As I grew up on Depot Street, I became more aware of the commerce that took place there, both legitimate and nefarious.
Across from the depot were several buildings. The most important was the post office. I was frequently dispatched to deliver the business mail and to open the combination lock on the little brass door on the box and retrieve our mail.
Next door was the barbershop where Shorty and Wallace cut hair. There were showers in the back for the train crews. Shorty would have to stand on a box to give me a 25-cent haircut, but if a railroad man came in and wanted a shave, I had to jump down and wait. Railroad men were treated like royalty on Depot Street. During the Depression, they were the only ones with a decent, steady income.
There was also the Atlanta Quick Lunch, operated by Nick Parthemous, where my dad and I regularly had breakfast and lunch. A huge black lady named Lavinia was queen of the kitchen. Her chicken and dumplings would make you slap your granny.
Sometimes I would go with the black laborers to get their lunches for them. They would stand at the back screen door while I would go into the kitchen, appropriately decorated with flypaper, where I would be greeted by Lavinia with a big grin and a vigorous, sweaty hug.
Again, for this young boy, there was that unasked question as to why the black men had to stand outside when black people worked in the restaurant.
Next to these stores was the Glenrock Hotel, already in its declining years because of the competition from the many fine new hotels in town. Listening to many of the men in the barbershop, I got the impression that the Glenrock Hotel was some kind of animal shelter. They called it a cathouse, but in all my comings and goings around there I never saw any cats.
As a teenager, I was given more responsibility. We had trucks that picked up scrap metal and hides around the area. Most of the laborers and truck drivers were illiterate, so I was sent along to do the weighing and figure the bill.
The men that I worked with were rough-hewn black men, and while they were very protective of me, they had little sensitivity for the tender naivety of a young white boy. I heard language and was privy to tales that would make an adult wince.
En route to or returning from a pickup, the driver would often find it necessary to stop in the alley behind the Glenrock Hotel, where there was commerce of a difference sort. It was an open bazaar where these men could buy a chance on the butter and eggs, the bolito, or pull a tip from a tip board.
There were also shot houses, where a shot glass of moonshine or rot-gut bourbon could be bought for 25 cents. I was never there at night, but apparently it was a very dangerous place after dark, with shootings and killings occurring on a regular basis. I know it comes as a surprise to you that we had open bars and casinos (albeit illegal) right there in “Depot City,” in a place appropriately called “Death Alley.”
Across the street from my dad’s business, Consolidated Hide and Metal, was a red-brick railroad “company store” called Sands and Company. They sold mostly dry goods such as work clothes and boots. The store was open to the public, but the railroaders had the perk of being able to buy on credit against their paycheck.
I discovered by accident that the railroad men used this as a sort of ATM machine when they could find an accomplice. As I entered the store one day, a railroad man asked me what I was going to buy and how much I was going to pay. I told him work gloves that cost $1. While I waited outside he went into the store and came out with the gloves he had bought on credit and sold them to me for 50 cents cash.
I quickly realized that this was a common practice with these folks and became a middleman for our workers at the business. When they needed shoes or clothes, I would buy them from the railroad guys at half price. I would sell them to the employees at 25 percent off and everybody was happy. The employee got a bargain, the railroad man had cash to go to Death Alley, the people in Death Alley would make a sale and I would end up with a profit. Obviously a win/win for all, and another valuable lesson in the ways of business.
The south end of Depot Street was known as “Depot Hill,” and it was dotted with squalid tenant houses. Occasionally one of the drivers would take me home with him where his family would graciously share their meager lunch, which I relished because it was very different food than I was used to. Most of the cooking and heating was done with wood or coal stoves, and I am not even sure that a lot of the houses had indoor plumbing.
Much to everyone’s surprise and relief, I finally grew up and moved on to college and a five-year stint in the Navy. By the time I returned, most of the businesses had moved away from Depot Street, including Consolidated Hide and Metal.
Passenger rail traffic ended, and they eventually tore down the depot in the early ’60s. Depot Hill was redeveloped under urban renewal. But the rest of the street became a commercial wasteland of dilapidated and boarded-up buildings and has remained so for the last 40 years.
Now new rays of commercial sunshine are beginning to break through the clouds of economic malaise that have hung there so long.
The old building that once housed the Rockbit Company has been refurbished with a modern storefront. A charming little deli has opened next to the old Dave Steel Plant, and a construction company is restoring my grandfather’s old office.
Most important, Mountain Housing Opportunities has purchased many of the old buildings, including the Glenrock Hotel, and under the enthusiastic direction of Community Rental Investments Manager Cindy Weeks plans to build offices, condos and retail space and encourage additional private-sector development. This is truly economic development, recycling and urban renewal that will create a new job base and add to the tax rolls.
Finally Depot Street will become a vibrant commercial area again. And as the economic dawn begins to take shape, it will be punctuated by the celebratory whistles of the passing freight trains, reminding us of the energetic activity of the past and heralding the vibrant new Depot Street of the future.
[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years.]