This story originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Living Intown magazine.
Clusters of shops overflow with creativity and free-spirited style. Boho-casual eateries attract enthusiastic foodies. Pedestrians congregate at a lively downtown square as a convenient MARTA rail line rumbles underfoot.
Those are just a few of the reasons that Downtown Decatur has attained national popularity. With its fusion of small-town quaintness, intown diversity and college-town cool, it recently received honors from the American Planning Association as a Top 10 Great American Neighborhood. While its acclaimed school system and blossoming downtown boosted property values, and then helped sustain them during the economic slump, Downtown Decatur’s left-of-center brand of food, shopping and entertainment draws visitors from surrounding areas eager to sample its charms.
European settlers began to populate the area in the early 1820s, and by late 1823 the Georgia General Assembly incorporated the City of Decatur. Decatur’s decision against becoming a railroad hub led to a boom in the neighboring community that would become known as Atlanta.
During the Civil War, Decatur saw small skirmishes leading up to the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, and was then occupied by Union troops. Mary Gay’s 1893 book “Life in Dixie During the War” includes detailed descriptions of the town’s wartime conditions, and Gay’s historic house remains on view at 716 W. Trinity Place.
The Decatur Female Academy, which would later become Agnes Scott College, opened its doors in 1889.
Decatur’s garden suburbs proliferated between 1910 and 1950, and bungalows and ranch houses started sharing landscape with some of the area’s older, bigger and more historic abodes. By the 1950s, the downtown had become a thriving county seat with a Belk department store and two movie theaters, even though Decatur began losing residents to the northern suburbs. The commercial district took a hit in the 1970s when the MARTA rail system began building the Decatur stop, temporarily turning downtown into a massive construction site. Once the Decatur MARTA station opened in 1979, the city began to make up for lost time.
Downtown Decatur received a boost from the 1996 Olympics when athletes and representatives from Ireland and Burkina Faso took up temporary residence. Decatur’s two-week Hometown of the World festival drew press attention and inspired Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Bo Emerson to coin the nickname “Where Mayberry meets Berkeley,” which continues to suit its present-day character.
Stroller-pushing parents, bed-headed collegiates, the art-conscious hip and older residents all regularly share Downtown Decatur’s sidewalks. Many sport the Decatur slogan “A City of Homes, Schools and Places of Worship” on multi-colored bumper stickers, auto tags and elsewhere. According to studies cited by the City of Decatur, most of its denizens are 35 to 54 years old, and the average household income is approximately $82,000.
Throughout the year, Decatur city officials strengthen the community and attract newcomers by programming near-constant events, which help support its strong real-estate reputation. The Decatur Old House Fair celebrates the art of restoration. Other engaging options include the Decatur Arts Festival, which features a two-day artists market on Memorial Day weekend. The Fourth of July parade and fireworks light up the square and surrounding area. The three-day AJC Decatur Book Festival on Labor Day Weekend grows larger each year with author talks, signings and an expansive book market. In October, expect long lines to point the way to the Decatur Craft Beer Festival.
Decatur Square teems with stores, coffee joints, galleries and restaurants. The bandstand nestled behind the old courthouse plays host to live music in May and September, including the Blue Sky Concerts from noon to 1 p.m. every Wednesday, and Concerts in the Square at 7 to 9:30 p.m. every Saturday.
In front of the courthouse stands the low-key landmark “Valentine,” a life-size bronze sculpture of an elderly couple on a park bench, which can cause passers-by to give double-takes. In 2008 the statue was dedicated to former Decatur mayor Bill Floyd and his wife, Sydney.
To the east of the bandstand sits an open plaza, the square’s centerpiece. In the middle stands a whopping bronze sculpture, “Celebration” by Gary Price. Installed in 2000, it depicts children flying and frolicking around planet Earth. Images of local city landmarks can be seen embedded in the plaza pavement, and 10 turquoise lights illuminate the surroundings at night. A sweeping, vibrant mural, painted in 2011 as part of Atlanta’s Living Walls project, looks down upon the plaza from a neighboring wall.
PARKS & REC
Two gems stand out amid Decatur’s many parks. Glenlake Park (1121 Church St., Decatur), a 17-acre expanse, offers a wealth of amenities, including a swimming pool, tennis courts, basketball courts and trails for biking, walking and running. While kids burn energy on the playground, adults can hop on a stationary bike and other outdoor exercise equipment. Others let their four-legged “children” run wild in the enclosed dog park.
The 9-acre McKoy Park (1000 Adams St., Decatur) may come off as an average public park with a swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, and ball fields. However, it holds the distinction of having Decatur’s only skate park, where board-loving adults brave ramps alongside fresh-faced newbies.
Visitors often drive, walk or ride their bikes along the rolling hills of the 54-acre Decatur Cemetery (299 Bell St., Decatur). The historic resting place contains three grave sites of veterans of the American Revolution, as well as Kenneth Ray “Thumbs” Carllile, one of Les Paul’s favorite guitarists, known for playing his ax flat on his lap while using his thumbs. The cemetery provides one of the main stops of the Decatur Ghost Tour (www.decaturghosttour.com), a walking trek to some of the city’s spookier sites.
The stately magnolia trees in front of the newly refurbished Decatur Recreation Center (231 Sycamore St., 404-377-0494) have become an unexpected draw. Children can almost always be found climbing the trees and balancing on the thick, elongated branches that curve and wind through the grounds.
For more than 20 years, singer-songwriters along the lines of John Mayer, the Civil Wars and Sugarland have cut their musical teeth in this intimate venue. Its Songwriter’s Open Mic events give rising stars a place to shine every Monday night, and the venue continuously brings in entertaining musicians all year round.
515-B N. McDonough St. 404-377-4976, eddiesattic.com.
Insider Tip: If a show sells out, Eddie’s will simulcast the performance on the big screen in the patio bar.
Since 2012, Atlantan Nate Nardi has been creating his own work and sharing his know-how with visitors at this studio and gallery space. A pair of massive glass flowers greets you upon entering the warehouse. Stroll through his showroom and find pieces for as little as $1 for a glass pebble. The larger and more elaborate the piece, the higher the price. Nardi welcomes drop-ins, but recommends calling in advance for availability or to schedule a visit. Nardi offers private lessons, evening date-night classes for couples and corporate team-building activities with a touch of glass.
250 Freeman St. 404-849-0301. www.natenardi.com.
Decatur CD owner Warren Hudson continues fighting the good fight against digital music domination. He attempts to give customers something they can’t get at big-box retailers while sharing the beauty of a tangible product on both CD and vinyl. The shop offers a wider variety of styles than the average big-box store, including popular titles alongside blues, jazz and country selections. A wide array of music-related Blu-rays and DVDs pack a back wall. And Decatur CD does its best to have special orders in within 24 hours. Other bells and whistles include in-store performances and ticket giveaways.
356 W. Ponce De Leon Ave. 404-371-9090. www.decaturcd.blogspot.com.
This intimate shop provides quick-grab solutions for gift idea roadblocks, whether you need a pair of handcrafted earrings or a hand-crocheted blanket. If you want to buy a purse for a leather-loathing person in your life, the shop carries a selection of vegan leather handbags. Keep in mind they price a sizable chunk of their inventory at less than $20 each.
133 E. Court Square. 404-371-5181. www.vividdecatur.com.
Brick Store Pub
A discerning purveyor of brew, the Brick Store’s wooden doors first swung open in 1997 when Decatur began its current resurgence. Today, aficionados hail the place as one of the best beer bars in the country and continue worshipping at the pub’s “altar,” sipping ciders, porters, stouts and all other varieties. The Belgian Bar, an upstairs getaway as cozy as a hobbit hole, specializes in high-octane beer. Bar-bites standards, such as fish and chips, share menu space with lamb loin chops and more.
125 E. Court Square. 404-687-0990, www.brickstorepub.com.
Insider tip: Check the Brick Store Pub Facebook page regularly for special dinners, tastings and other unique events.
Other Decatur highlights:
Your Dekalb Farmers Market
Take the next best thing to touring the globe at this world market just outside the Downtown Decatur city limits, which includes imported goods, organic produce, flowers, international coffee and a massive seafood selection.
3000 E. Ponce De Leon Ave. 404-377 6400. www.dekalbfarmersmarket.com.
Revolution Doughnuts & Coffee
Homer Simpson would drool over this popular gourmet doughnut shop with creative concoctions such as toasted almond and caramel bacon.
908 W. College Ave. 678-927-9920. revolutiondoughnuts.com.
Insider tip:The gluten-averse should try Revolution’s chocolate-laden Dough-Nut, a low-grain and low-gluten option.