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Hard-hit Atlanta neighborhood struggles to recover after tornado
Atlanta Storm Heal
Arial photo of badly damaged Stacks lofts, the old Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill building, Saturday, March 15, 2008, in the Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta after a tornado hit the city on Friday night. - photo by Associated Press
    ATLANTA — Cabbagetown still looks like a war zone a week after the tornado, so the group of cowboys twirling six-shooters didn’t seem so out of place.
    Four of them settled into a bench in front of a tattoo parlor Saturday, as good a place as any to plot out the day’s stunt show.
    ‘‘We live because we’ve died too many times already,’’ snorts Bill Holden, pointing at another aging man at the edge of the bench. ‘‘When he was born, the Dead Sea was only sick.’’
    Residents strolled by with hardly a second glance, as if to say they’ve seen it before.
    And they probably have.
    This is Cabbagetown, an east Atlanta neighborhood known for its mix of young hipsters and aging blue-collar lifers. It also was one of the areas hit hardest by the March 14 tornado that struck downtown Atlanta.
    Falling trees tore homes apart. Roofs were sheared off buildings. Winds of more than 130 mph shattered glass and hurled prized belongings. Residents of the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts, a converted factory, survived by huddling in stairwells and bathtubs, closets and hallways.
    There’s still plenty of cleanup work to do. Volunteers hauled off loads of tree branches and planks of plywood, and roofs were filled with young men and women repairing damage.
    A grim convoy of government vehicles rumbled through narrow streets Saturday: Police had pulled a body — perhaps Atlanta’s first fatality of the storm — out of the rubble of a building in a nearby neighborhood.
    Still, a semblance of routine has returned. A steady crowd of regulars and visitors filled Cabbagetown Market and Little’s Grill, which greets customers with a 400-pound sign that reads: ‘‘If you can’t stop, wave.’’ Inside, owner Lisa Hanson greets the regulars by name, selling glass Coca-Cola bottles and burgers hot from the kitchen.
    Outside, a Red Cross truck rolled by, offering water and snacks to the crowd. ‘‘You got any beer?’’ one asks.
    Justin Arsenault, a 26-year-old artist, sips a Corona as he takes a break from cutting up tree branches. He moved to this part of town because of its ‘‘cool vibe,’’ and he’s not alone. Twenty-somethings talk on cell phones as they wander the streets. Trendy eateries are packed with morning crowds.
    John Carson remembers the neighborhood before it was transformed by the drumbeat of gentrification.
    He was born in a shack here 75 years ago — ‘‘Born free, didn’t cost a penny,’’ he likes to say. He lived on just about every street in the neighborhood because his family had to move each time rent came up.
    ‘‘This man could outrun anyone,’’ says Jim Williams, one of Carson’s old pals.
    ‘‘Living in this neighborhood, you had to either fight or run,’’ Carson answers. ‘‘When I was growing up here, a lot of us kids would say a tornado hit Cabbagetown, and it caused $100 million in improvements.’’
    He’s gathering a crowd in memory of his grandfather, Fiddlin’ John Carson. It’s the 140th birthday celebration of the singing great, whose 1923 record helped shape the country music industry. Carson considered postponing the party, but decided he couldn’t bear delaying it.
    ‘‘Cabbagetown is the cradle of country music,’’ Carson tells a small crowd. ‘‘A lot of people don’t know it, but we were way ahead of Nashville.’’
    For a few hours, devastated alleys became music halls. Country singers and banjo pickers competed with the buzz of chain saws. And narrow Carroll Street became the setting of a staged gun fight.
    Carson took in the scene with a slight smile. His roots run deep, he says. He swears he’ll never abandon his neighborhood.
    ‘‘It’s easy to get in Cabbagetown,’’ says Carson, fixing his black cowboy hat. ‘‘The trick is getting out.’’

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