When Warren Bruno first opened Atkins Park bar and restaurant, the most popular attraction in the area was an S&M club up the street that held a weekly event called “50 Ways to Beat Your Lover.” The shoe store next door doubled as a speakeasy and the alley adjacent to his business filled nearly every morning with connoisseurs of the Mad Dog 20-20.
“The neighborhood, you might say, was a little rough around the edges,” he said recently while sitting at a window booth at the establishment he has co-owned since 1983.
But there was also something very special about that time as well, he explained, something about it that brought the neighborhood — the businesses and the residents — together.
“It was really very, very cool back then,” he said.
He described a time when his cooks, bartenders and dishwashers lived in the neighborhood and walked to work. Unlike today, when most of his employees live in East Atlanta or elsewhere and drive in each day.
There was also an unusual cooperation between businesses that took root, with a recognition that it was in everyone’s interest for everyone to do well.
“Businesses, well, we all respected each other,” he said. “It was like this, when Taco Mac opened up and put hot wings on their menu, well we decided we wouldn’t serve hot wings. It was the same with the Italian place down the block, we didn’t serve Italian food. We were all in it for the good of the neighborhood and we all looked out for each other.”
He takes a delicate and diplomatic approach to this subject today. No, it’s not like that so much anymore, that funky, communal way of things. But he’s at pains to stress that the Highlands is the best place in the city to live, play and work.
Still, he says with a shake of his head as he looks out at the sunshine of a fading afternoon, the neighborhood would do well to remember some of the older ways.
As 62-year-old Warren Bruno sees it, businesses and neighbors in the Highlands all have the same issues in common, crime, parking, streetscape, parks, all around quality of life issues.
So he says, “If there is anything I would like to accomplish in 2011, it is to recapture that spirit of 1983.”
Through his leadership of the South Virginia Highlands Merchants Group he hopes to achieve just that.
This is familiar territory for Bruno. He is a founding member of the Virginia Highlands Business Association and he has been involved in just about every civic effort in the neighborhood in the last 30 years.
Ask just about any business owner or long-time resident in the neighborhood and they’ll tell you he’s part of the social fabric of the place.
“Warren is Virginia Highland,” said Beth Marks, a long time resident of the neighborhood and a founder of Fight Back Against Crime. “Believe me, he is a very big part of this community. He is always doing everything for the neighborhood and the schools. He’s just amazing.”
That’s a pretty typical comeback when you toss his name out there.
Simply put, Warren Bruno is what you might call Va-Hi centric. You can’t have a conversation with the man without him offering up some issue that needs solving or some reference to bettering the community. Whether it is promoting the new community park across from his business at 794 North Highland or talking up some good cause at Morningside Elementary, Inman Middle or Grady High School (his children go to the latter two) Bruno is constantly pushing the neighborhood.
When he ventures out, people have always stopped and visited with him.
It’s still like that today, as he makes rounds through the bar or strolls up the sidewalk toward his home a few blocks away. These days, though, the familiar linger with him a bit longer, waiting for a moment to ask — in an aggressively kind sort of way — after his health.
He’s been down this road before too. In 2005 he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He took the harsh treatments and beat the cancer into remission. After several years, however, it came back.
He’ll tell you it hasn’t been any fun, but he has about the best attitude imaginable, thinking not so much about himself or the next chemo treatment he has ahead, but what he can do for his neighborhood and how he can find some more time to spend with his kids.
After a few minutes catching some regulars up on his latest doctor’s report, he’s in conference with his manager Kyle Taylor hammering out a plan for upcoming events.
It is something he hopes will help recapture that spirit of 1983.