What Is My Athens?

I'm not native to the city, but I've called Athens, Ga., home for more than two decades. I finished high school at Cedar Shoals on the east side of town. About 12 years later, after stints working at a bar in Dublin, Ireland, learning vegan cookery from Mac at Rosetta's Kitchen in Asheville, N.C., and gadding about the country in a nihilistic punk fury, I became a graduate of the University of Georgia. 

My roots may be in Atlantic Canada, but it's impossible to argue that my true home is anywhere other than Athens. I've owned a home here for seven years, and I put about $10,000 of my own sweat into its renewal. Some of my best friends threw in their own beads, too, free of charge. 

I've also built and renovated countless homes for others. My nephews, sons of a brother, live here. My daughter was born here. Her paternal grandparents are all within five miles of her backyard. I'm both physically and psychically tethered to this place. For better or worse, I don't plan on leaving. 

In recent years, Athens has witnessed the rise of hyper-local social media sites and blogs that seek to celebrate our city's innumerable qualities.

So many people move here every year, and any untrampled geography can be intimidating. Guides like these are necessary for new residents, and remind the rest of us why we stick around.

I took a long walk last night and considered what my Athens is, dragging my dog along sidewalks I've worn down over the years. I wondered if my understanding of this city shares anything with the current promotional zeitgeist. 

Just yesterday, my friend Josh Brown, proprietor of the Broad Collective, posted a list, the Top 10 Places That You Might Not Know About In Athens. I loved it and it got me thinking. I saw a bit of my Athens experience in his picks. Not surprisingly, most of them had to do with the underage drinking spots of my youth. Redneck Beach: Skipped school and smoked pot and swam there in the 1990s. Pulaski Train Tracks: Used to build fires, drink malt liquor and listen to region rock on a crack box. While there are certainly 20-year-old wild asses flicking me off when I say this, I love that I can now safely take my kid to see these places.

Things change. The places I love - like the recessed garden of a church where I first kissed my wife (now boxed in by cement, the garden and not the wife ;) ); or the old pool hall that housed late nights of punk mischief (now apartments) - are long gone. I'm not nostalgic. I don't think anyone is missing out. I don't want to go back. My Athens is not in the past. It's many places, but I can think of two life-defining ones right now, both covered before on this blog. Away from my home, from my yard where my daughter blows bubbles, these places offered the strongest sense of community I've been able to find.

Pinewood Estates Mobile Home

Unless you're a Catholic nun, or a UGA student doing outreach service, there's no real reason you've ever driven out Danielsville Road to this mobile home park. I've laughed and cried here. I watched elementary school kids, the American-born offspring of immigrants from Michoacan, Mexico, dig up earth and plant tomatoes and peppers for a community garden. A few years later, I reported on the deportations of their parents. I reported on, and cried along to, the memorial for a father killed tragically in a storm. 

Here, also, I learned what community is, and what community service can be, from the example set by Aida Quinones, librarian at a learning center in a mobile home. Hers is a high standard we should all dare to meet. 

The Pinewood community holds a festival every September/October to coincide with Mexican independence celebrations. It's a hoot, and more people from the city, a place many of the parents who live in Pinewood don't like to go near, should attend. 

The Handmade Garden

Two of the best friends I've had in recent years leave every spring for Colorado and Ethiopia, but they leave behind a garden that they let me and everyone they don't know hang out in. Deep in a ravine behind Hills First Baptist Church, a historic African-American congregation, sits the Handmade Garden, now referred to less-poetically as the Reese Street Community Garden, or the Hancock Reese Neighborhood Garden, or some combination therein, depending on whom you ask. It is the most verdant, peaceful, and beautiful places in downtown Athens.

There, from a retired doctor (a malaria specialist) and a homeless man I learned about how disparate people can find common, albeit shaky, ground. For example, a black community and the fraternity that crashed into it. In 2008, the Kappa Alpha fraternity bought and bulldozed old homes for a new Greek mansion. The neighborhood fought it. In a public relations effort, the frat sent members to work in the garden. Privileged white boys from the suburbs pulled weeds next to black women who never left Athens. Some of the boys stuck around after their service had been fulfilled, but the garden didn't solve problems. The neighborhood and the frat are still at odds. It's not easy to make amends with kids who trash your streets. They're loud, obnoxious,  haven't left and aren't going anywhere.

Still, the garden is a place of hope. One of the garden's founders died late last year, and still I visit the spot believing that stronger community is possible. This is also deeply personal. Just last night, I ran into Tommy, the homeless man who helped start the garden, and I asked if he missed Karen, who'd already left for Colorado for the summer. For a moment we shared an intense sadness, a longing for a friend. For both of us, the garden is always there.

In fatherhood, I've found that the boundaries of my Athens have shrunk. I get to Pinewood far less than I'd like. I explore things through a kid's lens, on her timeline, and not just through jaded old dad eyes.

I think I wrote this to remind myself to wander, visit friends, make new ones, find more places that I might not know about. Those neighborhoods, hidden drinking spots, and secret gardens are out there. I know they are.