Spotlight Athens: Normaltown

Sign_Header_Words (1) copyEver wanted to just feel normal?

I’m sure we’ve all had that thought once or twice in our lives. The relativity of all things aside, what even is normal, perhaps living in a place called Normaltown could lend an air of authenticity to any such endeavour for blending in? I want to believe!

Or given that said burrough is part of the larger ever-hip, ever-morphing, artsy, musical, uni-town of Athens, Georgia, perhaps blending in is really not an option? Let’s be weird!

Normaltown gained its moniker in reference to the State Normal School that was on the location from 1891-1953. The Normal School was a teaching college for women until the property was purchased by the US Navy as a campus for its Supply Corps School.

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Campus as seen from Prince Avenue, in the heart of Normaltown

The Normaltown area surrounding the campuses was the first part of Athens to be wired for electricity in 1896. Perhaps it was this development that led to a small main-street-USA business district springing up to go with the suburb neatly adjacent to the older, now Historic, Cobbham District.

Victorian mansions share streets with American Foursquare style, Arts & Crafts family homes, and smaller Bungalows popular for families before WWII. The large majority of homes in the area were built between the 1890s-1960s and show the attention to detail and hard won quality common these era.

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Perhaps it’s this quality that led these houses to survive a downturn to the area in the 1970s-80s.

Not to speak ill for it was this era that gave birth to music scene Athens is world famous for and Normaltown was right there. While the world famous 40 Watt eventually ended up in the downtown area after migrating from the drummer for Pylon’s loft, Normaltown had a toehold in the music scene as well. Of note (Punny!) were Allen’s Hamburgers, opened in the 1950s, was a burger joint filled with arcade games that got named-checked in the B-52s song Deadbeat Club, and who could forget Foxz Tavern’s LGBT basement dive bar of friendly karaoke?

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Agua Linda Taqueria, Normaltown location patio. Margarita time!

The area saw a mini-boom in the late 90s of Hispanic-owned businesses starting with Mexican restaurant Aqua Linda in 1999 but largely lay untouched on the main drag. Right down to the Normal Hardware store that’s been there since opening in 1949 or P&M Army Surplus; 1962. Both are still there and in true Southern style if you get chatting with the owners at work you might be there for hours talking about local history, roofing, or how long MREs are good for. Apparently the chicken ones are best.

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Sunny streetview of Normal Hardware

The nearby hospital went through an expansion in the late 90s resulting in many medical offices moving into the area which scared many people with the idea of the area going full office park on us. Then, to add to that fear, in 2005 the Navy School was slated for closure by the military. The neighborhood was to hang in the balance until 2011 the city agreed to let UGA turn the whole parcel into their Health Sciences campus.

This resulted in a boom.

Among first adopters to take root in the area, taking a risk before knowing the fate of the 56 acre Supply School campus, were Ike & Jane’s doughnut shop in 2009 & Normal Bar shortly thereafter. Both establishments are thriving and my Groot, it is dangerous living near these doughnuts.

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The time since the university’s announcement has seen a great resurgence in the surrounding neighborhoods. Many houses are being given new life with remodels, smatterings of new construction, and young families moving into the now uber-hip area.

More businesses and bars have taken residence in the once derelict or underutilized storefronts on the main drag. The small town feel of the strip has been kept with small local businesses filling the area. The Mexican restaurant and adjacent supermarket continue to thrive. The butcher counter alone should keep any sane person coming back. Normal Bar has done so well they’ve opened a pizza shop a few storefronts down called Automatic Pizza which they swear is not a Weaver D’s / REM reference but Athens loves REM and Athens loves pizza so hey. Best part is that sign in the title spot of this post? They erected that lovely above said pizza shop for the whole community.

Allen’s & Fox’s are gone, as is the whole building they were in but rumour has it it went out spectacularly with a beer cooler falling through the rotten floor so happy trails it was for the whole structure. Some people might miss the country cooking of the Normaltown Cafe, also long gone now. Or picking up a paper or a comic book at Normaltown News. But for the larger sense the changes have been both forward thinking and past preserving.

Normaltown has gone from quite literally the actual definition of normal to normal by name only, excelling in everything from the world-class BLTs at HiLo to local art extraordinaire at Indie South and all the cute houses in-between.

You can still call yourself normal though, Normaltown. We won’t tell you otherwise!

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