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Where Have All the Small Towns Gone?

Posted: Jul 27, 2008

The centuries old ubi sunt query—where are those who went before us? or where are the snow of yesterday?—has always been a question with no answer. But this particular question is not ambiguous. Had it been asked ten or more years ago, the answer would have been “Gone to strip malls everyone.” Over the last quarter of a century, once thriving urban centers became ghost towns as the burgeoning population spilled out into the suburbs, leaving the heart of the city desolate.

Fortunately, this is no longer the case. An amazing number of small towns are now working feverishly to reverse this trend and rejuvenate the city center. Athens, Alabama, is one of those towns. The formerly deserted downtown area has blossomed into an oasis of culture, couture, and cuisine. One-of-a-kind shops surround the handsome Greek Revival courthouse and the streets are alive with shoppers and merchants alike, as well as music and art.

Thanks to an energetic and visionary city government, a hardworking Chamber of Commerce, and a dynamic grassroots organization called Spirit of Athens, the sleepy little town of Athens has undergone a renaissance.

Much of this progress is due in no small part to the tireless efforts of a newcomer to the Athens City Council, my dear friend and former colleague Dr. Milly Caudle. Milly, a retired history professor and expert on historical preservation, was appointed to the city council in 2006 to complete the unexpired term of Henry White who was elected to the state legislature. Since joining the town fathers, Milly has been relentless in her pursuit of excellence for the city of Athens. She is currently running for Place 5 on the city council. Her kickoff rally will be held on the Athens courthouse square at 9 AM on Saturday, August 2.

Economist Richard Florida maintains that a dynamic urban center is dependent upon a vibrant “creative” class—those persons who are actively engaged in the arts, innovative technology, and independent thinking. Florida even uses the word “Bohemian.” Athens is fortunate to have an active “creative class,” and many of these citizens are members of the Spirit of Athens. The goal of SOA, a group of forward thinking, civic minded individuals, is to develop the downtown area and to assist downtown businesses by sponsoring events that will bring people to the downtown area . Not only has SOA helped sponsor such events as the First Annual Storytelling Festival (featuring Katherine Tucker Windham),  it also supports a number of other cultural and civic events throughout the year,  helping to make Athens, Alabama, a unique and highly desirable place to visit and to live.  Another local organization, Art on the Square will present the third annual Art on the Square  the weekend of September 6.

Athens, which passed a referendum to allow legal alcohol sales in 2003 and reaffirmed that referendum in 2007, has made giant strides in the last five years. Now there is an elegant Italian restaurant on the town square, Luciano’s; a fine steak and seafood restaurant, The Oasis, just off the square; not to mention a number of other delightful dining spots. Tortillas Blanco, featured in the May issue of Southern Living, serves homemade tortillas and chips and the best chicken taco salad I have ever tasted. There are two down home breakfast/lunch spots: LuVici’s and Washington Street Diner. And if you crave a quick sandwich or salad, the charming bookstore Pablo’s on Market has a deli where you can get shrimp, chicken, or fruit salad, homemade soup, or a sandwich made to order, and just down the street is Athens Gyros with patio dining behind the shop. Just imagine, Italian (a pizza palace is scheduled to open soon on the corner of Market and Jefferson), Greek, Mexican, and upscale American and down home Southern all within a block of the town square.

Unique shops also flourish in the city center taking their place next to such revered establishments as  U. G. White Hardware (circa 1917) and Gray and Holt Dry Goods  (circa 1934).  In addition to Pablo’s (owned by Carolyn Crow, founder of SOA) which is a bookstore, art gallery, and deli, there is Carole Foret Art Studios—the name Carole Foret written in stunning fluorescent tubes above the door—as well as several upscale gift boutiques and specialty shops such as Pimentos, Grayson Scott, and Diesel and Lola’s. Diesel and Lola’s not only offers specialty gift items, they sell also gourmet chocolates and artisanal cheeses, especially Belle Chevre—exquisite goat cheese made just up the road in Elkmont, Alabama. In addition to gifts, cheese, and chocolate, Diesel and Lola’s sells boutique wines and at least twice a month on Friday nights hosts a wine tasting, serving specialty wines and tapas, often featuring the incomparable goat cheese.

Around the corner at The Oasis, wine tastings are also held at least once a month and there is entertainment on designated nights. My best friends just celebrated their anniversary at The Oasis this weekend. They reported that the food was fabulous and the music great. They were even serenaded for their anniversary.

On pleasant evenings, especially in the spring and fall, the square is alive with music and art. Talented musicians from the area perform in the shadow of the imposing courthouse and artists set up their easels on the sidewalk under the watchful eyes of the statue of a Confederate soldier. (Pictured is Carole Foret)

Yes, the parking lot at Wal-Mart is still packed with cars, and the strip malls continue to spring up on the outskirts of town, but those of us who never wanted to “pave paradise and put in a parking lot” now have the option of doing business in the very center of our own home town and that makes me very happy indeed.

Watch Swampland for a brand new series called People Who are Shaping the South. You can expect features on such movers and shakers as Dr. David Bronner, CEO the Alabama Retirement Systems; Dr. Susan Parker, Alabama Public Service Commissioner and former candidate for the United States Senate; civil rights activist and author Stetson Kennedy; artists like William Eggleston and William Christenberry; Dr. Brobson Lutz, formerly of Athens now longtime New Orleans resident; and a host of others. This week don’t miss Swampland's Conversations-- Dr. Milly Caudle: A Renaissance Woman for a Renaissance Town.

--Penne J. Laubenthal

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Thank you for including me in this article! What a fantastic site this is--I will bookmark it under my "favorites" folder. Gratefully, Carole Foret

Ellen says...

Wine tasting on the square! This movement was just beginning when I had to move away from Athens, but I had the opportunity to sit and talk with Carolyn Crow one day and she told me about her plans and the goal of Spirit of Athens. I am so excited to see it all happening, and proud of the people for participating.

CAFIELD says...

This is the kind of writing that keeps people informed. Hopefully the good people of Athens have read this. The piece on Dr Caudle is a must read for any voter in Athens. Much gratitude, Penne !

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