Brookhaven, GA, June 23, 2016 – Commentary, by Riley O’Connor – At the close of Wednesday’s MARTA TOD meeting, those that had gathered to hear the presentation, continued on afterward. We were standing around and talking with each other, no matter what our personal opinions were about this project. Because that’s what we do in Brookhaven; we don’t always agree, but at least we’re civil toward each other face to face. Maybe not so much in the anonymous comments about articles on the Post, but we’re still talking with each other.
The leader of the MARTA development group presentation was, as Tom Wolfe would have it, a “flak catcher”. As in “….hapless bureaucrats (the Flak Catchers) whose function was reduced to taking abuse”. That is, these presenters are required to endure the slings and arrows of public commentary, right and wrong, about their pet project. This does a great disservice to Ms. Amanda Rhein of MARTA, but the net effect is still the same. These meetings are a legal nicety as rigidly scripted as any kabuki play. It’s what happens before and after that are really interesting.
So, as a neighbor and I were talking, Ms. Rhein was making a hasty exit to go home and spell out her husband, who was himself going to attend another public meeting. As she passed by, I commented that I didn’t see any singe marks on her from the public commentary. She smiled and noted that she had to be thoroughly prepared whenever she comes to Brookhaven. Which got me to thinking about what Brookhaven is.
Further conversation in the parking lot with another neighbor reminded me that while the developers only concentrate on their specific project, we as Brookhaven residents are clearly focused on the totality of what is happening here. And as my neighbor and I talked about all the things that were going on here, he smiled and said “I just don’t want to lose the Brookhaven vibe.” And that is it, the fear of losing what we have come to love so greatly through years of good times and a few bad ones, too. We don’t want to lose the vast pool of good will toward each other that has been built over time through conversations and mutual respect. Not that we necessarily agree with each other, but we have managed to retain a sense of live and let live.
At one point, I was considering writing an article about what I have seen happening since I moved to Brookhaven in 1978. I even had a title for it: “Brookhaven Gentrification: A Field Guide.” I clearly was the right person to write this, having seen the changes initially from a tiny house atop a hill on Dresden. The place was 350 square feet, initially rented for $85.00 per month and had, in an earlier life, been a chicken coop. I saw a lot of Brookhaven life from that hill. When I got married, I persuaded my new wife to look for a home in Brookhaven, because I knew the place well, and I knew that it would be the right place for us. When we moved in, ours was the biggest house on the street and the newest. Twenty-five years later, people now say: “Oh, you live in one of the old houses.” We are doing our best to keep up.
But my Field Guide never saw the light of day for several reasons. Yes, I had seen plenty of changes, but also, along the way, we had made good relationships with our neighbors both recent arrivals and long-term residents. This is a clearly common matter for those in Brookhaven. And, I became cautious about telling all about the bad old days when a lot of truly strange things happened here. Because to tell those stories out of context would be to misrepresent what happened. To tell some would be to risk not telling it all. And it would take thirty-eight years of telling to do it justice. But in the larger sense, it would possibly misrepresent those who have lived here for many years longer than I. Yes, their homes are old, some dating back to the 1920’s, but they are as neat as a pin and are well maintained. They are proud of their place and they are easy to be with. I could do nothing to possibly hurt them.
In part, any tell-all story about Brookhaven would also put the wrong ideas into the empty heads that view Brookhaven as being the next Buckhead, skyscrapers and all. We’re not that way, and those that come here with the intention of remaking our place into the next Rodeo Drive do so at their own risk. Whatever else we may be, we are fiercely protective of this place and we are articulate. Back in the day, the major discussion over beverages was whether Brookhaven was more Buckhead or more Chamblee. You can kind of sense how out of date that notion is today, but back then, once you left Chamblee, you were out in rural country. A trip to Lake Lanier was the typical reason to venture out there, stopping off for ice at the place in Doraville before heading out into the wilds. Now, what once was farms and woods have become filled with houses and businesses that support those who live there. But their notion of “community” seems tenuous to me, unlike what we have in Brookhaven. Now, of course, Chamblee is remaking itself after a bad spell. And Buckhead is slowly nibbling its way up Peachtree toward us.
It is dismaying to see people who have just arrived here tell those who are opposed to massive redevelopment that “If you don’t like it, move.” It’s like the invasion of the Visigoths, who have every intention of sacking Brookhaven. At the same time, it’s unfair to expect that everything will remain in a 1970’s stasis. It is like those people who buy in Brookhaven and then discover that there is an active airport nearby. Yes, I’ve lived here since before the MARTA station, but I don’t think that I should expect that nothing would happen around it. At the same time, I still have both an emotional and a financial investment in this place and I don’t want to lose what I’ve earned.
What we do next is a measure of our community.
— Riley O’Connor
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