In 1997, when we decided to relocate The Vortex from West Peachtree to Peachtree Street, people did not hesitate to tell us we were nuts. Maybe we were crazy. I’ll admit it. After all, the stretch of Peachtree we moved our bar to was pretty sketchy back then. None of today’s soaring modern condo towers or fancy shops even existed. The area had much more of an urban wasteland feel to it.
Just one block south of us, the Atlanta Cabana Hotel represented the pinnacle of mid-century modern design when it opened in 1958. But as people began abandoning the city for the suburbs in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, it fell into disrepair. During one of its final incarnations as a Quality Inn, it was routinely rented out to a series of rather unorthodox groups. A girlfriend of mine once had her nipples pierced at a “Sex Toy” convention held there. Well, actually only one nipple. She couldn’t take the pain. Anyway, by the time we had moved The Vortex into the neighborhood, the hotel had been permanently shuttered, and sat decaying behind a rusty chain link fence.
The brick building that we moved into was originally built in 1950. It served as offices for the U.S. Department of Agriculture until the government abandoned it in the 1980s. At that point, it remained vacant and boarded-up for over a decade. In the mid-90’s the blighted property was acquired by local developer, Jim Borders. His idea was to redevelop the building into apartments that would also include retail space on the bottom floor. At the time, a lot of people probably thought he was crazy too.
Directly behind us, Cypress Street literally had a world-wide reputation as the place to go to pick-up male prostitutes. The situation reminded me of the Native American legend where a warrior was able to walk from horizon to horizon on the backs of the buffalo without stepping on the ground. Sure, that was a lot of buffalo, but I’m guessing there were actually more hustlers. In fact, you could barely drive your car down the street without hitting one. But if you managed to squeeze through, these young men would openly display their packages for your inspection, day or night. Sort of like you had won a prize, I guess. At least they were friendly.
Directly across the street was a Citco gas station that we lovingly referred to as the “Crack-co,” because drug dealers openly sold crack in the parking lot. Catty-corner was a boarded-up Krystal, and just beyond that was the notorious Backstreet nightclub. Originally opened in 1975, this was one of just a handful of Atlanta clubs that operated 24/7. They featured a long-running drag show which was immensely popular with both a gay and straight clientele. It was actually pretty awesome. I’m not ashamed to admit that I stumbled out of that place into the morning sunrise on more than one occasion. But eight years after we moved in, the forces of politics and gentrification finally caught up with Backstreet, and it was replaced with a shiny new highrise.
Sometimes the nostalgic side of me yearns for a $3 pitcher of beer at the Stein Club, the smoky dive bar that served as refuge from the trendy Buckhead bar scene of the day. Or a bowl of seafood etouffee from the little French Quarter Food Shop, served-up by Missy, the diminutive owner with the mouth of a sailor. But sadly, those spots were also demolished to make room for “progress.” To some it may seem that The Vortex was part of the first wave of urban-pioneers willing to invest in a questionable part of Atlanta. But in hindsight, what I have come to realize, is that The Vortex is actually one of the last remaining links to the “good ol’ days” of drinking and debauchery in this town. So if anyone wants to join me to toast those days, you’ll find me sitting at my bar. Come on in. Everyone is welcome.