LIGHT SHOW: “We have such a nice mix of stuff in a relatively small area. ... I don’t know many neighborhoods that have as much character.” — Rob Brawner

Eric Cash

LIGHT SHOW: “We have such a nice mix of stuff in a relatively small area. ... I don’t know many neighborhoods that have as much character.” — Rob Brawner

Poncey-Highland 

Walking the seedy strip that changes a little more every day

For decades, neon lights have illuminated the corner of Ponce de Leon and Highland avenues. In many ways, those buzzing signs offer the most natural entry point into Poncey-Highland's streets, says 39-year-old resident Rob Brawner.

As we begin our Sunday afternoon walk, the 39-year-old resident points out historic institutions such as the Plaza Theatre, the ornate 86-year-old Druid Hills Baptist Church, and the Majestic Diner, which has served eggs, hash browns, and milk shakes into the wee hours since the late 1920s. The iconic buildings showcase the neighborhood's long-standing character, but Brawner explains that the now middle-class neighborhood has changed dramatically since he moved there in 2001.

We head west on Ponce toward the massive redevelopment of City Hall East into Ponce City Market, and Brawner, the Poncey-Highland Neighborhood Association president, points out the wide range of restaurants, housing, and people. The neighborhood encompasses everything from the Clermont to the Book House Pub, the Open Door Community Soup Kitchen to historic buildings now full of upscale residences.

We take a quick break outside the Clermont Hotel, which is set to be renovated sometime this year. The redesign will preserve the original seven-story brick structure and basement strip club. Even Murder Kroger has undergone renovations in an attempt to spruce up its image, including a nicer entrance to the nearby Atlanta Beltline.

In recent years, the Beltline's Eastside Trail has helped accelerate the neighborhood's transformation. Brawner, who works as the Atlanta Beltline Partnership's program director, points out the growing numbers of businesses, artwork, and events that have popped up along the bustling path. The Beltline has made an already pedestrian-friendly community even easier to get around. It's also attracted a series of weekly local happenings such as the new Freedom Farmers Market at the Carter Center on Saturdays and Beltline Bites near Ponce City Market on Sundays.

We make our way through Freedom Park back toward the intersection of North and Highland avenues. Brawner occasionally attends the neighborhood's gentleman's drinking club at Manuel's Tavern, an Atlanta institution catering to everyone from families to politicos. Across the street in the parking lot at Buddy's, the King of Pops sells its gourmet Popsicles from under a brightly colored umbrella.

"We have such a nice mix of stuff in a relatively small area. ... I don't know many neighborhoods that have as much character," Brawner says.

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JavaVino

Small, light-filled coffee shop brews with shade-grown beans from the owner's family's plantation in Nicaragua. Good food and teas. Doubles as a wine bar. 579 N. Highland Ave. 404-577-8673. www.javavino.com.

The Plaza Theatre

The beloved, long-running cinema in Poncey-Highland continues to screen movies and host film festivals. First opened in 1939, the Plaza Theatre has undergone a series of renovations in recent years as well as a change in ownership. 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-873-1939. www.plazaatlanta.com.

The Clermont Lounge

If you haven't witnessed Blondie, the city's most well-embraced stripper (she's appeared in the city's marketing material, for Christ's sake), crush a beer can between her breasts, then you're not an Atlantan. The strip club, located in the basement of the Clermont Hotel, is so decrepitly surreal, one practically expects to find David Lynch huddled in a dark corner. 789 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-874-4783. www.clermontlounge.net.

Fellini's

The cheerfully scruffy pizza chain is named for the fanciful filmmaker, and the tattoos and piercings of the servers can definitely be Fellini-esque. The thick, hearty pies easily surpass any of the national chains' and the simple salads hit the spot, but the white pizza is in a class by itself, with one bite transporting you to cheese and garlic heaven. 909 Ponce De Leon Ave. 404-873-3088. www.fellinisatlanta.com.

The Book House Pub

This literary-themed pub is a popular stop on the way to or from clubbing, featuring seasonal beers, quality cocktails, and creative tavern fare. 736 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-254-1176. www.thebookhousepub.net.

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