-based. It was a lot of effort to really take off—like vegan tamales. People were looking at me weird. It’s really not weird!
EH: That reminds me of a story. In the 90s, I competed in the US Chefs Open. I had a couple of dishes that made the finals. One of them was a tamale made with turnip greens—my take on Southern cuisine. I said, Well, you know, hot tamales are very popular in the Delta and Louisiana. Nobody’s ever done a turnip green tamale, so I did one. It was a takeoff on a vegetarian thing because I used butter instead of lard to make the dough, so they would be totally vegetarian. My take on food is to give an option—I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I just want to make things that, you know what they are, but give you an option.
MV: The cuisine that I started to bring out was nothing that was reinventing the wheel: The use of turnip greens reminds me of the use of quelites—wild amaranth greens—and just really returning to a lot of the herbivore kind of lifestyle of indigenous eating, making use of greens and calabazas and so forth. A lot of that was just sort of reintroducing that precolonial cuisine: Yeah, you guys have done that. But did you know that tamales have been in existence for over 10,000 years, and it can be a variety of landraces and it’s according to regionality, and there’s no real authentic cuisine—it’s just according to where you are? And that’s sort of the same thing that Chico[mecóatl] is: This is, in a way, regional cuisine. I am a Mexican woman that was raised in North Georgia and lives in Atlanta, so I’m adapting to what is available.
EH: When I heard about [the coronavirus], right away, we started talking about what we’re going to do. We developed a program to modify the entire restaurant into a to-go business if it came down to it. We had containers, we modified the front of the house, we modified how we handle customers. We never took an order over the phone for 20 years, but we set up an extra line specifically for to-gos. So when it was a mandate, we were ready to go. Our business went down, just like everybody else. But within three months we were back at 75 percent.
MV: We’d never done to-go orders. We never did any of that: Uber Eats, phone calls, whatever. Every day, I would get people that were like, I didn’t know you guys did to-go food. And I’m like, Yeah, we do to-go food now! We went through [laughs] pivot after pivot after pivot, and honestly, I look back at it, and I’m very proud of all the pivots we made. I mean, how are you to know, right? Like: “My first pandemic, I got this.”
EH: [laughs] What are you trying to say, that I’ve been through a bunch of them?
MV: I wish that there had been better guidance or something, because it really hurt us financially. Towards the end of it, as I was wrapping my head around everything in January, I was like: Wow. Now I remember why this doesn’t work. Like, you know, high-end dining doesn’t work. There’s so much profit loss, and the overhead—you can barely take care of yourself as a business owner. How can you take care of your staff? How can you do things properly? At some point, someone is feeling the loss of it. And it really sucks. It really sucks just to see a reminder of that, and that’s what I think that’s pandemic truly proved within our sector of the restaurant world.
We provide all these feelings for people like joy and aesthetic beauty and taste, and here we are: Millions of people are out of jobs. They don’t even have healthcare. Like some fucked-up shit, like everyone’s having to crowdfund for each other because they can’t afford to pay rent, and the noncitizen people were denied assistance, and that’s who makes up the majority of our restaurant sector. I was just like, you guys, this is fucking disgusting. It definitely caused me to be like, Yeah, I don’t want to do this. I don’t know if I’ll ever own a restaurant. I’ll have the stuff that I do—my products, my vision—but definitely right now I’m feeling really like, ugh, I just can’t do that.
EH: Mike and I, we focused on the things that we had to do to survive. Whether we went for one year, two years, or three months, or 30 days—it didn’t matter to us. We needed to be ready to survive. I’m not saying that, just because somebody had to close a restaurant, it’s because of poor planning. No—their situation is different than mine. Everybody else’s situation is not the same as yours. You can only worry about what you’re going to be facing rather than what everybody else is going to be facing. It can sound egotistic that I’ve got to take care of myself, but I’m not taking care of myself—I’m taking care of 100 employees. So I have to think about what’s going to happen to my employees, to my business, to myself.
MV: I think overall, everyone was forced to take a step back and truly check in on themselves and, you know, that allowed time to evaluate the state of everything. People are going to start asking for more and recognizing their skill set. Lately, I’ve curated a whole group of people [in pop-up dinners at 8ARM] that are really special chefs in the city. A lot of them are people of color. Some folks might have the opportunity to be, I guess, an executive chef. Maybe some won’t. But pop-ups are not long term. It’s just like a way to be like, Hey, I’m here. Check me out. This is what I’m doing. I think that that’s going to be happening more as people start to go ahead and take equity into their own hands—like, Hey, this is my food. This is who I’m representing. You have Vietnamese folks, Laotians, someone from Bangkok. Bangladeshi food, Venezuelan food—everybody is going to find a way to really showcase who they are, and bring their own story to the light.
EH: Atlanta, there’s a wide variety of food from all parts of the world that is affordable now. I think that’s the biggest change that I’ve seen from the early 90s into the 2020s. I don’t want to be asked again, like I was asked one time by a lady from a magazine out of LA, what does Atlanta aspire to be—like Chicago, LA, or New York? I said, we don’t aspire to be like anybody else. Atlanta is its own city with its own food and with its own tastes. We don’t go to New York to have biscuits because we can get them here. We don’t need to go to LA to have a freaking salad just because they put pine nuts on it. We can have that here. We don’t have to go to Chicago to have a steak. We’ve got everything everybody else has got.
Located on the first floor of the new Kimpton Sylvan, the Betty is a hotel restaurant inspired by the midcentury supper club—and if none of the preceding description particularly lights your fire, know that chef Brandon Chavannes (St. Cecilia, King + Duke) is cooking on a level way beyond workaday steak and soggy shrimp cocktail. That famous appetizer, for instance, gets a rigorous makeover, served head-on with cocktail sauce spiked with fermented lime and warming Indian spices. An Atlanta native born to Norwegian and Jamaican immigrants, Chavannes flavors his food with a deft hand and a global reach, enriching grilled Cornish rock hen with tahini and labneh, then providing an acidic counterpoint in the form of earthy salsa verde—it’s like the world’s most luxurious chicken shawarma. Steak options, de rigueur in a hotel, start with filet mignon and escalate to a porterhouse that costs more than some round-trip airfares ($169). The Betty is one of three concepts Chavannes is overseeing here: There’s also Willow Bar, a courtyard space serving cocktails and plant-centric plates, and St. Julep, a rooftop bar with more “playful” food. 374 E. Paces Ferry Road, Buckhead, 470-531-8902—Sam Worley
The most alluring offering at amiable Botica is the shared plates: Chef Mimmo Alboumeh was born in Lebanon, lived in Spain and Italy, and cooked previously at Red Pepper Taqueria, and here, he serves not just standard party fare (nachos, guac) but also more tapas-esque dishes like a terrific, smoky octopus with crisp potatoes and aioli. You can imagine ordering them one after another, between rounds of drinks, long into the evening—if only this were the era of the shared plate, or the long evening. For me, Botica represents a happy dream of life someday soon, when sitting together at an intimate table, basking in one another’s warm company and/or airborne droplets, isn’t such a stressful proposition. For now, luckily, takeout is also available. (Though this spot might think a little harder about its protocols: Picking up my to-go order, I was invited to wait at the crowded bar, where I sat masked and anxious, like that Bernie Sanders on Inauguration Day meme. Guys: There is a bug going around!) Tacos are also on the menu, along with a few larger plates: burger, salmon, enchiladas. For those dining in—who also can choose to sit on a spacious patio facing Peachtree Road—the bar serves well-crafted margaritas and frozen drinks including an Aperol spritz frosé, which speaks of another happy dream: a summer that can’t get here soon enough. 1820 Peachtree Road, Brookwood Hills, 404-228-6358—Sam Worley
Soul: Food & Culture
Born in Chicago with family roots in the South—and with a long career of Atlanta fine-dining experience now under his belt—Todd Richards is on a mission to elevate soul food to the rank it deserves. In 2018, he published his first cookbook, the autobiographical Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes. He follows it up with this new counter spot in Krog Street Market, which he developed with chef Joshua Lee. Some dishes remain from Richards’ Southern Fried, the leaner concept Richards operated solo in this same space, like chicken and waffles (plain or stuffed with collards) and a fried catfish sandwich with spicy remoulade. Chicken wings come tossed in a choice of sauces—lemon pepper with herbs and spices, hot honey with peppers and pickled red onions, and so on—with sides including collard greens with smoked chicken and mac and cheese. Richards tweaks classic soul preparations in dishes such as smoky salmon croquettes, served with stone-ground grits and jalapeño creamed corn. Results can be uneven, but don’t skip the frozen lemonade—a not-too-sweet treat that’s pure pleasure on the tongue. 99 Krog Street, Inman Park, 404-205-5913—Christiane Lauterbach
We’ve had a taste of this over the past few days, but now it’s official: For the next two months, Georgia becomes the center of the world. The state’s two U.S. Senate races are going to a January 5 runoff; the outcome almost certainly will determine control of the chamber, and therefore of the legislative branch. If both Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win their races—and if two other not-yet-called contests, in North Carolina and Alaska, go to Republicans, as is expected—Democrats will have 50 Senate seats, with vice president Kamala Harris able to cast a tie-breaking 51st vote. 2020 has been a wild ride, no? Now, in the year’s final turn, that entire vehicle careens down I-75 and crashes into Georgia like a flaming dump truck.
Ossoff and Warnock will look to unseat David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively. Like the rest of the Republican Party, both incumbent senators have yoked themselves to Donald Trump, which will make the coming weeks in Georgia a kind of preview of our residual new reality: Trumpism is here to stay, but Trump is not. (Of course, that latter part will be somewhat dependent on how loudly he decides to make his exit.) What happens to the movement without its autocratic leader occupying the highest office in the land?
Up until November, Georgia’s two Senate campaigns dramatized the GOP’s fealty to the 45th president, particularly the face-off between Loeffler and Republican Congressman Doug Collins in the “jungle primary.” Loeffler—a wildly wealthy former executive at the Intercontinental Exchange, a Fortune 500 company founded by her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher—was appointed to the Senate last year to replace senator Johnny Isakson, who retired with three years of his term left. Governor Brian Kemp chose Loeffler over Collins, Trump’s preferred appointee; she is an Atlantan who lives in a 15,000-square-foot mansion, hosts fundraisers for well-regarded causes, and sits on various boards of directors. “One of the social doyennes of Buckhead,” as the Times’Richard Fausset wrote in an October profile, noting that Loeffler’s selection was “widely interpreted as an effort to make the Georgia Republican Party more palatable to middle-class moderates, especially educated women in the Atlanta suburbs who have been abandoning the party in the Trump era.”
Ah, but 2019’s hopes comes to dust in 2020. Loeffler moved quickly to dispel notions that she might be any sort of moderate, proclaiming herself “a lifelong conservative, pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-wall, and pro-Trump” and spending the intervening year demonstrating just how much she means it—particularly that last part. With Collins vying as her equally conservative opponent, the contest turned into a race of bitter one-upmanship. Collins announced he was going on a “Trump Defender Statewide Tour” in his “family Suburban, trailed by volunteers in a 15-passenger van that runs on liberal tears.” The central scene of Fausset’s Times piece is set in a Dalton brewpub, where Loeffler appeared in August alongside Marjorie Taylor Greene. Just elected to the U.S. House, Greene gained a lot of attention for her association with the QAnon conspiracy theory, and a little attention, too, for her apparent belief that 9/11 was an inside job. Greene has since clarified her position: “Some people claimed a missile hit the Pentagon,” she offered, in a tweet written August 13. “I now know that is not correct.” You live, you learn!
Greene is all the way through the looking glass; Loeffler dove in behind her—they appeared together in September, for instance, at a rally surrounded by militia members carrying assault rifles—and was rewarded with Greene’s endorsement. Loeffler has resembled less a moderate candidate than a right-wing Facebook feed come to life, stoking paranoia over fake news. She described Warnock, himself a pretty moderate political actor, as “the most radically liberal and extreme candidate running for Senate anywhere in the country,” while comparing herself in a series of commercials to Attila the Hun. She locked herself into a public dispute over Black Lives Matter with players on the Atlanta Dream, the WNBA team that Loeffler—now somewhat awkwardly—co-owns. In an open letter, Loeffler averred that BLM “called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure,” which—huh! She has also called it a “dangerous Marxist movement.”
A recurring theme of the Trump phenomenon is the doling out of a kind of ritual humiliation, which his fans seem to crave, and which bludgeons just about everyone the president has contact with. Mitt Romney was an early target; Chris Christie had several turns in the barrel. Various people have gone to prison as a result of their service to Trump; Herman Cain literally died of COVID-19 after making a point of not wearing a mask (his diagnosis came nine days after attending an indoor Trump rally), suffering thereafter the considerable indignity of being outlived by his own Twitter account. Few have demonstrated their loyalty as intensely as Loeffler, which didn’t escape the notice of her opponent Collins. He portrayed Loeffler as a “phony” conservative, “about as comfortable as a vegan at a steakhouse,” as a flack put it to the New Yorker’s Charles Bethea. But boy, Loeffler has really put her back into it. When she said that she didn’t disagree with the president on a single issue, a CNN reporter asked if that extended to the remarks he’d made on that infamous Access Hollywood tape, bragging about sexual assault. “I’m not familiar with that,” Loeffler said. It certainly captured the mood of the moment, or a mood, anyways, in its combination of absolute fealty to the leader with the denial of a reality that anybody can plainly see. Trump might’ve approved, though he’s done little to acknowledge Loeffler’s efforts; for instance, he’s never tweeted about her.
• • •
But what now? Perdue failed to decisively defeat Ossoff, so that race continues. Warnock gained a plurality, though not a majority, in the jungle primary, and now faces Loeffler. Combined with the outcome of the presidential election, those results are a testament to the many activists working to increase voter turnout in Georgia and beyond. They bear out the case Stacey Abrams has been making for years, which is that Georgia is not necessarily a majority-conservative state—it’s just that historic and systematic suppression of voters, particularly Black voters, has helped make it look that way. As Nse Ufot, the organizer who leads Abrams’s New Georgia Project, put it in a recent interview: “The Confederacy and the civil rights movement both have claim to Georgia’s past. Right now, what we are all living through and witnessing is a fight for Georgia’s future.”
Speaking to CNN last month, a GOP strategist said Loeffler’s exuberant embrace of the far right would be “devastating to her in a runoff.” Her schtick has been so extreme that it’s hard to see much possibility of her moderating it to make herself more palatable to a wider Georgia audience even if she wanted to. She may not want to—Trump has demonstrated that there is a reward for a strategy of this kind. Loeffler winning the runoff would be a validation of that strategy, proof that it will still be viable. A win for her is a consolation win for the outgoing president and his larger-than-predicted base.
Of course, so much of that strategy has been wrapped up in the singular figure of the president; many conservatives will now seek to grab his mantle, but who knows how much they’ll succeed. In a sense Loeffler isn’t all that dissimilar from Trump—another wealthy cosmopolitan who has little in common with the people who support him. In an alternate reality, neither of them would be caught dead chatting up conspiracy theorists in a Dalton bar. On some level their constituents must know this, even admire it. But Loeffler lacks Trump’s potent charisma.
Without it, what’s left? If either Loeffler or Perdue retain their seats, keeping the Democrats from reaching a majority, they won’t have to do much of anything: The Republicans’ prize will be the ability to block Biden from any meaningful action, at least legislatively, on the direst problems of our time, particularly the pandemic, racial inequity, and the climate crisis. The remainder of the 2020 election will continue that test of competing futures: whether the ascendant and, as of today, razor-thin Georgia majority can overcome the dystopian longings of the Trumpist crowd, who’ve left themselves no room for moderation.
And what if Warnock and Ossoff do both prevail, against what seem like considerable odds? The more sober elements within the Republican Party—the tax-cut set rather than the pure culture warriors—may use it as evidence in a case for their continued relevance. The Trumpists, or whatever we’ll be calling them next year, will make that a hard argument, given what we know about the broad sympathies of the party at large: The Republican electorate, after all, never abandoned Trump. And the recent journey of Loeffler, for instance, suggests that some of the tax cutters and the culture warriors were never all that far apart to begin with. Which is to say that a Warnock and Ossoff double-whammy will be an early and important indicator of whether Republicans, in the aggregate, become humbled or fractured without their leader. It is against the nature of Trumpism to accept defeat. Will it be against the nature of Republican voters to reject Trumpism?
Without a challenger from the right, Perdue hasn’t been forced to undertake the same kind of theatrics as Loeffler, though he gave it a shot with his performative mangling of Kamala Harris’s name at a Trump rally in the waning days of the election. He’s been a steadfast supporter of the president’s since the beginning—like both Trump and Loeffler, Perdue is a wealthy self-styled political “outsider,” and he has been called Trump’s “man in the Senate.” For as seemingly effortful as Loeffler’s Attila act has been, it’s an open question whether it represents a stretch for her, or if it’s really more of a revelation, in the way that Trump hasn’t transformed the Republican party so much as he’s just stripped off the drywall and revealed what’s holding the house up.
Loeffler’s mansion has a name—Descante—and when she and her husband purchased it in 2009, for $10.5 million, it was the most expensive residential real estate transaction in Atlanta history. Descante was described in Buckhead.com as “a $10 million work of art built to showcase other works of art,” including a number of pieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Perdue likewise lives in gated opulence; his home is Sea Island, a luxury development across a causeway from Saint Simons. With six feet or more of sea level rise, that causeway and the land it leads to will be mostly underwater by the end of the century. That, among many other things, could well be the cost of Loeffler’s and Perdue’s return to the Senate.
A stone monument in downtown Savannah marks what was probably Georgia’s first road, the construction of which got underway in 1735. Beginning in Madison Square, the Ogeechee Road ended some 60 miles south at the Altamaha River, in what’s now Darien.
Parts of that Savannah-Darien route eventually became U.S. Highway 17, also known as the Coastal Highway. U.S. 17 hugs the coast as closely as the Georgia coast can be hugged—which is to say, at a little distance, because there is so much marsh and so many islands between the mainland and the ocean. Laid out in the 18th century, paved in the 20th, the road skirts those marshes and weaves its way through pine forests, over rivers big and small, and through villages where people have made their livings off the land and the sea.
But you know how things go: Progress progresses. Interstate 95 was finished in the 1970s. Now, the trip through Georgia is a 70-miles-per-hour blur, a six-lane firehose, a dash-dot-dash sequence of trees and marsh punctuated by the occasional fast-food interchange. Time passes quickly on Interstate 95. That’s how it’s meant to pass. But Highway 17 still moves at its own speed.
Lately, I’ve been having trouble with time. Not the usual complaints—the past catches up, history repeats, a nightmare from which one can’t awake, etc., etc.—but something weirder, something that dissolves distinctions between what once felt like fixed categories: past, present, future.
Life’s exigencies spill into one dimension: facial-recognition algorithms, viral pandemics, a reality-TV president—their demands sitting ungainly on the timeline, clamoring in rapid succession. “The present has become too overwhelming, so the future has become unimaginable,” the novelist Valeria Luiselli wrote recently in her book, Lost Children Archive. “And without future, time feels like only an accumulation.”
A sense of accumulated time prevails, too, along Highway 17—but without the vertigo. Two lanes in most places, Highway 17 is picturesque, but the perspective it affords is unusually deep, with glimpses of a Georgia both recent and remote: midcentury motor lodges, working shrimp boats, abandoned rice plantations. Maybe I’m drawn to this particular highway for its palliative quality, the way it demonstrates how many different stories can sit amicably side by side along the Georgia coast. It feels hopeful rather than dissonant. I meander like a tidal creek: slowly enough to see the cordgrass waving in the marsh, through towns whose economies were once fed by this very highway and are now neglected by it—though you can still find pretty good seafood. In Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock, one of the best true stories ever told about coastal Georgia, U.S. 17 is practically a character. Greene quotes Sonny Seiler, the famous Savannah lawyer: “You can’t learn anything riding down I-95 with the Yankees. You’ve got to go the old way, 17, what we call the old way.”
As I set out onto Highway 17 from Savannah, I make two stops first along Ogeechee Road, which is still its name where the route heads out of town. The first is Laurel Grove, a cemetery cleaved in half by the I-16 off-ramp as it shoots traffic into the center of the city.
This cemetery was already split, though, and along familiar lines. Laurel Grove North opened in 1850 for white Savannahians, with Laurel Grove South added several years later for free and enslaved black people. Notable names rest in each segregated half: Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low in a tree-shaded plot in the north, the civil rights leader W.W. Law in the south. Law, who led the integration of Savannah, also helped preserve Laurel Grove South, spearheading the restoration of the gravesite of Andrew Bryan—who founded First African Baptist Church, one of the country’s first black congregations, in the late 18th century. “There is no source that holds as much black history,” Law told the Savannah Morning News in 1999. Laurel Grove North was established the same year as Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery and filled up quickly during the Victorian era; as such, it boasts one of the most concentrated collections of Victorian cemetery architecture in the Southeast. And both halves of Laurel Grove—rolling, verdant, and parklike, with strange old crypts and chipped stone markers—are lonelier than tourist-packed Bonaventure, of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame.
My second stop is Ms. Polly’s Cake Giants, just outside of Laurel Grove South, to get a slice of sour-cream pound cake for the road. From here, Ogeechee Road angles southwest past motels and Mexican groceries and little flea markets—big ones, too. At the edge of Savannah, Keller’s Flea Market draws hundreds of vendors every weekend to its elaborate warren of tin-roofed buildings. Everyone comes here, and they put everything up for sale: old windows and graduation gowns, alligator skulls and shea butter, $1,000 labradoodle puppies. Kobe Bryant memorial T-shirts, white sage smudge sticks, laundry detergent. Confederate bedsheets, door knobs, the collected teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Latinx vendors at a small farmers market sell mangoes, plantains, tortillas, and cranberry beans.
There is also a taqueria or two, but I usually hold out for a taqueria about five minutes down the road, located inside an Indian and Mexican grocery store called Big Bazaar. Or I travel five minutes further, to the banks of the Ogeechee River, for Love’s Seafood & Steaks, which began as a fish camp in 1949. It’s still family-owned—that family being the Loves—and a reliable purveyor of fine dishes like lowcountry boil and fried Georgia shrimp (as well as a gorgeous spot to catch the sunset). Love’s was also the alter ego of the rowdy bar in Forrest Gump where Jenny sings “Blowin’ in the Wind” and tells Forrest—outside, on the Old Kings Ferry Bridge—that he doesn’t know what love is. She also gives him the advice he’ll carry forward: If he ever gets in trouble, just run.
Before being designated U.S. Highway 17, this road formed part of the Dixie Highway, one of the first paved interstate systems in the U.S. The Dixie Highway was hatched in the early 20th century to fuel travel to Florida, an emerging vacation destination, with construction beginning in 1915. The system stretched from Michigan to Miami; so many communities along the way clamored for their piece that two main north-south routes, with various tributaries, were eventually laid. In Georgia, the westernmost took travelers from Atlanta to Tallahassee; a diagonal connector, the Central Dixie Highway, cut over from Macon to Jacksonville; and the easternmost route followed “the old Oglethorpe road,” as a 1916 article in Automobile Journal put it, from Savannah to Darien and beyond.
With the advent of the U.S. Numbered Highway System in 1926, the old road names disappeared, though not entirely. Traces of the label “Dixie Highway” linger here and there along U.S. routes. Earlier this year, Miami-Dade County commissioners voted to rename the last vestiges of Miami’s Dixie Highway, which became Harriet Tubman Highway.
In any event, the roads stayed. Under the name Ocean Highway, in fact, Georgia’s coastal route was the subject of a 1938 guidebook produced by the Federal Writers’ Project. The roadside attractions kept coming—like the Midway Museum, built in 1959. A half hour outside Savannah on U.S. 17, the town of Midway was settled by descendants of Puritans who moved from New England and took up rice cultivation. Rice thrived in this region for the same reason the Midway Museum, designed in the style of an 18th-century colonial cottage, is raised several feet off the ground: the wet earth. The museum collects artifacts from the descendants of planters who lived in the area. When I toured recently, a guide pointed to an ornate organ which was once hidden from the Union Army in a swamp. The house is filled with artifacts like that—the tableware, bedspreads, and Bibles of the planter class, as well as a library of local history. This is not a sentimental portrayal of antebellum days but rather an austere depiction of the daily lives of people who prospered by enslaving others.
South of Midway, a town’s very name reflects these origins: Riceboro, where a festival every November honors “the heritage of rice farming and the Gullah Geechee culture.” (Rice was domesticated in West Africa 3,000 years ago; in recent decades, scholars have argued that its success in the New World depended on the agricultural expertise brought here by enslaved people.) Scores of people gather in a park alongside the highway and listen to music, hold a cook-off, and crown a pageant winner. RiceFest was founded in 2007 by, among others, the late Jim Bacote, who also cofounded the Geechee Kunda Cultural Center, a little further south on 17—a rambling repository of African art and other artifacts celebrating Georgia’s Gullah Geechee people. Since the interstate opened 50 years ago, this area has been quiet: The road grew lonely and business dried up. “This whole town disappeared,” the Midway Museum guide told me.
Heading south on 17, across the county line, one of the first things you’ll see is the Smallest Church in America. It can be skipped if you’re in a hurry. Picture a tiny church. Yep, you’ve got it.
Now, picture a country juke joint like in movies—ramshackle construction, eccentric decor, middle of nowhere. That’s a better way to spend your time: by detouring to the Old School Diner, 10 minutes off Highway 17 down Harris Neck Road. Its exterior is decorated with shells and cast-iron pans and license plates, and its interior walls are plywood, plastered with thousands of pictures of folks who’ve dined here. This is a seafood place and a ribs place, where the item to order is the Wheelchair Platter—a sampler of whatever Chef Jerome, who opened the restaurant in 2005, is cooking. “It Will Astound You,” the menu says. “What’s on it, you ask? Well . . . Ben Affleck says, ‘Why ask? Trust your Chef!’” (Ben Affleck owns an enormous estate on a nearby island.)
In the first half of the 20th century, travelers camped in empty fields when they stopped for the night. In McIntosh County, entrepreneurs got busy with motels, gas stations, restaurants, and produce stands—and organized crime. In Praying for Sheetrock, Greene vividly described the racket that roadside grifters created along 17 into Darien. Unsuspecting tourists would stop for a snack and find themselves lured into a gambling game they’d inevitably lose. “They were the county’s greatest source of wealth,” Greene wrote: “To this day, no one knows how many thousands—how many tens of thousands—of cash Yankee dollars of vacation money and retirement money were lost on that mile-and-a-half stretch of fruit stands under the pine trees.”
Overlooking a distributary channel of the Altamaha River, Darien has the same population today as it did when Greene visited in the 1970s: about 1,800. Darien is maybe my favorite place on the Georgia coast. Its energy and eclecticism always surprise me. There’s a palpable sense of backstory, a weird emptiness, and a few beautiful central blocks for wandering around, with old houses and churches, large and small—I’ve never quite figured out how I feel about Darien, which is the reason I keep going back to it. It’s the kind of place that keeps you looking. Plus, there’s the mesmerizing riverfront, where the masts of shrimp boats resemble a city skyline and marsh stretches for miles. A single intersection comprises most of Darien’s downtown, but right there—at the foot of a river bridge—you’ll find a store called Turnip Greens, selling local produce and sundry groceries; an antique shop; a Mexican restaurant; an honest-to-goodness wine bar; and Skippers’ Fish Camp, one of two excellent seafood places in town. The other is B&J’s Steaks & Seafood, which you’d think was the only place to eat for miles given how packed the parking lot is. B&J’s serves the usual seafood hits and a soulful southern lunch buffet: fried chicken, mac and cheese, neck bones and rice, okra and tomatoes.
Darien is the second-oldest planned city in Georgia; Fort King George, a state historic site at the edge of the marsh, is the oldest remaining English fort on the coast. The town’s fortunes rose and fell: During the longleaf pine boom, Darien was an international shipping port. It’s still a fishing town, as evidenced by the guy who sells shrimp from the back of his truck at the Friendly Express gas station and by the Blessing of the Fleet, an annual spring festival when local shrimpers line their boats up in the harbor. Standing at the crest of the Highway 17 bridge, a priest calls them forth, one by one, and wishes them prosperity.
The land past that bridge feels like wild country indeed, somehow both denuded and overgrown, flat and swampy as far as the eye can see, cut through with old canals. Butler Island was the site of a rice plantation started by Pierce Butler, who signed the U.S. Constitution. Inherited by his grandson, Pierce Mease Butler, it has a legacy that has entered posterity thanks to Frances Anne Kemble, a British actress who married the younger Butler in Philadelphia in 1834. She had no idea, she wrote later, where his fortune came from; she was aghast to learn it was built on the labor of nearly a thousand people in his possession.
Fanny Kemble spent a winter on this island, and the book that resulted, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839, is an unflinching look at slavery from a rare insider’s vantage. Kemble hated it here—hated the degradation she witnessed, hated the white planters’ wives she was expected to befriend, hated her cold, austere accommodations on Butler Island. She captured some of the lonely beauty of the place all the same: “If no human chisel ever yet cut breath,” she wrote, “neither did any human pen ever write light; if it did, mine should spread out before you the unspeakable glories of these Southern heavens, the saffron brightness of morning, the blue intense brilliancy of noon, the golden splendor and the rosy softness of sunset.”
The long, watery canals remain as magically luminous. You can learn agricultural facts about rice at nearby Hofwyl-Broadfield, a former plantation which is now a museum and historical site, but in my opinion, it is just as enlightening to stand somewhere on Butler Island and listen to the wind and watch the water. The old, empty, white house here was built by the incredibly named Col. Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, a co-owner of the New York Yankees who purchased the Butler land in 1926 and started a dairy and an iceberg-lettuce farm. Now, weeds grow high all around. Locals fish off the bridge nearby, and alligators haunt the huge canals carved centuries ago by enslaved people. It’s startling to walk through this tainted landscape, which nature is busy taking back.
“The splendid road into Brunswick is through the celebrated Marshes of Glynn, made famous in the poem by Sidney Lanier,” trumpeted Automobile Journal in 1916. The marshes are still here today, but there’s a lot more traffic. Past Brunswick, Highway 17 rises into the soaring Sidney Lanier Bridge before heading into the hinterlands and reaching, eventually, a blue bridge at the Florida line. It’s a sweet drive. It’s also a good idea to turn at Woodbine and head east to St. Marys, a jewel of a little town on the water, where the Cumberland Island Ferry docks. It has the same quiet allure as the other stops along this route—the coast behind the coast. Twisting live oak trees line Osborne Street as it leads in a straight line to the river, with Florida visible just across the water. There’s a good bookstore down here, Once Upon A Bookseller, a submarine museum, and one of coastal Georgia’s most convivial little bars: Seagle’s Saloon, on the first floor of the 100-year-old Riverview Hotel.
Brunswick, often overlooked in favor of the tourist-packed islands it serves as conduit to, is also worth lingering in. Downtown is centered around a couple of wide thoroughfares that often feel a bit empty, though folks who live here have plenty of ideas about where to visit—particularly, to eat. Like Indigo Coastal Shanty, a place with the rare feel of a really good neighborhood restaurant: warm vibes, happy diners, and satisfying, well-flavored dishes like an Indian-spiced burger, Bahamian chicken curry, and plenty of seafood. On Newcastle Street, Tipsy McSway’s is an amiable hangout with better-than-the-usual bar food and live music.
Like Savannah, Brunswick is laid out around a series of greenspaces: The Old Town feels like a compressed, more intimate version of Savannah’s historic district. On a recent visit, I walked past blooming azaleas on my way to Lover’s Oak—900 years old, its name taken from Native American lore—before looping back to Hanover Park. It was dusk, early spring. Nobody was around, but somebody had pulled a bunch of Spanish moss to the ground and arranged it into a sort of miniature labyrinth: found art or earth art or whatever you want to call it. A summoning circle, a magic circle, a talisman. A portal to the past or to the future. Or to someplace else altogether?
Where to stay
Thunderbird Inn Savannah
A 1964 motor lodge remade in bright colors, boasting kitschy perks—like MoonPies and RC Cola in each room—and proximity to Savannah’s historic district. Hip, pet-friendly, and definitely one of the most affordable downtown options.
Open Gates Bed & Breakfast Darien
An elegant 1876 inn overlooking gorgeous Vernon Square, with well-
appointed guest rooms and—when it’s in season—shrimp eggs Benedict for breakfast, among other goodies. “To-go” meals available for those eager to head out exploring.
Riverview Hotel St. Marys
Come for the gorgeous river views from the second-story balcony, stay for the homey rooms, sweet service, and convivial little bar on the first floor of this 100-year-old building. Steps from the Cumberland Island ferry.
Brunswick Manor Brunswick
Just down the street from the Lover’s Oak, this fancy but affordable B&B features a koi pond and orchid conservatory (!), plus a large veranda for lounging. Just a short walk from downtown restaurants and shops, for those disinclined to lounge.
Robert Woodruff, the man who turned Coca-Cola from a syrupy Georgia drink into an international icon, kept a little place out in the country: Ichauway, a 30,000-acre estate near Albany where he liked to hunt quail. Albany has recently become a kind of tragic pandemic poster child, but in Woodruff’s day another public health concern prevailed: malaria, a disease of fever and lassitude. Woodruff became concerned about its effects on the workforce and, in the late 1930s, he made some land at Ichauway available to researchers studying the disease. In the next decade that site was taken over by an emerging Atlanta laboratory called the Communicable Disease Center, or CDC, whose mission was also to stop the spread of malaria. Woodruff was frank about his motivations: “I wasn’t thinking of it as a humane program, because it was an economic situation, too,” he said later. “A man that is ill can’t work. He’s no good.”
Or … perhaps a man that is ill can work? Last week, citing the president’s wish to “reopen our nation’s economy” in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Brian Kemp announced his own little study of the relationship between illness and economics: a large-scale experiment to learn whether a highly contagious, poorly understood virus can truly be contained in a population that broadly hasn’t been tested for it and may not necessarily show symptoms of it as it spreads, along with a suite of auxiliary experiments—to learn, for instance, how a citizenry that’s been asked to stay six feet apart can still give one another haircuts and mani-pedis.
Pursuant to Kemp’s plan, restaurants in Georgia began to offer dine-in service today. Vital businesses such as bowling alleys were allowed to reopen this past Friday, which is also when the barbering began. How long our hair has gotten, how lonely our bowling shoes. Safety restrictions will be in place: The Georgia State Board of Cosmetologists issued four pages of guidelines for salons to follow, including using infrared thermometers to check employee and patron temperatures at the door, disinfecting thoroughly and often, and wearing face masks. It raised more questions than it answered: Where are these thermometers available? Where is this disinfectant available? Where is this protective equipment coming from? As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution points out, salon owners have now been “thrown into the competition with hospitals for protective face masks.” You gotta love a healthy market solution in action.
• • •
It’s possible nowadays to forget why Atlanta is an international center of infectious disease research but in short: The CDC was founded here because this is where the disease was. Malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses do best where mosquitoes thrive, and they thrive particularly in Georgia’s many marshes and swamps; malaria was widespread across the South until its elimination in the mid-20th century. On Woodruff’s old estate, which is now an ecological research center, the watery sinkholes of the limestone topography acted as little insect nurseries.
Letting scientists work on his land for years, Woodruff was pursuing his economic interests, but his patience had beneficial effects that were not strictly economic—public health being a field in which positive outcomes are ideally not just immediate and individual, but widely shared and long-lasting. It’s good when one person’s symptoms clear up, better when many people are healthy for a good while. In some cases, the robust health of the community directly benefits individual constituents: That’s the idea of herd immunity.
Local expertise in infectious disease is long and deep, in other words, but today the governor appears to be listening to another song entirely. The public health campaign against the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is often described as a “battle” against the disease, but it’s linked inextricably—in the U.S., anyway—with another battle, which has been going on longer: between conservative politicians and those they perceive to be hampering economic activity through needless regulation, whether that’s other elected officials, scientists, or civil servants. Kemp’s plan for “reopening” the state contravenes the wishes of just about every public health official who’s been asked to comment on it, and it was reported that Anthony Fauci, the most high-profile member of the president’s coronavirus task force—feet desperately worn out after months of walking on eggshells—flatly refused to support it. So did Trump, sort of: The president reportedly first gave Kemp the go-ahead, but was then prevailed upon by the task force to change his mind.
“By easing the restrictions, Kemp had appeared to be carrying out Trump’s wishes” was how the AJC put it, poignantly. One imagines Kemp’s alarm as the most powerful force in media (if not in actual governance) turned on him: As last week wore on, Trump—even after having urged citizens of various states under Democratic governance to “liberate” themselves from the onerous restrictions keeping them away from their own local bowling alleys—continued to double down on his condemnations. “I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp,” he said, several times. (In the New Yorker, an Athens hairdresser offered a plausible theory of the case: She thought Trump urged Kemp to reopen Georgia “to see how people will react,” with plans to hang him out to dry if it went badly.)
Like all the other shitty remakes we’re seeing these days, the 2020 version of “What did the president know and when did he know it?” is less nuanced than the original: Literally nobody knows anything, and they never did. Brian Kemp was, famously, the last man in the country to know that the coronavirus can be spread by persons showing few to no symptoms. Announcing his shelter-in-place directive in early April, he professed ignorance on the matter more than six weeks after the CDC director, Robert Redfield, had commented on CNN on the apparent prevalence of “asymptomatic illness,” and a month after the CDC—again, located in the same city where Kemp keeps an office—had begun warning about presymptomatic spread.
So: The governor has run afoul repeatedly of broad medical opinion, and he’s also, somehow, run afoul of a man who went on TV the other day to promote the potential medical benefits of drinking bleach. Who is Kemp listening to? Who knows. He’s at least explained who we should take our cues from going forward: “The private sector has to convince the public it’s safe to go back into these businesses,” he said. If those businesses don’t act properly, Kemp said, the state will step in.
And a bowling alley owner shall lead them. As far as this particular pandemic goes, though, relying on the private sector to take the lead has not put us in good stead yet. The federal government spent the last few years defunding disease surveillance, while pharmaceutical companies have altogether avoided tackling the public health threats that endanger the most people but promise the fewest profits, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria and zoonotic diseases such as coronaviruses. In early March, explaining to a House committee why a test for the new virus had been so slow in materializing, CDC director Redfield said, “I guess I anticipated that the private sector would have helped develop it for the clinical side. . . . I can tell you, having lived through the last eight weeks, I would have loved the private sector to be fully engaged eight weeks ago.” This moment, with the American government gapingly ill-prepared in the face of a devastating if entirely predictable catastrophe, marked the realization of a decades-long right-wing dream—shrink the government so small you could drown it in a bathtub, let the market sort it out—but, as Alex Pareene wrote in the New Republic, “It didn’t occur to the right that a more terrifying series of words than ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’ would turn out to be ‘I’m from the government, and I guess I anticipated that the private sector would have engaged.” To quote the great Rick Perry: “Oops.”
• • •
A couple years ago, for this magazine, I wrote a story about how communities on the coast were facing the prospect of rising sea levels caused by global warming; according to moderate estimates, the coast could be inundated up to three feet by the end of the century, and more alarming predictions put it at twice that. There’s some promising news out there: Tybee Island, for instance, has proactively sought to understand the scope of the threat and figure out what can be done to mitigate it. But as I worked on the article, I couldn’t help but feel depressed about the scale of the action undertaken locally versus the scale of the action required. Admirably, citizens and local leaders were doing what they could in the face of a problem of almost ungraspable magnitude. But the people who actually have the power to slow the ocean’s rising? They were far away and—in the American government, anyway—they weren’t even trying.
Tybee was back in the news recently when Kemp’s shelter-in-place order, issued April 1, had the curious effect of reopening the island’s beaches, which Tybee mayor Shirley Sessions had previously closed. Like Keisha Lance Bottoms and Van Johnson, mayors of Atlanta and Savannah respectively, Sessions had been quicker than the state to institute restrictive measurements—only to find herself second-guessed, and to learn that the future of her community and its well-being could be buffeted by forces hundreds of miles away. Not for the first time for Tybee Island, of course, and not for the last time either—it’s the story of climate change writ small. Now that the state is on a path to “reopening,” Kemp’s authority continues to supersede that of mayors around the state who would prefer to put their communities on a more responsible footing. Their cities cannot continue sheltering in place. The tool the mayors are left with is, as the AJC’s Jim Galloway put it on GPB’s Political Rewind recently, “government by persuasion.”
Fortunately they’re also left with persuadable constituencies. I could just be speaking for myself, but it’s comforting in these terrifying times to feel as if somebody is in charge who has some resources and expertise at their disposal. I’d love somebody to tell me the best way to protect myself and my neighbors, and “I’m from the government, and you can go bowling again” isn’t particularly warm assurance. Many of the state’s mayors—who weren’t consulted on Kemp’s plan—are urging their constituents to, basically, ignore it: In Savannah, Van Johnson held a video call with some 70 local faith leaders and implored them to keep their worship remote. Apparently all of them agreed. Mayor Bottoms and Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. of Augusta have both urged constituents to keep staying home. (Davis, Bottoms, and Johnson are all black, as are 54 percent of the Georgians known to have died of COVID-19, despite the fact that African American people make up just under a third of the state’s population. That Kemp’s cavalierness is unsurprising doesn’t make it any less of a scandal.) Albany mayor Bo Dorough, whose town became an international example of how quickly and stealthily this lethal virus can spread, said that he was “flabbergasted that the governor would say we can’t take additional precautions to protect our citizens.” Many restaurants that can open now are declining to do so. “No, thank you,” Atlanta chef and restaurateur Hugh Acheson wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post.
What a strange situation: a state executive telling his constituents to go out and enjoy their freedom, and so many constituents saying, in effect, We’d prefer not to. But somebody’s got to play the grown-up. Business owners aren’t paid to manage pandemics, yet in this gaping maw of leadership they’re forced into tortured decisions: risk the health of their own employees by opening up, or staying safe and staying closed? Is your business more important than your employees’ lives? Their workers—the customer-facing employees often working for low wages and no health insurance—are the true subjects of Kemp’s experiment, and it’s grotesque that they’re having to rely on nothing more than good wishes from the governor and the magnanimity of their bosses. (One theory about Kemp’s eagerness to get things going again is he doesn’t want workers relying overmuch on the magnanimity of the state’s rapidly shrinking unemployment coffers.) Businesspeople can be magnanimous; they can, as in Robert Woodruff’s case, see some confluence between the public good or their own bottom line; or they’re free to take the straightest line toward their own profit. In any case, it’s not their job to protect us.
It is ideally the job of political leaders to be guided by the common good, which is not the same thing as “the economy.” The economy is an abstract system that offers a very imperfect kind of shorthand representation of the value of goods and labor. Good news: Abstract systems are not fixed, like rocks and galaxies; they can be reimagined completely. That’s the difference between an economy and a human body, an immune system. An economy can be remade to fit the needs of the human beings whose lives it imperfectly relates to. An immune system can be bolstered by us, it can be manipulated by our doctors, but it cannot be redesigned or reconstructed. It cannot be restarted. It succeeds or it fails; we live or we die. We as a polity can choose to promote the individual health of the constituents of our world—our friends and family, our loved ones, ourselves—or we can promote somebody’s idea of the “economy” in which the wealth flows mainly in one direction: away from the people forced to go back to work this week. But there’s no doing both. Somebody, somewhere, will have to choose.
The highest cocktail bar in Durham is on the sixth-story rooftop of the Durham Hotel, a white-and-gold midcentury building. Like a few other classic structures in downtown Durham, it was once a bank, but it now trades in a different kind of currency: cool. On a Thursday night not long ago, as the skyline was backlit by the setting sun, a little jazz combo serenaded a crowd of revelers sitting in low-slung outdoor furniture, sipping gin and tonics and single-malt whiskeys. Down below in the city center, swelling crowds flowed in and out of tea and coffee shops, an ice cream parlor, an independent bookstore, a couple of superlative bakeries, a bicycle-and-beer shop. A collection of restaurants—Spanish, Japanese, Cuban, Korean—offered anything but grits and cobbler.
Perched in the hilly North Carolina piedmont, Durham is often mentioned as one of a set of triplets known as the Triangle. Raleigh is the largest, Chapel Hill the coziest. But Durham—Durham might be the coolest.
Which is why it should come as no surprise that the city is home to Copa, a Latin restaurant run by a Cuban biochemist, and Mateo, described by Alton Brown as “the best tapas bar in the U.S.” It’s also the home of two tentpole cultural events that sell out in a flash: April’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which draws top filmmakers from around the world, and Moogfest, an avant-garde music, art, and tech gathering held the same month. (Yes, it’s named for that Moog—Robert, the synthesizer inventor and electronic-music pioneer.)
Unlike most cities with sub-300,000 populations, Durham is also home to hip downtown hotels. There’s the aforementioned Durham Hotel, with a mod atrium lobby the New York Times compared to the set of Mad Men. At night, guests leave door hangers out specifying their preferred coffee for the morning; it’s delivered, freshly ground, to be brewed inside their rooms.
Another noteworthy hotel is the 21c, located in a 1930s-era art deco building like something you’d see in a heist movie. Contemporary art is everywhere—in the hotel’s free, on-site museum; on the walls of individual rooms, which boast original pieces; and in the first-floor restaurant and cocktail bar, the Counting House. There, locals sip beguiling cocktails like the mezcal-laced Divination & Dreamwork and ponder works such as It Will Warm You Twice. The four-and-a-half-foot-long mosaic consists of tens of thousands of cigarettes and mini cigars—a tribute to Durham’s tobacco past—arranged in the shape of the trees that English colonists cleared when they arrived in the area. Nodding to both environmental and industrial decline, the piece is bittersweet—but also gestures, according to its artist, Duke Riley, to “the current cycle of reinvention, as the shell of the Durham tobacco industry is repurposed as a cultural and metropolitan center.”
Another Counting House piece, The Prophet and the King II, is by the artist Kehinde Wiley, who painted Barack Obama’s official portrait. It depicts a young man in bright streetwear, one arm raised above his head and another open at his side. Eight feet tall, bold, eye-popping, and colorful, the portrait hangs over the host stand as if to say: Welcome—there are big things here.
This year is the sesquicentennial of the city of Durham, which functioned as a tobacco and finance town almost from the beginning. J.B. Duke became the founding president of the American Tobacco Company here in 1890, and eight years later, a group of black entrepreneurs started North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, which remains the oldest and largest black life insurance company in the country.
The tobacco industry, though, is long gone. Its evidence remains in a cluster of warehouses across a set of railroad tracks from the city center. The former factory complex is part of an eclectic district that’s been rebranded as the American Tobacco Campus, complete with restaurants, the local public radio studio, an airy public plaza beside a rushing canal, and the field where the Durham Bulls play—all in the shadows of skeletal overhead chutes that once moved bales of tobacco between buildings.
The city has coined a number of slogans to celebrate its progress. One of the most frequently used is “From Tobacco to Tech,” referring to the many startups that call the city home. (American Underground, the so-called “Startup Hub of the South,” has four Durham locations with nearly 200 startups between them.)
The city has also helped create a public art project called Mural Durham to explore its past and present. One of the most prominent murals was designed under the direction of artist Brenda Miller Holmes on a brick building at 120 Morris Street. It incorporates a number of seemingly disjointed sites and historical figures: the Royal Ice Cream shop at Roxboro and Dowd streets; activists Pauli Murray and Ann Atwater; architect Julian Abele. The common thread among these images is the city’s civil rights past.
In Durham, Rev. Douglas Moore pioneered the sit-in as a tactic before it was widely adopted by the civil rights movement: Seven African American activists were arrested here in 1957 for protesting the segregated Royal Ice Cream shop, where there’s now a historical marker. (Their action preceded the more famous Woolworth sit-in in nearby Greensboro by three years.) Pauli Murray—whose writings influenced Ruth Bader Ginsburg—grew up in Durham, and her home, a national historic landmark, is set to open next year as the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice.
Ann Atwater, played by Taraji P. Henson in the recent film The Best of Enemies, lived and worked in Durham. And Julian Abele designed the gorgeous gothic chapel at Durham’s Duke University decades before he, a black man, would have been admitted to the school. With bright colors and broad strokes, the Morris Street mural takes an unflinching look at the city’s history. And if a willingness to do so indicates a readiness to move into the future, there’s reason to believe Durham’s momentum is only just beginning.
In the lastcouple of years, the New York Post has called Durham “the foodie capital of the South.” Southern Living named it the “South’s tastiest town.” And Vogue gushed about its “creative culinary scene.” One of the brightest stars in this scene is Michael Lee, a Seoul-born chef whose M Sushi anchors a burgeoning empire that also includes Korean fried-chicken and tempura restaurants. At M Sushi, Lee offers an ambitious tasting menu that reflects a deep well of culinary knowledge and a playful engagement with local ingredients. Take, for example, the uni toast: a small piece of sourdough from Raleigh’s famed bakery Boulted Bread, topped with milky stracciatella cheese, fresh sea urchin from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, whipped lardo (pork fatback; we’re still in the Carolinas, after all), and chewy tobiko. Salty, funky, and confoundingly rich, it’s like something beamed in from another planet, where all the flavors are turned up a notch or two in intensity.
M Sushi is tucked into a cobblestone alley behind Chapel Hill Street, one of the main downtown thoroughfares. Just across the alley is the Durham Hotel, home to both the aforementioned rooftop cocktail bar and an outstanding restaurant, the Durham, on the first floor. The kitchen is overseen by Andrea Reusing—a James Beard Award winner perhaps better known for her Chapel Hill restaurant, Lantern—which makes this Durham gem feel all the more special. Reusing is also in charge of the rooftop’s raw bar and a small coffee counter that serves some of the South’s best joe: Counter Culture, roasted right here in Durham.
On the same block, cocktail bar Alley Twenty Six offers a great place to drink with locals. Order your beverage at the long wooden bar and take it out into the eponymous alley, narrow and brick, strung across with bare light bulbs. Libations here showcase the deep bench of distilling talent in North Carolina: fragrant Conniption American Dry Gin from Durham Distilling, Appalachian Fernet from Asheville’s Eda Rhyne.
But no visit to Durham is complete without stopping in at the Parlour, which serves handmade, high-butterfat ice cream out of a little storefront on Market Street. Sourcing ingredients from nearby vendors like Carrboro Coffee Roasters and Lyon Farms, it scoops flavors like Vietnamese coffee, blueberry, toasted coconut, and geranium, earning nods from CNN and Marie Claire.
Ice cream cone in hand, it’s easy to walk the city’s perimeter, passing a hip, smart plant and gift shop (the Zen Succulent), a boutique hotel (funky, retro Unscripted, whose second-floor outdoor pool is open to the public), and a bodega called Bulldega—for that quick hit of kombucha to revive the spirits.
With so many progressive, eclectic offerings, Durham might indeed be the grooviest of the triplets. And like all proper cool kids, it doesn’t feel the need to grasp for attention—it simply does its thing while word of its hipness continues to spread.
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue ofSouthbound.
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