Johnny Martinez and Branden Ley, who operate Joystick GameBar and Georgia Beer Garden in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, are small business owners with big community dreams. Johnny is a Jonesboro, GA native who grew up exploring Atlanta while Brandon is a small-town boy from Greenwood Lake, NY who found his home in the city. Together, they are a duo filled with warmth, insight, honesty (and hilarity). When the two aren’t discussing beer or Star Wars, the pair is working with neighborhood associations and PAD to foster a more welcoming, safe, and healthy neighborhood for all. The two stopped by the PAD office for a discussion on community safety and wellness from their experiences living and working in the heart of Atlanta.
DeShonna: How has Atlanta changed over the years since you both arrived?
Branden: Definitely just the sheer volume of people and the shifting demographics is palpable. I mean you can really see it on the streets. I think that Atlanta is becoming more “monied”, for better or for worse. What has not changed though is the artistic soul of Atlanta. I think that sense of community hasn’t changed. There are a lot of hard-working people working to make this city a better place. A more accepting place. A more loving place. My favorite thing about this city is its sort of this Mecca in the South of acceptance. Especially in rural areas, it can be tougher if you’re different or if you’re Black or if you’re gay. Moving into Atlanta, it’s easier to find a home here and a support system here if you were not lucky enough to grow up with one. And the activism! I think the younger generation is taking on the mantel of activism that has a good, deep history in Atlanta… It’s [also] nice to see– in this moment of time– a mayor who is working to shut down the [Atlanta City] jail and turn it into a place of restorative justice for the good of the community.
Johnny: When I was growing up, people didn’t say they were from Atlanta if they were from Alpharetta or Jonesboro. They would say they were from Alpharetta or Jonesboro. [laughter ensues] Now people from those areas say they’re from Atlanta…which is kind of a problem because when they start saying “best burger in Atlanta,” and you’re really in Kennesaw, that’s not really the best burger in Atlanta. [both laugh in unison]. And now people from Atlanta say what neighborhood they’re from. So, I feel like neighborhoods are getting their own identity. People will tell you, “I’m from Candler Park, Midtown,”or, “I’m from the West Side.”
DeShonna: Can you describe to me a time where you felt safe? Why? Who or what made you feel that way? What about unsafe?
Johnny: There are very few times I don’t feel safe… I think the more you get to know your neighbors, it’s harder to be scared of your neighbors.
Branden: Moving to Atlanta for college, finding my group of friends helped me embrace who I was and made me feel comfortable; that’s the kind of safety that’s really comforting for me. And I think you can find it in Atlanta because it’s so diverse. No matter who you are, there are other people like you out there. You know, growing up, I came from a small town in New York, I was always different from others. I always felt different, I guess. But the community Atlanta gave me really made me feel safe. Specifically, Mary’s in East Atlanta.
DeShonna: Can you describe your neighborhood/community in Atlanta? What makes you feel safe in your neighborhood?
Johnny: I work in the Edgewood community, so I’ll answer for Edgewood. I would have to say the diversity [is what makes me feel safe]…and that diversity doesn’t just include the types of people that you see and sexual orientation, but income levels as well– that’s important. I think people need to see how other people live and what they’re going through. [Knowing my neighbors also] makes me feel safe. That I know their names. Whether it’s someone who owns a business or someone who is experiencing homelessness. A preacher or pastor to the kid that’s riding his bike every day that we see every single day. People. People make me feel safe. People who live there. Work there. Play there.
Branden: Knowing that we all kind of look out for each other, and we can all call each other if something’s going on if we see something that needs to be addressed. I also like that there is history on Edgewood, as well as things happening now. Our neighbors Southern Stamp & Stencil – they’re a printing and stamp-making company – and Georgia Justice Project have both been there for over two decades. I love that there are daytime businesses and daytime workers there. I love the residents there…there’s growth without complete displacement. There’s also historic buildings. Georgia Beer Garden is in a building that’s over 100 years old and that’s fantastic. We are the caretakers of that building much more than we are the owners of that building.
Johnny: What’s interesting about Edgewood –unlike other parts of the city where City Hall came in and said, “We’re going to develop this area and turn it into something”—Edgewood Avenue organically sprung from the folks who wanted to see things that they could not already find in the city. If you go down there, you can find the actual business owners on any given day. It’s not a giant, faceless corporation. These are real people whose, quite frankly, incomes depend on those businesses.
Branden: Yeah, I agree. Edgewood Avenue feels like a real city in that it’s not one landlord that controls the entire thing. It’s not one entity. It’s not one identity. It is those hard-working individual entrepreneurs who have come in and done their own thing and that’s what makes it great and diverse.
DeShonna: What is something that would make you feel safer in your neighborhood/community (if any)?
Branden: One thing that would make me feel safer in Edgewood is sidewalks. And the pedestrian infrastructure. Lights.
Johnny: Trash cans. Benches. Trees. Things that can help it feel more complete. It makes me feel safer knowing that the city cares about an area and the way the city can show it cares about the area is to take care of that area. And I think that would be true for a lot of people.
Branden: Yeah, it would make me feel safer if Edgewood wasn’t just viewed as a commuter connection from East-West areas. If they put in that infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists and residents to come in.
Johnny: Yeah, and one, there’s the King Center and Ebenezer – they get a million visitors a year. And they’re walking down sidewalks that haven’t been touched or fixed in decades. We see people in neighborhood meetings that have crutches or canes or wheelchairs and they have to go to the streets because they can’t use the sidewalks properly. What would make me feel safer is knowing my neighbors aren’t going to get hit by a car because we can’t seem to go through and make time, money and inclination to…take care of the people who live here.
DeShonna: Who do you think feels the most safe in Atlanta? Why?
Branden: I think the people who feel the least safe are the ones who don’t feel comfortable around [poverty]. We absolutely see reviews on Yelp and for our business that say “sketchy part of town but cheap drinks!”; and we try to make a point of responding to those to explain to them, no, we’re not a sketchy area of town – sure, we can use better sidewalks, and sure, you may encounter someone who is experiencing homeless and that person may ask you for a dollar—but it is not sketchy. You are not unsafe.
Johnny: People who feel less safe in our part of town seem to be people who really just can’t handle their own guilt of income levels and inequality. And I think in the South especially, if you are poor, you are more likely to be African-American. And I think older, white southerners tend to roll that up all together. Not everyone, obviously. I don’t want to paint too broad of a brush, right? There are exceptions to that, but I think that becomes internalized, and it just comes out as, “I don’t feel safe here”. But poverty isn’t something to be afraid of because it’s not contagious.
DeShonna: How would you define safety? And what is *not* safety?
Branden: Safety is essential. I think it’s the human right to feel safe. I think the goal of society is– it needs to be– to make sure that everyone feels safe. Physically. Emotionally. Financially.
Johnny: I think safety is not having to fear the basics. If you’re worried about your money. If you’re worried about your health. All the hate. If you’re worried about “the other,” you’re not going to feel safe. Safety is not hiding away the problems that you have. Safety is not moving people who are experiencing homelessness to a different part of the city. That’s not safety.
Branden: Safety is not isolation.
Johnny: I think that’s a good way of putting it. Because isolation is fear.
DeShonna: How do you feel initiatives like PAD can help the community be safer?
Branden: I think initiatives like PAD can help Edgewood be more safe by giving some sort of safety net to those most in need. PAD helps strengthen our communities.
Johnny: If someone in your community is feeling unsafe, that affects the entire community. Those who are most at risk, the weakest, the most vulnerable – they have to feel safe as well. And when they feel safe – the rest of the community feels safer because it’s hard to separate someone else’s safety from your own safety. You know, if there’s someone who has such a problem with an addiction, for instance, they’re more likely to do things that might be down the road to hurt other people. Let’s help them be safer for themselves so they can then be safer for everyone else.
This storytelling project was made possible by DeShonna Johnson-Garay, graduate student in public policy at the University of Georgia and PAD communications & advocacy intern. In summer 2019, DeShonna created a platform for participants and community members to share their perspectives on community safety, recovery, and Atlanta.