Neighborhoods - Finding the beauty in West End

Haircuts versus neighborhoods in the battle for community revitalization

Something's buzzing inside the BarberShop II at the Mall West End, and it ain't just hair clippers. The local 6 o'clock news drawls from three flat-screens hung high on the walls. A man with a broom and long-handled dustpan chases shaven clumps of hair as they carpet-bomb the linoleum. Folding chairs hold rows of men and a couple of mothers while their sons wait on the next available barber's chair out of 18 lined around the shop.

It's packed yet kind of quiet for a Friday, as if the steady grind of automatic trimmers has cast a meditative spell. "The weekend is always a time to relax," Dedrick Woods, who's owned BarberShop II for 13 years, says as he lines up a tapered fade while his customer, a regular, sits Buddha-still. "The first place you go is the barber shop. It's a black man's country club."

A hodgepodge of storefronts both tacky and timeless, revered soul food restaurants, historic cultural institutions, and flea markets (where fake Gucci sneaks can be bought for the low) crowd the sidewalks surrounding the 38-year-old shopping mall in southwest Atlanta. But one business reigns supreme. "This is the hair mecca of the South," says Woods, who estimates that almost 50 beauty and barbershops are located within a one-mile radius. Not to mention the wig shops, nail salons, and Asian-owned beauty supply stores, and headquarters of local hair giant Bronner Bros. a few miles away. Boasting names such as Georgiann's House of Styles, Wig City, Studio Favor & Faith, and Fade Away Cutz Barber Shop, the shops hook up styles ranging from African tree braids and natural two-strand twists to frohawks and Indian-imported hair weave.

It's part of the same culture and billion-dollar industry comedian Chris Rock exposed in his no-holds-barred 2009 doc Good Hair. And in West End, it's the lifeblood of a business district that might not exist otherwise. Where economic development has failed the neighborhood, personal style prevails along with those who cater to it. But is the proliferation of homegrown hair care in West End hiding the neighborhood's potential beauty?

That's a no-brainer, according to West End Neighborhood Development President Carl Nes and the rest of the board members, who tell a tale of two West Ends: one being a historically designated residential area with Victorian homes and stable homeowners versus a business district that draws mostly lower-income clientele from outside neighborhoods. The problem, says Nes, is that West End is a virtual "island" within the economically depressed 30310 ZIP code. When commercial developers pull demographics for the entire ZIP, West End takes a hit even though its average household income ranks higher than nearby Vine City or Capitol View.

They laugh about living in a neighborhood where nightlife is mostly limited to the divey, hole-in-the-wall strip club Queen City. But it's no joke to them. "I would just love to walk two blocks on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard and be able to hit different kinds of restaurants and boutiques," says W.E.N.D.'s Second Vice President Barbara Williams, who works at nearby Morehouse College but drives all the way to Howell Mill Road and beyond to find decent dining options outside of soul food.

Although they're hopeful that the creation of a commercial improvement district will help spur a wider range of options, barbers like Woods take pride in serving a clientele rarely catered to outside the 'hood. "'Cause you can't go and get one of these in Buckhead," he says, putting the finishing touches on his regular's temple taper. "Just because we don't have the things that Buckhead has, look at the business we do. Every day we're packed. It's because of the location, but even more it's because of the quality product we produce."

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