200 Minutes in…Norcross/Peachtree Corners
photos courtesy of CITY OF NORCROSS; JENNIFER COLOSIMO; NOBLE FIN RESTAURANT; THE CITY OF PEACHTREE CORNERS
THE EVOLUTION OF GWINNETT COUNTY’S WEST SIDE is something to revel in. This area, once home to
Creek and Cherokee Indian tribes, now reveals as many wonders as any downtown Atlanta address, and just like those locals, you can explore mostof these wonders via foot or pedal. You’ll find new and noteworthy to-dos along the railroad in charming historic downtown Norcross, or off Peachtree Parkway in the sprawls of Gwinnett’s newest — and largest — city, Peachtree Corners.
If you go chronologically, then technically, Peachtree Corners (the area formerly known as Pinckneyville) came first, as early pioneers settled there in the 1820s. However, the idea for its current appeal didn’t arrive until the 1970s, when businessman Paul Duke imagined a community where one could live, work and play without having to drive into town. Arguably one of the first master-planned communities of the greater Atlanta area came to fruition with the 300-acre Technology Park and grew to include residential neighborhoods tucked into a tree-lined office park of like-minded companies, churches, schools and parks. Peachtree Corners remains a popular place to take up business or residence (city hall grants approximately 30 business licenses per month and no one pays property taxes). Meanwhile for others, Peachtree Corners is quite the gem for shopping, snacking and sporting. All that to say, this month marks its fifth anniversary as an official city, and with the county’s biggest population, it’s making a new kind of history.
Across the divide, Norcross is the county’s second oldest city, boasting a rich history dating back to its foundation in 1870. Since those early days, it has been a stop along the Richmond & Danville Railroad, a getaway for Atlantans visiting the once-famous Brunswick Inn, home to one of the country’s biggest talent pools for baseball players at the time and a rifle range for Camp Gordon during World War I.
Despite fading from the spotlight as transportation shifted from the railways to the roads, the city is rising again with a community committed to celebrating its roots and a resurgence of its charm. And that charm guarantees plenty to tempt your tastes.
GARDENS OF DISCOVERY
Speaking of roots, the first person I met during my day trip to historic downtown Norcross was Deb Harris, director of the new Discovery Garden Park behind the Welcome Center. Packed with history and plenty of guidance on how to discover current happenings, the city’s oldest building also provides a front door to this green addition.
“When I think of Norcross, I really think of a city of friends,” Harris said as we weaved through the artfully overflowing plots of flowers, edibles and eclectic yard art. “Even though we might not all have lived here forever, when we go out and do things and see each other, you just feel like they’re your friends. It really feels like a small town where everyone knows each other.”
Point made, as Harris paused our conversation several times to trade tips on what was growing with other gardeners or to catch up on preparations for the coming weekend’s events. With 35 raised beds rented by community members or organizations (the fire station has an enviable selection of fresh veggies and herbs), the group is having fun figuring out how to fill in the rest of their square footage.
Currently, they tend straw bale gardening plots courtesy of William Makson, owner of the nearby VSOP Olive Oil & Vinegar Taproom. Harris and company also are experimenting with a free-play children’s garden, gourd vines along the fence, community compost bins and two pollinator beds from a grant the garden received from Food Well Alliance. Quaint as its idea, the area packs picnic tables for gardening breaks and a Little Free Library established by a local Girl Scout, encompassing a pretty tempting reason to stop and smell the roses.
While downtown has a lot of green thumbs in training, Sustainable Norcross is a nonprofit organization that aims to keep this little city as pretty as ever, forever. Among many efforts ranging from energy and water conservation to recycling and alternate transportation, they inspire the residents who live here now to work toward creating a better future for residents of tomorrow.
Sustaining more reasons to get outside, Norcross packs a big calendar. This month kicked off “Jazz in the Alley” amidst an already stellar lineup for the free annual summer concert series. Claim your seat for performances by Breakfast Club on July 14, Laura Coyle and Mylah on July 22 and Liverpool Legends, a Beatles-tribute band, on July 28. “Movies in the Park” will continue through August and the fall delivers weekend-long celebrations around art, history, ghosts, shopping and more.
My kids preferred hours spent in Thrasher Park, Norcross’s oldest park with several inviting swings, a massive playground, pavilion and a front-row seat for the frequent train passing. A short walk away is Lillian Webb Park, where you can cool down on the splash pad or chill out beside the serene waterfall. Rossie Brundage, Betty Mauldin and several other small parks make it hard to retreat back to your car. After all, this city is made for walking, with something to see on every corner and plenty of storefronts requiring you to work up an appetite.
For my crew, that appetite led us to Mojito’s. Commonly named a downtown staple, its long line and continual stream of lunchtime traffic supported the rumor that this place is a can’t-miss. Learn for yourself with a sampling of crunchy, hot empanadas smeared with cool avocado cream sauce and stuffed with melted cheese and either seasoned beef, chicken or spinach and mushrooms. As a main course, I couldn’t resist the original Cuban sandwich, but worthy amended versions exist. Based on one bite of both the Elena Ruth and the Media Noche, it might be hard to keep your order simple. One thing is certain: no matter what kind of dish you indulge in, wash it down with their namesake cocktail. At the risk of sounding cliché, it may be the best you’ll ever have.
Though we chose to indulge in Cuban fare, plenty of other countries are represented on the century-old main drags. We could have easily split a New York-named pizza at Paizanos, crunched into Arrachera tacos at Z’apata, devoured family-style spaghetti at Dominicks or ponied up for a pint at Iron Horse Tavern.
The flavor continues over the train tracks. In Peachtree Corners, what you might dismiss as dated shopping centers actually house ample enticement to explore a little longer.
My hidden gem of choice is the Asian gastropub Ba Bellies. Serving intrigue to both devour and drink, it features an extensive, rotating craft beer list and a menu that combines Southern classics with an Asian twist. I ordered the tangy Ahi Tuna Poké served on crispy shrimp crackers before two-handing the eclectic Chile-Basil Fried Chicken Sammich with fried-in-fish-sauce “tiger sprouts.” No less delicious is the comfort-food level Shaking Beef Bo Luc Lac, a bowl of tender, wok-fired filet tossed with caramelized onion, watercress, lime, tomato and black pepper, coated in their special glaze and served over a bed of jasmine rice.
Up the road is the year-old Noble Fin which showcases former in-town 4th & Swift chef and owner Jay Swift’s fresh-food philosophy in a New England-style fish house that many locals have deemed their new special occasion place. Based on my experience, it’s going to be hard to limit your visits to this seafood mecca. Alongside his son, Jeb Aldrich, Swift has curated a menu of fresh catches, fried shrimp, hearty sides and prime-cut steaks that could eliminate the need for beach vacations and in-town dinner date nights.
Try the grouper — driven in twice a week straight from the St. Petersburg, Florida docks — served with a quartered and caramelized Vidalia onion over English pea fricassee and guanciale. The dish is punctuated by sweet preserved lemon sauce and espelette aioli. Or, treat yourself to their most famous dish, the Maryland crab cake, a breading-free, succulent lump crab dream which Swift, a Baltimore native, crafts to rival anything you’d order near the Inner Harbor. Add in half shell happy hours, a lengthy libations list and cool, coastal-inspired décor, and anytime you dine here is going to be a special occasion.
If you still find time to spare on Gwinnett’s west side, you can shop until you drop. Just don’t forget the sunscreen.
The Forum in Peachtree Corners is an outdoor mall offering shopping in the sunshine at favorites like fab’rik, Lizard Thicket and Dress Up Boutique, but also boasts finds like the collection of pre-owned designer handbags at Bella Bag’s second location or Crafted, a storefront originally opened on Atlanta’s Westside that mentors and supports new business owners as their brands get off the ground. Their suburb shop (they’ve also got locations in Brickworks Midtown, Westside Provisions District and Lenox Square Mall, as well as pop-up shops throughout the year) showcases local artisans selling a myriad of unique fashion and retail items.
Just beyond The Forum is a way to enjoy the city’s other resource: The Chattahoochee River. Spanning 7 miles of the city limits, you can enjoy the sparkling banks inside Holcomb Bridge Park, Simpsonwood Park, Jones Bridge Park or via water toys at the area’s state park, the Medlock Bridge National Recreation Area.
AN INCUBATOR FOR IDEAS
Nodding to the roots of Peachtree Corner’s original idea for business, Prototype Prime is turning new wheels on the technology industry. An incubator supporting technology-based companies and ideas, it rents shared workspace to inspire cool stuff for the future. From 3D models built to alert farmers to irrigation needs to the ways social media can change sporting events, this bright, pop-color space is just begging for more brainstorms. Innovative products and ideas burst from the seams of this hub. Check them out online or pop in and see what they’re thinking up today.
A CENTER FOR SYNERGY
Perhaps most exciting for the city of Peachtree Corners is the highly anticipated 20-acre Town Center coming in fall 2018. From new restaurants and shops to office space, a movie theater, high-end townhomes and a public Town Green, this new project promises a calendar full of concerts, festivals and green space.
“This city is really coming into its own,” said Judy Putnam, communications director for the City of Peachtree Corners. “What started as an idea for a place that would inspire creativity and to be inventive through trees and a natural environment is becoming something with true synergy. Soon, you’ll be able to walk, sit, relax or watch your children play right in the middle of town. Town Center will be the gathering place that this city needs.”
It also will bear the hub for the area’s new multi-use trail, which will span 11.5 miles of pathway for bikers and hikers to explore their neighborhood, commute to work or get exercise as it winds through Technology Park and the new Town Center.
With the only question left being how to get all of my shopping bags to stay on my bike, I’m definitely open to carrying this particular community burden.