Rising property taxes have complicated this artist's retirement plan
Susan McCracken on the importance of community—and her dream of moving to the mountains
Over the past several months, our community listening team has spoken with more than 220 people from across the metro to learn more about their personal cost of living challenges. This series, written by Jewel Wicker, looks through the lens of their lived experiences in order to better understand how systemic issues—like healthcare access, housing costs, and student loan debt—impact Atlantans every day. Here, meet Susan, from Cabbagetown. ↓
It takes time to learn to be a good neighbor, says Susan McCracken, reaching for an analogy from her art—McCracken designs and restores stained glass windows. She also used to teach the craft. “I say you need to be doing stained glass for at least three years before you can engineer a good front-door panel. You just need that much knowledge,” she says. “After someone lives here for about three years, they start to get the feel of it, get to know people, and feel comfortable to attend meetings.”
“I say you need to be doing stained glass for at least three years before you can engineer a good front-door panel. You just need that much knowledge. After someone lives here for about three years, they start to get the feel of it, get to know people, and feel comfortable to attend meetings.”
A Cabbagetown resident for more than 20 years, McCracken has found many ways to participate in her community. She has a paper route, delivering the volunteer-run monthly newspaper the Cabbagetown Neighbor. She participates in the Chicken Noodle Network, a collective of people who assist with odd jobs: cleaning up a sick neighbor’s backyard, installing window air-conditioning units for elderly residents, delivering homemade food to the families of newborns. McCracken also helps artists load in and set up for Chomp & Stomp, an annual chili cook-off and bluegrass show that draws tens of thousands each November.
McCracken says she’s long believed in being connected to the people who live around you. Perhaps that’s what drew her to tight-knit Cabbagetown in the first place.
Built starting in the late 1800s to provide housing for mill workers, Cabbagetown has managed to retain its quaint, artsy charm even through the growth of surrounding neighborhoods. McCracken refers to Carroll Street—with its cafe, bar, and Little’s Food Store—as “downtown Cabbagetown.” She was in her 40s when she bought a turn-of-the-century duplex in the neighborhood, hoping to be able to serve as a caregiver for her mother, then in her late 80s. But not everyone was as sold on the neighborhood as she was. “My parents are descendants of mill people in South Carolina. My mother worked in a mill when she was younger. My father’s mother lived in a dilapidated mill town much like Cabbagetown was at the time,” she says. “My mother didn’t find it desirable to live here.”
“My parents are descendants of mill people in South Carolina. My mother worked in a mill when she was younger. My father’s mother lived in a dilapidated mill town much like Cabbagetown was at the time.”
McCracken moved into the duplex in 2001, but nowadays rents both sides of it to others. Since 2006, she’s lived in another house that she owns next door, which she paid “a little over [$200,000]” for. Most of her current residence retains its original charm, including wooden walls, 12-foot ceilings, and four inoperable coal fireplaces. During the 2008 recession, she relocated her stained glass business from a rented building to a storage building in her backyard.
That business, Architectural Artworks, closed before the pandemic, but she still picks up some smaller projects. Today, she’s in her late 60s and contemplating retirement, but her original plan of using rental income from the duplex seems less reliable—rising property taxes and city fees make it hard to break even.
Though Cabbagetown retains its communal appeal, some aspects have changed since McCracken arrived. There are fewer homes in disrepair—but they also cost way more than they used to. She says a nearby house that’s similar to hers sold for $900,000 last summer. An 800-square-foot home in the neighborhood could go for more than half a million. Investors have begun to purchase and renovate properties, then rent them fully furnished for thousands per month. Prior to the writers’ and actors’ strikes, Stranger Things’ David Harbour and The Wonder Years’ Fred Savage were temporary residents while filming nearby. “They’re not usually true neighbors,” McCracken says. “They just kind of come and go.”
Today, she’s in her late 60s and contemplating retirement, but her original plan of using rental income from the duplex seems less reliable—rising property taxes and city fees make it hard to break even.
Despite building stained glass windows for hotels, restaurants, and residential properties since 1982, McCracken says the rising price of materials has caused her to reconsider. “I don’t want to retire and just sit back in a La-Z-Boy. I always want to create and make things,” she said—but she’ll have to balance that desire with the necessity of making a living wage. If she was able to achieve financial sustainability, she’d love to move to the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I want to live above the coffee shop in a downtown mountain town. That kind of dreamy thing,” she says with a laugh.
“That’s going to be hard to find.”