Then And Now: The Benjamin Smoke House

Album cover for the Opal Foxx Quartet. That is Benjamin on the right getting arrested at the legendary Atlanta 688 Club.

This was originally published elsewhere on December 12, 2016.

"I live in Cabbagetown. It's home of the go-karts and the little kids that go to jail really young whose parents all do inhalants and Dilaudin and they make the go-karts at my house for the all kids to terrorize the neighborhood so if you hear little engines then I'll try to remember to tell you that's what it is so you don't think I farted." - Robert Dickerson

Benjamin Smoke or Miss Opal Foxx was born Robert Dickerson. He died in 1999 the day after his 39th birthday from Hepatitis C. He was a singer and performer in Atlanta during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2000 his life and music were introduced to a much broader audience through the documentary about him called Benjamin Smoke directed by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen.

His music, he was in several different bands, could be described any number of ways as southern queer influenced punk, or rock, or folk or maybe even a slice of the blues tossed in but however you label his music it was his own unique creation just as he was. My favorite songs of his are the languid Hank Aaron and the melancholy Heaven On A Popsicle Stick.

In the documentary, Cabbagetown played a central character second only to Benjamin. Cabbagetown was where Benjamin was living during most of the film until he eventually had to move for health reasons. Cohen and Sillen must have realized how unique the isolated old mill village on the edge of downtown Atlanta was and began to focus their lens on this special place and time. They spent much of the documentary capturing the scenes and people that were a part of that period of time in the neighborhood. A time that is long since gone along with much of that character.

Much of the film takes place in the dimly lit and eclectic cozy rooms of the house that Benjamin lived in. The house was divided into a duplex and it still is one today. The go-karts are gone and so is Benjamin but the house on Gaskill Street still stands. In Cabbagetown in Benjamin's time the neighborhood was a broken and seedy place but through time and gentrification houses now on the street he lived on regularly sell for $300 to $400K. Benjamin couldn't have afforded Cabbagetown today as a struggling artist.

Scene from the film in the 1990s.

This was the front of the house as seen in the 1990s from Gaskill Street.

Photo by me, April 2014.

The front of the house from Gaskill Street as it is today. The most obvious change is that the house has been painted from the light gray of the 1990s to a more blueish gray tone. The porch too has been repainted white and it appears to have a new roof on the porch since the film. The window on the side of the house has since been boarded up for some reason and there's a window air conditioning unit in one of the top windows but by and large the house is still the same. I should point out that the yellow house in the background was boarded up at the time of the filming. Now the house has been renovated and is a nice home. It just goes to show how much Cabbagetown has gentrified since the 1990s.

A scene from the film on the side of the house from the 1990s.

Photo by me, April 2014.

In the updated picture the guy would be standing on the sidewalk about where the smaller trashcan is located. You can see how the neighborhood has become more cleaned up with grass and trees planted between the sidewalk and the curb of the street, that also appears to be a new sidewalk. The house in the background across the street has changed colors and had lattice installed under the front porch. The poles on the left side of the sidewalk are gone and a fence has been installed in the backyard too.

A scene from the film in the 1990s.

That's Benjamin in a window on the rear side of the house.

Photo by me, April 2014.

That's the same window to the right of the door in the center of the photo that he was looking out.

Scene from the film in the 1990s.

The backyard of the house where a camper trailer was parked. Also in the film this is where the neighborhood kids would work on the go-karts.

Photo by me, April 2014.

Half of the backyard has been fenced in with chain link since Benjamin lived there. The camper trailer is gone and no go-karts or neighborhood kids were hanging out in the backyard. Structurally the house is still the same with the vent pipes coming up out of the addition that was tacked onto the back of the house before Benjamin lived there. The only remaining difference would be no screen doors on the back and new handrails that have been installed on the rear steps.

If you've seen the film you know that Benjamin left Cabbagetown for health reasons and moved into a managed building on Ponce de Leon Avenue - us locals call it just "Ponce." Today that building is known as Briarcliff Summit. The building which he described as "looking like a birthday cake on top" was his last home when he died in 1999.

If the history of Cabbagetown interests you I suggest checking out the photography of the late Oraien Catledge. He spent decades immersed in and capturing the people and places of Cabbagetown with his camera. He produced beautiful work.