This Little Place

Pine Lake, 1950s. Photo by Claude Suttle

This Little Place

If you happen to be reading this blog and know nothing about Pine Lake, GA, let me tell you about my little city.

Pine Lake is an incorporated city in the middle of Metropolitan Atlanta. It has its own city hall, court, government, maintenance workers, and police force, and an elected mayor and city council. The little city lies about 10 miles east of downtown Atlanta, in Dekalb County, just off Rockbridge Road. With a population of around 800 and a land area less than .25 square miles, it's a tiny place. Many people who drive on Rockbridge every day have no idea Pike Lake even exists.

Created in 1937 as a planned resort for people eager to escape the city, the developer offered tiny 20' x 100' lots for $69.95. During its first decade, the city consisted of one-room cabins, tents, and trailers with wells and outdoor plumbing. Over time the trailers and tents disappeared and rooms were added to the cabins, turning them into cottages. City water, sewer, and gas lines were run and property owners began to live in the city all year round.

Pine Lake was long ago enveloped by bustling Atlanta. Today, the Metropolitan area stretches a good 30 miles east of downtown Atlanta and at ten miles Pine Lake is considered "close in," but the city retains the girl scout camp ambiance it had at its birth.

Many of the houses date from the founding of the city, and every one of the approximately 200 homes is unique. Builders of newer homes have for the most part had the good sense to build to fit the aesthetic, and new structures blend into the quirky ethos of the city. Houses fill the bulk of their lots and trees are everywhere. Lawns, in the rare places reached by the sun, are pocket-sized and surrounded by flowering shrubs and trees. Homeowners paint their already unusual houses unusual colors and express their individuality with yard decorations ranging from pterodactyls on their roofs to painted mannekins half-buried in the ground.

Most of the homes are small-- they have to be to fit on the tiny lots. Minimum lot size today is 60' x 100', but many homes sit on 40' wide parcels, and one (it happens to be mine) fits on a single original 20'-wide lot.

There are no McMansions in Pine Lake, no huge lawns, no three-car garages. Instead there are single family dwellings and a half-dozen or so small apartment buildings, lots and lots of trees, and of course Pine Lake.

The lake is the jewel of the city and lies at its center. It's not a big lake, maybe .1 square mile in area, but it provides a focal point for recreation and city events. Residents and visitors can swim in the summer, fish all year round, launch canoes or kayaks, or walk the trails that encircle the lake or the paths in the newly-acquired-and-landscaped upstream and downstream wetlands. A city-owned gazebo, a beach house, and a newly-renovated clubhouse provide space for activities; city-sponsored and private events are also held in the park that spans the southern shore of the lake.

The Residents of Pine Lake are diverse. There are lots of professionals, many artists, single people, couples, and families with children. Residents are gay and straight, black and white, and of many ethnicities and religious backgrounds.

Unlike most communities in twenty-first-century America, almost everyone in Pine Lake knows almost everyone else. There are plenty of opportunities for residents to meet one another-- at festivals, concerts, and potlucks, while enjoying the lake, at city hall meetings, or at city meetings, online via the three active newsgroups, or through the Pine Lake Association for Involved Neighbors. Social activities are frequent, and unlike most places, attendees can and do walk to events. There are parades, pancake breakfasts and international suppers, an Octoberfest, an annual lighting of the lake, concerts and art shows, a city-wide yard sale, and any number of classes and special events.

Despite its serene and homey look, Pine Lake has not been without its political and financial problems. During the early 90s the city's police force was far too large and far too overactive in stopping and ticketing residents who passed through the city on Rockbridge Road, giving the city a reputation as a speed trap. Several mayors were removed from office, and at times the city was broke and unable to pay its bills promptly. Today many citizens struggle to pay property taxes, which are higher than those of surrounding unincorporated Dekalb County. The area outside the city has been hit hard by the recession, and crime has always been considerably higher in neighboring unincorporated Dekalb than in Pine Lake.

Pine Lake still struggles with its budget, but government has been stable for the past ten years under the leadership of Mayor Greg Zarus. The size of the police force has been reduced and the city has been successful at acquiring federal, state, and county funds for development and expansion of its waterways and assorted city projects.

Pine Lake is a wonderful and surprisingly affordable place to live that is still unknown to most Atlantans.