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Thomas Wheatley


The Milky Way is on display at Stephen C. Foster State Park

Stephen C. Foster State Park

Last November the International Dark-Sky Association, a group that aims to protect against nighttime light pollution, designated Stephen C. Foster State Park in the Okefenokee Swamp as Georgia’s first Gold-tier International Dark Sky Park (other such places include Big Bend and Death Valley).

Park staff and the local electric co-op installed smarter lighting to help earn the seal of approval, which should ensure campers, astronomy buffs, and wildlife in the remote South Georgia park continue to enjoy spectacular starry evenings.

This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.

The Clermont Lounge’s dancers and bartenders really can’t wait to get back to work

For nearly two decades, Dona* has entertained and collected dollar bills from bikers, dive-bar enthusiasts, and tourists at the Clermont Lounge, the world-famous strip club in the basement of the eponymous and infamous hotel. But on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon outside an Austell biker bar, Dona was with family, accepting $20 bills and donations in exchange for one helluva car wash to help her and other Clermont dancers and bartenders pay their rent, bills, and grocery costs while the hotel is transformed into a boutique lodge.

Since the lounge temporarily closed shortly after New Year’s Eve, the dancers have spent their time . . . well, living. Misty, a bartender for nearly 20 years, has been taking care of her autistic son. Barbie, who’s been dancing for 19 years, helped her daughter decorate a nursery (Barbie picked the theme—mermaids and oceans.) Another gave her house a deep clean.

There seems to be some initial confusion about when the lounge was to reopen. Early reports said patrons could expect to be back drinking PBR and watching Blondie crush cans around Valentine’s Day. Employees recall first hearing it would take four to six weeks. But according to the lounge, the strip club won’t reopen until April (Philip Welker of BNA Associates, the firm overseeing the hotel’s redevelopment, tells Atlanta magazine that the lounge’s opening was never delayed.) Some employees have spent their savings, and some have either picked up part-time work or are now seeking side jobs to pay the bills until the lounge reopens in all its dive-y splendor. They’re very much looking forward to getting back to doing what they love. Very much.

“It will be good to see everybody,” says Dona, who worked at the Clermont for four years in the early 1990s and returned after earning a history degree in 2005. “The gang, friends, customers, and whatnot. But I like having a roof over my head, electricity, and groceries.”

“Seven weeks, I can do,” says Kitty, who has danced at the lounge for three years, making her one of the newer employees. “Two months or eight weeks? No. So I started looking for other work.”

Thankfully, loyal lounge lizards are lending a hand. In addition to “Granny Panty Hootenanny” events hosted by longtime Clermont DJ Romeo Cologne at the Star Bar and the recent Bickers Bar and Billiards carwash, a GoFundMe has raised nearly $9,000 to be divvied up among the more than 10 employees. BNA and IDC Construction, the construction firms renovating the hotel, each contributed $2,500, with smaller donations coming from fans of the lounge.

However, Kitty, like all the other dancers and bartenders who spent a Sunday afternoon washing more than a dozen cars in a bar parking lot, can’t wait to return to work. And they’re fairly confident that the hotel’s renovation won’t affect the essence of the lounge that’s high on the bucket list of every resident and tourist seeking the authentic Atlanta.

“It’s probably my favorite place I’ve ever worked,” says Kitty, who dusted off her dancing shoes after growing tired of working a minimum-wage retail job a few years ago. “It really is a big community there. As you can, see we all get along great. We keep in touch with each other during our time off. It’s like a sisterhood.”

“We’re such a tight-knit group of girls,” says Barbie. “Because there’s such a small amount of ladies who work there, we’re friends. That’s one reason I’m ready to get back to work. I miss my family.”

Another Granny Panty Hootenanny—featuring a bike sale—will be held on March 15 at Star Bar. A meet-and-greet is also scheduled for March 24 at Lahrceny Tavern in Porterdale. Additional fundraisers will follow.

*We’ve omitted dancers’ and bartenders’ last names out of respect for their privacy.

Georgia Senate seems happy to honor anyone—but not Sally Yates

High school football teams. President Donald Trump. Do-gooder automotive shops. Every day, members of the Georgia General Assembly honor constituents, local heroes, and sometimes celebrities—R.I.P., Prince—with legislative shout-outs. Even sports and holidays get their moment of fame (let’s hear it for the game of golf!)

Called privileged resolutions, the pieces of legislation give state senators and representatives a chance to recognize, flatter, or console people who achieved notable deeds or just deserved a nod. And more often than not, their colleagues go right along with the nod of recognition.

That custom apparently flies out the window when the person being honored is Sally Yates, the federal prosecutor who lost her job as acting attorney general after refusing to enforce Trump’s controversial immigration order that sparked an explosion of protests at airports across the country and was successfully challenged in federal court.

Last week, state Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) introduced a privileged resolution honoring Yates, who lives in Atlanta and boasts an impressive resume as a prosecutor. Before serving as deputy attorney general during the Obama administration, Yates was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. In that role, Yates prosecuted Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph and former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, among other cases. There’s an argument to be made—a winnable argument—that the bar for Gold Dome recognition has been met.

Normally, the senator introducing the honoring resolutions might stand up and speak about the subject, then the resolution is adopted. But there was something about Parent’s resolution that got stuck in the craw of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R-Gainesville). Parent’s resolution makes no mention of her defiance of Trump’s executive order, opting to highlight how the prosecutor “devoted her distinguished career toward the betterment of her state and country, as evidenced by her decades of putting service above partisanship.” But rather than allowing the resolution to be adopted, Cagle referred the legislation to the Senate Judiciary Committee—essentially sentencing it to die a quiet and lonely death.

According to a rundown of Senate privileged resolutions, Parent’s tribute to Yates (the two are neighbors, the senator says) is the only one this session that has been diverted (a resolution on plastic pollution was introduced on January 11 and withdrawn the next day). Considering that the Senate passes hundreds of resolutions each session, it’s a relatively rare occurrence. Last year, resolutions honoring a progressive think tank and a radio host (who was once a Democratic Party of Georgia staffer) were sidelined. And the closest we could find to an objection taking place on such clear partisan lines was in 2009 in the state House of Representatives, when then state Rep. Austin Scott (R-Tifton) protested Democrats’ paying homage to newly elected President Barack Obama.

We reached out to Adam Sweat, Cagle’s spokesman, but have yet to hear back. But there are plenty of potential reasons why the Senate indulged in what’s essentially the Georgia version of Mitch McConnell’s mansplaining. Yates’s stance on the Muslim ban elevated her overnight from a successful federal prosecutor to the posterchild of a courageous public servant working under Trump—and in some circles, a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2018.

She also managed to irk many conservatives, no doubt some of the same state senators who pushed a privileged resolution in late January honoring Trump as someone who “has promoted a newfound sense of patriotism in this nation” and “has given inspiration to many through his integrity, vision, and leadership.” Democrats did not fight that resolution—something Parent noted when she took to the Senate well Friday morning to announce that she would push for a hearing.

“Instead of passing, this resolution has been referred to committee presumably to bury it forever,” Parent said. “I’m disappointed that this body is apparently choosing to play petty partisan politics with Ms. Yates’s distinguished legal career—especially as courts are finding and validating her reasoning so it clearly was not simply a political move with no basis in law . . . I would hope that this body also would not get caught up in such silly partisan posturing—especially when I very purposefully decided to not mention anything about that kerfuffle when offering this resolution so it was something we would all feel good about.”

Parent ended by saying she wants that hearing on the resolution. We’ll see if she gets it.

Meet RitaWorld, the lagoon-and-skyscraper vision for Turner Field that could have been

Rendering courtesy of RitaWorld Pearl Kingdom

When developers submitted their plans in late 2015 to redevelop Turner Field and the adjacent wasteland of parking lots, one name befuddled observers of the deal: RitaWorld Pearl Kingdom.

Was it a casino? A well-known developer trying to fly under the radar? An off-the-wall venture? Business databases came up empty and real-estate pros didn’t know. Officials from the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, the government entity that owned Turner Field and was judging bids, were tight-lipped, citing ongoing negotiations.

Now that the deal has been finalized—Georgia State University and Atlanta-based developer Carter plan to turn the area into a mixed-use development that will include housing, retail, and athletic facilities—we can at long last reveal the mystery of RitaWorld Pearl Kingdom and the vision the company had for one of intown Atlanta’s most monumental redevelopment projects.

Who would have thought that a developer would propose replacing a sea of parking with a literal sea?

According to plans submitted to the recreation authority by Okey Isima Jr., who’s listed in the documents as the head of RitaWorld Pearl Kingdom, the company’s vision was one part Sim City, one part Dubai, and one part Robert Moses. And it would have required a lot more property than just the Turner Field site.

The company (which Isima told us has experience working on development projects in Singapore and the Caribbean) wanted to turn the now-vacant baseball field and surrounding acres of asphalt into part of a more than $7.5-plus billion mini-city, built around what Isima said would be the world’s largest lagoon. Kayakers would paddle and swimmers would wade in shipped-in ocean water under the shadows of seven or eight skyscrapers.

Tourists, workers, or residents who lived in one of the 7,000 to 10,000 housing units scattered throughout RitaWorld could shop at one of three retail areas, including an “upscale shopping district near the main tower.” Eight distinct areas—featuring parks, a golf course, a resort, and a collection of “private islands”—would all be connected by cypress tree–lined roads, including streets that cross the lagoon.

RitaWorld Pearl Kingdom
Rendering courtesy of RitaWorld Pearl Kingdom

The area around the Ted, which would be repurposed and surrounded by mid-rise buildings and a skyscraper, would be called Isima Point. Rita Gardens would include a middle-class gated community of single-family homes and an “intricately designed garden maze park.” RitaLands would feature a mix of affordable, market-rate, and luxury homes; a marina; canals; and the main shopping area, dubbed Rita Pearl. To enjoy the beach and a mix of “coastal Spanish, French, Greek, and Italian architecture,” head to Isima Riviera.

Isima says he started sketching out plans for RitaWorld in 2012. According to him, when the Braves announced they were leaving Turner Field, he thought he had found the perfect location. (Oh, and about that name: Isima’s mother is named Rita, and he credits her with the original vision for the development. He noted that the Spanish meaning of the name “Rita” is “pearl”—as in pearly gates—and the project was meant to create “heaven on Earth.” )

But bringing heaven on Earth to Atlanta would apparently have also meant moving heaven and Earth. To make the vision a reality would have required thousands of workers, incentives, and tax breaks, not to mention buying out—or using eminent domain to acquire—additional property. Though the documents state the plan was subject to change, in renderings the lagoon appears to encompass the entire Peoplestown neighborhood. And Summerhill. And a good chunk of Grant Park. Isima says the company would have offered more than fair-market value for the homes and worked with existing residents to find a new home in RitaWorld.

RitaWorld Pearl Kingdom initially offered $10 million for the megaparcel and Isima, who lives in Atlanta and is the son of the late Nigerian soccer player Okey Isima, says the company received favorable feedback from rec authority officials.

However, Isima thinks that the need to buy out property owners or use eminent domain to gain control of additional land is one reason the plan did not ultimately gain traction. When people speculated about a casino being built on the site, Isima says he kept quiet because he and others signed a non-disclosure agreement. (AFCRA officials did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.)

Despite the size, scope and cost of the project, Isima is not giving up hope. He says his partners are still on board and the concept could still work—and he wants to build it in the city.

“We still want it in Atlanta,” he says, saying here is where the project makes the most sense. “The inner city has been kind of slow except for the BeltLine. Everything’s been buy-and-flip. No one has done anything major [intown]. We felt like we could take advantage of that, give it a new image for the [21st] century.”

There’s always tomorrow.

Atlanta mayoral race kicks off with barbecue, “The Art of the Deal,” and early jabs

Atlanta mayor's race
Who else wants to run?

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

Atlanta’s mayoral race has been quietly humming along since last year, with candidates raising money, attending intimate meet-and-greets in supporters’ homes, and plotting how they can best more than 10 other candidates in what has become a crowded race.

But yesterday, in a Buckhead restaurant filled with CEOs and elected officials, the race to decide who will lead the city over the next four years officially kicked off over a spread of Brunswick stew and tabletop buckets of Bud Light.

On a stage at 103 West, the eight candidates deemed most viable by Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell gave their elevator pitches to an invitation-only crowd interested in who deserved their vote—or at the very least, their campaign contribution—this November. The event‘s down-home theme (Filet Mignon, not barbecue, is normally served) was a nod to “the local election fever that will set the stage for continued success of Atlanta,” Massell said. Gift bags, to many people’s surprise, included a copy of “The Art of the Deal” by President Donald Trump.

Massell, who served as Atlanta mayor from 1970-74 and ever since has been an ambassador for affluent Buckhead, selected the eight candidates to sit on the stage in alphabetical order. There was Peter Aman, a former business consultant and one-time City Hall chief operating officer; Councilwoman and Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority director Keisha Lance Bottoms; state Sen. Vincent Fort; Councilman Kwanza Hall; current Council President Ceasar Mitchell; Councilmember Mary Norwood; former Atlanta Workforce Development Agency executive director Michael Sterling; and Cathy Woolard, a former Council president. (Several other candidates, many of whom are virtually unknown in local political circles, have also filed to run.)

The event’s “rules of engagement,” distributed weeks ahead of time, were simple and specific: The candidates would be asked two questions chosen by Massell and given one minute to answer each. The first asked why they were more qualified for the office than their opponents. The second called for candidates to argue how they were going to round up enough votes to survive not only the crowded general election on November 7, but also a runoff roughly one month later. Here’s how it played out:

Aman noted his experience working with the private sector and his knowledge of City Hall. In the early 2000s, the Pennsylvania native helped former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin study how to streamline local government. However, Aman said, he’s not a politician. He also made clear whom he views as his chief competition. When asked about how he’ll win support, Aman brought up Mitchell’s past ethics issues and Norwood’s past policy proposals. Massell chided him, saying “none of this is on subject.” (Mitchell later responded that he has “thick skin.”)

Bottoms said that what motivated her to attend law school and enter public service was seeing her father led away in handcuffs as a child and watching her mother work to support the family. That experience has made her as comfortable in a Vine City dining room as a Buckhead boardroom, she said. Bottoms said she had the “executive experience” to lead and “fortitude to run toward the fire, not away, when things get tough.”

Fort said he’s always “told the truth” to his constituents, and was the first on stage to discuss the corruption scandal that’s recently rattled City Hall, alleging each of his opponents on the stage were at City Hall “in some capacity” during the time in question. “Atlanta City Hall has lost its way—not the people,” Fort said. “And there are people [in City Hall] who are more interested in serving their interests than the people’s interests.” He also said he would address an “elephant in the room:” gangs, an issue he claimed the city didn’t want to discuss.

Hall, who’s long been considered a candidate but only officially entered the race last week, told the crowd that “Atlanta’s not asking for a black mayor, a white mayor, a gay mayor, or a straight mayor. Atlanta wants a great mayor. And I’m the only one with a proven track record for bringing neighborhoods forward, neighborhoods that were left behind.” He promised to push for transit along the Atlanta BeltLine and through Midtown and to boost neighborhoods.

Mitchell said he would “unlock the exponential power of the position” and would “collaborate, work well, and play together in the sandbox”—for example, by working with Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to sell off shuttered schoolhouses. The West End resident, who grew up in Edgewood, cast himself as the candidate who knew the city best, saying he did not need “a manual, a translator, or a map to find my way around.”

Norwood, who lost the 2009 runoff election to Reed (who did not attend the event) by just over 700 votes, underscored her strong support from neighborhoods. She vowed to push for transparency, promising to pursue audits of city accounts, post expenses online, and overhaul the city’s bidding process. In addition, she’s giving top billing to building transit “from the western part of the region” to Lindbergh. Norwood also promised to address crime.

Sterling said he was “the only person sitting on this stage who has any experience in law enforcement,” pointing to his time working in the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Northern District of Illinois. He vowed to “tackle the root causes of crime.”

Woolard, an early champion of the Atlanta BeltLine, put an emphasis on vision and collaboration, saying it’s not the mayor’s job to have all the ideas but “to bring people together, build the vision for the city, and block and tackle to get us there.” She pointed to her past efforts in working to pass a civil rights protection bill.

Unsurprisingly, each candidate said they were confident they could find the roughly 40,000 votes needed to win. Hall said his council district saw strong turnout in previous elections. Sterling noted that councilmembers have not had much luck winning the top job at City Hall.

But as the recent presidential race showed, past performance (and polls) don’t necessarily predict the future. Woolard, who’s won a citywide race before as council president, said the current political climate could draw out more voters looking for change on the local level. She offered a blunt assessment of how brutal the path to victory just might be.

“We’re going to be slicing and dicing this vote up in many, many different ways,” Woolard told the crowd. “My guess is you’ll see three or four of us fighting to see who gets the last little numbers to get into the runoff.” Then, she said, those two candidates have to get their voters, plus other supporters, back to the polls in order to win.

Candidates have roughly 11 months to fight for those top slots. As Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens said shortly after the rapid-fire session came to a close and he made his way toward the exit, “this is going to be good.”

What to watch for: At the end of this month, candidates will file their latest fundraising disclosures. Mitchell currently leads the pack.

With massive messages, Atlanta’s arts community pushes back against hate

Artist: Peter Ferrari

Photograph by Isadora Pennington

Peter Ferrari wanted to stress the importance of organizing and taking action. Quianah Upton focused on food access. Shannon Palumbo found inspiration in the words of Allen Ginsberg. On Thursday, massive banners painted by these Atlanta artists—along with roughly 30 other painters, poets, and musicians—were rolled out from East Atlanta to Castleberry Hill. Dubbed “Signs of Solidarity,” the banners are each adorned with a phrase meant to denounce hate and encourage unity. The artwork can be seen hanging from the roofs and windows of businesses and homes through Sunday.

In a press release, the group described itself as “a reaction to what appears to be a global shift towards fear and exclusivity.”

“I am a strong believer in the power of good people coming together,” Upton said. “Atlanta has some of the greatest artists and art organizations in the world, and this was a perfect time to express our unity. I knew that we would all have varied platforms with messages needing artistic expression. A public art project of this scale seemed like the right reason to bring us all together.”

Artist: Shannon Palumbo

Photograph by Isadora Pennington

Artist: Catlanta

Photograph by Brandon English

Artist: Brutal Studios

Photograph by Isadora Pennington

Inspired by a similar initiative in Philadelphia, also called Signs of Solidarity, the group began collaborating in early January, says Monica Campana, the founder of Living Walls and a project co-organizer. They held a strategy meeting at Mammal Gallery on January 8 to discuss what they wanted to say with the project (promoting messages of inclusivity and love) and not say (anything that would further divide people, Palumbo says).

Grant Henry, the owner of Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping-Pong Emporium, donated 30 of the banners and grommets and started a tab for miscellaneous supplies at a local hardware store. Notch 8 Gallery provided workspace for two days, Campana says. The artists pooled their available paint and got to work. Then, with permission of the respective home and business owners, they started installing the banners overnight.

Artist: Tiger Wizard

Photograph by Isadora Pennington

Artists: Mia Bailey and Corey Davis

Photograph by Tim Lampe

Artist: Barry Lee

Photograph by Modou Jallow

“I hope it will encourage folks to connect with us, to organize, and to begin planning our next steps as a movement,” Ferrari says. “This is only the beginning, and I believe artists have a special obligation to speak out and take action.”

Artist: Soap Goods Creative

Photograph by Modou Jallow

Artist: Kayleen Nicole Scott

Photograph by Isadora Pennington

Artist: Lynne Tanzer

Photograph by Isadora Pennington

Campana says Signs of Solidarity has amassed more than 1,200 Instagram followers in just a week. Two of the signs have been taken—she hopes whoever snatched them will bring them to tomorrow’s March for Social Justice and Women. Campana hopes people will be inspired by Signs of Solidarity and launch their own project.

“This is home, and this is a place that, in all the years I’ve been in the country, actually welcomed me,” says Campana, who is from Peru. “I know people are always ready to show up. The grassroots arts community in Atlanta is always willing to do. This is a good way to set the example for other cities that it’s time to act.”

Artist: William Mitchell

Photograph by Tim Lampe

Artist: Brandon English

Photograph by Tim Lampe

Artist: C4 (Jessica Caldas, Lauren Pallotta, Charmaine Minniefield)

Photograph by Isadora Pennington

Artist: Vanessa Toro

Photograph by Modou Jallow

Artist: Yoyo Ferro

Photograph by Kristin Ferro

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