Editor’s Note: As we head into our last week of content on The Broad Collective, our talented teams of interns were given the opportunity to wrap everything up on our site as part of their final project for the semester. They chose to focus on the spirit of Athens by taking a look at five themes that have best come to represent what this city means to them. All week long they will be sharing stories, interviews, photos, videos, and most importantly, their reflections on these five rhythms that tell the story of Athens. Our intern team is made up of the following folks . . . all of which you should hire immediately before they become rock stars.
Over the course of the last 18 months the Broad Collective has only brushed the surface of one irrepressible aspect of Athens: UGA. As we set out to wrap up this platform I could not fathom trying to cover all of Athens in one week without dedicating at least one day to the reason many of us are here.
I won’t spend time boring you with the long, rich history of the University of Georgia, however I will say that Athens without UGA seems impossible. Both work in conjunction with one another to become a city of ultimate talent, creativity, and innovation.
My time at UGA has been nothing less than stellar. I could spend days discussing my own experiences with the people, the campus, and the education I am receiving from this highly revered school. However, when moving into the creation of this piece I didn’t feel as though my three and a half years of calling Athens home possessed anything valuable in comparison to some of the Classic City’s true residents.
The stereotypical relationship between Athens and UGA is that of annoying siblings living in close quarters. Today, we are here to debunk this stereotype. Over the last few weeks, we interviewed a couple of the Classic City’s residents to gather their opinions on this rather ambiguous relationship.
It only felt natural to start this conversation with the University of Georgia’s Dean of Students himself, Bill McDonald. “Dr. Bill” has been the Dean of Students since 2011 with prior experience at Presbyterian College and Carson-Newman University. I sat down with Dr. Bill over lunch recently to gain insight as to how UGA fits into the Athens community. He has a reputation for being extremely outgoing and willing to go above and beyond for the students of the University which was only verified to me as we talked about this intricate relationship.
How do you believe UGA shapes Athens?
Bill McDonald: Well to me they are so intertwined and linked that I can’t imagine Athens without UGA and UGA without Athens. I’m sure everybody says that. But of all the places I’ve ever worked in my career when I think of town gown relations here, except for some issues that pop up from time to time, and some personalities that pop up from time to time, there really seems to be a good partnership and collaboration between the university, and the town, and the county. Everybody seems to understand that we’re all in this same space together, and none of us will be successful without all of us.
The real thing that excites me about that is that Athens/UGA/ACC is such a microcosm of society that you’ve got some of the best, the brightest, the wealthiest and then you have some of the most impoverished, destitute, you know, most unbelievable challenges. You can draw a half mile from anywhere on this part of campus and you will see destitute situations. And, it’s still troublesome that we have those issues, but at least we have the spirit of working on those things together. Those issues will always be there and will always be something we are working on, but there is commitment to do that.
Why do you believe many students leave Athens after graduation? Why do they choose to begin their professional lives elsewhere?
Bill McDonald: I just don’t think there’s no way to absorb 5,000+ graduates a year, either undergraduates or graduates. Candidly, I think it’s in our best interest to have students take what they learn here and apply it to other places. The students I am most concerned about are the ones who love Athens so much that they choose to take a position that, you know, isn’t in conjunction with that they spent four years getting their degree just to stay in Athens. You’ve got to cut those safety strings and move out into the world. But, I think it’s great when they move out into the world and then come back and bring some things they’ve learned from other places. I can speak for my own daughter. She so desperately wanted to stay in Athens. She loves Athens, she loves UGA, and she loves her church. I kept saying “it’s not going to happen. You’re not going to get a teaching job.” And lo and behold she got a teaching job. She’s fully staying in the field of her profession, and she’s glad to be here. So it can work out, but there’s now way we’re ever going to be able to have everyone come to school here then just stay here.
I can speak from my own personal experience. I always thought my career would take me back to Chapel Hill. I’m glad it didn’t. Chapel Hill is wonderful. It’s hard to beat Chapel Hill. But there are other Chapel Hills and Athens is one of them. There are lots of other communities out there. I have that rapidly fading from 37 years ago undergraduate degree in that environment. But I have a similar environment with all the benefits and can make all the connections even a few states away.
Since your time here have you noticed changes in attitudes in students? Perhaps students being more ambitious or any change in attitude towards the school?
Bill McDonald: What I have found is that people are coming here and are either loving what they know of it or exploring all of the possibilities. Those students have a can do attitude here and what they love about this place is that there are lots of people thinking about lots of different things about life and what society and culture. And, they get a chance to think creatively and try different things. I wish they would be a little less risk averse. I wish they would take a few risks and see what it’s like to fail. It’s more about what you do to pick yourself up. Again, that speaks well to the Athens community. Everybody here seems to want to be invested in being active, being thoughtful, and being engaged.
Next, I turned to Daniel Ray, owner of The Old Pal, for his input, as a business owner, on the relationship between UGA and Athens.
Daniel moved to Athens in 1997 to play rock and roll and fell into the service industry as a means of supporting himself as a touring musician. He worked catering, restaurants, grocery, and finally casual fine dining at Farm 255 where he met his future business partner, Matt. Together, the two developed a love of wine and spirits, an opportunity they had never explored before. Daniel now owns a home with his girlfriend, Andrea, along with a modest rental house, and The Old Pal. He has literally and figuratively invested his life into Athens.
How do you believe UGA shapes Athens?
Daniel Ray: Plenty of people talk about the financial power thousands of students bring with them into Athens every year, but many people neglect the cultural impact a university of this size has on a town the size of Athens. We experience art WAY outside of our “pay grade.” No city the size of Athens offers as much culture. This translates not only to fine art (things like the GMOA, Ciné, 5&10), but our pop culture offerings also get a big boost too. With size, of course, comes dilution. For every 5&10, we have three or four Taco Bells, for every viewing of The Red Bicycle we have dozens of Die Hard, but this counts as culture/art too, and I feel grateful for every last bit we get here.
What impact do the professors and students have outside of campus? How might the Classic City be different without students and professors?
Daniel Ray: These students, professors, and support staff who bring us things like the PAVAC, GMOA, and the State Botanical Gardens bring their interests and their financial clout with them into public life. The university attracts these people who seek an education, and many of them fall in love with our charming little town, and remain after graduation. On the civic side, they continue to demand the rich cultural life they experienced in college; they lobby for improved recycling, to beautify bus stops with art, they demand more parks and public transit than any other city our size would otherwise have. Financially, they also depress wages and the value of art- supply and demand requires lower wages, lower value of skill in a town so rife with talent. I consider it a worthy trade-off, but we DO have more than our share of overeducated and under-paid waiters, bartenders, painters, sculptors, administrators, and teachers.
Where do you see UGA in 5 years? What does Athens look like in 5 years?
Daniel Ray: What will our military look like in five years? As technology continues to follow Moore’s Law, things move more and more quickly. I’ll use the food truck revolution we seem to have knocking on our door as an example: Some people believe these food trucks pose a very serious threat to our brick and mortar restaurants. I believe this concern gets blown way out of proportion, but who knows? Maybe our restaurants DO need protection from these scrappy upstarts, but part of me, the “cruel, heartless capitalist” in me says bring it on! Let the market decide . . . So, I think, the short answer remains, as always, this: in five years, Athens will look very different. I consider Athens really lucky to have such a vibrant preservationist culture- everything from architecture to these protections for the old guard of food providers, to folk art and traditions . . . I don’t fear losing touch with the past in this town, and I feel confident we will continue to move forward. Physically, it’s impossible not to see the expansion of downtown in the new projects on Prince and Pulaski, 909, Farmer’s Hardware, and the Prince Avenue Corridor. Prepare yourselves, because it comes either way. We can slow it, we can try to make sure it doesn’t wipe out our existing spaces, but it will not wait forever.
Some alumni choose to stay in town post-grad. Among these is Mike Harboldt of Saint Udio, a custom design, fabrication, and installation company here in town. Mike graduated from the university in 2012 with a BFA in ceramics from the Lamar Dodd School of Art. Originally, UGA wasn’t his dream:
Why did you choose to attend UGA?
Mike Harboldt: I wanted to be in Athens more than I wanted to go to UGA. I actually hated UGA in high school cause all the bros loved it. My opinion was obviously changed once I got into art classes.
So, why stay? What keeps people in town if not the University?
Mike Harboldt: I always wanted to leave Athens. I felt like I was a visual artist living in a music town. I never saw a lot of opportunities for young artist to not only get plugged in, but also make a living. The best I thought you could get was to hang your work up for free at a coffee shop. Then after school I tour managed a band and went to hundreds of small and big towns in America and a lot in Europe. If gave me a fresh perspective on the town. Opportunities are created and worked for. People think if they move to NY they will be successful, but if they go up there and bartend and don’t work their ass off for art then they will have the same outcome that they had here.”
What value does the University bring to Athens? Can you imagine Athens without UGA?
Mike Harboldt: I actually really appreciate the University now. Whenever I drive through some of the desolate towns outside of Athens I always think that those towns were one successful college away from being a hip place. I don’t know if Athens would have thrived the way it has without the university. I think they are for better or worst one in the same. That being said, I love when all the students are gone.
No one can doubt that Athens wouldn’t be the bustling center of creativity it is today without the University, but what about the relationship between the students and those living in town? Mike touched on the peace and quiet that ascends upon Athens anytime school is out. With over 35,000 students, it would make sense the town decompresses significantly during a lull in the school schedule. I’ve always been curious as to where the boundaries between townie and student are drawn; one need only to walk towards Pulaski Street downtown to see a shift in culture.
What is your opinion on the students in Athens?
Mike Harboldt: I went to the same bars in college that I do now. I think people find people like them. Manhattan Bar is more my people than Bourbon St. We have an internship program with the university and we have loved all the students that we have had, but they are all sculpture majors and more our people.
I was pleasantly surprised by this answer and have been surprised time and time again at the relationships I have formed with some of the residents in town. As a student, I feel apprehensive to voice an opinion about a city I may only spend roughly four years in. I think it’s time to change that. If four years is enough to work and create relationships, then we as students can also give a damn about the local politics and the surrounding communities, not just the grades we make and the bars we frequent.
Aside from the interpersonal relationships that exist between residents and students, is the issue of housing these students. Recent years have seen a significant influx of undergraduate housing downtown and it seems everywhere you look more student housing rises from the ashes of closed businesses. The rent is often only affordable for those students whose parents still pay their way and isolates the majority of people living in the area. I only assume this will continue to progress and got Mike’s input as an Athens resident:
Where do you see the city moving in 5-10 years as the University continues to grow?
Mike Harboldt: I think all the student housing downtown will push young professionals and grads, ‘townies,’ away from downtown and more to Winterville, Watkinsville, and Normal town. I don’t go downtown nearly as much since Hilo, Old Pal, and Normal Bar have been around. I think there will be other spots like Normal Town popping up around Athens in the next 10 years.
The relationship between UGA and Athens will probably remain somewhat nebulous despite our efforts. Though, I feel, as a student, I was provided with some surprising insight into the way in which we coexist.
We’ve come a long way since 1785. The land we occupy is beautiful and in it lives a history that we are all a part of. The University and Athens are indeed synonymous with each other and will continue to be just as we are defined by the places we choose to occupy. As we close this platform, this grand adventure, we can only thank the University for fostering a culture where creatives, scientists, and all those who are neither, yet love this city, can experiment and explore.