4 Decades of the O4W As Seen From My Office Window

750 Ralph McGill cir 2000

The following is based on my (imperfect) memory, so please take the dates as general in nature.

A few years ago Google announced it would archive older images from its Google Maps StreetView program to create a StreetView History section for various cities. StreetView is less than ten years old, but decades from now it will be a local historians delight. I only wish we had StreetView back when I moved my company to the Old Fourth Ward in 1979.

Like the proverbial frog submersed in slowly heating water, familiarity with our immediate surroundings makes us oblivious to incremental change. That is until one day we suddenly realize almost everything is different. That happened to me regarding my studio in the O4W neighborhood.

I started my film production company in a 7th street apartment in 1976. Two years later my one bedroom space was too small for all my editing and production equipment. I had to find another place to work.

A friend told me about vaca750 Forrest Ave cir 1979nt offices in an old warehouse at 750 Forrest Avenue. It was a large open space with a rusted roof and crumbling wooden loading dock that faced a parking lot dotted with weeds growing up through cracked asphalt. Upstairs were a few small offices, and I rented two. One was my office and the other was the editing room.

 

Late 1970’s – Early 1980’s

The building at 750 showed its age. Our parking lot was encircled by rusted chain link fence, partially obscured by fast-growing Kudzu that cascaded down from the adjacent railroad track. Vines had to be constantly trimmed back, or they would take over. There are a reason people in South Georgia call Kudzu ‘mile-a-night.’

Forrest Avenue ran straight east from downtown and jogged north to connect with North Avenue just before Manuel’s Tavern. Adair Street curved around the back of the 750 building and connected to North Avenue at the Sears Automotive Service Center and adjacent to Excellsier Mill. Nestled in this industrial section of Adair were a number of warehouses, one of which housed Kelly’s Seed and Feed, home to an innovative theater company and the famous Marching Abominables.

Our area was industrial. Across the street from our offices was the Blue Circle Concrete plant, which had a constant stream of giant cement trucks churning up dust as they noisily drove back and forth. Next to Blue Circle was Benton Brothers Film Express, a company that specialized in the exclusive transport of film reels to movie theatres.

Next door to 750 was Halls Wholesale Flowers, a large warehouse full of cut flowers. Occasionally, the delightful scent would waft through my open window. Just up the hill from Hall’s were three busy Ivan Allen Office Supply warehouses. On the corner of Forrest Avenue and Glen Iris was the Forrest Avenue School, which had been closed years earlier.

In view of our parking lot was an active railroad track. Almost every year, the colorful Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus train would slowly pass on its way to a siding in Piedmont Park for the duration of their Atlanta run.

On the other side of the tracks was the closed Western Electric Telephone Factory, which was being transitioned into artist lofts. The rest of the area was mostly overgrown and dotted with abandoned buildings and sidewalks that had not been maintained for years. Save for a few homeless people and prostitutes, the area was empty of pedestrians. Sprinkled through this industrial landscape were a few single-family homes. One of the homes operated an [illegal] meat- and-three restaurant that served a great lunch. The place was always packed, but it was unfortunately shut down a few years later by the city.

We grew to love this derelict building, and when we learned that it was going up for sale, we bought it. Multiple warehouse tenants occupied most of the building. As our company grew, we slowly took over more and more of the premises and built edit rooms, sound mixing studios and shooting spaces. We named our studio division, Magick Lantern.

During the weekday, Forrest Avenue was busy with truck traffic, but on weekends it was a ghost town. When I worked on weekends, the area seemed so quiet it was almost eerie, like one of those sci fi movies where all the people have been removed from earth. And there was always the unexpected.

One Sunday afternoon while I was editing a film, there was a tapping on the window. I looked up and saw a ragged man with shoulder-length hair and a crumpled paper shopping bag. He mumbled something inaudible, and then pulled a reel of 16mm film out of the bag. I met him at the door, and he explained he was heading to Georgia State University to give a talk and show this film. Unfortunately the film was damaged, and he asked if I could help. I repaired his film, and he was very grateful. As a token of his appreciation he gave me a signed mimeographed poster. My guest was Wavy Gravy, one of the notable counter culture figures of the 60’s. I remembered him from being at the Woodstock festival, which I attended in 1969.

Mid 1980’s to 1990’s

Forrest Avenue, named after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, was renamed, Ralph McGill Boulevard after the noted Atlanta journalist and editor of the civil rights era.

The abandoned school at the corner of Ralph McGill and Glen Iris, known as the Forrest Avenue School, was leased to a number of local arts groups. It was the first home of IMAGE Film Video Center, the predecessor to the Atlanta Film Society. As a founding IMAGE board member, I spent a lot of after-hours time at the facility. We renovated a large space with editing rooms, offices, and a large screening room for events, like the judging of the first Atlanta Film Festival. Unfortunately, IMAGE was forced out of our newly renovated offices, in a space grab by the Nexus Photography group.

Across the street from the School was the abandoned Creomulsion building where they once produced cough syrup. Art Director, Guy Tuttle and his movie prop company, Special Projects, bought the building. It was great to have a trusted film industry supplier right down the street.

The arrival of the Carter Presidential Center changed the landscape in more ways than one. The placement of the Center’s buildings required the closure of one end of Ralph McGilll Boulevard, so it no longer connected directly with North Avenue. The beautiful grounds and operating restaurant injected energy into the neighborhood. The opening ceremony featured a VIP guest list that included then President Ronald Reagan. The day before his motorcade passed in front of our building, the secret service checked out our offices and interviewed our staff.

We volunteered our services to the Carter Center and worked with their team on dozens of film and video projects – many were pro bono. We even hosted President and Mrs. Carter at our studio for shoots. A Presidential visit was a long way from a kudzu-covered parking lot.

A related part of the Carter Center construction was a plan to build a connecting highway from Ponce de Leon Avenue to Boulevard and the downtown connector. The land for this highway was already vacant, because a decade earlier, the GA DOT had planned to build Interstate 485 to link the downtown connector with Stone Mountain. Dozens of homes in the Old Fourth Ward, Poncey Highlights, Virginia Highlands and Morningside were leveled to make way for this proposed highway. Citizens rose up and eventually stopped it, but it was too late for many homeowners.

Local neighborhood wounds were still raw when the GA DOT proposed this connector highway for the Carter Center. Many thought it was the camel’s nose in the tent – a first step to building a renewed I-485. There were mass demonstrations around town and at the Carter Center. A compromise was

hammered out. The GA DOT would build the four-lane parkway, to be called Freedom Parkway, but it would end at Ponce de Leon Avenue, and it would have a maximum speed limit of 35 mph. It would not be I-485 redeaux.

Despite positive impact of the Carter Center and Freedom Parkway, the area still had the feel of an urban outpost. One of our tenants was beaten and robbed as he walked from Glen Iris to the studio.

On another occasion, our out of town clients were scared out of their wits when their cab from the airport was at the stoplight at Boulevard and Freedom Parkway. Suddenly the APD Red Dog Drug Squad appeared and a gun battle ensued with another car of alleged drug dealers. Shots flew right over their taxicab. Luckily our clients were unharmed, but they never again returned to our studio.

While our business suffered events of periodic vandalism and minor burglary, the perception of downtown crime always seemed worse than the reality. I was perplexed when people from the suburbs would tell me, almost proudly, the only time they would ever come downtown would be to drive to the airport.

We had to cajole many of our clients north of the perimeter to visit our studio. When they did, we’d take them on a tour of the area and out for lunch. Most would be favorably impressed with the neighborhood. One time I convinced a skeptical executive to attend an edit session. During a tour he admitted the neighborhood had a really great vibe. That impression might have been tempered a bit, when on returning from lunch, we entered our parking lot to see a scraggly homeless man, dressed only in stained underwear, using our hose as a shower.

Change continued one building at a time. The telephone factory lofts were now full of artists, and Turner Broadcasting based their mobile video trucks in the back. Next door, the empty NuGrape factory was renovated into condominiums, which sold out quickly. There was a slow, but steady influx of young creative people to the area, but it couldn’t stall some business downturns. Sears closed its store on Ponce and retreated to the suburbs, leaving the giant building empty. In our immediate vicinity, Blue Circle Concrete, Benton Brothers and the Ivan Allen warehouses also closed. Things grew even quieter as the train track was no longer active and became completely overgrown.

Mid 1990’s to early 2000’s

We suddenly had a new neighbor. Georgia Power built a large maintenance facility behind our building in what was an overgrown kudzu field. In the process they closed Adair Street and its connection with Ponce. The old warehouses that were once home to Kelly’s Seed and Feed were torn down. Suddenly there

was a mini construction boom. Condos popped up along Glen Iris and the adaptive reuse of the southern Dairies factory on North Avenue created offices and retail space. New condos appeared at Ralph McGill and Freedom Parkway, where Jane Fonda once made a home.

An intriguing article in the paper prompted me to volunteer our services to then City Council President Cathy Woolard to create a video to introduce a concept by Ryan Gravel, called The Atlanta BeltLine. Jane Fonda graciously agreed to narrate the project.

 

750 studio cir 1980

BEFORE: the back part of our building was unheated and housed Linda Brennick’s wardrobe storage.

750 Soundstage cir 1998

AFTER: we had a state-of-the-art soundstage.

In the late nineties we built a soundstage and further renovated our building. Across the street the abandoned Blue Circle concrete property was transformed into Block Lofts. The Benton Brothers property was leased into Sunbelt, a company that sells and rents large high lifts and scaffolding. We bought one of their units for our studio. Creative companies moved into the area, including many in the film business like Pogo Pictures, Color Bay, Lab 601, Primal Screen, and Artifact Design.

Ponce de Leon Avenue was undergoing its own renaissance. The city of Atlanta bought the old Sears building and installed a number of city offices, including a police precinct. Across Ponce a large retail development began to take shape. It included a Home Depot, Staples, Harris Teeter grocery store and a Borders Books, among others.

The influx of new residents and businesses brought new places to eat. In addition to Manuel’s Tavern, Excellsior Mill, Tortillas, and the Majestic, new places sprung up on Ponce, including Eats, Fellini’s Pizza, and the Righteous Room.

For every new business that appeared, others closed and their buildings abandoned. One of the Ivan Allen warehouses became a music rehearsal venue called Thunderbox, but the other two buildings remained empty. The city sold the old Forrest Avenue School arts center to investors and reduced city government space in the Sears building. Only the police motor pool remained. The old C&S bank at the corner of Glen Iris and Ponce, which had briefly been a video production studio, became Cactus Carwash. The destination restaurant, Two Urban Licks opened in the Telephone Factory, and many artists moved out as rents began to rise.

750 Ralph McGill cir 2001

Mid 2000’s to Present

The peaks and valleys of the economic cycle were reflected in changes to our neighborhood. Atlanta police moved out of the Sears building and it essentially became vacant once more. Two Ivan Allen warehouses were demolished and turned into Amli Parkside apartments, which faced the new Historic Old Fourth Ward Park. The bad economy claimed Halls Wholesale Florist, but a few years later, the building was renovated into Venkemann’s restaurant/music venue and an Emory Healthcare office. Across the street from 750, a Christmas fire destroyed the Tower Lounge, and it was reborn into Bantam Pub, a delightful tavern and eatery.

In 2012 when the BeltLine Eastside Trail opened, the stage was set for a significant transformation of the area. The once sleepy neighborhood of the 1980’s and 90’s had awoken to an influx of new residents. The opening of Ponce City Market greatly accelerated that trend.

Evening sidewalk traffic changed in ways unexpected. In the early days of my time in the O4W, while driving home from work, I would see homeless men making their way up to the abandoned train tracks with their bedrolls. Today in the evening, I see young professionals walk up to the BeltLine on the same path, now paved, carrying their yoga mats.

Change is always a fraught subject. Many of us have invested years of time, energy and resources into building the O4W neighborhood with a brighter future in mind. However, I doubt anyone could have imagined the extent of the transformation that is happening today.

The most dramatic change began in earnest a few years ago. Special Projects sold their property at Glen Iris and Ralph McGill. Soon construction began for a large townhome complex, “starting in the mid $ 600’s.” Across the street, where the old Forrest Avenue School once stood, a massive residential development, The Aster, is almost complete. Up the hill from the studio, where Ivan Allen once had warehouses and music echoed in Thunderbox, another towering residential development is leasing luxury apartments. I wonder how long those lovely single-family homes across the street will hold out.

I sold the 750 property and the Magick Lantern studio business a few years ago to a company that continued the operation. On many mornings I still visit the O4W as a cyclist on the BeltLine and the Freedom Park Trail. The tempo of change seems to increase with each passing day, as another construction crane appears on the horizon. At the Telephone Factory, Turner’s mobile operations have moved out, and in their place is the huge New Realm Brewing Company, which faces the BeltLine. On Ponce, the famous ‘murder’ Kroger has been demolished, and in its place will be a high-rise office building and a brand new Kroger, with direct access to the BeltLine and Ponce City Market.

In January, it was announced that Georgia Power sold its property adjacent to my old studio. Appropriately named New City, the plans show an enormous complex of sleek buildings to house and entertain the creative class pouring into the area. It’s a sea change.

Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that my old studio 750 was also sold to New City to be part of the $ 750 million development. It is not hard to imagine that in five years, the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, where I worked for almost 40 years, will be unrecognizable. Whether that is good, bad, or in-between, depends on one’s perspective.

Perhaps those who are wistful of the past are just overly sentimental. As for me, I fondly remember the thrill decades ago when everyone at our studio would run out into the parking lot to watch the circus train move slowly along the kudzu- lined tracks toward Piedmont Park.

The train, the tracks and the Circus are long gone, but the Old Fourth Ward is alive and kicking. I wonder what it will look like on Google StreetView 2040.

 

William VanDerKloot is a Director and Producer of films and television documentaries. He founded VanDerKloot Film & Television, Magick Lantern Studios and Little Mammoth Media, which were all based in the Old Fourth Ward for almost 40 years.


Cumberland Island Memories

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Main Road on Cumberland Island

(The Georgia Conservancy asked me to write some brief thoughts about my time on Cumberland Island.)

I first visited Cumberland Island in the late 1970’s, and ever since that marvelous day hike, I’ve wanted to make a film about the island. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that I began shooting the film. During the production, I was fortunate to spend a week or so every month on the island for a period of almost two years.

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Shooting on the beach.

Cumberland Queen sets the scene. The 45-minute ferry ride over to the island is like going through a psychological cleansing. Modern day concerns and anxieties seem to fade away with the mainland. Cumberland offers visitors its own special sense of place and time.

Spending weeks on the island allowed me to witness some wonderful wilderness moments – a giant alligator napping on the road, a foal being born in the forest, a rattlesnake up close and personal, and many others. However what I treasure most about Cumberland is the wonderful sense of isolation. This reclaimed wilderness is a place apart from modern life. Two things that Cumberland offers every visitor are silence and the darkness.

Silence. In winter months when insects are few, the woods seem totally silent save for a few palm fronds rubbing in the wind. Unlike my home in Atlanta, where the distant roar of the city is ever present, a dawn walk through the Cumberland forest allows you to literally hear the beating of your heart. There is a stillness that is astonishing. Then you begin to sense the subtle sounds of life around you – the birds in the trees, the waves on the shore, and the many animals that scamper around the forest.

One day when I was filming time-lapse in the marsh, I heard an unusual sound. I crouched down to see a small army of fiddler crabs running around and waving their large claws in the air. Their legs lightly tapped the dark earth – a faint sound that would be drowned out anywhere else. It was an island symphony.

Darkness. Cumberland’s splendid isolation makes the night sky a stargazer’s delight. Unlike the city, there is little ambient light to interfere with the view of our Milky Way. On a moonless night, stars seem to sparkle with enhanced intensity in a grand panorama. Coupled with the rhythm of the cicadas, this makes for a magical summer evening.

One Cumberland evening in August, while my family and friends sat around after dinner to take in the stars, a meteor streaked across the sky. It seemed to last about 3 seconds, an eternity. It was Hollywood perfect. I could even make out the ball itself burning orange through the atmosphere. What a special moment at a special place.   It also happened to be my birthday.

The next day on the ferry back to the mainland, and civilization, I did what I do every time I leave Cumberland. I gazed back at the receding island and longed to return.

If you are interested in seeing the program check out the Trailer.

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Camera shooting time-lapse at the Sea Camp dock.

Winter clouds over Cumberland beach.


ONBOARD A US COAST GUARD ICEBREAKER OUT OF ST. IGNACE, MICHIGAN

Ship profile

The following are some observations from a shoot for the upcoming Little Mammoth Media® production, The BIG Freeze.    
 

It was 9 degrees and still dark when I pulled up on the US Coast Guard dock in St. Ignace, MI. Our icebreaker, USCGC Biscayne Bay was quiet, as the crew arrived and parked their cars. Soon a giant fuel truck would come to pump hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel into ship to feed its two diesel engines. These engines don’t drive the ship, but they power a generator that creates electricity, which powers a large electric motor.   It’s the electric motor that drives the ship.

 
The ship’s youthful captain, Lieutenant Commander Tom Pryzbyla and Executive Officer Lieutenant Ty Bateman welcomed me and showed me around the ship. Like all working ships, space was at a premium, and every corner was utilized. There were lots of small hatches and walkways connecting the various parts of the ship.

 
As the sun was coming up over the solid ice in the harbor, the captain held a navigation briefing on the bridge. He led a discussion of the mission for the day, and the crew discussed various navigational and weather issues. Soon we pulled away from the dock and entered the shipping channel. The entire portion of the lake was completely frozen. The channel was evident only by the long trail of broken ice that had re-frozen overnight.

Shadow ship

As the Biscayne Bay moved through the channel, it broke and parted the ice with a loud banging sound, combined with a crunching sound of ice being squeezed and broken. The captain explained to me that the ship actually rides up on top of the ice and its weight crushes it. As the ice is broken the bow wake of the ship pushes it away, leaving a wide path of clear water and broken pieces of ice behind it.

 
An icebreaker is a special kind of ship. The Biscayne Bay is 140 feet long and carries a crew of 19. From a distance it looks like a regular ship, perhaps a seagoing tug. But it’s what’s beneath the surface that makes a difference.

 
The captain explained, “An ice breaker is built stronger than a regular ship, so it can handle the impact with the ice. So the steel is thicker, in addition to that, it has more power than most ships so that it can get through the ice.” He continued, “The ice that we break is about up to three feet thick. Sometimes it gets piled higher, the wind will move ice plates around, and it will begin to stack ice on top of itself. Those piles can be as high as ten feet.”

 
To show how thick that ice was, the captain had the ship ram into the large plates of ice. As we hit the ice plates, the ship began to slow down until it came to a stop. The ice was too thick to break. Luckily, the ship is equipped with a special compressed air system, which shoots bubbles around its hull. This keeps ice from attaching to the ship and allows it to escape from being trapped in the ice.

We were soon back underway. As we passed under the beautiful Mackinac Bridge, I noticed we were the only ship out on the lake. It was truly a sight to behold – a giant green metal arc over a white ice-covered lake. This year over 88%, of the surface area of the Great Lakes were covered by ice, one of the frostiest years on record. This kept Coast Guard ice breakers busy.
Great Lakes Winter

 
Millions of tons of cargo are shipped across the Great Lakes every day. Giant lake freighters carry bulk cargo like coal, iron ore, grain and cement to keep whole industries operating. If freighters get stuck in the ice, commerce comes to a halt. That’s where ice breakers come in. The US and Canadian Coast Guards keep icebreakers on call to rescue ships caught in the ice. They break the ships free and then create a channel for the freighters to reach port. It’s a very important job, and it’s done in extremely cold weather.

 
The captain told me that many winter days are well below zero, and with the wind chill it feels even colder. This day happened to be sunny and bright, but still bitter cold, especially with the wind off the lake.

Ice breaking

We filmed in all parts of the ship – from the rudder in the stern, to the engine room, stateroom and the bridge. We even filmed the cook in the kitchen as he made lunch. The best vantage point for seeing the ship at work was from the front upper deck of the ship called the forecastle or fo’c’s’le. From there we saw the ice being broken and pushed away from the bow. We used a small GoPro camera to capture the ice being broken right at the water line. The day was so cold that when water splashed up on our cameras, it immediately froze, so we had to warm the cameras inside to melt the ice in order to wipe them dry.

 
It was an exciting day. As the crew dropped me back at the dock, they had to immediately rush off to aid two freighters caught in the ice near Salt Ste Marie. We drove to the base of the Mackinac Bridge and filmed the Biscayne Bay as she moved through the channel of ice.

 
This filming was for the Little Mammoth Media® production, The BIG Freeze, which looks at all things frozen – from snow to ice to ice cream. This children’s video will be released in late 2015. For more information, go to www.littlemammoth.com