Many cities like to promote themselves as collections of neighborhoods — enclaves that are distinctive and yet still meld, harmoniously, into a cohesive metropolis.
New Orleans is a shining example of such a city. But Atlanta — where my husband, Oggi, and I were headed a few days later on our cross-country road trip — strikes me as a place best enjoyed as a series of memorable institutions. Many of its neighborhoods fall into the category of places you would love to live in, but wouldn’t necessarily want to visit: too residential, too sprawling, not much to do for the casual visitor.
But as we discovered, within a few minutes’ drive of each other lie the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library; the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and National Historic Site; several historic Jewish congregations — 104-year-old Anshi S’fard, the city’s oldest Orthodox shul, and Shearith Israel, which dates to 1904; and the Little Five Points neighborhood, home to numerous small, intriguing theaters. Oggi and I found that focusing on a small area with big attractions can make this vast city both digestible and fun.
We arrived in Atlanta on a rainy day as spring was just coming into bloom, but the Jewish cultural scene was already in full flower. March brings one of the country’s most exciting Jewish events, the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, 10 days of concerts that run the gamut from reggae to Middle Eastern pop to cantorial song.
Jewish music remains vibrant throughout the year in a city that is also home to one of the nation’s top symphony orchestras and some of the most dynamic theater in the Southeast. When Oggi and I were exploring the Jewish Music Festival, we noticed listings for several upcoming concerts, including a Shabbat hoedown-theme potluck concert and the Maccabeats — the renowned Yeshiva University a cappella group — at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.
Jimmy Carter is a polarizing figure among American Jews, not least for his assertive opinions about the Mideast peace process. He has expounded on this theme in several of his nearly 30 books, and from the crowds we saw arriving for an author talk and book signing at his Library — one of several held here each month — we saw the ex-president’s passion for the page reflected.
Whether or not you are a fan of his presidency, there’s no denying that Carter led the U.S. through a turbulent four years — and a visit here is a look into the most significant events of that period, including the Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal treaties, the Israel-Egypt peace talks, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Communist China, and the Iranian hostage crisis, to name just a few.
Just a few minutes away is the massive campus of the King Center, which combines monuments and memorials with exhibitions, frequent performances and historic buildings preserved for posterity. You can join a tour of the mustard-yellow King Birth Home, the stately Queen Anne house where King was raised by his extended family in the core of black Atlanta. Then you can stroll five minutes to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both King and his father served as pastor.
Тhe other face of the King Center is homage. The civil rights leader and his wife, Coretta, rest in a grand memorial crypt; nearby is the Eternal Flame, which burns brightly from a wide memorial urn. At the core of the site is an exhibition center displaying art from black perspectives both local (Georgia) and distant (Africa), as well as a gallery that sheds light on King’s civil rights movement.
Feeling enlightened about the achievements of notable Atlantans, Oggi and I drove through a cloud of cherry blossoms to Euclid Avenue, the countercultural heart of Little Five Points. Splashed with graffiti, studded with hookah lounges and tattoo parlors, the lively streets of Little Five Points offer a small-scale contrast to the institutional landscape nearby. We walked by skateboard shops, hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries — no chains here — and hipster record stores where Atlantans of all races gathered to check out beats.
Little Five Points is also known for its arts scene — specifically, a cluster of theaters as intimate and distinctive as the ‘hood itself. There’s the Variety Playhouse, where the Psychedelic Furs and Ani DiFranco are appearing this month.
“Most of the places here, they’re owned by local residents, and we all know each other,” the security guard told me when I stopped for organic apples at the Sevananda Natural Foods Market. “People are proud of that. It’s a real neighborhood.” In a city that can feel both monumental and a little overwhelming, we were inclined to agree.