How long can we keep Cheshire Bridge weird?

A reckoning for the street time forgot

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Cheshire Bridge Road history

Photograph by Bill Mahan/AP Images; photo illustration by Khoa Tran

Cheshire Bridge Road’s long history as one of Atlanta’s most notorious nightlife destinations began as an accident of geography. When I-85 was constructed through the city in the early 1950s, DeKalb County and much of North Georgia still outlawed alcohol sales. As the first southbound exit inside the decidedly non-dry Fulton County, the previously residential street naturally became a magnet for restaurants, bars, and liquor stores. Shopping centers and motor hotels followed.

In 1971, when gay culture was starting to emerge from the closet across the country, Sweet Gum Head replaced the Cheshire Cat go-go club in a back-alley space near Lavista Road, soon becoming the leading drag bar in the South. It was followed by the Hollywood Hots nightclub and other gay-centric businesses—and then by strip clubs such as the venerable Tattletale Lounge, which opened in 1976 on nearby Piedmont Road.

During the next two decades, the Cheshire Bridge corridor solidified its reputation for vice and nightlife, thanks to establishments like the Poster Hut and Starship adult novelty stores; the Chamber, an S&M–themed nightclub; and numerous strip clubs, lingerie shops, and massage parlors. The rest of the street was occupied by a mix of old-school restaurants, head shops, antique stores, car washes, auto repair shops, and iconic gay nightclubs like Deana’s One Mo Time and Heretic.

The strip’s status as Atlanta’s red-light district appeared all but official in 1996 when it effectively became bookended by two prominent adult toy and video stores: Southern Nights on the east and Inserection on the west. By the end of the decade, a group of nearby residents and property owners wanted to make the street more palatable to mainstream businesses and development. City Hall obliged by commissioning a study in 1999, which observed that Cheshire Bridge “remains a seedy and undesirable locale in the collective Atlanta psyche due, in part, to the proliferation of adult businesses and the unkempt nature of the corridor.”

In 2005, during the heat of the city’s crackdown on the Buckhead Village party zone, the Atlanta council approved a measure for the street that barred any new adult businesses from opening. A 2003 citywide rollback of closing times from 4 a.m. to 3 a.m. had put the Chamber out of business. Three years later, the city leveraged an alcohol violation on 24K strip club that led to its demise.

Still, little else about the area changed; even as office towers, condo blocks, and property values rose elsewhere in the city over the next decade, Cheshire Bridge seemed to remain the street time forgot. But in 2013, at the behest of nearby homeowners, then Councilman Alex Wan submitted a draconian proposal to clean up the street by giving existing adult businesses five years to clear out.

The outcry against the “sanitization” of the street was immediate and widespread. Petitions, op-eds, and public comments delivered the message: Yes, Cheshire Bridge is weird and sketchy—and that’s how we like it. The City Council, which voted the measure down, also voiced concern that the implicit attack on “grandfathered” businesses could set a precedent, destabilizing commercial property values citywide.

But battles against individual adult businesses continue. Michael Morrison, who had to fight City Hall in the ’90s to open Inserection (since rebranded Tokyo Valentino), has spent the past four years in and out of court over the city’s claim that the complex’s downstairs video booths—which have served as a cruising spot for 20 years—are illegal. He won an incremental victory in June, when a federal appeals court threw out an injunction against his business and ruled that he can challenge the city’s adult-entertainment ordinance as unconstitutional. Still, Morrison says, it won’t be bureaucrats but builders who put an end to the area’s naughty groove.

“I believe Cheshire Bridge will always be a gay street,” Morrison says. “But the vice will almost certainly go away because of development.”

The evidence looms over him in the form of the six-story Morningside by Windsor apartment complex that went up in late 2015 nearby on Piedmont Road. A short distance to the north, in the triangle bounded by Cheshire Bridge, Piedmont, and the CSX rail line, a developer is completing a subdivision of upscale townhomes, some of which back up to an auto salvage yard, while others sit across the street from the Den, an unobtrusive sex club geared toward black men.

And in 2016, a pair of new apartment buildings—the first built on Cheshire Bridge in nearly 20 years, according to county property records—took out the longstanding Doll House strip club and Alfredo’s Italian restaurant, a landmark for four decades. In order to make the area more appealing to renters, the developer, Netherlands-based Westplan, also bought warehouses on nearby Faulkner Road and declined to renew leases for the 13-year-old Jungle, one of the city’s largest gay nightclubs, and Club Eros, a gay sex club. Manifest4U, another gay sex club in the same complex, was sent packing in late June.

More changes are in the pipeline. Last year, as part of the MARTA expansion approved by voters in 2016, the transit system’s board of directors green-lit the $350 million Clifton Corridor project, which will eventually run a light-rail line from Lindbergh Station to Emory University. Included in the plan is a proposed rail station on the south side of Cheshire Bridge, a facility that would be located next door to—or perhaps in place of—BJ Roosters and Heretic, the street’s two most prominent remaining gay nightclubs.

Chris Coleman, marketing director for Tokyo Valentino, wants to preserve the street’s gay flavor—so much so that he’s bought a property next door to the former Madam Bell psychic shop with plans to open a “high-end lounge” with an infinity pool and expansive patio in late 2020.

More change could be coming. Atlanta-based Selig Enterprises owns a swath of the south side of the street, including the former Life nightclub, Antiques & Beyond antique mall, Cheshire Motor Inn, and the beloved meat-and-three restaurant the Colonnade. Greg Lewis, Selig’s senior vice president for development and acquisitions, says the company has owned some of the parcels for 40 years and has no current plans to redevelop them. To assuage concerns about the future of the Colonnade (established 1927), the firm points out that the company also owns Midtown’s Silver Skillet (established 1956) and Buckhead’s White House diner (established 1948) and undertook the 2016 renovation of Manuel’s Tavern (established 1956).

Even if Selig is content to wait, other developers are certain to continue chipping away at Cheshire Bridge’s uniqueness, one charmingly disreputable chunk at a time.

This article appears in our September 2019 issue.

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