Category Archives: Community

Morningside, Virginia-Highland, and the Fight Against I-485

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During our time in Atlanta, my daughter and I usually spend part of one day browsing the eclectic shops of the Virginia-Highland neighborhood. Developed in the early 1900s as a “streetcar suburb,” with trolley lines to downtown, Virginia-Highland is now one of the city’s most inviting and vibrant sections. It wasn’t always this way.

When we moved to Atlanta in the late-60s, many such in-town neighborhoods were, to varying degrees, down at the heels. We found an affordable house in Morningside, which adjoins Virginia-Highland. Most Morningside homes dated from the 1930s. Small but well-built, many resembled English cottages. It was a neighborhood with great bones, but a bit tired and frayed. It had the look of a place whose heyday had passed. Most of our neighbors were elderly; Mama and Daddy were among the few young kids. Many homes were behind on routine maintenance. As anyone with a renovator’s soul and an affinity for hard work recognizes, this is the time to buy. Things will get better, my parents reasoned, and they would be instrumental in the upswing.

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The original marker denoting the boundary of the Lenox Park section of Morningside.

Virginia-Highland was shabbier at the time than Morningside; it was older and had had more time to slide into dishevelment. Both neighborhoods were haunted, now and then, by the ghost of a rumor that a highway was being considered in the area. My parents, and others new to the area, decided to regard it as neither likely nor imminent. But in the years to follow, the threat became all too vivid.

The temper of the times was changing.  Fear of inner city crime was mounting. The conflicts over school desegregation never turned violent in Atlanta as they did in some cities, but they prompted more homeowners to sell and flee to the suburbs.  Older neighborhoods like ours were increasingly branded by state officials as futureless pockets of urban decay. What Progress required, according to the Georgia Highway Department, was a multi-lane freeway to whisk city workers safely home in the evenings to suburban promised lands. The highway, named I-485, would cut a frighteningly large swath through the hearts of Morningside and Virginia-Highland. The ghost was real, and it meant business.

Almost immediately, the state began a fierce program of land reclamation to prepare for the road. Many elderly owners were frightened into accepting low offers for their properties, which were quickly razed or left to deteriorate, unprotected from nature and vandals. It was heart-renching when the moving vans arrived and the slow exodus of boxed-up belongings began.  It was heartbreaking when the “Condemned” signs were posted.  There were a few brave owners, however, who refused to leave, even under threat of legal action. Some of these determined residents remained in the homes they had built, even as they seemed poised to tumble down around them.

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A Morningside garden angel, in prayer.

I-485 appeared unstoppable once the demolition machines were roaring. It could easily have been declared a lost cause. But a coalition to oppose the road had taken root, and like those who refused to move, this group wasn’t afraid to persevere. Several young Morningside mothers, including Mary Davis and Barbara Ray, who were parents of my friends, played a crucial role in countering the conflict.  Energetic and zealous, they rallied their friends and neighbors. They formed the Morningside-Lenox Park Association specifically to fight the road. They explored various legal angles and kept working even as other groups lost hope. There were several points when it looked as though the fight was unwinnable. But each time they persisted; these women did not give up.  After a while, some of the most pessimistic among us began to glimpse the possibility that together, perhaps, we might triumph. And if we didn’t, it was certainly worth our best effort. As the coalition gained in strength and numbers, the tide gradually began to turn. After several years of closely fought legal battles and imaginative grass-roots efforts, the freeway was stopped.

At first it was hard to believe that we had won. We had lived with the fight, and with uncertainty, for so long, but now it was history. The reality of relief set in. Thanks to five fiercely determined young mothers, our homes and neighborhoods were safe.  Now it was time to start the clean-up. We would be here for a while.

Hot in the City, And in the Suburbs

Midtown Atlanta, seen from Piedmont Park.

A late-June visit to Atlanta has kept me from writing for nearly two weeks. I’m still attempting to swim against the strong current that is the accumulation of life’s daily minutiae after a vacation. I’m distracted by tasks I can’t quite seem to finish—laundry, bill-paying, preparation for Vacation Bible School at our church, the ongoing need to assemble yet another meal. Can it really be time to start dinner again? How is that possible? The dog fluff is collecting like tumbleweed under all the chairs, even though Kiko was at the kennel (Puppy Camp, we like to say) for the week. For now I will ignore the dust and debris, the disordered jumble of papers on my desk. I have a free hour or two while D is at a tennis lesson, so I will try to turn my thoughts to Wild Trumpet Vine.

Every year, shortly after school is out, D and I allot a week for visiting my parents. In past summers, our travels South have been marked by excruciatingly long airport delays: at the gate, on board, then back in the airport after deboarding due to sustained bad weather or mechanical problems. At this point we have lost all hope of ever flying anywhere. (See Fun with Air Travel, October 2011.) Planning for the usual unpleasant eventualities, we left early in the day, to allow a big buffer zone.

On this trip, astoundingly, all went exactly as it should have. If we had spent any more time leisurely munching our breakfast sandwiches in the tranquility of Dulles Airport, we would have missed our flight. When we made our way to the gate, nearly all our fellow passengers had vanished. It was beyond our wildest dreams that boarding would begin on time, as it was that the plane would take off immediately, as it did. We rejoiced in our good fortune, and in a perfectly uneventful flight.

In an earlier post (Fun with Ground Transportation, October 2011) I noted the difficulties that typically arise when my parents pick us up at the airport. There is the conundrum of locating the car in the ever-expanding parking areas of Hartsfield-Jackson, followed by stressful negotiating of the ticket booths, capped off by an alarmingly speedy drive home through Atlanta traffic. I also said that on my next visit I would opt for MARTA, the city’s rapid transit system.  And so, this time, we did. 

Another midtown view from the Park.

The day of our arrival marked the beginning of another heat wave, with the temperature in Atlanta on track to reach 105. Thankfully, the train station adjoins the airport, so we were able to postpone our foray into the oppressive heat. I am befuddled by ticket machines at transit stations; they always seem to be unnecessarily complicated. If I could confront those many buttons and questions in the privacy of my home, I would surely figure it all out, but in the hubbub of the station, I have some trouble. Fortunately D, like her father, excels at such puzzles, and with her expert guidance we quickly purchased two reusable Breeze cards. The train was cool and not especially crowded. The stops clicked by at a brisk pace: East Point, Lakewood, West End, etc. Mama and Daddy picked us up at the Arts Center, just a few miles from their house. The quick ride back was notable for its lack of cringe-inducing near brushes with death. MARTA is definitely the way to go.

H usually joins us for one weekend during our trip. To avoid taking a day off work, he generally schedules an evening flight. We have been picking him up at the Arts Center now for many years. He has finally learned to avoid provoking the ire of occasionally testy and sometimes drunken late-night MARTA passengers by not sitting, transfixed by his Blackberry, with his legs perhaps too outstretched or suitcase a tad too much in the aisle. His flight and train ride, like ours, were easy, on time and without incident.

The next morning, H’s parents called to check on us, their voices worried: Were we OK? Did we get held up by the storms? Did any trees fall on our house? We hadn’t watched the news or glanced at the newspaper, and so we knew nothing about the sudden monster winds that blew down trees and power lines across the mid-Atlantic. Incredibly, we had managed to get out of town before the storm hit. Our Virginia neighborhood, we soon learned, had been without electricity at that point for about 15 hours. Power in our area would be restored after almost three days, but many others suffered far longer. Lots of trees fell nearby, but none hit our house or did major damage in our neighborhood.

We experienced the suffocating heat in Atlanta, but only in short, bearable blasts as we hurried from car to house or other chilled interior. The parking garage at the Lindbergh Target, for example (where we went to buy my parents yet another DVD player—they are serial killers of these gadgets) felt like a furnace, but we had no need to linger there. Mama and Daddy, having spent the first portion of their lives without AC, now enthusiastically embrace a cool home environment. D and I typically have to forage in the attic for old sweaters and winter housecoats in order to be comfortable.

A week later, when I returned home to the task of discarding every last item in our refrigerator, it bordered on the enjoyable, so thankful was I that we had not been in Virginia to melt slowly along with our food. For those of you who were, I’m sorry for your misery.



Mother’s Day, Part II: Mama, Stopping Traffic


Despite the considerable time and effort my mother put toward beautifying our home on a budget, I never had a doubt that I was her main priority. Mama organized her busy day so she could be with me as much as possible. She often volunteered in the classroom and served as room mother. When she felt the need to supplement my father’s salary, she took a series of part-time jobs at my elementary school so we could have similar schedules.

She began as crossing guard at the school. Her uniform was a trim navy skirt, jacket and hat, identical to those worn then by Atlanta police women. It suited her well, and she made quite an impression. An old friend, who walked to school each morning, summed it up in a recent Facebook message: “I can never forget your mom. That’s one woman who could stop traffic everywhere she went.” Most of her patrols, all boys back in the 70s, had crushes on her. One student’s father took regular photos of his little girl posing with Mama by the crosswalk. Unfortunately, we never saw any of those pictures, and we never thought to take a photo of our own.

After a few years, she added other jobs inside the school, first as money manager for the cafeteria, later as substitute teacher. I liked it that Mama came to know the primary figures in my world. She became friends with the school staff as well as most of the teachers. Our principal was a large and towering man, a Herman Munster-like figure in a big black suit. His quiet, looming presence in the hallways transformed chaos into orderly quiet. Mama got to know the sweet soul that took refuge behind his foreboding façade. Everyone at the school liked and respected my mother, and I basked in her reflected glory. The principal, custodians, librarian and the office administrators knew me as my mother’s girl, and this was a good thing. Because she was such a fundamental part of the school, school for me became, in a sense, an extension of home.

The money from Mama’s part-time jobs came in handy for purchases my father felt less than enthusiastic about, such as bolts of fabric, flea-market oil paintings, and old furniture she would renew with paint and upholstery. Most of these items have proven to be good investments; they are still with us, either in my parents’ or my house.

Mama realized a more pressing need for her money when my permanent teeth began coming in. It was clear that I had inherited her teeth, which she had always hated. She hadn’t had the benefit of orthodontics, but she was determined that things would be different for me.

In order to get me to the orthodontist, she took up driving again, which she had completely given up when I was a baby. The last straw had been when she was rear-ended in Lexington while sitting at a stoplight. I was strapped loosely into a baby carrier that was in no sense a car seat. The impact knocked me to the floor, but amazingly, I was unhurt. She suffered whiplash and badly bruised knees. For many years afterward, our only car was a 1965 Dodge Polara station wagon. As Daddy liked to say, it was the largest station wagon ever made, and he loved it. He relished zipping up our narrow, curving driveway in it, with only millimeters to spare between the car’s shiny blue paint and the rock wall. I remember a couple of hair-raising sessions in the church parking lot when Daddy was trying to reacquaint Mama with the mechanics of driving. My mother vowed she would never drive again in that car.

When she returned to the roads, it was in a new pale yellow 1972 Datsun 1200. Mama felt an affinity with the car; she said it looked scared, just as she was a timid driver. But it got us out to Decatur for my appointments, and it got Mama to the school. Clear as day, I can see that little car parked in its customary spot under the trees. And I can see my mother stopping traffic, leading children into the crosswalk, looking capable, strong and beautiful. I was proud to be her daughter then, and even prouder now.

Mama & me, one Christmas in the late 1960s, at my grandparents’ house.
Mama & me, on the day of my UGA graduation, 1983.


Lilacs, Lyric Hall, and June Bliss


In the early spring of the first year we spent in our house, I noticed green buds emerging from the gray branches of the tall shrub by the front walk. I had wondered about the identity of this large and leggy plant. When I looked closely, I saw the beginnings of lilac leaves. Our new old house was blessed not only by eminent silver maples, but also by a mature, substantial lilac bush. This realization brought me a jolt of happiness more typically associated with an unexpected gift, such as one that arrives in a pale blue Tiffany box. Lilacs have a special place in my heart. Like the maples, they speak of home and loved ones.

Lilacs grew in great abundance around my grandparents’ house, the locus of my earliest and happiest childhood memories. Lilacs surrounded the area in front of the smokehouse and adjacent to the chicken lot. They created a leafy enchanted shelter, a cozy enclave where I liked to play with my grandmother’s kittens.

Atlanta is generally too hot for lilacs. I missed them, growing up in Georgia. For me, the lilac became a symbol of a time long past, alive only in memory and never to be repeated. I didn’t expect to live among lilacs again.

Then I moved to New Jersey, where lilacs, like peonies, thrive. My walks into Rocky Hill took me past a ramshackle former church in the center of town. Built in 1870 as a Methodist Episcopal church, by the early 20th century the building was known as Lyric Hall and used as a community theatre and concert space. I knew the place as the home of a dear friend with the unlikely, romance-novel-worthy name of June Bliss. For many years, June was the warm and capable administrator at the center of the art history department at Princeton University. To anxious grad students she was a calm and motherly presence.  To professors preoccupied with the esoteric details of research, she was a grounding force.

Lyric Hall became June’s home in the early 1970s. She rented out the old sanctuary as a warehouse and lived in a warren-like apartment that had been added to the back of the building in the 1940s. June’s girlhood home was a magnificent Gothic revival house near Princeton, where her sister continued to reside. It baffled me that after growing up in such an architectural gem, she was content with her quirky, cramped apartment. I always imagined how the church could be renovated into a striking, spacious, light-filled home. June probably could have easily afforded such a project, but she wasn’t interested. She was thoroughly without pretense, and her unusual living quarters suited her just fine. I think she enjoyed the surprise in the eyes of first-time visitors’ to her decidedly eccentric home.

The old church was set on an expansive piece of property that adjoined what had once been the town green. June had a large garden in the side yard, bounded by a towering hedge of lilacs. She was generous with her bounty of vegetables and flowers. She encouraged me to cut as many lilacs as I wished, which I gladly did, usually under the watchful eye of the neighbor’s hulking pot-bellied pig. Every spring, thanks to June, our apartment was filled with bouquets of lilacs, in addition to the peonies I bought down the road. On a return visit after H and I had married and moved south, June dug up forget-me-nots from her garden to send back with us.  I planted them behind our townhouse, where they are probably blooming still.

June was a cheerful person with a lively sense of humor and a keen appreciation for irony. She retained her sunny disposition in the face of the cancer that afflicted her for a number of years before finally claiming her life. I remember very clearly the warm summer day I went to the mailbox and found the kind note from June’s daughter that broke the news of her mother’s death.  D was very young at the time, and we had been playing in the yard together.  Seeing my sudden tears, she dashed over to comfort me.  Our lilac bush serves as a reminder that departed friends, as well as the essence of home and family, remain with us always.

This spring, though, I was dismayed that only one small lilac bloom appeared. For several years now, blossoms have emerged only at the very top-most branches.  June’s vigorous lilac hedge, in contrast, bloomed profusely, from bottom to top, for decades. When I asked if she had a gardener’s secret, she laughed and replied that she simply appreciated the plants and left them alone.  Our lilac evidently needs something more than admiration.  I’ve read that an aggressive pruning can reinvigorate an old lilac plant. We will get the shears out this weekend and go to work.

I recently discovered that upon June’s death, her home was donated to the New Jersey Historic Trust. The Trust sold it, with a preservation easement, to an architectural firm that restored the building to its original appearance and now uses it as their headquarters. The gray asbestos siding was removed, the original white clapboard restored and repainted. The arched windows were elongated to their full height and the sanctuary space’s soaring ceilings were restored. June’s old apartment was replaced with a bright and much larger one.

It’s remarkable to me that even though June didn’t care to restore Lyric Hall for use as her own home, she made it possible that others, later, could enjoy the beauty of the renewed historic building. It gives me hope for the rehabilitation of our tired lilac bush.  Lyric Hall flourishes again, a fitting memorial to its former owner, and I’m convinced our lilacs can, too.


My grandfather and me, with lilacs behind us.

Our Good Friday God


On Good Friday, we give thanks to a loving, compassionate God who suffers with us.  Our God is not a remote, impassive being who rules from on high.  He came down to our level; he entered into the midst of our messy lives.  Jesus, our brother, gave his own life to save us, his unworthy siblings.  He died for us while we were yet sinners.  He knows our worst pain, because he has endured it first-hand: betrayal, sorrow, humiliation, physical agony, and death.  God the Father knows intimately the terrible reality of losing a child.  Our God continues to suffer as we suffer.   He grieves as we grieve, because we are his.  We are family.  Our God surrounds us with his Holy Spirit, as close as our own breath, to sustain and comfort us.

Good Friday is good because our God is good.  This day commemorates the completion of Jesus’s mission.  From the cross, he cried out, “It is finished.”  The perfect sacrifice has been made, salvation has been accomplished, and we are redeemed.


Palm Sunday: Everyone Loves a Winner

On Palm Sunday Jesus was hailed as a celebrity, a military and political hero-to-be.  As he and his disciples entered  the city of Jerusalem, adoring, cheering crowds greeted them.  The news was out: at long last, the King of Israel was here.  He was the chosen one sent by God to restore power to the Jewish nation.  He rode on a donkey to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9:  See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.


It was a time of great rejoicing for the people of Israel.  A new day of freedom and empowerment was dawning, thanks to the advent of the conquering Messiah.  The palm branches they waved were emblems of Israeli nationalism.

In just a few days, though, the tide would turn. The admiring throngs would scatter when it became clear that Jesus was not the kind of king they had desired and expected.  Even his dearest friends would desert him.  He would be betrayed by one of his own, turned over to the Roman authorities and crucified. On Good Friday, it would appear that this man was no winner.


Good Friday, however, is not the end of the story.

The Hunger Games: A Movie Event for my Daughter

Just as I was bemoaning my daughter’s dearth of memorable movie experiences, she was invited to a birthday party to see The Hunger Games on its opening night. This is great! I thought. She can learn to love going to the movies, and I am not inconvenienced. My parents must have felt a similar degree of relief when I went to Disney World with our church youth group. My husband and I are in complete agreement that opening-night showings of eagerly anticipated potential blockbusters are firmly in our past. I was excited that D had the chance to participate in a true film event. I also looked forward to a pleasant, quiet spring evening at home. Maybe a couple of drinks on the porch with H.  How nice for everyone.

D, ever the skeptic, has a tendency to cast a cool and wary eye on many, if not all, trends in pop culture. It pleases me immensely that she doesn’t follow, willy-nilly, the noise of the crowd. She was especially suspicious of such tween phenomena as Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers, High School Musical and Justin Bieber. I think she imagined a vast adult conspiracy to control the tastes of her peer group, and she resented it.

She was unmoved by the prospect of the Harry Potter saga, even though H’s grandmother gave us all the books in the series (after enjoying them herself). I read most of the first book to D when she was in third grade or so. Toward the end, during Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort, her interest waned. The situation was too tense for pleasurable before-bed reading. She resisted when I suggested afternoon readings, and so the book remained unfinished. We saw the first movie several years after it appeared, at home on DVD. With that, her tepid interest in Harry Potter was quenched.

As for Twilight, it sounded ridiculous, according to D. Having been raised on horror stories, I was curious to see what the fuss was about, so I bought the books. After finding the first one more satisfying than I had expected, D read it and gave it a lukewarm review. She felt no need to continue with the next volumes or to see any of the movies.

My daughter was no more interested in The Hunger Games series for several years. Children fighting to the death? Really? How truly horrible!  I agreed with her. It sounded like something best avoided. But as the hype surrounding the movie gained momentum, and as friends she respected spoke of their enjoyment of the books, she cracked. When a friend lent her the first book, she began reading. She loved it, she was surprised to admit. The opening night birthday party gave her a deadline, and she stayed up late finishing the book.

The family of the birthday girl has continued to eagerly embrace the movie-going tradition. I admire their zest and stamina. They took their girls to all the Harry Potter films, typically on opening weekends, many at midnight showings, frequently in costume. Once at a neighborhood party, the mother told me that she and a friend had attended a weekday 1 AM opening of Sweeney Todd. Despite being exhausted at work the following day, it was worth it, she said, clearly elated. I can only vaguely remember a time when I might have felt that way.

D’s first real movie event was a great success, thanks to the enthusiasm of her friend and her parents. The theatre was among the newest and most comfortable in our area. The screen is quite large by today’s standards, and the seating is stadium style. Even if an incredibly tall person sporting a top hat occupies the seat ahead, it’s still possible to see the action.

Thanks to our twenty-first century technology, I got a play-by-play report of the evening. The texts arrived with regularity:

  • In theatre. It’s sold out!
  • Just saw 3 other friends here!
  • Preview for Dark Shadows!
  • It’s starting!

At this point, there was a break, I’m glad to say, during which she actually directed her attention away from her phone and toward the screen. I can imagine the rows of young teenagers putting their phones to sleep and raising their heads in unison. The final film-related text was this:

  • The movie was awesome!

The Hunger Games ended my daughter’s long stint as a reluctant movie-goer. I doubt it will result in her unconditional acceptance of every teen trend to come. She has, however, already expressed an interest in seeing Titanic 3-D with friends over spring break. I bet she’ll be up for Dark Shadows, although she may no longer want me to tag along. If so, Mama will go with me. That’s the thing about mothers—the good ones never get too grown up to be seen with their children.

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Finally, a young-adult phenomenon that my daughter endorses.

Movies with Friends: From Frogs to Rocky Horror to Toco Hill

During my late elementary and middle school years, as now, a movie was a frequent element of the tween and early teen birthday celebration. The unintentionally funny horror film, often on the theme of nature’s revenge, was prevalent in the early 70s and perfect for group viewing. Such classic B movies, silly, clumsily cobbled together, yet still scary, wouldn’t have had the same impact had we been sitting around the TV in the cozy safety of a family room.


I think it was for my friend Katie’s birthday that we saw Frogs. It was playing in one of the increasingly faded theatres in Virginia-Highland. The movie poster shows a bloody human arm protruding from the mouth of a frog. Its breathless text reads:

If you are squeamish stay home!!! Cold, green skin against soft, warm flesh!  A croak, a scream. . .FROGS. The day nature strikes back.

The human villain of the story is the haughty patriarch of an old Southern family, eager to celebrate his July 4th birthday at his sprawling mansion nestled uneasily in the oozing spookiness of the swamps. Ray Milland plays Grandpa, as he is called by everyone. Fed up with the overabundance of icky, cold-blooded creatures that call the family property their home, Grandpa hires a man to saturate the surrounding landscape with pesticide. This, of course, does not sit well with the slime brigade, and lots of gruesome death ensues. Despite the movie’s title, frogs do no killing. They merely croak and look vaguely, disinterestedly malevolent. Snakes, lizards, alligators, leeches and spiders are among the many creatures that exact horrifying vengeance on the humans who have the nerve to try to move in on their domain.

Once the critters began to seek retribution, my friends and I huddled two to a seat, for better moral support. Sitting in darkness, surrounded by other shrieking kids our age, the experience was akin to a thrill ride at an amusement park.

We loved this kind of movie, in which most of the human characters are so proud, self-absorbed, or just plain clueless that one tends to root for the animals. The creatures, of course, were there first; it is the people who are interlopers. And like the rat army in the film Willard (for which the young Michael Jackson sang the theme song, Ben), from the year before, the fauna of Frogs were disdained and misunderstood. Their voices needed to be heard. They deserved respect, if not revenge.

Around this same time, we enjoyed another movie with a swampy setting, The Legend of Boggy Creek. It was a docudrama based on sightings of a smelly, hairy Bigfoot-like figure in the remote Arkansas woods. The film attempted a serious tone, which made it all the more laughable to us. Again, we empathized with the creature, whose existential angst was nicely expressed in his unnerving screeches. The rag-tag community of humans that inexplicably made their home in this marshy wilderness did not appreciate the beast’s sporadic appearances and attempts to dine on their pets and livestock. In an attitude common to city kids, we considered ourselves superior to our country counterparts, and the bog-dwelling Arkansawyers on screen were no exception. Yes, we were Southern, but not that Southern. We knew to avoid the double negative, and our accents sounded positively Yankee in comparison. Had anyone reminded me of my rural Kentucky roots, I would have pointed out that my family had the foresight to settle on higher ground.

During our high school years, more and more of Atlanta’s large in-town theatres closed. We continued to flock loyally to those that remained. On weekends we gathered, with crowds of other teenagers, at Garden Hills or The Plaza for midnight showings of Up in Smoke and Rocky Horror Picture Show. This was festive movie-going at its most social, its most raucously, gloriously communal.

The multiplex became more prevalent as the older theatres disappeared. When it was convenient, or for lack of anything better to do, we attended showings in such box-like rooms, the screens hardly larger than some of today’s TVs. A movie like Halloween, which appeared in 1978, was good fun, even at the multiplex. My eagle-eyed boyfriend still managed to note every inadvertent intrusion of the microphone.

My regular movie attendance in Atlanta ended at Toco Hill. Among all the cramped cinema spaces in the city, for years there still survived this 800-seat theatre in a suburban strip mall. Tickets cost just $.99. One needed only to wait a week or two, and nearly every major release came to Toco. Weekend showings filled to capacity, and every age group was well represented. Closed in 2000, the theatre may soon be the site of a bagel company. I hear Atlanta has been an absolute bagel wasteland.

The Plaza, though, now the last of its kind in the city, is still in business. And it still hosts Rocky Horror nights.


Some of my movie-viewing pals and me,1972.
Apparently, during several years in the 70s, we only
took photos around Christmas time.

Back When the Movies were Big, and the Theatre was a Palace: Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox

My trove of movie memories was neatly packed, sealed, and hidden away in my mind, and it took a while to access them. I’ve grown so accustomed to the ease of home viewing, of DVDs, streaming video and Tivo, that I had nearly forgotten the thrill of the old-time movie-going experience.

Having grown up in Atlanta during the 60s and 70s, my most colorful movie memories center on the Fox Theatre, which opened in 1929. Originally intended as the Yaarab Temple Mosque, national Shriners’ headquarters, its flamboyant style is best described as Islamic with touches of Egyptian. When escalating costs jeopardized the project, William Fox stepped in and oversaw the completion of the building as his newest movie palace. The fanciful exterior is a wealth of onion domes, minarets, ornate tile work and arched colonnades.

The movie that stands out most clearly among the many I saw at the Fox was, strangely, a re-release of Disney’s Song of the South, truly a remnant from another world. I was with a group of fifth-grade friends, and it was the first time a parent had dropped us off at the theatre. Maybe the movie was chosen by that parent simply for its “G” rating. Had we been younger, we might have taken some delight in the singing, dancing, southern dialect-spewing animals of the Uncle Remus stories. We were mature enough to be uncomfortable watching wise and contented former slaves extolling the joys of life on the old plantation. (Because it is now generally considered a racially offensive film, it has never been released in its entirety on VHS or DVD.)

The movie wasn’t a good fit for us, but it didn’t matter, because the Fox Theatre was dazzling. Gilded opulence was everywhere, from the box office window, to the concession stand to the luxurious Ladies’ Lounge (no mere utilitarian restrooms for the Fox). The auditorium was vast and atmospheric, with nearly 5,000 seats. It resembled an enchanted courtyard from the Arabian Nights. Before the movie began, we marveled at the gradually darkening and slowly rotating twilight sky above, flickering with crystal stars and the occasional drifting, wispy cloud. Just before show time, the famous pipe organ rose from the orchestra pit. The second-largest theatre organ in the U.S., it filled the great space with the music of an entire orchestra, a variety of brass instruments and sound effects, such as thunder and lightning.

By the mid 70s, as potential movie-goers flocked to the suburbs, the Fox was struggling financially. Down at the heels and seedy, it had become the Blanche DuBois of movie palaces. The City of Atlanta, always quick to move on in the name of progress, proposed demolishing the theatre to make way for Southern Bell’s new headquarters. This plan awakened Atlantans, at long last, to the urgent need for hometown historic preservation. (The city’s once-magnificent Terminal Station, designed in the Spanish Mission style by the architect of the Fox, had been torn down in 1972.)

Perhaps because so many Georgians clung to their own unforgettable memories of the old theatre, the Save-the-Fox campaign gained support quickly. The building was not only saved, but eventually fully restored. It now serves as a popular concert venue, with a film series every summer, complete with organ sing-a-longs. The historic old girl looks better than ever. Blanche has bucked up, gone through rehab, become fit and healthy. An active, happy grandmother, it looks as though she has many good years ahead.

My daughter has never been to the Fox.  My husband hasn’t either, although he and I have eaten dinner across the street at the Georgian Terrace, while crowds flocked to a performance of Celtic Woman. I hope we can catch a summer movie at the Fox this year, so H & D can see that magical, indoor amethyst sky.

Belated Reflections on the Oscars: Does it Matter that the Pictures Got Small?

It took us part of two nights, but we watched the Oscars. We can’t see the show all in one go. It’s too long, and it’s on a school night. Even when we have the time, and a late-rising morning to follow, my family and I cannot sit relatively still and be attentive for much more than twenty minutes in a row. This is just one of the reasons that we don’t go to the movies.
We will see some of the Oscar-nominated movies, eventually, at home. There is no pause button at the theatre, and we like our pause button. It’s not merely valuable for snack and drink runs. When our daughter was very young, I realized how handy it was to stop the action to explain a word or concept. Because we could break for discussion during a program about the worst jobs in the medieval world, at age six or so she learned quite a bit about the nasty tasks required of the wode maker and the fuller. Perhaps such knowledge isn’t vital to everyday life, but it certainly does put a twenty-first century kid’s bad days in perspective. I pause too often, probably, to point out certain actors to her (the cowboy at the dude ranch on Modern Family—that’sTim Blake Nelson, who was in O Brother Where Art Thou. Remember when he sang I’m in the Jailhouse Now?) We replay funny scenes, or those in which dialogue is indistinct. Tensions arise, naturally, when we disagree over what constitutes overuse of the remote. Sometimes it seems that we’ll never get through a show. But that’s OK, because we can always finish it tomorrow, or the next day.


This year’s Academy Awards ceremony, with its focus on retro Hollywood glamour, was not a night for the young. It wasn’t the most entertaining of Oscars, but I found the somewhat geriatric slant very comforting. I fit right in. Some stars, like Billy Crystal, the veteran comic host, were aging oddly. Others looked great (for their age), but no one stood out to me as looking particularly young. Not even the truly young.

For such a lavish production, we were puzzled by the bad sound quality. What was that tinny, echoing noise after Billy Crystal’s every quip? I was reminded of the constantly jangling cowbells on the ski slopes at last year’s winter Olympics. D said it sounded like the buzzing of a hearing aid, which would be appropriate, considering the largely AARP crowd that was honored.

It was fitting, also, that the biggest winner of the night was a mostly silent, black and white film set in the roaring 20s. (The Artist will be in our Netflix queue if for no reason other than Uggie the Jack Russell.) Throughout the night, there abounded references to a powerful, collective love of the movies. Misty-eyed presenters and winners recalled formative childhood experiences, spellbound in a packed theatre, the big screen before them in all its majesty.

I have such powerful memories, but my daughter, as yet, does not. She missed the era of the opulent movie palace. She has never known a time when a movie was an event, a destination. Instead, she will remember sitting on the sofa watching our fairly, but not overly large TV in the armoire, wrangling for the remote. Is this a loss? Will rapid advances in technology and communications make up for the absence of the grand movie experience? Will we all be so well-connected through new social media that we will be perfectly happy to watch movies on our contact lenses or some other tiny device? Will it no longer matter that the pictures got small, to paraphrase Norma Desmond, the aging star in Sunset Boulevard?