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Darien Long is gone but not forgotten at Metro Mall 

For downtown Atlanta's underground economy, the shock treatment continues

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IT’S BIGGER THAN METRO MALL: In an area that has resisted gentrification, Darien Long’s videos may be the catalyst proponents have been seeking to spur a permanent culture shift south of Marietta Street.
  • Joeff Davis
  • IT’S BIGGER THAN METRO MALL: In an area that has resisted gentrification, Darien Long’s videos may be the catalyst proponents have been seeking to spur a permanent culture shift south of Marietta Street.

Perhaps task force nominees would be pleasantly surprised to find out current vendors such as Fludd would like to see the same kind of improvements any respectable businessperson would want, such as safety and quality of life improvements to encourage more foot traffic.

"This is supposed to be the heart of Atlanta and it doesn't represent the heart of Atlanta. When you cross that line," Fludd says, pointing two blocks away at the neon Coca-Cola sign at Marietta Street, "it's a whole different environment. There are police on every corner. It's a livelier 'hood. There are more restaurants, more shops, more this, more that. Let's do the same thing over on this side."

Right now, Fludd's immediate concern is his safety, he says, expressing his fear that Long could return to Metro Mall seeking armed vengeance. "It's valid, because I've heard him make those statements," he says. Despite his recent arrest, police likely view him as a less of a threat than a bad example. "I don't know what to say about him," said Deputy Chief Propes. "I mean, he went well beyond what he should've done. I think it's unfortunate he took it to that extreme, because if he'd worked within the confines of the law, he could've been part of the overall solution to the area."

Though Long's first-person point-of-view videos have given ammunition to community groups pushing for downtown's long-delayed revitalization, they've done so by promoting the worst stereotypes about Atlanta's black impoverished class — a group methodically dispersed by the city since the demolition of its housing projects.

A vendor whose shop was closed a few days after Long's arrest stands behind a glass display case filled with $25 fake Ray-Ban sunglasses. He agrees to talk only under the condition of anonymity, and I ask him what he thought of the job Long had been doing before he was arrested. "Way too much, man. He makes it look like we're selling drugs in here and selling stolen items. He just made the entire place look really bad. I don't know why he does it; the only thing I can think of is maybe somebody offered him some kind of reality show and he was trying to make this place look really bad and act like he came and cleaned it up."

In a corner of the shop, a man barely hidden from the public's line of sight tries on a pair of jeans.

"Honestly, he did a pretty decent job," the vendor continues. "But then again, he's security. He's not a mall manager. There are some things you should do and some things you shouldn't. And he was just way too much."

In the midst of our interview, a woman dressed in a MARTA bus driver's uniform approaches the vendor's booth with a quizzical look on her face as she scans the inventory.

"Wait a minute, hold on. Y'all don't got no purses?" she asks.

The owner shakes his head "no."

"What? You ain't gonna be selling them no more?"

Another "no" shake from the owner.

"What the fuck? Never ever?"

"No," he finally says.

"Whaaat! That's crazy. 'Cause of what happened?"

The owner nods a "yes."

"OK. All right. Thank you. All right. Damn."

"I imagine you get a lot of that now?" I ask him as she walks away without buying anything.

"Yeah," he says under his breath.

Like Canal Street in New York City or the Slauson Swap Meet in Los Angeles, the streets around the Five Points MARTA station in Atlanta proliferate with tacky storefronts that hawk knockoff purses, designer jeans, gold jewelry, sports apparel and every bit of randomness in between.

Many proponents of revitalization wax nostalgic about the area's heyday when department stores such as Rich's, Kessler's, and Davison's were staples decades ago. But they tend to gloss over the more recent history of the past 30 years, during which an underground economy of sorts flourished in a district practically deserted by major retailers in the wake of white flight and the black middle class brain drain from the city's center.

While no one's eager to take ownership for the decades-long desertion of the area, almost everyone agrees that south downtown's current building owners must be involved in any proposed revitalization efforts.

According to the Fulton County Tax Office, Metro Mall is owned by Strauss Properties, L.P., the business partnership of Walter Strauss. You might recognize Walter as the namesake behind downtown Atlanta's sneaker institution Walter's Clothing, which has been in business on Decatur Street for more than 50 years. In fact, Strauss Properties LP owns several buildings in south downtown, including the building that houses Payless Shoe Source (55 Peachtree St.), one of the area's only national chains; the kitschy Discount Store (74 Peachtree St.), which sells everything from Boost Mobile phones to toasters; and the office of Dr. Dennis Jaffe (98 Broad St.), a dentist who specializes in gold grills and has been dubbed "the father of Afrodontics."

But before building owners can be pressed into taking responsibility, "you have to remove the elements that are here so that other elements feel free to come in," says Long. While he believes his videos have embarrassed the city enough to quicken that day, he claims he has never been a proponent of gentrification in its most loaded sense.

"Some people want to regentrify the area. I never wanted to regentrify the area," says Long. "I think low-income people should have a place where they can come downtown if that's what they want to do, and shop and buy some things. But I don't need [guys] over here selling crack and rock, 50 feet from the MARTA police station. People should be able to come down here without somebody doing that. That's what I believe."

Ultimately, gentrifying south downtown could bring about a culture shift sure to strip downtown of its peculiar authenticity. It's already under way. Last week, police began enforcing a new city ordinance that bans street vendors from setting up shop daily in front of Five Points.

As for Long, who likened himself to a whistleblower the day before his arrest, he's resigned himself to a similar fate. "I'm just telling things the way I see it about the stuff that goes on downtown. I may suffer like every other whistleblower. When you're a whistleblower, you're a hero to some and the scum of the earth to others."

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