Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Homer Wilson on Changes/Constants on Hot Corner

This post was written by Russell Library summer intern Alexander Stephens, an M.A. student in UGA's Department of History. Alex spent time indexing oral histories using software developed by the University of Kentucky's Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. With the help of their Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS)audiovisual content can be indexed with headings and tags. By labeling content with related tags and breaking full interviews into smaller sections, OHMS allows researchers to discover specific stories within larger themes.

In addition to his other work for the Library's Oral History and Media Unit, Alex served as an interviewer for the Athens Oral History Project. Here, he reflects on his conversation with Homer Wilson for AOHP. To hear the full interview, use the links below to visit the OHMS site or Russell Library SoundCloud page

Athenians like to talk about our town being “different” from the rest of the state. A lot of us speak reverently about the unique character of this place. It’s not just different from the rest of Georgia--“it’s just different.”

But when I moved home to Athens after seven years away, I saw what looked to be a familiar pattern. For over half a century, the intersection of Hull Street and Washington Street was a thriving business, arts, and entertainment district owned, operated, and populated by black entrepreneurs and patrons. The area became known as Hot Corner. The Corner still attracts a bustling crowd on weekend nights, but now the scene is dominated by a mostly young and predominantly white crowd. I am generalizing, of course, about a pocket of downtown frequented by people representing a range of identities and communities. My description is probably consistent, however, with what passersby often see. After several years working with a North Carolina community facing rapid gentrification, I assumed I was witnessing the symptoms of a similar trend. I wanted to talk with someone who had seen Hot Corner change over time, and when I had the opportunity to conduct oral history interviews with the Richard B. Russell Library, I knew exactly where I wanted to start.

Walking into Wilson’s Styling Shop feels like walking into a family living room. Whether in for a haircut or not, people come together here to share information and renew friendships. According to Homer Wilson, who succeeded his father as the shop’s owner, it’s always been this way. There are decades-old relationships rooted here. This extraordinary continuity was my first clue to check the assumptions I made about what is happening on Hot Corner. It is true that the area has changed. Brown’s Barber Shop, two doors over from Wilson’s, is the only other business still operated by the same family who ran it when Wilson’s father began running his shop over fifty years ago. Surrounding these historic businesses are bars and restaurants that cater to people representative of the vanguard of gentrification in many urban settings around the country: a relatively young, relatively white crowd of artists, students, and service industry folks. While I fall firmly within no fewer than four of these categories, I saw these changes as net losses. I saw them as indications of displacement, evidence of the erasure of a history. In his gentle and good-natured way, Homer Wilson let me know that I was wrong.

Hear for yourself, by listening to the interview from Clip from 49:30-52:15 on our SoundCloud page (below) or by clicking HERE to visit OHMS

While the makeup of today’s Hot Corner strays from tradition, the spirit here--and the history undergirding it--is far from gone. It was easy for me to look at Hot Corner from the outside and lament a perceived loss. When I talked with Wilson, however, the picture became vastly more complex. To suggest that the significance of Hot Corner could simply be erased is to underestimate the power imbued in its people and its businesses and its barstools. It probably doesn't hurt that the Wilsons maintain ownership of the space they lease to The World Famous or that the Wade family still owns the Manhattan Cafe building. Across the street, the Morton Theater testifies to the vision, business acumen, and artistic clout of black Athenians from the early 20th century to the present. But equally important, as Wilson puts it, there is an enduring “vibe” on Hot Corner. The buzz of clippers from the Corner barber shops has left permanent aural imprints on the brick walls. The footsteps of the teenagers who led the local civil rights movement in the 1960s have etched courage into the pavement. Now, as Wilson sees it, “the spirit” has found its way into neighbors such as Joey Tatum, who has run the Manhattan Cafe for twenty years and Little Kings Shuffle Club for ten. Newcomers have made their own contributions. DJ Mahogany, for example, has spent the past decade at Little Kings supplementing the bass line beneath Hot Corner’s history.

None of this is to suggest that all change is welcome. There are people in Athens, and undoubtedly on Hot Corner, who would be justified in feeling that new trends and new arrivals are encroaching on the communities they have created in the face of discrimination and hardship. It’s important to be aware of the backstory beneath our feet in order to honor the aspirations of the people who laid the foundations on which we stand. It is for this reason that the Wilsons, the Browns, and others with historical ties to the business district founded the Hot Corner Association in 2000. Their aim is to ensure that people learn the history of this place. The Association also works to encourage minority entrepreneurship in downtown Athens, because the descendents of the people who turned Hot Corner into a regional center for black culture and commerce know the value of working for themselves and serving their community.

As painful as it can be, change is in the nature of cities. Wilson understands this fickleness. He watched as other shops moved to bigger spaces on major thoroughfares, creeping outward to malls and planned shopping centers. Heeding his father’s advice to stay downtown, he is now watching business owners eagerly seek out more central locations. Wilson seems unphased by these shifts. Perhaps this is because he knows that on Hot Corner, the spirit is strong enough to shape whatever form change takes.

No comments: