After spending years studying and teaching in Brooklyn and San Francisco respectively, "I honestly thought I would never return to Georgia," says Hable Construction studio manager Hope Hilton. "Growing up south of Atlanta, I always associated Athens with all-age hardcore shows and UGA football—basically, lots of partying and alcohol." But, everything changed one morning four years ago when she drove up to attend Georgia Organics' annual conference, a company for which she was designing merchandise at the time. "I felt an immediate connection. Athens has a perfect mix of history and creativity, and the landscape is stunning. It's the first place I’ve ever lived that looks quintessentially Southern."
I chose Hope to represent Athens for this week's "My America," because I knew the same enthusiasm that pulled her back down to the south is what pushes her to keep exploring her town on a weekly basis and discovering new spots despite her incredibly hectic schedule (she also makes her own art and teaches art at Treehouse Kid & Craft, a tween craft collective, high schoolers at The Georgia Museum of Art, and an art appreciation course at Athens Tech College). And I knew her creative eye and love of all-things local would lead us to some really great spots, like secret swimming holes and breakfast dishes named "Love on a Biscuit." A huge thank you to Hope for so generously playing Athens tour guide today!
In which neighborhood do you live?
I'm actually out in the country, nine miles from Athens, in a tiny town called Winterville. I wanted land and a place to host artists and events, and I found this perfect rescued and refurbished house on a hill that felt like it was made for me.
Can you share one or two spots nearby that even the locals don't know about?
There's a great swimming hole in a river near here in a very small (pop: 260) town called Carlton. Stop at the amazing row of antique stores and ask for Mr. Poss, who will tell you how to get there.
Another secret spot is this old ghost town called Skull Shoals. It’s outside of town on the Oconee River, and there's a really amazing plant identification walk there dedicated to an herbalist from the 19th century named Dr. Lindsay Durham. You can see ruins of Georgia’s first paper mill, along with homes and stores that were abandoned in the 1920’s. It's also a great fishing spot. Here are directions.
What's your favorite single dish at a restaurant?
I live for an ever-changing dish called “Love on a Biscuit” at Heirloom restaurant (815 N. Chase St.) in the Boulevard neighborhood. It changes every weekend due to what’s fresh and available. Also, lunch at home.made (1072 Baxter St.). Two words: Collard greens. The best ever, ever, ever. They're slow-cooked in sorghum.
What's the best place for a drink before dinner, and what do you order?
Normal Bar (1365 Prince Ave.), my favorite neighborhood spot, for a cocktail named “Mermaid’s Tears” (Titos vodka, fresh squeezed orange, lime, cucumber, mint, and ginger beer). My favorite downtown bar, The National, (232 W. Hancock Ave.) has a cocktail called “The National Tonic” (Blenheim’s spicy ginger ale, grapefruit juice, and Bulleit bourbon).
Best breakfast spot:
Heirloom (815 N. Chase St.) on the weekends. For weekday breakfasts, we have this sweet little place in Winterville called Little City Diner (135 Cherokee Rd.). They have the best breakfast in five counties.
Best place to catch some live music:
Georgia Theatre (215 N. Lumpkin St.) is a huge, old renovated movie theater downtown, so I love it for its historic feel. Hundred Waters was the last show I saw there. They were the best live band I’ve seen in a long time. For more intimate shows, I love The World Famous (351 N. Hull St.) and their listening room.
The Georgia Museum of Art (90 Carlton St.) is free and rotates smart, articulate shows along with their permanent collections. They’re experiencing a burst of fresh energy with curator Lynn Boland, who’s promised more super new contemporary art and more women on the roster. Right now, there's a 4D piece by Tristan Perich; it’s a robot doing a wall drawing through November and it's definitely worth checking out.
What's your favorite outdoor market in Athens and why?
Our West Broad Farmers Market (1573 West Broad St.) is located in a community garden, so not only do I learn while I'm there, but I get to eat homemade Ethiopian food! I love it because it feels very inclusive—it doesn't have an overly hip or trendy vibe.
Favorite store in Athens:
I’m a big reader, so I was really psyched when Avid Bookshop (493 Prince Ave.) opened its doors a few years ago. It’s well-curated with a smart, kind, and informative staff that knows my name and tells me about books I may have otherwise missed.
What's the last thing you bought?
A collection of short stories by Ramona Ausubel called, “A Guide to Being Born."
If I had just two hours to spend in your town with a friend, what would you recommend we do?
Eat lunch outside at The National (232 W. Hancock Ave.), then go for a walk in the woods at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia (2450 S. Milledge Ave.).
What's the most impressive thing about where you live?
The women! Seriously, I’ve never been around so many incredibly talented, creative, and community-minded ladies who work together. Two woman in particular, Rebecca Wood and Nancy Lendved, have been a huge influence in the creative community here. Rebecca has her own pottery studio that is open to the public and has been going strong for over 20 years! Nancy rescues old houses and brings their magic back (including mine).
Drunk boys in Polo shirts with loud, filthy mouths. I’ll never get used to it. It’s so weird.
The most surprising:
The downtown commercial rent here is so high it’s comparable to Brooklyn.
The best place to stay as visitor:
Photographer Rinne Allen and her husband Lee rent out several houses near downtown on Pulaski Street. They're walkable to downtown, beautifully furnished, and you get to be right in the middle of an artsy and quiet neighborhood with beautiful old homes and lots of greenery. You can book rentals here.
The most touristy but "worth it" thing to do:
The Tree That Owns Itself (corner of Finley & Dearing Sts.). I seriously can’t get enough of this tree. The original tree was deeded to itself and has all sorts of stories and lore surrounding it. Its offspring now resides there. Plus you get to walk or drive on our only ancient cobblestone street to get there.
Touristy but overrated:
The artist-painted bulldog statues all over town. The University of Georgia is here and so is its mascot. I have to say, I’m so sick of bulldogs everywhere. I know people love them but they make me shudder. Athens is so much more than bulldogs.
Red Mule Grits from The Daily Co-op (523 Prince Ave.). These grits are made by a 15-year-old red mule named Mr. Luke, who powers the mill that grinds the corn. The mill is located at 150 Harve Mathis Rd.
If you had to leave tomorrow, what would you miss the most?
My writing class with Sabrina Orah Mark, who is the best teacher I've ever had; our beautiful community of all types of makers; ex-pats from big cities with huge work ethics; affordable antiques; our tiny art-house cinema (234 W. Hancock Ave.); the vastness of space; the green; the hills; the quiet; the stars I can see in the country where I live, where every visit has a shooting star.
It's Sunday, 3pm, and beautiful outside. This is where you want to be:
At the Botanical Gardens reading on a blanket after a hike by the river.